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THE ENGLISH WRITER KINGLAKE, THE SPHINX AND THE BEAUTY OF COPTIC GIRLS

December 7, 2016

sphinx2

The Sphinx:  A painting by Lydia Ethel Painter[1]

 

Alexander William Kinglake (1809 – 1891) was an English travel writer, historian and politician. In 1844 his book Eothen; or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East was published.[2] It was about his travels in Syria, Palestine and Egypt. He was fascinated by the Sphinx, and writing about it in Chapter XX, he links its beauty to the beauty of Coptic girls, “the race of those who were beautiful in the fashion of the elder world,” the beauty he admires more than the new form of beauty that was based on the Greek model of Cytherea (Aphrodite), the goddess of love:

“And near the Pyramids, more wondrous and more awful than all else in the land of Egypt, there sits the lonely Sphinx. Comely the creature is, but the comeliness is not of this world: the once worshiped beast is a deformity and a monster to this generation; and yet you can see that those lips, so thick and heavy, were fashioned according to some ancient mould of beauty — some mould of beauty now forgotten — forgotten because that Greece drew forth Cytherea from the flashing foam of the Aegean, and in her image created new forms of beauty, and made it a law among men that the short and proudly-wreathed lip should stand for the sign and the main condition of loveliness through all generations to come.

Yet still there lives on the race of those who were beautiful in the fashion of the elder world; and Christian girls of Coptic blood who look on you with the sad, serious gaze, and kiss you your charitable hand with the big pouting lips of the very Sphinx.”[3]

In 1910, Lydia Ethel (Farmer) Painter (1842 – 1909), an American Quaker writer and explorer, wrote her famous book Under Egypt’s Skies, a book that is considered a classic, with beautiful English, a few poems, and 50 illustrations by her. She writes about the Sphinx which fascinated her as much as it did Kinglake; and she copied almost the whole chapter by him.[4] She says about the lips and eyes that Kinglake found beautiful, “Hidden below the closed lips there is an abiding knowledge; half revealed in the broken eyes the supremacy of law.”[5]

 

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[1] Lydia Ethel Painter, Under Egypt’s Skies (1910); opposite p. 17.

[2] Eothen; or Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East (London, J. Olivier, 1844). Eothen, first used by Kinglake, is an adverb, meaning ‘from the East’.

[3] Ibid; pp. 246-7.

[4] Under Egypt’s Skies (1910); pp. 17-21.

[5] Ibid; p. 18.

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