14 December 2008

Those Brilliant Black Eyes: Physiognomy in English Literature 4

…while mediating on the very great pleasure which a fine pair of black eyes in the face of a pretty woman bestowed…
Divination, alchemy, astrology…the human mind has always had a fascination for these extraordinary arts outside, as it were, the established order science, arts which present the possibility of knowing more than what is sanctioned by the mainstream. Physiognomy, the art of judging character form the study of facial features, too is one such branch of learning which has attracted scholars and quacks alike throughout human history. This paper will analyse physiognomy as a significant reflection of the Victorian worldview by critically commenting upon its role as an important character delineation tool in the four prescribed novels, namely Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Hard Times and The Mill on The Floss, in English Literature 4. To do so, it will begin with a brief discussion on the Victorian outlook to life, go on to establish physiognomy as a paradoxical substantiation of the same and proceed then to examine in separate sections each of the said texts in context of their reliance upon physiognomy.
The Age of Science and Reason, the nineteenth century, was characterised by a comparatively extraordinary zeal for knowledge in all spheres. Rapid advances in technology were extending the frontiers of scientific knowledge, just as aggressive colonisation was furthering the sway of the British Empire. The almost sudden burgeoning of the middle class, the rise of the nouveau riche from amongst this class and the emergence of a new, industrial working and lower-middle class put the existing framework of society under tremendous pressure: industrialisation had led to a comparative democratisation, a progressive loosening of bonds in the socio-cultural hierarchy, and as a consequence mobility and advancement became the watchwords of society.

In fact, the nineteenth century can be seen as one remarkable epoch, an age wherein the continuing quest for knowledge got fresh momentum. The world was changed, hugely different from what it was just half a century ago: knowledge and ideas were pouring into Britain from all corners of the world and these same, combined with the socio-political developments taking place in British society, made the Victorian intellectual put all existing ideas about ethics, morality and culture under intense speculative interrogation. Faced with a reality of crumbling institutions, growing strife and increasing cynicism-in short modernity-definition and categorisation became one of the vital ways of setting a topsy-turvy world back in order. In this sense, the Victorian intellectual was somewhat like the Victorian colonist: driven by an almost uncontrollable urge to explore, to find out and annex by definition.
Physiognomy caters to this very ideal of precise knowledge. The idea that a person’s character can be divined by a study of his/her features has always been a captivating one: the Victorian passion for exploration and annexation combined with the utilitarian ethics of mathematical precision made it almost irresistible. Here was an ancient art which reflected the quintessentially Victorian motifs of order in flux, of permanence in mobility: such and such shape of the skull meant such and such thing, no more, no less, quite fixed, not subject to the vagaries of time and space, almost immortal. The Victorian mind, trained to be precise and accurate, could not have helped getting attracted to this art which could, by reference to some charts and supposedly unquestionable, immutable facts, reveal, magically as it were, a person’s character and personality, the innermost inclinations of his heart.

Of course, as a ‘magical’ revelation of character, physiognomy is actually at odds with the typically Victorian refutation of superstition and condemnation of fables and stories as fanciful and misleading. Indeed, it stands out as a yet another paradox in the Victorian worldview, a milieu wherein on one hand wo/men put extreme emphasis on rationality but on the other took as substantiation of their beliefs in order and utilitarian precision an art coming from the most fantastic traditions of divination.
We will now turn to examine the said texts. First to Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen, of course, is not a Victorian author when it comes to strict periodisation. Yet, in her works, and in the world which she portrays in them, the seeds of Victorian mercantilism can already been discerned as sprouting. In Pride and Prejudice itself we can see the nouveau riche rising- Bingley’s family, in spite of their claims of being a “respectable family from the North of England”, owe all their money to trade, presumably colonial trade. Victorian ideals are yet not firmly in place- after all, this is 1796 and the Romantics are at their height, yet the steam engine has been invented and we are already moving towards

In any case, Pride and Prejudice, or First Impressions as it was originally called, is very much about highlighting the deceptive nature of appearances-first impressions-and so there is little reliance upon physiognomy to draw out characters. Indeed, as far as appearances go, Austen actively disproves their validity- witness this in the introduction of Wickham as having an “appearance greatly in his favour…a fine countenance, a good figure and very pleasing address”. Later, Elizabeth is appalled at Darcy’s cruel and insensitive treatment of Wickham, “a young man too, like you, whose very countenance may vouch for your being amiable”. Just how good and amiable he proves to be later is common knowledge...

Next, to Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s reliance upon physiognomy and, to a lesser extent, phrenology is abundantly apparent in the way she delineates characters according to what their eyes tells about them.

Mrs. Reed has “cold grey” eyes, “devoid of truth”- correspondingly, Mrs. Reed herself is a hypocrite with double standards, somebody who presents herself to society as a good charitable woman but is actually something else. Then Dowager Ingram and her “precious” daughter Blanche- both have “fierce and hard eyes”, amply indicating to a good reader of faces their ambitious pursuit of the rich Rochester. Blanche’s love for him is, in spite of all her coy and pretty mannerisms, naught but a show, Jane assures herself and her readers: this judgement is later proved to be true when the Ingrams break off as soon as news of Rochester’s fortune being not even half of what they had imagined reaches them.

Rochester, a complex, multi-faceted character has, true to his personality “very fine eyes with hidden depths” and though he’s “not beautiful, according to the rule”, his inner beauty is reflected in his “brilliant and gentle” eyes when his “stern features” soften under a smile. He is emotional, prone to sin, yet a streak of nobility underlies him. Just so, for his foil St. John has no such streak of gentleness. His eye is a “cold, blue gem”, as he is himself a cold, doctorial, ambitiously ruthless man who’ll tolerate no hurdle in his road to glory.

Finally, Jane. As is Rochester multi-faceted with shades to his personality, so is Jane a princess trapped in a pauper, a figure full of the most endearing contradictions, on one hand a common governess, on the other a marvellously powerful and spirited woman, emotional and rational…her eyes are “soft and full of feeling”, “shine like dew” and a “flame flickers” in them. Clearly, eyes are the true windows of the soul in Jane Eyre.

Interestingly, through this discourse of eyes, Bronte, like Austen, disproves the validity of impressions. Rochester’s “square, massive brow” and “firm, grim mouth” establish him as a harsh, brooding, wilful man-of-the-world, yet he has those “hidden depths” which only his eyes betray. Similarly, Jane, in her Quakerish dresses and black, brown and grey coats, is as plain and as dull as a woman can be, yet her dewy eyes have a “flame” in them that shows her to be not what she appears to be. Here, as in Pride and Prejudice, appearances are proven to be deceptive.

Dickens employs physiognomy to create remarkably flat caricatures in Hard Times. The novel begins with caricaturing of Thomas Gradgrind, that extraordinarily square character. Everything about his person is mathematically square, right from his “square legs” to his “square wall of a forehead”. He has a “wide, thin and hard set” mouth and his head is “all covered with knobs”…with such a body, his voice, not surprisingly, is “inflexible, dry and dictatorial” and he himself is as rigid, obstinate and unimaginative as can be.

Of course, Dickens’ most flat character is that “Bully of Humility”, Josiah Bounderby. “A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open and lift his eyebrows up”, Bounderby is the cartoonist’s delight. Just after this unflattering description we are told that he has a “metallic laugh”, a “brassy speaking trumpet of a voice” and, the final nail in the coffin, that he is a “Bully of humility”. The connection between his features and his personality is hard to miss: it’s almost as if the latter was a consequence of the former.

Then there’s Bitzer, “light-eyed and light-haired”, his skin so “unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge” that sunlight seemed to “draw out of him whatever little colour he ever possessed”, his “short-cropped hair…a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face”. With features such as these, it’s not surprising, if not expected, that he grows up “into an extremely clear-headed, cautious, prudent young man”, his “mind so exactly regulated, that he had no affections or passions”, all his proceedings the “result of the nicest and the coldest calculation”…indeed, so cold that he sends his mother to the workhouse- and this was the sort of self-made man who was, as he later does, “sure to rise in the world”.

Curiously enough, the motif of appearances being deceptive is carried over here as well. James Harthouse is “good looking”, has a “good figure…good breeding” and “bold eyes”. So far, so good. One might have expected Harthouse to have been good as well. That, of course, is not to be. He puts “no more faith in anything than Lucifer”, is completely honest about being dishonest and is very much the “trimmed, smoothed and varnished” Devil who, being “aweary of vice and aweary of virtue”, goeth about “according to the mode”.

Lastly, to The Mill on The Floss. Though George Eliot was supposed to have been influenced by physiognomy, very little of it is apparent in The Mill, excepting, of course, Maggie’s eyes.

Admittedly, Maggie has the most brilliant eyes of all the heroines in this paper, “dark eyes which remind you of the stories of princesses turned into animals”, full of “unsatisfied intelligence and unsatisfied beseeching affection”…these are “such uncommon eyes” which somehow make you feel “nohow”, eyes “trying to speak- trying to speak kindly”.

These of the girl Maggie. As a young woman, they develop, just as Maggie does, to become “full of delicious opposites”, carrying forward the motif of paradox. Rightly are they described as “defying and deprecating, contradicting and clinging, imperious and beseeching”, like a “lovely wild animal struggling under caresses”. Maggie’s persona, her changing moods, her captivating charm, all of these lie in those brilliant dark eyes of hers...
Reintroduced into modern consciousness with Lavater’s Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe, physiognomy’s influence steadily increases as one comes into the nineteenth century. A science quintessentially Victorian in its paradoxical underlying assumption of immutable universality beneath confusing, maddening diversity, physiognomy as a delineation tool served well to not just create gripping characters but also project, consciously or not, some of the primary Victorian outlooks to life.


Nirbhay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nirbhay said...

Correction to be made in the first para. on Pride and Prejudice-"..the seeds of Victorian mercantilism CAN already BEEN discerned..".
It may be just a grammatical error.
You should have written "be" instead of "been". Or "have", not "can".

Nirbhay said...

Another error! Said para. is missing ending word/s, the ones you must thought of as following "towards..".

Nirbhay said...

Oops! I made an error in the second comment. Spot it, I (don't) challenge you.

AP said...

Thanks for pointing out the mistakes; I'll correct them in my soft copy.