The sixth of Jaques’ famous seven ages of man in As You Like It features a `lean and slippered pantaloon, … / His youthful hose well saved, a world too wide / For his shrunk shank’, which is not exactly a pleasant picture but better than whatever the seventh — `Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’ — invites us to visualise. If we know that for Shakespeare a thin leg was one of the stigmata of old age it is because of that reproach the Lord Chief Justice addresses to Falstaff in the second part of Henry IV for presuming to set his name down in the `scroll of youth’. How dare he do that, the Lord Chief Justice complains, when he has `a moist eye, a dry hand, a yellow cheek, a white beard’ and, in addition to an `increasing belly’, `a decreasing leg’. The importance of having a `good leg’, and its significance as both a sign of youthfulness and a focus for sexual attraction, was emphasised in the Elizabethan period by male fashion. Many will remember here the most famous of Hilliard’s beautiful miniatures which shows a young man, thought by some to be the Earl of Essex, leaning nonchalantly against a tree and surrounded by roses. The hose or tights he is wearing stretch up to the crotch and are of a type that are now only likely to be worn by men in public when they are ballet dancers.
In the 20th century it was the legs of women it became customary to display although both D. H. Lawrence and his wife retained a strong interest in those of men. Its nature in her case is suggested by that chapter in Women in Love where Birkin and Ursula are looking at second-hand furniture and see another young couple similarly preoccupied. Ursula finds the man in this working-class pair attractive and thinks what a dreadful but wonderful lover he would be: `His legs would be marvellously subtle and alive, under the shapeless trousers’. This is a variety of language Frieda would use about her own husband’s legs, although she could hardly praise their muscularity since Lawrence was a narrow-shouldered, lightly built man. He himself clearly had an ambivalent attitude to that part of his anatomy, endorsing Frieda’s praise on some occasions but not on others. When in Kangaroo, for example, he was describing the humiliations of his obligatory medical inspections during the First World War, he remembered how in Bodmin `a fat fellow pointed to his thin, delicate legs with a jeer’ while he recalled that in Derby he was made to stand in front of the doctors in only his jacket `with his ridiculous thin legs’. Just how comparatively thin they were was brought home to him when he first arrived in Australia. It was there he must have seen lots of men walking about in shorts or bathing trunks and was astonished by how thick their legs often were. `They seem to run to leg, these people’, he wrote.
In a late article called `Red Trousers’, Lawrence suggested that `if a dozen men would stroll down the Strand and Piccadilly tomorrow, wearing tight scarlet trousers fitting the leg, gay little orange-brown jackets and bright green hats, then the revolution against dullness which we need so much would have begun.’ Before arriving in Australia, he had spent six weeks in Sri Lanka and he went on from there to live for a far longer period in New as well as old Mexico. But in the considerable photographic record of these times he is always wearing loose-fitting, and usually dark-coloured trousers. To discover what his legs were like inside them one has to go to the memoir of Knud Merrild, one of two Danish artists who lived in close proximity to Lawrence and Frieda when they were occupying a ranch house in the mountains close to Taos in New Mexico. Washing facilities not being of the best, the four of them developed the habit of visiting the Manby hot springs, which were relatively near-by (the same springs which feature quite prominently in that cult film of the late sixties, Easy Rider). Merrild recalled one occasion when, because Frieda was not with them, there may have been more incentive to bathe naked. He describes Lawrence’s body as white-skinned and thin but adds, `I would not call him skinny, but rather say he was slim with thin legs like the Archbishop of Canterbury, or like most Englishmen, but otherwise a well-proportioned body, harmonious in its slimness’. This estimate has the authority of someone who was himself an athlete, a noted swimmer who had represented Denmark at the Olympic games of 1920. What has always puzzled me about it, and still does, is how Merrild came to know so much about the Archbishop of Canterbury. I can only think that he must have seen pictures of the Archbishop in gaiters, which were fashionable clerical garb for senior Church dignitaries of the time, and then speculated upwards from the knee. As for most Englishmen having thin legs, that is clearly too much of a generalisation although it is true of one physical type the nation used to produce. You become aware of it in watching those old British films which are set in the former colonies and where so many senior officials are shown striding around in shorts that you begin to wonder how the Empire ever managed to sustain itself on such thin and narrow supports. Although the dress code is clearly one determined by the heat, it hardly seems, at this distance in time at least, particularly becoming. As the inimitable Chas and Dave used to sing in Gertcha, one of their more famous hits,
Now the old man was a Desert Rat
Khaki shorts and a khaki hat
How me mother could have fancied that
I just don’t know.
Merrild’s report from the Manby Springs belongs to 1923, when Lawrence’s tuberculosis was just about to declare itself, or beginning to take hold. In the days before the development of streptomycin, the only effective treatment was to build up the body’s natural resistance and the most favourable environment in which to do that was a sanatorium. One consequence of Lawrence’s refusal to acknowledge he was tubercular, and of his fierce resistance to the idea of being cooped up with people suffering from the same disease as himself, was that he got thinner and thinner. In the last months of his life he told his sister that whereas in 1929 he had been over seven and sometimes nearly eight stones, he was now down to just more than six, dangerously little for a man who was about five feet nine. This loss of weight must have been apparent everywhere, including in his legs. One of the many alternative treatments he tried was to be massaged everyday with coconut oil by an American friend who was interested in yoga and Indian medicine generally. `It grieved me’, Frieda recalled, `to see Lawrence’s strong, straight, quick legs gone so thin, so thin’. Always a locus for her of vitality, the state of her husband’s legs was one more sign among many that her sexual life with him had terminated, had in fact been at an end for some time. For Jaques and the Lord Chief Justice it was age that brought about the decreasing leg but, for Lawrence, it was the ravages of a bacillus for which a cure would only be available fifteen or so years after his death.