Steps to a Brilliant Complexion

Young ladies should take care of themselves. -- Young ladies are delicate plants. They should take care of their health and their complexion. Emma
Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet Throughout Jane Austen’s novels, a woman’s complexion, or lack there of is used as a measure against her over all refinement and good health. Both her gentlemen and ladies return to this topic time and again and it is one subject which can be used as a gauge in discovering our hero’s true intentions, whether they are love, spite or a desire to dissemble. Who can forget Mr. Darcy’s first dismissal of Elizabeth Bennet as “not handsome enough,” when his second was to notice “brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion”. A woman’s complexion was one of her chief assets during the Regency when fashion dictated natural beauty in the face of the previous generation’s excessive use of cosmetics. Even a girl without natural beauty, points out Frank Churchill, is improved by a good complexion.
“Ladies can never look ill. And, seriously, Miss Fairfax is naturally so pale, as almost always to give the appearance of ill health. --A most deplorable want of complexion…Where features were indifferent, a fine complexion gave beauty to them all; and where they were good, the effect was -- fortunately he need not attempt to describe what the effect was.”
We later learn that he is disguising his true feelings and Emma, to whom the first was addressed, must now suffer through the recounting of Jane Fairfax’s beauty,
"Did you ever see such a skin? -- such smoothness! such delicacy! -- and yet without being actually fair. --One cannot call her fair. It is a most uncommon complexion, with her dark eye-lashes and hair -- a most distinguishing complexion! So peculiarly the lady in it. --Just colour enough for beauty." "I have always admired her complexion," replied Emma, archly; "but do not I remember the time when you found fault with her for being so pale? --When we first began to talk of her. --Have you quite forgotten?"
Needless to say, with competition in the marriage market running so swiftly, young women were given strict instructions about the preservation of their skin. Potions and lotions were in high demand and gently bred girls were never found out of doors without bonnet, parasol and gloves lest they risk a tan and arouse the censure of their peers, as Elizabeth Bennet does in Pride and Prejudice.
“How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr Darcy," [Caroline Bingley] cried; "I never in my life saw any one so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again.” However little Mr Darcy might have liked such an address, he contented himself with coolly replying that he perceived no other alteration than her being rather tanned -- no miraculous consequence of traveling in the summer. "For my own part," she rejoined, "I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character; there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I never could perceive any thing extraordinary in them.”
One must imagine Caroline Bingley to have scarcely stirred out of doors during the warm months. It seems clear that though paleness was prized by women, men preferred a “healthy glow” brought about by fresh air and exercise. Perhaps their beauty standards were not so different after all. The following recipes have been copied from The Mirror of Graces, printed in 1811. With such ingredients, one wonders what good they can possibly have done for one’s face!

Pommade de Seville

[This simple application is much in request with the Spanish Ladies, for taking of the effects of the sun, and to render the complexion brilliant.] Take equal parts of lemon juice and white of eggs. Beat the whole together in a varnished earthen pipkin, and set on a slow fire. Stir the fluid with a wooden spoon till it has acquired the consistence of soft pomatum. Perfume it with some sweet essence, and, before you apply it, carefully wash the face with rice water.

A Wash for the Face

[This receipt is well know in France, and much extolled by the ladies of that country as efficacious and harmless] Take equal parts of the seeds of the melon, pompion, gourd, and cucumber, pounded and reduced to powder or meal; add to it fresh cream, sufficient to dilute the flour; beat all up together, adding a sufficient quantity of milk, as it may be required, to make an ointment, and then apply it to the face: leave it there for half an hour, and then wash it off with warm, soft water.

A Wash to give Lustre to the Face

Infuse wheat-bran well-sifted, for three or four hours in white wine vinegar; add to it five yolks of eggs and a grain or two of ambergris, and distil the whole. When the bottle is carefully corked, keep it for 12 or 15 days before you make use of it.

Virgin Milk

A publication of this kind would certainly be looked upon as an imperfect performance, if we omitted to say a few words upon this famous cosmetic. It consists of a tincture of Benjoin, precipitated by water. The tincture of Benjoin is obtained by taking a certain quantity of that gum, pouring spirits of wine upon it, and boiling it till it becomes a rich tincture. If you pour a few drops of this tincture into a glass of water, it will produce a mixture which will resemble milk, and retain a very agreeable perfume. If the face is washed with this mixture, it will, by calling the purple stream of the blood to the external fibres of the epidermis, produce on the cheeks a beautiful rosy colour; and, if left on the face to dry, it will render it clear and brilliant. It also removes spots, freckles, pimples, erysipelatous eruptions, &c. &c. if they have not been of long standing on the skin. Enjoyed this article? Browse our Jane Austen Giftshop for recipes and etiquette books!

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published