One of those smiles which might be supposed to have come from the dimpled cheeks of the august Tisiphone

An easily overlooked masterpiece from Henry Fielding in bk.1 ch.8 of Tom Jones. Tisiphone, along with Alecto and Megaera, is one of the three Furies. Her appearance in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (bk. 4 starting at ~470) is given at bottom to better fill out the visual. And as good as this line is, another right after it – ‘a voice sweet as the evening breeze of Boreas in the pleasant month of November’ – is almost equally memorable.

When Mr Allworthy had retired to his study with Jenny Jones, as hath been seen, Mrs Bridget, with the good housekeeper, had betaken themselves to a post next adjoining to the said study; whence, through the conveyance of a keyhole, they sucked in at their ears the instructive lecture delivered by Mr Allworthy, together with the answers of Jenny, and indeed every other particular which passed in the last chapter.

This hole in her brother’s study-door was indeed as well known to Mrs Bridget, and had been as frequently applied to by her, as the famous hole in the wall was by Thisbe of old. This served to many good purposes. For by such means Mrs Bridget became often acquainted with her brother’s inclinations, without giving him the trouble of repeating them to her. It is true, some inconveniences attended this intercourse, and she had sometimes reason to cry out with Thisbe, in Shakspeare, “O, wicked, wicked wall!” For as Mr Allworthy was a justice of peace, certain things occurred in examinations concerning bastards, and such like, which are apt to give great offence to the chaste ears of virgins, especially when they approach the age of forty, as was the case of Mrs Bridget. However, she had, on such occasions, the advantage of concealing her blushes from the eyes of men; and De non apparentibus, et non existentibus eadem est ratio—in English, “When a woman is not seen to blush, she doth not blush at all.”

Both the good women kept strict silence during the whole scene between Mr Allworthy and the girl; but as soon as it was ended, and that gentleman was out of hearing, Mrs Deborah could not help exclaiming against the clemency of her master, and especially against his suffering her to conceal the father of the child, which she swore she would have out of her before the sun set.

At these words Mrs Bridget discomposed her features with a smile (a thing very unusual to her). Not that I would have my reader imagine, that this was one of those wanton smiles which Homer would have you conceive came from Venus, when he calls her the laughter-loving goddess; nor was it one of those smiles which Lady Seraphina shoots from the stage-box, and which Venus would quit her immortality to be able to equal. No, this was rather one of those smiles which might be supposed to have come from the dimpled cheeks of the august Tisiphone, or from one of the misses, her sisters.

With such a smile then, and with a voice sweet as the evening breeze of Boreas in the pleasant month of November, Mrs Bridget gently reproved the curiosity of Mrs Deborah; a vice with which it seems the latter was too much tainted, and which the former inveighed against with great bitterness, adding, “That, among all her faults, she thanked Heaven her enemies could not accuse her of prying into the affairs of other people.”

And Ovid (Loeb translation):

And [Juno] explains the causes of her hatred and of her journey hither, and what she wants. What she wanted was that the house of Cadmus should fall, and that the Fury-sisters should drive Athamas to madness. Commands, promises, prayers she poured out all in one, and begged the goddesses to aid her. When Juno had done, Tisiphone, just as she was, shook her tangled grey locks, tossed back the straggling snakes from her face, and said: “There is no need of long explanations; consider done all that you ask. Leave this unlovely realm and go back to the sweeter airs of your native skies.” Juno went back rejoicing; and as she was entering heaven, Iris, the daughter of Thaumus, sprinkled her o’er with purifying water.

Straightway the fell Tisiphone seized a torch which had been steeped in gore, put on a robe red with dripping blood, girt round her waist a writhing snake, and started forth. Grief went along with her, Terror and Dread and Madness, too, with quivering face. She stood upon the doomed threshold. They say the very door-posts of the house of Aeolus shrank away from her; the polished oaken doors grew dim and the sun hid his face. Ino was filled with terror at the monstrous sight, and her husband, Athamas, was filled with terror, too. They made to leave their palace, but the baleful Fury stood in their way and blocked their exit. And stretching her arms, wreathed with vipers, she shook out her locks: disturbed, the serpents hissed horribly. A part lay on her shoulders, part twined round her breast, hissing, vomiting venomous gore, and darting out their tongues. Then she tears away two serpents from the midst of her tresses, and with deadly aim hurls them at her victims. The snakes go gliding over the breasts of Ino and of Athamas and breathe upon them their pestilential breath. No wounds their bodies suffer; ’tis their minds that feel the deadly stroke. The Fury, not content with this, had brought horrid poisons too—froth of Cerberus’ jaws, the venom of the Hydra, strange hallucinations and utter forgetfulness, crime and tears, mad love of slaughter, all mixed together with fresh blood, brewed in a brazen cauldron and stirred with a green hemlock-stalk. And while they stood quaking there, over the breasts of both she poured this maddening poison brew, and made it sink to their being’s core.

Then, catching up her torch, she whirled it rapidly round and round and kindled fire by the swiftly moving fire. So, her task accomplished and her victory won, she retraced her way to the unsubstantial realm of mighty Dis, and there laid off the serpents she had worn.

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