Sunday, 17 May 2015

Behind the Mask

A wise friend of mine once said that the internet acts as a mask; we can be whoever we want to be, project whatever image we wish and be a carefully constructed person who may or may not bear any relevance to the person we actually are. There is a freedom in such a barrier, the ability to think about every word you say, every opinion you give, even down to the pictures you post.  All that others see of you is exactly what you want them to see. All this got me thinking about Victorian imagery of  disguises...

Portia (1887) Henry Woods
Shakespeare is riddled with people in disguise.  Portia from The Merchant of Venice dresses as a chap to become an apprentice to a lawyer.  She adopts the disguise in order to be free to behave in a way she would not be able to as a woman, and roles reverse even more dramatically when Portia saves a man's life. She moves from passive to active, all because of her disguise.

Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851) William Homan Hunt
Julia from Two Gentlemen of Verona doesn't fare so well.  She adopts the disguise of a page in order to keep an eye on  her feckless lover Proteus.  It is as a man she discovers what a waste of space he is as he attempts to rape Sylvia.  When Julia faints from the horror of it all, Proteus remembers that he actually loves her and they end up married.  What a catch. I think she was better off being a chap.

The Little Foot Page (1905) Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale
Similarly, one of EFB's most famous paintings is of Burd Helen, disguising herself as a foot page to her rubbish lover.  What is wrong with girls? Here is our heroine hacking off her lovely hair as apparently that's how you can tell boys from girls.  That is exactly the answer my daughter gave me the other day when I asked her if she knew the difference between boys and girls.  She's nine so at least she has an excuse.

Alfred the Saxon King Disguised as a Minstrel... (1852) Daniel Maclise
This painting always makes me smile as it was in the book of plates I was given for my first university course featuring Pre-Raphaelite art.  I also think Alfred is disguised as a shiny round chocolate when I hear 'disguised as a minstrel'.  Possibly there is a difference in the reasons  why men and women disguise themselves.  Women disguise themselves to spy on their useless menfolk or save useless menfolk.  Alfred is on a covert mission which involves looking shifty with a harp, like a sinister busker.  His reasons for disguise are obviously far more important than checking up on his girlfriend.

How the Devil... (1907) Frank Cadogan Cowper
Bonkers title of the week goes to this gem, entitled (deep breath) How the Devil, Disguised as a Vagrant Troupadour, Having been Entertained by some Charitable Nuns, Sang to them a Song of Love. Well, that's a corker.  Standing on the refectory table, the devil has gained entry to the nunnery, playing on the charity of the women.  In return he sings a song that reminds them what they are missing.  Some nuns are happy, some are sad, some angry, jealous, wistful and so on.  Every emotion possible has flooded what was formerly a peaceful place.  He is temptation, a reminder of more fleshly concerns, reminding you of what you can't have. Through kindness the nuns have let in a seemingly benign thing which holds the secret to their unease, to the destruction of their peace of mind.

I particularly like this picture as it seems very current and relevant to my opening remarks.  I am reminded of an episode of a television programme called 'Catfish' where a girl had been welcomed into a group of online friends and had made it her fun to drive wedges between them by using fears and rumours. It seems a terrible shame when kindness extended to strangers can mean letting in someone whose purpose nefarious.  However looking at the nuns in the image above, not everyone is driven to painful distraction by the tempting song.  Some remember their strength, smile and move on.

Girl with a Mask Henry Nelson O'Neil
So much for full disguise. More common in Victorian art is the mask. Often shown with richly dressed young women off to balls, the black silk mask is seen as both a harmless accessory but also an alter ego.  This peachy-skinned beauty looks blameless but the mask gives a hint of something else.  What does she need it for?  What will it enable her to do?

Woman with a Mask (1908) Lovis Corinth
If my dress was as low cut as this I think I might wear a mask too. There is a hint of sexual freedom in the mask, the masquerade.  You can become a person not bound by society's rules, the mask almost making it compulsory to misbehave and be helped back into your frock with some serving spoons.

At the Masquerade Charles Hermans
Such masked events, no matter how posh, seem to be a cross between a circus and an orgy, taking on an almost nightmarish quality. People view and are viewed, everyone is anonymous and the addition of costumes lends an air of unreality to such gatherings.  You are able to get away with anything as none of this is real, none of it matters.  However badly you behave in this space it doesn't matter as you are not you and no-one else is real either.  Possibly that is how some people see the internet, one giant masquerade ball.

Masked Figures William Orpen
The problem with feeling comfortable behind your disguise is that you don't know how many others are in disguise.  In the confines of a masked ball it is quite obvious that you are all playing by the same rules, it's understood that you are all masked.  However here on line the person you are talking to may or may not be who you think they are and likewise, you may not be the person they think you are.  I have some very dear friends here on line who I have known for years without ever meeting.  It is a matter of trust between us that we are who we say we are.  I often joke that I am really a co-operative of gerbils, using our little paws to type the posts, although that is now proved untrue by the video of me online. How very unmysterious of me.  Sigh.

Cupid at the Masked Ball Franz Stuck
Like the devil in Cowper's picture, you can never know what or who is lurking behind the disguise.  Sometimes people hide themselves because they are the devil, but sometimes it might be because they are goodness, love.  There is no reason for Cupid to be disguised, but he is playing by our rules seeing as we insist on subterfuge.  In a play on 'love is blind', Cupid is waiting to create love between people who are not being themselves. Lord knows who you are falling in love with, but isn't that always the way?

Choosing a mask Charles Ricketts
It is inevitable that we all don masks on line to some extent or another because we all consciously or unconsciously project a persona that we think others will find interesting or attractive. Some of us put on a mask of mischief or argument in order to get attention that way. Some are flatterers, adorers, the most pleasant company imaginable.  All are aspects of who we are as people in real life.  How much the mask conceals or reflects us is something that others have to discover.

I know a Maiden Fair to see, Take Care Charles Perugini
Online, none of us appear to be wearing masks and that is the problem, like with Perugini's beautiful girl above.  This post was inspired by an incident on line recently of disguise and mischief, of certain people using the anonymity of the internet to bully privately while smiling publically.  As I am sure you are all thoroughly lovely people, here are some simple ways of protecting yourself against the ne'er-do-wells and trolls:
  • Be sure of whom you are friending online.  Do they know your friends, does anyone know them in person, how complete is their Facebook page?  These things are very important if you have had any trouble in the past.
  • Google search their profile picture - sounds crazy but can give you an immediate idea if they are being untruthful.  Right-click on their image, copy it and go to Google images.  There should be a little camera icon in the search bar.  Press that and paste in the image.  A search with that will show you if their picture is already being used on line by anyone else.
  • Do not be afraid to tell others if you are being bullied and don't be afraid to block. Most social networks have that option, you just need to look.
I have been the recipient of some unpleasant online behaviour and so if you need advice or just want to talk to someone, my email is on the side bar. Stay safe out there and use your mask responsibly...


  1. Hi KIrsty - Thanks for the thoughtful post! I have seen fairly amiable academic discussions on Tudor history disintegrate into hateful diatribes online. I have also seen the damage aptly named "trolls" can do. On the plus side, the Internet has allowed the sharing of good writing in blogs like yours. I am also constantly impressed by the wit and insight people can cram in short comments on a huge variety of topics - return of the one-liners, Can you send me the link to the video of yourself which you mentioned? I think you have my private e-mail address. Thanks Denise Hansen

  2. Thank you for your comments Denise. The Pre-Raphaelite community is the same online, both extremely friendly and randomly terrifying, especially when people feel they 'own' a subject. I've been fortunate enough to become friends with people online who have come to mean very much to me, but have also experienced the other side of it.

    As for the video, it can be viewed over on Mrs Middleton's Shop site:

    Yes, that's really me :)

  3. The main thing I took away from your post is that this caption is a short rhyme if you combine the artist's name with the title: "I know a Maiden Fair to see, Take Care Charles Perugini."

    Sorry. I have a juvenile mind.

  4. Good work, Grace, a woman after my own heart...


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx