There was a time when the Dog Days invited us to take cover.
Under the trees! Who but agrees
That there is magic in words such as these;
Stately lime-avenues, haunted of bees;
Where, looking far over buttercupp’d leas,
Lads and ‘fair shes’ (That is Byron and he’s
An authority) lie very much at their ease.
Calverley’s opinion of summer’s bliss is in that tradition which habitually rhymed shade with glade. But modern taste and practice disdain the canopy of leaf and the comfort of the shadow; more popular now is the torrid assonance of sun with fun or of blaze and rays with happy days. The “fair shes” no longer wish to be fair and cultivate the cool protection of the lime; they are addicts of the New Bronze Age and wish only to have their bodies darkened upon nature’s grill. Cover is no longer popular. The house-agent hesitates before he proclaims a house to be sheltered; he would far sooner call it a “veritable sun-trap.” A survey of holiday advertisements suggests that a considerable hazard of sunstroke and sunburn is the popular notion of salubrity.
The conditions in which sunbathing is pleasant are occasional; the conjunction of a light breeze with a sun not too violent makes exposure of the body agreeable and probably healthful; but to strip and grill on a blazing, windless day is, in my experience, merely to provoke an ache of the head and a rawness of the back. One could achieve much the same results by asking to be whipped. Sun-bathing, as conducted by the more reckless of our Bronze Age fanatics, is a sport for masochists.
It is true, of course, that there is a considerable variation in the sensitivity of human skins; the owners of a tender hide must go more warily than those more coarsely covered. It is one of the major blessings of this world to possess a good thick skin; one so endowed is less liable to the pains of modesty and that hectic in the blood which produces the ugly and uncomfortable blush. Also, if he inclines to be a sun-bather, he can follow his fancy with more assurance of turning his back into a brown study and less fear of agonised emergence as a redskin. There are some whom no amount of oily preparation will protect from that disaster.
This Bronze Age of ours, so disdainful of the shade, is nothing if not theoretical. It seems to me sensible to shed one’s clothes according to the solar circumstance; but the devotees must have a doctrine and a cult. There are some who cannot spill a waistcoat without also spilling a mouthful. Hence the high palaver of Nudism. Hence the frantic colonies of those who cannot take off their stockings without putting on a philosophy.
The Englishman’s notions of wrapping up have varied enormously from time to time. I cannot think that the Elizabethans were much given to exposure: they were heavily ruffed, jerkined, and stomachered; Shakespeare’s Cleopatra was obviously as tight-laced in her apparel as she was loose in her behaviour. Did they unbrace and unbuckle in the heat of the sun? Their habit was rather to remain dressed and keep to the shade. Like the Spaniards, they confronted tropical America in leather and steel, just as a century and a half later Clive’s men conquered India with tight gaiters and a stiff neckcloth at the throat. There were no principles of Free-Body Culture.
The curious thing is that, while the Victorians were indefatigable wrappers-up, they permitted nudity on the seashore to an extent which could horrify a Frenchman. In 1809 a Mr. Crunden, of Brighton, then the favourite resort of elegant depravity, asserted the rights of the natural man and pranced naked down the beach and into the water. He was arrested and fought a case against the Crown. He lost his legal suit and was forced into a bathing one.
A French traveller, M. Francis Wey, who published “Les Anglais Chez Eux” in 1836, describes his own experience on a Sunday morning when, having bathed stark, he had to return to his bathing machine among a party of ladies.
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 upon 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 that they had not understood my dilemma, so, crawling back, started to swim again. But one cannot swim forever, while one can sit without fatigue for hours.
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.
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