The Colour of Life; and other essays on things seen and heard by Alice Christiana Thompson Meynell


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Page 1

For months together London does not see the colour of life in any mass.
The human face does not give much of it, what with features, and beards,
and the shadow of the top-hat and _chapeau melon_ of man, and of the
veils of woman. Besides, the colour of the face is subject to a thousand
injuries and accidents. The popular face of the Londoner has soon lost
its gold, its white, and the delicacy of its red and brown. We miss
little beauty by the fact that it is never seen freely in great numbers
out-of-doors. You get it in some quantity when all the heads of a great
indoor meeting are turned at once upon a speaker; but it is only in the
open air, needless to say, that the colour of life is in perfection, in
the open air, "clothed with the sun," whether the sunshine be golden and
direct, or dazzlingly diffused in grey.

The little figure of the London boy it is that has restored to the
landscape the human colour of life. He is allowed to come out of all his
ignominies, and to take the late colour of the midsummer north-west
evening, on the borders of the Serpentine. At the stroke of eight he
sheds the slough of nameless colours--all allied to the hues of dust,
soot, and fog, which are the colours the world has chosen for its
boys--and he makes, in his hundreds, a bright and delicate flush between
the grey-blue water and the grey-blue sky. Clothed now with the sun, he
is crowned by-and-by with twelve stars as he goes to bathe, and the
reflection of an early moon is under his feet.

So little stands between a gamin and all the dignities of Nature. They
are so quickly restored. There seems to be nothing to do, but only a
little thing to undo. It is like the art of Eleonora Duse. The last and
most finished action of her intellect, passion, and knowledge is, as it
were, the flicking away of some insignificant thing mistaken for art by
other actors, some little obstacle to the way and liberty of Nature.

All the squalor is gone in a moment, kicked off with the second boot, and
the child goes shouting to complete the landscape with the lacking colour
of life. You are inclined to wonder that, even undressed, he still
shouts with a Cockney accent. You half expect pure vowels and elastic
syllables from his restoration, his spring, his slenderness, his
brightness, and his glow. Old ivory and wild rose in the deepening
midsummer sun, he gives his colours to his world again.

It is easy to replace man, and it will take no great time, where Nature
has lapsed, to replace Nature. It is always to do, by the happily easy
way of doing nothing. The grass is always ready to grow in the
streets--and no streets could ask for a more charming finish than your
green grass. The gasometer even must fall to pieces unless it is
renewed; but the grass renews itself. There is nothing so remediable as
the work of modern man--"a thought which is also," as Mr Pecksniff said,
"very soothing." And by remediable I mean, of course, destructible. As
the bathing child shuffles off his garments--they are few, and one brace
suffices him--so the land might always, in reasonable time, shuffle off
its yellow brick and purple slate, and all the things that collect about
railway stations. A single night almost clears the air of London.

But if the colour of life looks so well in the rather sham scenery of
Hyde Park, it looks brilliant and grave indeed on a real sea-coast. To
have once seen it there should be enough to make a colourist. O
memorable little picture! The sun was gaining colour as it neared
setting, and it set not over the sea, but over the land. The sea had the
dark and rather stern, but not cold, blue of that aspect--the dark and
not the opal tints. The sky was also deep. Everything was very
definite, without mystery, and exceedingly simple. The most luminous
thing was the shining white of an edge of foam, which did not cease to be
white because it was a little golden and a little rosy in the sunshine.
It was still the whitest thing imaginable. And the next most luminous
thing was the little child, also invested with the sun and the colour of
life.

In the case of women, it is of the living and unpublished blood that the
violent world has professed to be delicate and ashamed. See the curious
history of the political rights of woman under the Revolution. On the
scaffold she enjoyed an ungrudged share in the fortunes of party.
Political life might be denied her, but that seems a trifle when you
consider how generously she was permitted political death. She was to
spin and cook for her citizen in the obscurity of her living hours; but
to the hour of her death was granted a part in the largest interests,
social, national, international. The blood wherewith she should,
according to Robespierre, have blushed to be seen or heard in the
tribune, was exposed in the public sight unsheltered by her veins.

Against this there was no modesty. Of all privacies, the last and the
innermost--the privacy of death--was never allowed to put obstacles in
the way of public action for a public cause. Women might be, and were,
duly suppressed when, by the mouth of Olympe de Gouges, they claimed a
"right to concur in the choice of representatives for the formation of
the laws"; but in her person, too, they were liberally allowed to bear
political responsibility to the Republic. Olympe de Gouges was
guillotined. Robespierre thus made her public and complete amends.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Tue 16th Jul 2019, 12:54