Read FAIR AND BROWN of The Children , free online book, by Alice Meynell, on

George Eliot, in one of her novels, has a good-natured mother, who confesses that when she administers justice she is obliged to spare the offenders who have fair hair, because they look so much more innocent than the rest.  And if this is the state of maternal feelings where all are more or less fair, what must be the miscarriage of justice in countries where a blond angel makes his infrequent visit within the family circle?

In England he is the rule, and supreme as a matter of course.  He is “English,” and best, as is the early asparagus and the young potato, according to the happy conviction of the shops.  To say “child” in England is to say “fair-haired child,” even as in Tuscany to say “young man” is to say “tenor.”  “I have a little party to-night, eight or ten tenors, from neighbouring palazzi, to meet my English friends.”

But France is a greater enthusiast than our now country.  The fairness and the golden hair are here so much a matter of orthodoxy, that they are not always mentioned; they are frequently taken for granted.  Not so in France; the French go out of their way to make the exceptional fairness of their children the rule of their literature.  No French child dare show his face in a book — prose or poetry — without blue eyes and fair hair.  It is a thing about which the French child of real life can hardly escape a certain sensitiveness.  What, he may ask, is the use of being a dark-haired child of fact, when all the emotion, all the innocence, all the romance, are absorbed by the flaxen-haired child of fiction?  How deplorable that our mothers, the French infants may say, should have their unattained ideals in the nurseries of the imagination; how dismal that they should be perpetually disillusioned in the nurseries of fact!  Is there then no sentiment for us? they may ask.  Will not convention, which has been forced to restore the advantage to truth on so many other points, be compelled to yield on this point also, and reconcile our aunts to the family colouring?

All the schools of literature are in a tale.  The classic masters, needless to say, do not stoop to the colouring of boys and girls; but as soon as the Romantiques arise, the cradle is there, and no soft hair ever in it that is not of some tone of gold, no eyes that are not blue, and no cheek that is not white and pink as milk and roses.  Victor Hugo, who discovered the child of modern poetry, never omits the touch of description; the word blond is as inevitable as any epithet marshalled to attend its noun in a last-century poet’s dictionary.  One would not have it away; one can hear the caress with which the master pronounces it, “making his mouth,” as Swift did for his “little language.”  Nor does the customary adjective fail in later literature.  It was dear to the Realist, and it is dear to the Symbolist.  The only difference is that in the French of the Symbolist it precedes the noun.

And yet it is time that the sweetness of the dark child should have its day.  He is really no less childlike than the other.  There is a pretty antithesis between the strong effect of his colouring and the softness of his years and of his months.  The blond human being — man, woman or child — has the beauty of harmony; the hair plays off from the tones of the flesh, only a few degrees brighter or a few degrees darker.  Contrast of colour there is, in the blue of the eyes, and in the red of cheek and lip, but there is no contrast of tone.  The whole effect is that of much various colour and of equal tone.  In the dark face there is hardly any colour and an almost complete opposition of tone.  The complete opposition, of course, would be black and white; and a beautiful dark child comes near to this, but for the lovely modifications, the warmth of his white, and of his black alike, so that the one tone, as well as the other, is softened towards brown.  It is the beauty of contrast, with a suggestion of harmony — as it were a beginning of harmony — which is infinitely lovely.

Nor is the dark child lacking in variety.  His radiant eyes range from a brown so bright that it looks golden in the light, to a brown so dark that it barely defines the pupil.  So is his hair various, answering the sun with unsuspected touches, not of gold but of bronze.  And his cheek is not invariably pale.  A dusky rose sometimes lurks there with such an effect of vitality as you will hardly get from the shallower pink of the flaxened haired.  And the suggestion is that of late summer, the colour of wheat almost ready for the harvest, and darker, redder flowers — poppies and others — than come in Spring.

The dark eyes, besides, are generally brighter — they shelter a more liquid light than the blue or grey.  Southern eyes have generally most beautiful whites.  And as to the charm of the childish figure, there is usually an infantine slenderness in the little Southener that is at least as young and sweet as the round form of the blond child.  And yet the painters of Italy would have none of it.  They rejected the dusky brilliant pale little Italians all about them; they would have none but flaxen-haired children, and they would have nothing that was slim, nothing that was thin, nothing that was shadowy.  They rejoiced in much fair flesh, and in all possible freshness.  So it was in fair Flanders as well as in dark Italy.  But so it was not in Spain.  The Pyrénées seemed to interrupt the tradition.  And as Murillo saw the charm of dark heads, and the innocence of dark eyes, so did one English painter.  Reynolds painted young dark hair as tenderly as the youngest gold.