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Jewish World Review
May 23, 2006
/ 25 Iyar, 5766
A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even prettyones
It is a curious fact, well attested by history, that a downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty
ones. The recent uproar over John Prescott and his mistress is a good example. Of course this may have been a case of power
acting as an aphrodisiac. Henry Kissinger, a keen student of such matters, has always insisted that power, or even mere office,
is a sexual magnet. I recall him leaning across a dinner table, at a time when the antics of the late Alan Clark were in the
headlines, and seeking from me an explanation of Clark's success. He was particularly struck by the conquest of what Clark
called 'the Coven' the wife of a South African judge and their two daughters (a third wasn't interested). 'Sure, he was a
minister,' said Dr Kissinger, 'but he wasn't even in the Cabinet.'
Power and potency are closely related. Dr Kissinger himself is a good example of someone who radiates potentiality even
when not in office, and his attraction for women is notorious. There are of course outward signs of inward grace. The Kissinger
voice, with its deep gravelly timbre, strikes one as a pointer that ladies cannot ignore. A society woman with sharp eyes once
listed for me other signs, and not just symbolic ones. She said that once, at a New England house party, sitting by the pool, she
had been studying the great doctor's physique when a momentary disarrangement of his swimming-trunks had given her an
uncovenanted glimpse of what she called his 'machinery'. 'I 'ave nevair seen a pair like it,' she said, 'vraiment énorme!'
Another factor not to be ignored is humour, and the capacity to generate it. Here I think Alan Clark scored, until they got to
know his jokes, which may explain why his fascination tended to be fleeting. It is striking how often, in surveys of women about
what attracts them to men, sense of humour comes top of the list. What precisely this means, of course, is mysterious. Falstaff,
listing his attractions, called himself not merely witty 'but the cause of wit in others'. Perhaps this is Prescott's strong point. He is
more a buffoon than a wit, but he certainly gets the professional humorists going. Perhaps women like to laugh at, rather than
with, him. Female humour can be capricious.
Take the case of Herbert Spencer, founder of the science of sociology, a heavyweight Victorian seer who, in his day, was on a
par with Carlyle and Ruskin. His weighty tomes are unread today and he survives chiefly through obiter dicta, such as, 'A
propensity to play billiards well is a sure sign of a misspent youth.' True? False? The only person I know of who got a half-blue
for billiards at Oxford was Mr Attlee. He doesn't prove Spencer's point at all. Spencer never married, but he always attracted
women, sometimes remarkable ones. George Eliot fell deeply in love with him, and wrote him one of the most remarkable
letters ever addressed by a woman to a man. I wish I had space to quote it in full. It appears to be a proposal of marriage, or
at least a suggestion that she become his mistress. Needless to say, it filled Spencer with terror, and nothing came of it. Later in
his life Spencer caught the eye of the lady who became Beatrice Webb, like Emma Woodhouse, 'handsome, clever and rich'.
But Spencer would not have her either. He kept house, for most of a decade, with two young, unmarried ladies, said to be
pretty. But he did not warm to either, and eventually quarrelled with both.
Spencer had no sense of humour at all. But he practised laughing, and developed a powerful chuckle which crescendoed into a
roar. He also made jokes by way of experiment. He was once on holiday on the Isle of Wight with G.H. Lewes, who by then
had taken on the weighty responsibility of being George Eliot's lover. The two men were at lunch when Spencer said, 'These
mutton chops are very large for such a small island.' He started to chuckle, and his chuckle was so peculiar that Lewis
chuckled too. Then Spencer worked up to his roar, and Lewis found himself roaring too, and they slapped each other on the
back and stamped their feet and roared and roared. They made so much noise that George Eliot eventually appeared and said,
'What are you laughing about?' Lewes explained as best he could. George Eliot listened carefully, weighed the joke about the
mutton chops in her mind, front, back, sideways and upside down, translated it into German and back again, Greek and Latin
ditto, and finally pronounced, 'I don't think that is at all funny.' Then the men started to laugh again, and George Eliot retired to
get on with Middlemarch.
The two maiden ladies wrote a book, Home Life with Herbert Spencer, in which they gave examples of his experimental
jokes. Being very prim, they were astounded when he once appeared, half-dressed well, I say half-dressed: he was in
shirt-sleeves and tying his necktie and announced, 'I have thought of a joke, and I have come down to fire it off before I
forget it!' Then followed the joke (not funny at all) and the chuckling procedure. The real joke, of course, was that there were
two maiden ladies, instead of one: 'Safety in numbers.' But if he thought of it, he never told it to the ladies, dressed or
Spencer's attraction was, essentially, that he remained unmarried. Women saw it as a challenge. They still do. The opening
sentence of Pride and Prejudice encapsulates one of the permanent truths of society. At one time I had some dealings with the
late Arnold Goodman. He was not merely ugly, he was grotesque. And he was not merely overweight, he was monstrous. Of
course he was a good and kind man, with many virtues. But he had none whatever of those little graceful habits and felicities
which endear men to women. Yet there was always talk of the ladies who wished to marry him. They were not wizened
spinsters, either, but formidable operators in some cases, not in the first flush of youth to be sure, widows as a rule, but ladies
who carried respectable artillery in the way of looks and figures, wealth and social position. He presented a problem to them,
to be solved. None of them solved it, however. He remained a bachelor. And it was by his own choice.
There will always be
Goodmans and Prescotts, not doing too badly.
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04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2006, Paul Johnson