Beauty’s Hour (Olivia Shakespear)

7791530No relation to William that I know of, but she does loom somewhat large in the lives of two other notable authors, Ezra Pound and, more significantly, W.B. Yeats; indeed, she seems to be mostly known now on account of the latter connection, though she also seems to have been little-known enough in her own lifetime (cf. Wikipedia). This is another Valancourt job, and it’s kind of different for them; they have a tendency for rescuing books that haven’t been reprinted in decades (or even a couple of centuries or so), but not only has this never been reprinted until now, it’s never actually been a book either. Hitherto Beauty’s Hour has only ever existed in the pages of two issues of Savoy magazine published in 1896—notice it’s not listed at all in Olivia’s Wiki entry—and a curious if somewhat slight thing it proves to be 120 years later. Imagine if you will a cross between Cinderella and Jekyll & Hyde, cos that’s kind of what’s on offer here… our narrator is Mary Gower, an avowedly “plain” young woman in a somewhat stultifying existence which she at least partly blames her own plainness for. And then one day, for no discernible reason, she suddenly discovers she has the ability to transform herself into the beautiful woman she wants to be, and the rest of the novella basically has her exploring some of the ramifications of that. Obviously this could’ve been written as horror quite easily,but Shakespear doesn’t go that way; what we get instead is a faintly detached observation on the ways in which men treat women that makes a perhaps obvious point about the distinctions we draw between attractive women and unattractive ones. Still, if the point is a bit obvious, it’s certainly well-expressed, the compactness of the telling serves the story well, and the moral is still pretty resonant.

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