In this historical survey of the notion of beauty, Arthur Marwick notes the widely disparate associations with beauty in various contexts: it has been equated with morality and virtue, as well as with danger and deception. Marwick's entertaining inquiry covers a wide territory. In famous rivalries between noted beauties, he studies the connection between written appreciations of a beauty's wit and the descriptions of her appearance. He considers the preoccupation travel writers have always had with the appearance of women in exotic places. He devotes a good deal of attention to the importance of beauty in politics. And although many historians have taken up the subject of famous beauties, Marwick adds the entertaining twist of trying to establish what people really looked like. Many descriptions--particularly of women--Marwick notes, are simply handed down from history to history using the conventional phrases of a past era.
The modern world, Marwick argues, has admitted a wider range of beauties. But at the same time, we have simplified the notion of beauty to a surface characteristic, mere physical attractiveness. As opposed to "traditional beauty," which conferred virtue upon the admired person (and vice versa), "modern beauty" has become "an autonomous characteristic," to be ranked with social position, wealth, education, race, and other measurable attributes.