One hardly dares speak of how women might feel on so intimate a subject, or risk the fate of Orpheus. All one can say is that the idea of girls getting it together never fails to stir the male imagination to its very depths. The interest, moreover, hangs not at all on the degree to which the objects of immediate attention are in or out of their clothes. Naked female flesh has its own compelling authority, of course, and the more of it the merrier, so to say. No complaints there. But the question here runs somewhat deeper for being not so much one of what is actually there, laid bare before the wide and grateful eye, as of what has been, is, or might be about to be, going on.
All perfectly innocent fun no doubt, as we know Queen Victoria, for one, to have asserted, if not necessarily believed. She was, after all, a passionate woman, and had her moments: and who are we to begrudge her whatever fun she might have had with a dutiful lady waiting in late, so long as no horse was frightened. On the other hand, we do know that Lydia Lopokova, the ballerina wife of Maynard Keynes, was deeply puzzled at the idea that such intimacy could ever be anything but innocent: for how, she reasoned, could two holes ever come together in effective business.
But did Lady Keynes unknowingly come close to the mark? For quite what is it we imagine of any such scene? It must be something more than just the company, or the gossip, or the gentle touch laid here or there. Is it then the thought of secret mutual pleasure free of all responsibility and danger, to say nothing of mess, that arouses in us a more ambiguous and jealous interest, even while stimulating, perhaps, its more active expression?
Artists, of course, are no different in this, save only in the openness of their speculation. So, whether clothed or naked, there on the canvas the lovely creatures sit or lie, close in the darkened room, whispering their secrets, mutually absorbed, an arm about the waist, a hand laid negligently upon a thigh, feet entwined. Or again we see them out of doors, at a picnic perhaps beneath the trees, or a bathing party by the lake, clothes cast lightly aside. Playful squeals and giggles float upon the breeze. And who of us, caught in such circumstance, could forbear to creep through the bushes and take a look?
But, unlike young Acteon, one must take care. He, out walking the dogs in the woods one day, came upon Diana, chaste goddess of the Moon, the Hunt, Wild Animals and Virgins among other things. Now this Diana was a difficult woman with a short fuse, and there were two things in particular she couldn’t stand: men, and being seen by them in a state of nature. And there she was, with her little band of nymphs or maidens, all naked as the day and bathing in a hidden pool. You can just imagine the panic and the uproar, the running and splashing and grabbing at any scrap of frock or towel. So Diana, cross as a patch, set the hounds on him. He didn’t have a hope, not least because her vengeful magic was already turning him into a stag. Not pretty, but soon over.
But that is by the way. More germane in this present context are Diana and her Nymphs alone. For, chaste goddess that she was, she required all her gels to remain as chaste as she. And as clean too, for much of the curriculum at her select and expensive finishing school does seem to have been centred upon the sylvan pool in the grounds, where they all scampered and splashed about with nothing on, under her ever-watchful eye.
Quite how she felt about any or all of them remains unsaid, but she certainly liked them beautiful, and guarded them jealously. They were, we can only suppose, as normal as well-brought-up young women of a certain age and class can ever be: yet even in the best regulated of such establishments it is not unknown, I believe, for the more susceptible to develop quite a crush on the head girl, or the games mistress, or even the headmistress herself. And one of the prettiest at Artemis Towers, a delicious young thing called Callisto, quite the belle of the Upper Fifth, thought Diana really was the bee’s knees.
But it so happened she had also caught the eye of Jupiter, that great and naughty god, who had quite a way with girls – his own way usually – and was determined to have it with her. But how? Juno, his long-suffering wife, kept a close eye on him, and Diana too might prove a problem. Master of disguise that he was, however, and knowing, perhaps, rather more than we of Diana’s true nature and predilections, he waited until she had gone hunting or some such, and then turned himself into her very semblance – in all but one important detail, it must be said. He then took the poor innocent trusting maiden off behind the 1st XI pavilion for a quiet chat about her O Level prospects.
So how, we wonder, did Callisto feel about this sudden turn of events? Here she was alone at last with the woman she adored, the centre for once of her entire attention, when all of a sudden she finds herself helpless, yes I tell you, positively helpless, in the close grip of those strong athletic arms, and firm, fit thighs. What was she to think? What was happening to her? What should she, could she, do? The questions pile up. And as those busy inquiring fingers between her legs gave place to something stiffer, and larger, was she then alarmed at all, or the least bit puzzled? “This thing: what is it? How does she keep it on? Why is it so warm? Surely she, of all Headmistresses, knows what she is doing. Oh, my, what was that?” But by then, of course, she was beyond caring.
But it is not that sacred moment that artists tend to share with us, but rather the outcome of the upshot, if you see what I mean. For, just like all of Jupiter’s seducees, poor confused Callisto proved with child. And one fine day, when the moment came again for her to take off her togs like the rest of the class, she hesitated just a shade too long at the water’s edge. One can just imagine it: “Now don’t be such a silly girl, Callisto. Off with them this minute, or it will be the worse for you. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Oh: I see …”
Rubens is the perfect painter to describe it all, which he did several times. He was also very good at describing naked and abundant female flesh, which he did all the time. Modern taste, unfortunately, would seem to favour rather the skimp and meagre as its ideal: and to call a girl ‘Rubens-esque’ is to risk a black eye and then see the lovely creature go weeping home to nurse her cellulite and injured pride. Rubens, on the other hand, liked his girls fair, pink, plump and healthy, and Amen to that. And, rather more than giving us just the double-handful and a bit more for luck, he made them beautiful too, betraying as keen an eye for a young and pretty model as Diana’s for a nymph.
His large, entirely typical ‘Diana and Callisto’ now in the Prado in Madrid, was painted only a year or two before his death in 1640. Its setting is a shady glade beside a fountain rather than a pond. No matter: the girls are all stripped regardless, except Diana herself, out on the left, who is nearly so, and whose Negro attendant is fussing to remove, we suppose, the final vestige from about her knees and waist. But the true drama is set elsewhere, among the nymphs clustered around Callisto, some watching enrapt, some all too helpfully disrobing her, the more quickly to unveil her shame.
And none reflects the true poignancy of it all more than the smallest and prettiest nymph of all, who, half-hidden by the handsome treble-handful beside her, sits deep in the shadow of the tree, her blue shawl across her shoulder. She leans urgently forward and upward, her folded arms catching the sunlight as they rest on the fountain’s rim, her firm young breasts pendant in the cool shadow beneath them, her sweet face a picture of horrified concern. The others, I’m afraid, seem less open in their sympathy, masking perhaps their natural relief at not being themselves in trouble, along with quiet glee at the thought of dire punishment to come. “There but for the grace of Jupiter”, they seem to say.
As for Diana, she seems for once more disappointed than angry, as though to say “How could you let me down so, after all I’ve done for you”. Even so she expelled her there and then, for after all there was the reputation of the school to consider. So Callisto, ‘ the Fair One’, cast out and alone, gave birth to a son, Arcas. And it was only then that Juno, as spiteful as only the wronged wife can be, turned Callisto into a bear.
Many years later the youthful Arcas nearly killed his Mother Bear while out hunting, whereupon Jupiter, acting the responsible father for once, if you can call it that, turned Arcas into a bear too, and then turned both of them into stars. So there they are now in the heavens together, the Great Bear and the Little Bear, mother and son, to guide us in the dark.
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Picture is Diana and Callisto. c.1638-40 (oil on canvass) by Peter Paul Rubens, (1577-1640); Prado, Madrid, Spain/ Girudon/ The Bridgeman Art Library.