Wednesday 23 May 2012

I rose slowly, like Venus, from the waves

Two quotes from Francis Wey, a Frenchman, on 'English Prudery' in the 1850s. The first details a peculiarly embarrassing dilemma on Brighton beach, the second the toilet habits of the aristrocracy at Ascot. Why not?


In fine weather, bathing takes place in full view of the front, swarming with idlers of both sexes. Men go into the water stark naked, which surprised me, knowing how easily shocked English people are. Never shall I forget my bathe at Brighton! It was on a Sunday, at the time at which worshippers return from church. I had been assigned a cabin in which to undress. It was a wooden construction on wheels placed at the water's edge, with stepshalf-submerged by the waves. Getting into the sea was easy enough, as my cabin screened me from view. Unfortunately, I went for rather a long swim, as I wanted to get a good view of Brighton from afar. The tide was going out, which made my return journey a lengthy one, and when at last I regained my depth, I found that my cabin, which I had left with water lapping the hub of the wheels, was now high and dry at fifteen paces from the sea. To put a finishing touch to my discomfort, three ladies, a mother with her daughters, had settled themselves on camp stools in my direct line of approach! They seemed very respectable females, and the girls were both pretty. There was no possibility of reaching my cabin without passing in front of them. They each held a prayer-book and they watched me swimming about with serene unconcern. To give them a hint without offending their modesty, I advanced cautiously on all fours, raising myself by degrees as much as decency permitted. I had not, like the wise Ulysses emerging on the island of the Phoenicians, the resource of draping myself in foliage. There was no seaweed even on this too tidy beach! As the ladies did not move, I concluded they had not understood my dilemma, so, crawling back, started to swim again. But one cannot swim for ever, while one can sit without fatigue for hours. The ladies seemed unlikely to weary of their repose. The situation was all the more perplexing as my host, Sir Walter G., was awaiting me on the front, and kept giving unmistakable signs of impatience, pointing at his watch and striding impatiently about. What was I to do? Remain in the water and inconvenience my host, or emerge from it and affront the ladies? I determined on the latter course. After all, why had they settled just there? I rose slowly, like Venus, from the waves. Striving to adopt a bearing both modest and unconcerned, reminiscent of the lost traditions of innocence of a younger world, I stepped briskly past the three ladies who made no pretence of looking away. I felt the blood rushing to my face which, I fear, must have belied my pose of guilelessness, especially as Anglican virtue is always pale. When at last we got home, Sir Walter teased me good-naturedly about my misadventure, and his wife told me that she knew the ladies, who were very puritanical! They disapproved of bathing on Sundays and had adopted that unexpected method of discouraging Sabbath-breakers. Could one conceive a stranger mode of teaching a transgressor to be virtuous or of performing an act of religious fervour?


But in their behaviour also they are unaccountable. For instance, at the Ascot races, where one has to remain five or six hours in public on a space of ground where no cover can be found, tents have been erected by private enterprise for a purpose which is easy to surmise. Instead of screening them from view as much as possible, these "conveniences" are placed in the very midst of everything, among the dancing tents, drinking booths, etc. We saw a bevy of fashionable ladies rush from their elegant carriages, laughing and talking as if to attract attention, and disappear all together into one of those shelters. The wind shook the canvas which, being both too short and too narrow, gave the onlookers a good view of what was going on inside. The utter indifference of these highborn beauties was an encouragement to the impertinent curiosity of the spectators. When English people are not icicles, they are apt to become shameless.

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