“As Plain as Print”: The Physiognomic Body, Clothing, and Written Texts in the Sensation Novel of the 1860s

Sarah Lennox

Eastern Connecticut State University

In The Victorians and the Visual Imagination Kate Flint explores how Victorian science impacted popular beliefs “about how the invisible could be brought to view, and how knowledge and control over the natural world could thus be obtained” (8). In particular, the microscope and telescope made it possible to view matter that was either so tiny or so far away that it had previously been invisible to the human eye. On the one hand, visual technologies enhanced and supplemented people’s innate visual capabilities, allowing them to see things in new and different ways. On the other hand, as Flint points out, they “challenge[d], at the level of popular perception, the quality of observations made by the unaided human eye” (5). The fact that humans had to depend upon these instruments to see the body’s cells or the solar system’s stars forced people to recognize the limitations of the human eye and made them more aware of their unique subject position as viewers.

In keeping with this Victorian drive “towards exposure, towards bringing things to the surface, towards making things available to the eye and hence ready for interpretation” (Flint 8), Victorian art, literature, and daily life were influenced by the pseudoscience of physiognomy. Physiognomists conceptualized the human body as the materialization of the “inner man” alternately defined as a person’s mind, heart, soul, or consciousness. They believed each physical feature—the colour of the eyes, the shape of the nose, even the precise slant of the eyebrows—revealed information about a person’s morality, intelligence, personality traits, social class, and more. While physiognomists promised a quick and accurate way to assess identity, some people remained wary of the limitations of physiognomic theory and the problem of poor readers.

I argue that during the 1860s, as the pseudoscience of physiognomy enjoyed a final burst of public interest, many sensation novels evaluated physiognomic principles, and, in some cases, challenged the pseudoscience by depicting bodies that failed to provide the promised information about character and identity. I demonstrate that in Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) and Henry Dunbar (1864) Mary Elizabeth Braddon dramatizes characters’ failed attempts to read physiognomically illegible bodies. I suggest that, in physiognomy’s absence, her characters turn to what they perceive to be a more easily interpreted substitute for the body: material objects such as clothing that gain their signifying power from written inscriptions, typically a character’s name. In The Woman in White (1860), Wilkie Collins similarly depicts characters that struggle to read and recognize bodies and also introduces a piece of clothing labelled with a name to identify a central character. However, in The Woman in White this seemingly straightforward inscription proclaims a false identity and is used to deny an innocent woman her rights. All three novels reject the notion that the physiognomic body is as “plain as print” and, to varying extents, suggest that written texts that claim to verify identity may be misleading as well.

Lavater and the “Divine Alphabet”

The pseudoscience of physiognomy dates back to ancient times and enjoyed varying degrees of respectability and popularity.[i] In the late eighteenth century the Swiss pastor John Caspar Lavater rehabilitated physiognomic theory for the modern age with his multivolume Essays on Physiognomy (1774-78). The Essays distanced physiognomy from “nonsensical and contemptible system[s] of quackery” such as astrology and chiromancy by presenting it as a Christian act of goodwill and subject of scientific study (Lavater 31).

According to Lavater, physiognomy was a language created by God and Nature meant to help humans navigate their social interactions.[ii] Each physical feature of the face and body made up one “character” or letter of the “divine alphabet”, effectively spelling out messages about an individual’s morality, intelligence, and personality on the surfaces of the body (vi). In his Preface to the Essays, Lavater  concedes his book does not “give entire the immense alphabet necessary to decipher the original language of nature written on the face of man and the whole of his exterior” but asserts “I flatter myself that I have been so happy as to trace a few of the characters of that divine alphabet, and that they will be so legible that the sound eye will readily distinguish them whenever they occur” (vi). By approaching the study of physiognomy with scientific rigor, Lavater believed it was possible to classify and interpret each letter of this corporeal alphabet and teach others to read the human body as if it were a written text.

Lavater’s remarks on the language of physiognomy reveal the need for an expedient and reliable means of both communicating one’s own motives, thoughts, and emotions and judging those of others. He imagines a paternalistic God, “the great Author of Society”, designing the physiognomically legible body so people could more easily communicate “the affections of the mind” and “emotions of [the] soul” through “a living and active language, perfectly infallible, and universally understood” (48). Physiognomy is presented as a safeguard against not only unintended miscommunications but also against deception. Lavater theorizes:

Nature has not only bestowed on man voice and tongue, to be the interpreters of his thoughts; but, out of a certain distrust, conceiving he might abuse them, she has contrived to depict in his face, in the various conformations of his countenance, a demonstration to give the others the lye, in case they should not prove faithful. In a word, she has exposed his soul, to be observed on the outside; so that there is no necessity of any window to discover his motions, inclinations, and habits since they are apparent in his face and are there written in such visible and manifest characters. (25)

According to physiognomic theory, the human body is not only the seat of the mind or soul, but also the physical manifestation of it. In effect, Lavater suggests that through either divine goodness or the expediencies of nature, the inner self actually produces the body: who you are “within” dictates your physical appearance “on the outside.”  In the above passage, Lavater seems to claim that Nature’s creation of the physiognomic body not only makes deceit more difficult, but also removes the interpretive challenges involved in reading people. When he states that Nature has “exposed [the] soul, to be observed on the outside” it conjures up not a signifying system made up of symbolic physical features but the soul itself, direct and unmediated. Lavater compares the act of reading the physiognomic body to the act of reading a simple and straightforward written text: the meaning is “apparent” because it is “written in such visible and manifest characters” on the face. And yet, Lavater himself struggled to classify and decipher the letters of the divine alphabet, urged his readers to study the hundreds of physiognomic rules and illustrations laid out in his own and others’ manuals, and catalogued various threats to the body’s legibility such as disfigurement and disguise. Thus, notwithstanding his assertion that the language of physiognomy was “perfectly infallible and universally understood” (48), he seemed to recognize that the physiognomic body could very well mislead or pose interpretive challenges.

Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Hundreds of books and articles on physiognomy were published in Britain during the nineteenth century, but Lavater’s Essays remained the most widely cited work on the subject. As Mary Cowling points out in The Artist as Anthropologist, “[v]irtually all nineteenth-century physiognomists regarded Lavater as the father of the science in its modern form, and most took him as their starting point” (19). By 1810, fifty-five editions of Lavater’s Essays, including twenty English editions “priced to suit every pocket,” had been published (Cowling 19). In “Lavater’s Physiognomy in England”, John Graham suggests that because the Essays was so widely summarized, reviewed, and pirated, “it is difficult to imagine how a literate person of the time could have failed to have some general knowledge of the man and his theories” (562).

It is not difficult to understand why physiognomy appealed to so many people in nineteenth-century Britain. As the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal points out in 1822, “short-cuts to a knowledge of mankind are very tempting” (Redding 121). The prospect of discerning a stranger’s character from a mere glance offered a fast and streamlined means of navigating an increasingly modern, fast-paced world, allowing people to make seemingly informed choices in it. The Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal (1833) points out that people consulted the face when selecting servants, business partners, and even spouses (56). The ability to make quick and accurate judgments about whom to marry, befriend, hire, and trust became even more crucial (and difficult) as more Victorians moved to crowded urban environments and needed to “make sense of the city” (Pearl 10).

During the nineteenth century, the physiognomic body continued to be compared to written texts. For people who believed in physiognomy, an individual’s face functioned like a combined letter of introduction and reference embedded in the skin and bone. Even a Metropolitan Magazine article (1834) that expresses some doubts about physiognomic theory declares that a beautiful and healthy face “is a good prima facie argument of vigorous intellect and good disposition. It is a letter of recommendation written by the hand of God, that none can mistake, and which it seems a sort of impiety to disavow” (110). Following Lavater, some nineteenth-century writers use the metaphor of legible characters written across the surfaces of the body to imply that the act of reading physiognomic features is a simple and straightforward task that people immediately and instinctually perform when interacting with others. For example, an Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany article (1818) assures readers that all people of “common penetration” can distinguish “an idiot from a man of ordinary sense, and a man of at least common ability from a fool” with as much certainty “as if their powers and dispositions” were literally “stamped upon their foreheads in legible characters” (418). However, other writers cautioned against poor and illiterate readers. In an 1840 article about physiognomy and pathognomy, The Athenaeum warns that people who wish to interpret facial expressions must be able to sympathize with and enter the mind of the subject, for “[w]ithout this power, the looker-on sees the [face] with his eyes, as an unlettered person looks at a book—neither can read what is before him to any intelligent purpose” (431).[iii]

While physiognomic readings were, strictly speaking, confined to the “natural” surfaces of the human body, in practice people often consulted clothing in their assessment of character and identity.[iv] Indeed, the physiognomic body and clothing were sometimes compared to one another because they were perceived to perform similar signifying functions. While physiognomy claimed to offer “natural” insights into who a person was, clothing was a self-constructed and culturally meaningful way to convey information about one’s identity.

The Metropolitan Magazine cautions that clothing and other fixtures of modern civilization obscure or destroy valuable physiognomic information since “the body and limbs are divided between the tailor and the dancing-master, [and] these effective artists make of them what they will” (108). However, some beauty and fashion manuals challenged this distinction between “artificial” man-made products and the “natural” physiognomic body by encouraging women to use their dress to supplement and enhance the body’s “natural” legibility. For example, in the fashion guide The Art of Beauty (1878) Mrs. Mary Eliza Haweis argues that because “in our age and climate the human body is habitually and completely veiled, the veil assumes an artistic importance second only the forms that are hidden” (11). In the same way Lavater presents physiognomy as a tool that allows people to immediately ascertain information about a person’s character without exchanging a word, Mrs. Haweis contends, “[i]n nothing are character and perception so insensibly but inevitably displayed, as in dress, and taste in dress.  Dress is the second self, a dumb self, yet a most eloquent expositor of the person” (11). Haweis believed “the colours and forms we employ should reflect our tastes and harmonise with our character” and suggests that dress, like physiognomy, should reveal aspects of identity such as age, wealth, social class, and morality (22). In fact, she faults any woman who dismisses the importance of dress because, in doing so, a woman makes her body more difficult to read by creating “a discord between her inner and outer self” (14). Haweis concludes that as long as women did not use their dress to carry “anatomical fictions […] as far as falsehood” (17), clothing had the power to enhance the body’s “natural” legibility.

During the 1860s, the same decade in which sensation novels burst onto the literary scene and reached their zenith of popularity, there was a growing sense that the so-called science of physiognomy has reached a pivotal moment and would soon be “cultivated with an ardent, but strictly scientific enthusiasm” or “pronounced illusory, and cast aside” (Lebas 475). As part of the final wave of widespread public interest in and debate about physiognomy, periodicals such as the Dublin University Magazine, Cornhill Magazine, Temple Bar, and Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts all published articles during the 1860s that argued the camera might revolutionize physiognomy. Hypothetically, a large database of photographs would allow physiognomists to classify both types of features and types of people, creating the long-awaited physiognomic system. As E.S. Dallas observed in the Cornhill (1861):

it is to be hoped that the discovery of the photograph will prove to be the dawn of a new day for [Lavater]. As the science of chemistry was nothing until a perfect balance was invented, and as the science of physiology was really unknown until the microscope was improved, so it may be that the faithful register of the camera, supplying us with countless numbers of accurate observations, will now render that an actual science which has hitherto been only a possible one. (475)

To some it seemed that physiognomy might be yet another example of nature’s grand design and the order of the universe. Modern technology seemed poised to make the invisible visible yet again by revealing the logic and meaning behind the human form. During the 1860s, the sensation novel enters into this larger conversation about the merits and fate of physiognomy.

Physiognomy in the Sensation Novel of the 1860s

Scholars such as Eike Kronshage, Graeme Tytler, Nicholas Dames, and Michael Hollington have published valuable studies of physiognomy in the realist novel that analyze the physiognomic beliefs of canonical authors such as Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens, but surprisingly little scholarship has been published on physiognomy in the British sensation novel.[v] Scholars interested in physiognomy may have gravitated towards the realist novel because many of the best examples of this genre contain detailed physiognomic descriptions and are celebrated for their complex and nuanced treatment of character. In addition, both Dickens and Brontë expressed interest in physiognomy and phrenology.[vi]

However, I would venture that if we consider both characterization and plot it becomes clear that sensation novels of the 1860s were also highly engaged in cultural debates about the merits of physiognomy. As scholars such as Jeanne Fahnestock, Jenny Bourne Taylor, Lucy Hartley, and Jessica Cox have shown, sensation novelists, like realist novelists, deployed physiognomy in their physical descriptions of characters in both straightforward and subversive ways.[vii] I would argue that, in addition, many of the genre’s most iconic plot elements and defining themes revolve around the question of whether physical appearance reflects identity and whether it is possible to read and recognize the body. Taking their lead from debates playing out in the periodical press, most sensation novels of the 1860s obsessively document the possible threats to bodily legibility: faces and bodies that defy physiognomic rules, disfigurements that drastically alter a character’s appearance, disguises that hide a character’s true identity and intentionally thwart physiognomic readings and/or recognition. Given this interest, many sensation novel plots hinge upon stolen, mistaken, or assumed identities.

Indeed, nineteenth-century periodical articles anticipate the plots of some sensation novels when they imagine what the world would be like if physiognomy did not exist. A typical example, “On the Study of Physiognomy” (1818) published in the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, predicts the plots of future sensation novels such as Lady Audley’s Secret when it suggests that without the ability to read faces “[w]e should be in danger of marrying an idiot for a wit, and of mistaking a shrew for one possessed of all the benevolence and placidity of an angel” but immediately reassures readers that physiognomy allows us to avoid this fate (418). Similarly, in the article “Physiognomy” (1852) published in the Quarterly Review, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake anticipates Laura’s plight in The Woman in White when she observes:

What else but a power rapid and unerring as this could preserve society from the most bewildering confusions and fatal mistakes! How else, in the similarity of age, size, dress, and habits in thousands of individuals, should one man convince another of what he knows so well—namely, that he is himself!” (62-63).

Employing rather sensational language, these articles raise the spectre of faces that provide no physiognomic information or distinguishing features only to quickly retreat from the frightening consequences; they take the fact that society continues to function as proof of physiognomy’s veracity. By depicting bodies that fail to live up to physiognomic expectations, sensation novels of the 1860s explore the possible results of these “bewildering confusions” and “fatal mistakes.”

The Literal and Figurative Bodies of Lady Audley’s Secret and Henry Dunbar

In Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon uses the character Lady Audley to undermine the pseudoscience of physiognomy, particularly the legibility of morality and criminality. While Mrs. Haweis warned women to avoid carrying “anatomical fictions […] as far as falsehood” by using padding and other forms of intentionally deceptive dress (17), Lady Audley’s “anatomical fictions” are produced by the “natural” physiognomic body itself. For those who believed in physiognomy, the permanent physical features served as the most trustworthy source of character and identity precisely because they were innate and could not be changed as easily as self-fashioned aspects of appearance, such as clothing and hairstyle. Judging by the logic of physiognomy, however, Lady Audley’s face and body are naturally illegible and misleading: her innate physical appearance turns out to be a materialized falsehood, the woman a living lie. Ultimately, Lady Audley’s clothing and other material possessions provide more information about her character, identity, and deceptions than the unadorned, physiognomic body. Since the antiheroine’s physiognomy offers few clues to her past or crimes, the novel’s amateur detective instead reads a substitute for her body, a hatbox covered in railway stickers, to solve the novel’s mysteries.

Up to this point, scholars of Lady Audley’s Secret have been much more interested in the ways Lady Audley actively constructs her identity as a “lady”—with all the gender, class, and moral connotations that word implies—than on the novel’s discussion of her innate physiognomic features.[viii] Certainly, material objects adorn and surround Lady Audley’s body and frame our understanding of it. The novel obsessively catalogues the antiheroine’s clothing, accessories, and other portable property: Lady Audley parades through the novel wearing rustling silks, heavy velvets, and her favorite Russian sable; she carries “fairy-like silver-mounted embroidery scissors” to the hothouse (113); and her boudoir holds “ivory-backed hair brushes” (105), “exquisite china” (105), and a “massive walnut-wood and brass inlaid casket” (69) filled with “diamonds, rubies, pearls, and emeralds” (69). Scholars have pointed out that Lady Audley uses clothing and other material objects to construct her gender and class identities. Katherine Montwieler argues that Lady Audley’s Secret actually functions like a subversive conduct manual that instructs “poor women how to affect gentility” in part through their strategic purchase and display of commodity goods (43). Similarly, Krista Lysack contends Braddon’s novel “explores possibilities for the self that formed in and through a world of consumer goods and practices” (47). As Montwieler and Lysack point out, Lady Audley’s use of material goods is unsettling, because it blurs the boundary between subject and object and exposes the constructed, performative nature of identity.

Significantly, however, Lady Audley’s misleading body and so-called false identities are not primarily or exclusively constructed from her clothing and other possessions. Long before she marries Sir Michael and gains access to all of these fine things, her physiognomy vouches for her character. Once she becomes mistress of Audley Court, her physical appearance naturalizes her title and position while covering up her crimes. It is true that Lady Audley uses clothing and material objects to further build up her various identities and that, over time, these objects seem to become a part of her. However, in order to fully appreciate Braddon’s radical critique of physiognomy, it is important to consider how Lady Audley’s face and body impact the way others read her.

Lady Audley’s Secret is perhaps most famous for its rejection of the Platonic principle of kalokagatheia, which states “the morally best [are] the most beautiful, [and] the morally worst [are] the most deformed” (Lavater 99). Generally speaking, Lady Audley’s beautiful exterior belies her immoral and criminal deeds, and, more specifically, her individual features fail to reveal her personality traits to those who look upon her. For readers aware of physiognomic principles, Lady Audley’s “large and liquid blue eyes” (90) denote a passive, flexible character; her “tiny”(101), “straight” (101), and “delicate” (90) nose indicates a mild temperament; her small, rosy lips promise a refined rather than a sensual disposition; and her yellow curls—which, Braddon tells us, “fall about her face like the pale, golden halo you see round the head of a Madonna in an Italian picture” (278) —mark her as a domestic angel. In other words, Braddon’s use of physiognomic and literary conventions leads the reader to expect a feminine, childish, angel-in-the-house who is charmingly incapable of acting for herself. Instead, she famously delivers a “beautiful fiend”: an intelligent, calculating woman who abandons her child, lies about her identity, enters into a bigamous marriage, commits arson, and attempts murder—all while remaining as lovely as ever (107).

Significantly, Lady Audley’s face would have shocked Victorian readers not only because her innate physical features fail to reveal her character, but also because, her thoughts, emotions, and behaviours leave no visible trace upon the surfaces of her body. Lavater argued that “a movement frequently repeated, produces a lasting impression on the flexible parts of the face, and in many cases affects the official and solid parts from the tender years of youth upwards” (119). Immoral thoughts and acts (and the corresponding facial expressions) were supposed to permanently mark the face, changing a person’s features over time to reflect the type of person he or she had become. Contrary to this principle, Lady Audley’s physiognomy shows no sign of permanent changes.

While Braddon could have explained away Lady Audley’s physiognomic illegibility by suggesting that her beauty is a mere illusion constructed with the help of cosmetics, she instead upholds her critique of physiognomy by insisting that the antiheroine’s physical appearance is completely natural. It is true that Lady Audley has seen advertisements for cosmetics and hair dye in the papers and unabashedly encourages her maid, Phoebe Marks, to avail herself of these products. However, Braddon never depicts the antiheroine purchasing or using these products to improve her own physical appearance. This is a striking omission, given the novel’s willingness to describe the ways in which Lady Audley strategically constructs her appearance and identity. Given the novel’s larger critique of physiognomy, though, this omission makes perfect sense: Lady Audley does not need to rely on cosmetics to enhance, alter, or hide parts of her face because she has no ugly or incriminating facial features to conceal.

While Braddon never mentions Lady Audley purchasing or using cosmetics, some readers imagine that the antiheroine does, in fact, employ these beauty products. For example, in two otherwise excellent readings of the novel, Lillian Craton claims that Lady Audley’s bedroom is “strewn with cosmetics and clothing” (132) and Lysack mentions “the maid who assists Lady Audley by adding false hair or enameling her skin with cosmetics” (63). However, in the oft-quoted passage from Lady Audley’s Secret that does discuss false hair and enameling, Braddon’s narrator simply observes that, generally speaking, lady’s maids know their mistresses’ secrets, including the rather grotesque ways in which some improve their physical appearance.[ix] Braddon never mentions Phoebe or any other lady’s maid helping Lady Audley improve her appearance in these ways. Lysack also points to Lady Audley’s “penciled eyebrows” (Lysack 63) as proof of her use of cosmetics, but it was actually common for Victorian writers to list “penciled brows” alongside other innate physiognomic features as a sign of beauty. As the OED points out, “penciled brows” could refer to brows “delicately marked, streaked, or striped with thin lines” that looked as if they had been drawn with a pencil. If Braddon never depicts Lady Audley using cosmetics, why are readers tempted to read this into the novel?

Ironically, Lady Audley’s body, laden with silk and diamonds, reveals more about her character than the unadorned physiognomic body ever could. While the antiheroine uses clothing and material possessions to craft what she hopes is a convincing image of her gender and class identity, her purchases inadvertently reveal troubling information about her character. For contemporary middle-class readers familiar with the period’s conduct literature, Lady Audley’s conspicuous finery and accumulation of commodity goods help mark her as a morally questionable character: extravagant, ostentatious, and insatiable in her desire for pretty, expensive things. It stands to reason that if Braddon had depicted Lady Audley spackling her face with pearl powder and rouge, it would have reassured contemporary readers not only because it would have undercut the novel’s bold critiques of physiognomic theory but also because Lady Audley’s painted visage would have offered further visual proof that she was fake, deceptive, and artificial. For modern day readers, it might be easy to imagine that Lady Audley uses cosmetics, since it seems like a logical extension of the other ways she deploys material objects to construct her appearance and identity. Again, while it is reasonable to assume that if Lady Audley needed to use cosmetics she would, Braddon underscores the fact that she has no such need.

While the novel contains many hints of Lady Audley’s deceptions and artifice, Braddon stresses that Lady Audley’s physiognomy is “natural” rather than “artificial.” Indeed, Braddon seems to take a perverse delight in highlighting the antiheroine’s natural beauty by repeatedly connecting Lady Audley’s body with nature and natural processes. For example, the narrator reveals that “[l]ike the birds and flowers,” after a good night’s sleep, Lady Audley always “recover[d] her beauty and joyousness in the morning sunshine” (112). Perhaps the most striking example of Lady Audley’s disturbing ability to both regenerate her beauty and dismiss the gravity of her sins, arrives shortly after she commits arson, attempts murder, confesses some of her crimes to Sir Michael, and forfeits her position as his spouse. Braddon informs readers that by the following morning “[a] long night’s rest had brought back the delicate rose-tints of her complexion, and the natural lustre of her blue eyes” (379). As she awaits news of her fate, Lady Audley actually “smile[s] triumphantly as she contemplate[s] the reflection of her beauty” in the mirror and rejoices that “the days were gone in which her enemies could have branded her with white-hot irons” (379). Braddon’s antiheroine knows that it is only through such a brand, a literal inscription burnt into the flesh, that her body could become permanently marked and her crimes made legible. In opposition to the comforting assurances of physiognomists, Lady Audley’s innate physical appearance does not reveal her immorality nor does it change over time to reflect her repeated crimes.

The novel’s amateur detective, Robert Audley, cannot read his aunt’s body and struggles to discover her history and crimes. He fantasizes about pulling aside her “mask” (174), “tear[ing] away that beautiful veil under which she hides her wickedness,” (237), and “read[ing] her as I have read her before” (237). Laurence Talairach-Vielmas argues that because Lady Audley has adopted multiple identities “the parts of her body the detective analyzes—from her feathery hair to her azure eyes […] become empty tropes, dead metaphors which literally signal Helen Talboy’s faked death” (121). I would argue that Robert’s problem is not that Lady Audley’s body means nothing, but rather that every feature means something that he suspects (but struggles to believe) is not true. When he begins to suspect that Lady Audley may be capable of treachery despite her beautiful exterior, he extends the investigation of her identity beyond the surfaces of her body to material objects closely associated with it.

Braddon positions Lady’s Audley’s hatbox, a possession closely associated with her body and labelled with her names, as a pivotal clue to her multiple identities. Robert tracks down Lucy Graham’s former employer, Mrs. Vincent, to learn about Lady Audley’s life before her marriage to his uncle. While there, he examines an old bonnet box of Lucy’s, which, judging from the remnants of several railway stickers, Lucy carried on many of her journeys. Robert notices that one label, less torn than the others, bears the name “Miss Graham,” and dampens it in order to loosen the edges, peel it off, and examine the sticker underneath (257).  To his dismay, the second label reads not “Miss Graham,” but “Mrs. George Talboys” (287). This, of course, indicates that Lucy Graham, now his uncle’s wife, and Helen Talboys, George’s allegedly deceased wife, are one and the same person (287). Because Robert can neither discover the truth of Lady Audley’s character and identity by examining her misleading physiognomy nor tear away a literal mask to expose the “real” woman underneath, he peels away the labels on her hatbox, which, in this scene, stands in as a metonymic replacement for Lady Audley’s body. In this way, Braddon provides Robert the opportunity to peel away the layers of Lady Audley’s identity and furnishes him with a piece of evidence, composed of straightforward written text, that Lady Audley cannot refute (287).

In one of her lesser known sensation novels, Henry Dunbar, Braddon again depicts a character with a physiognomically illegible body and shows how clothing may be used to enhance its natural illegibility. As in Lady Audley’s Secret, a detective cannot depend upon the physiognomic body as a reliable indicator of identity and criminality. Consequently, he relies on a material object, this time a dead man’s shirt with a name embroidered into the tag, to solve the novel’s central mystery and identify the criminal.

Henry Dunbar follows the careers of two men, Henry Dunbar, heir to a banking fortune, and Joseph Wilmot, his clerk. When they are young men, Henry convinces Joseph to forge a bill of acceptance to cover Henry’s gambling debts. When Henry’s father and uncle discover the forgery, they send Henry to India to work in one of the bank’s colonial branches, but Joseph loses his job without a character. Unable to gain any reputable work, Joseph assumes a life of crime. When Henry returns from India thirty-five years later to claim his social position and fortune, Joseph meets him at the docks, leads him to a secluded spot, and murders him. For the rest of the novel he passes himself off as Henry Dunbar and informs the police that the corpse belongs to his former clerk.

In Henry Dunbar, Braddon rejects the physiognomic legibility of social class. Despite being a lowly clerk and later a criminal, Joseph possesses innate features that Braddon repeatedly labels as “aristocratic” and that actually have the potential to combine the best traits of the upper and middle classes. Joseph’s “high and square” forehead denote his intelligence, while his “aquiline” nose and “massive” chin indicate a firmness and determination that could be beneficial if put to good use (19). The “carriage of his head” and “tall”, “erect figure” impart the imposing, self-assured air of an aristocrat, but “[h]is long, muscular limbs give evidence of physical power” avoiding any sign of effeminacy (19).

Such traits give Joseph the potentially destabilizing ability to stand alongside those of a higher class as their apparent equal. Although Henry Dunbar and Joseph Wilmot do not look exactly alike, several characters who view the two men side by side note that Joseph is similarly aristocratic and handsome despite his inferior station. As Joseph’s estranged brother recalls, Joseph was as “handsome and gentlemanly a lad as the young coronet [Henry Dunbar] himself” (8). When the two men meet on the docks as adults, Henry “stare[s] at the handsome face before him” and admits “[i]t was as handsome as his own, and almost as aristocratic-looking” (53). On the same occasion, the narrator observes “Nature ha[s] odd caprices now and then, and had made very little distinction between the banker, who was worth half a million, and the runaway convict, who was not worth sixpence” (53). While Joseph passes as Henry, no one questions his identity because of his physiognomy. Although Joseph, like Lady Audley, fears that someone from his past might recognize him under an assumed name, and other characters look at him with an “earnest, scrutinizing gaze” as if they “would fain have discovered the secret of the man’s guilt or innocence in his countenance” (191), his physiognomy betrays neither his social class nor his criminality.

Already equipped with an “aristocratic” physiognomy, once Joseph adopts fine clothes and a new haircut he easily passes as a gentleman and, specifically, as Henry Dunbar. On his way to meet Henry at the docks, he stops at a barber and has “his beard shaved off, his ragged moustache trimmed into the most aristocratic shape, and his long straggling grey hair cut and arranged according to his own directions” (36). He then visits a tailor and purchases “the dress of a middle-aged gentleman; fashionable, but scrupulously simple, quiet alike in colour and in cut” (37). While Lady Audley was perceived as feminine, childish, and sweet regardless of her clothing and station, in Henry Dunbar Braddon highlights how superficial changes to physical appearance may impact a person’s self-conception and with it their identity. After Joseph’s transformation at the barber, the narrator notes “[t]he very expression of his face was altered” since he immediately adopts “a haughty smile” and “thoughtful frown” (36). Similarly, when Joseph puts on the clothes at the tailor, it is as if the clothes change his behaviour: “He had entered the shop at eight o’clock that morning a blackguard as well as a vagabond. He left it now a gentleman; subdued in voice, easy and rather listless in gait, haughty and self-possessed in tone” (37). Together, innate physiognomic features and gentlemanly clothing complete his disguise.

While on its own clothing may be used to obscure identity, again, when it is paired with straightforward written text, it becomes an accurate signifier. In the end, the Scotland Yard detective, Henry Carter, solves the mystery by finding the proof of Joseph’s identity (and the murder victim’s) with the help of a piece of clothing embroidered with a name. Carter obtains a set of private letters sent by Joseph’s daughter, Margaret, to her fiancé and, reading between the lines, begins to suspect that the so-called Henry Dunbar may, in fact, be Joseph Wilmot. The detective orders the police to drag the stream where the half-naked corpse was found. Per the detective’s hunch, they find a bundle of clothes weighted with stones. On one of the shirts, “amidst the stains of mud and moss” was “a name, neatly worked in dark crimson thread—a Christian and surname, in full”: Henry Dunbar (292). The material object bearing the written word allows the detective to solve the murder of Henry Dunbar and identify the killer as Joseph Wilmot. However, before Carter can apprehend Joseph, Margaret outsmarts him and saves her father. Joseph is never found and is known until his death as “quite the gentleman […] quite the picture of respectability, with his venerable pious-looking grey hair” (355). The misleading physiognomic body helps Joseph live out his days as a gentleman without raising any suspicion of his crimes.

Not as “Plain as Print”: Bodies and Written Texts in The Woman in White

In The Woman in White Collins throws doubt upon the physiognomic distinctiveness of each face, illustrates how much a face might change due to uncontrollable circumstances, and questions our ability to recognize the faces of people we already know. As in Lady Audley’s Secret and Henry Dunbar, in The Woman in White a character defers to a material object inscribed with written text, this time a woman’s underclothing labelled with a name, as proof of identity. However, in this case the written text proclaims a false identity and facilitates rather than exposes the villain’s crimes. For Collins, neither the physiognomic body nor its substitute are straightforward and reliable indicators of identity.

The Woman in White is one of the few sensation novels that has been analyzed by several critics interested in physiognomy. Scholars such as Fahnestock, Craton, and Cox have shown that some of Collins’s physical descriptions apply physiognomic principles in straightforward ways, so that characters’ bodies match their personalities. For example, Cox concludes that the novel’s heroines, Marian and Laura, “are not who they are in spite of their bodies, but because of them” (137). Other scholars argue that Collins undermines physiognomy by depicting characters who are poor readers. Most notably, feminist critics have analyzed the biased physiognomic judgements of the novel’s ostensible hero and most frequent narrator, Walter Hartright. Jenny Bourne Taylor points out that Walter “manipulates the physiognomic sensation” in his first physical description of his love interest and eventual wife, Laura, “by replacing the features with the representation of them” (116). In this moment, rather that describe Laura’s actual face and body, Walter introduces her by reminiscing about a sketch of her physical features that he himself drew years before.  In her analysis of The Woman and White and other novels, Lucy Hartley emphasizes the viewers’ affect and points out how several of Collins’s male protagonists express anxiety over both faces that seem illegible and their own “inability to read the expressions of the face” (135). At his most subversive, Collins, like Braddon, suggests that the problem is not simply that poor readers struggle to interpret the surface of the body but that the body itself may be illegible or become unrecognizable.

In The Woman in White, Collins problematizes the physiognomic belief in facial distinctiveness and the corresponding faith in the powers of facial recognition and identification. According to Lavater, the belief that no two human faces are identical is “the most important and most decisive [truth] that can be alleged in favor of our system” (20). He proclaims, “[e]very individual in nature differs from every other individual of the same species […] it is impossible to find two, which, placed side by side, and carefully examined, do not represent to the observing eye a sensible difference” (20). In other words, because no two minds or souls are exactly the same, each person was thought to have a unique physical appearance. In 1852, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake agrees that “strong likenesses” are rare and, that in the most common of these cases, a child inheriting the physical characteristics of his or her parents or grandparents, “the distinction of age provides against all fear of confusion, and we are left to rejoice freely in the real or fancied repetition” (63-64). However, in discussing the most obvious exception to this rule, the case of identical twins of the same sex, Eastlake observes, “the feeling created in our minds, however lovely the type, is one of dissatisfaction” because “the birthright of man, that of a distinct personal identity, has been invaded” (64).

At the beginning of The Woman in White, the heiress Laura Fairlie and her working-class double, the “half-wit” Anne Catherick greatly resemble each other. When the girls are children, Mrs. Fairlie, Laura’s mother, remarks that while Anne is “not half so pretty” as her daughter, she is her “living likeness, in her hair, her complexion, the colour of her eyes, and the shape of her face” (65). Years later, Walter notices the same uncanny resemblance between the two women. The second time he sees Anne, he reflects, “[i]n the general outline of the countenance and general proportion of the features—in the colour of the hair and in the little nervous uncertainty about the lips—in the height and size of the figure, and the carriage of the head and body, the likeness appeared even more startling than I had ever felt it to be yet” (107). The girls’ innate physical similarities stem from both the permanent features of their face and body, such as the shape and proportion of their features, and the colour of their hair, eyes, and skin. However, the girls’ different circumstances impart a distinct cast to their features. The expression that adorns Laura’s face, is “the first of its charms” (649), and “the delicate beauty of Miss Fairlie’s complexion, the transparent clearness of her eyes, the smooth purity of her skin, the tender bloom of colour on her lips, were all missing from the worn weary face” of Anne Catherick (107-108). Because these physical differences arise from the girls’ different social, familial, and psychological positions, when Laura’s circumstances change for the worse their bodies become indistinguishable.[x]

While in Lady Audley’s Secret and Henry Dunbar a material object inscribed with a name helps detectives identify criminals, in The Woman in White one works alongside Laura and Anne’s “fatal resemblance” (502) to strengthen the villain Count Fosco’s plot to switch the women’s identities. Laura’s despicable husband, Sir Percival Glyde, and his friend Count Fosco stand to inherit thirty-thousand pounds upon Laura’s death. The Count masterminds a scheme to bury Anne, who has recently died in his care, in a grave marked with Laura’s name, and “return” Laura, under Anne’s name, to an insane asylum from which Anne has recently escaped. The Count lures Laura into his home and drugs her; while she is unconscious, the Count’s wife dresses her in the clothes taken off Anne’s corpse; they then deposit her in the asylum. When Laura awakes in the madhouse, she discovers that her body is literally labelled “Anne Catherick”:

The nurse, on the first night in the Asylum, had shown her the marks on each article of her underclothing as it was taken off, and had said, not at all irritably or unkindly, “look at your own name on your own clothes, and don’t worry us all any more about being Lady Glyde. She’s dead and buried, and you’re alive and hearty. Do look at your clothes now! There it is, in good marking ink, and there you will find it on all your old things, which we have kept in the house—Anne Catherick, as plain as print!” (495-496)

Again, we have an image of layers being peeled off the body to reveal identity. In this case, however, to Laura’s surprise each layer of clothing proclaims an identity that is not her own. Laura attempts to declare her true identity, but the written word, the name stitched onto each piece of her private underclothing, suggests her assertions are a mere delusion, a symptom of her alleged insanity. The nurse, like many of Collins’s characters, equates the written word with straightforward, objective evidence: Anne’s name, which appears “as plain as print” in “good marking ink” does not invite multiple interpretations. As the lawyer Mr. Kyrle observes later in the narrative, “When an English jury has to choose between a plain fact, on the surface, and a long explanation under the surface, it always takes the fact, in preference to the explanation” (514). Collins demonstrates that when it comes to both Laura’s physiognomy and the labels on her clothing, the English are also inclined to believe what they read on the body’s surfaces.

At the end of the novel, Walter claims to reestablish Laura’s identity through pseudo-legal means. He assembles the members of the Fairlie household and tenants of Limmeridge to hear oral argument on the question of Laura’s identity. To support his case, he reads what amounts to a legal brief with attached exhibits—the text of The Woman in White—and calls witnesses to support his claims. After he presents his case, he demands a verdict from the assembled group, which unanimously votes Laura into existence.

In the Preamble to the novel, Walter presents the text of The Woman in White as a collection of witness testimony meant to prove the truth of Laura’s identity to the reader. Thus, he insists the reader will hear witness testimony “as the Judge might once have heard it” (3), and that “the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness” (4) to “present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect” (4). Several feminist critics such as Ann Gaylin, Pamela Perkins, and Mary Donaghy question Walter’s motive in constructing the text, suggesting that The Woman in White is an assertion of Walter’s masculinity and rise to power rather than Laura’s identity. They also assert that Walter tampers with this allegedly straightforward text—editing, reorganizing, and omitting information as he sees fit—and often fails to cede narrative control to the female characters most directly involved in the events at hand.[xi]

I would argue that although Walter claims to prove Laura’s identity with factual evidence and documented proof, Collins suggests that Laura’s restored appearance rather than Walter’s pseudo-legal efforts persuade the crowd of her identity. When Marian, Walter, and Laura first enter the room, before Walter has delivered a word of his argument or submitted a piece of written evidence or witness testimony, Collins informs readers that “[a]ll the persons assembled rose from their seats as Marian and I led her in. A perceptible shock of surprise, an audible murmur of interest ran through them at the sight of her face” (721). Collins demonstrates that the crowd’s instantaneous recognition of Laura’s face, rather than Walter’s time-consuming pseudo-legal efforts, prove Laura’s identity. Only after the crowd confirms Laura’s identity through their recognition of her face, which has, over time, been restored to its former appearance and expression (650), does Walter begin to read the narrative which is meant to reestablish her identity. Moreover, although Walter has earlier discounted Laura’s ability to reassert her own identity through her restored appearance, Walter himself defers to the proof of recognition when he “raise[s] [Laura] so that she was plainly visible to everyone in the room” before he asks the crowd for its verdict (722).

For Collins, the fact that most people trust in their ability to read and recognize the body is a dangerous problem rather than a reassuring proof of the world’s legibility. In the scene described above, Collins literalizes the physiognomic concept that “[m]ost faces are, strictly speaking, on trial with us” (Eastlake 75).  While Laura’s acquaintances do eventually recognize her because her physical appearance has been restored, her earlier loss of name, title, fortune, property, and family reveal the devastating consequences of trusting to something as changeable as physical appearance.

Collins drives home this inability to read and recognize the body or depend upon written texts to accurately reveal a person’s identity in his depiction of Count Fosco, who Taylor correctly points out does not easily fit into a single physiognomic type (123). Although Fosco’s physical appearance remains consistent throughout the novel, Collins suggests that characters and readers only ever see him in disguise. The first time Marian sees the Count, she suggests “[h]is complexion […] has a singular sallow-fairness, so much at variance with the dark-brown colour of his hair, that I suspect the hair of being a wig” (246). Later in the novel, Walter realizes the Count must have changed his appearance: “[t]he shaven face [..] might have been covered by a beard in Pesca’s time—his dark brown hair might be a wig—his name was evidently a false one” (676). His friend Pesca confirms “he is so altered, or so disguised, that I do not know him” (674). The Count’s disguise, moreover, has nothing to do with the crimes he commits during the novel. Walter speculates Fosco has fled Italy and adopted a disguise to escape the vengeance of an Italian secret society known as the Brotherhood, which wants to assassinate him for spying on the organization and committing unspecified acts of treason. However, Fosco’s appearance, name, identity, and actions outside of the narrative remain largely unknown.

In one of the final images of The Woman in White Collins depicts Fosco’s corpse, totally exposed in its nakedness, but still as illegible as ever. The Count has been stabbed in the heart, and his naked body lies outside a Parisian morgue “unowned, unknown; exposed to the flippant curiosity of a French mob” (728).  Significantly, an inscription on the Count’s body that marks him as a member of the Brotherhood, “a brand deeply burnt in the flesh and stained of a bright blood-red colour” (674), has been effaced by the Count’s murderer. Walter observes that the mark has been “entirely obliterated” by “two deep cuts in the shape of the letter T,” which, Walter assumes, stands for traditore, the Italian word for “traitor” (728-729). Collins introduces this palimpsest in order to underscore the way in which the Count has rewritten his own appearance and identity again and again. Each of the Count’s identities hides another, so even if readers and characters glimpse one, the rest remain illegible. Collins continues the metaphor of writing upon writing when the Count’s wife, Madame Fosco, literally rewrites her husband’s life in a biography published after his death.  Walter observes that it, “throws no light whatever on the name that was really his own or on the secret history of his life: it is almost entirely devoted to the praise of his domestic virtues, the assertion of his rare abilities, and the enumeration of the honors conferred on him” (729). Thus, while Collins’s novel furnishes a cautionary tale that the physiognomic body may prove an unreliable source of identity, it also discredits the idea that written texts are necessarily a more straightforward and trustworthy alternative.

All of the sensation novels I discuss here use their critiques of physiognomy to trouble the distinction between subject and object, the natural and the artificial, and authenticity and disguise. Interestingly, they also depict characters who, when faced with physiognomically illegible bodies, turn from the figurative letters of the “divine alphabet” to literal letters that promise to reduce the complicated question of identity to a single word, typically a name. Ironically, this seems to be the type of straightforward, easy-to-read written text that Lavater and other physiognomists had in mind when they suggested physiognomy allowed people to read personality traits as if they were “stamped upon [people’s] foreheads in legible characters” (“On the Study of Physiognomy” 418). The fact that Braddon relies on this plot device to allow her amateur and professional detectives to solve the novel’s mysteries and uncover its central crimes may speak to the challenge of writing a nineteenth-century mystery novel that provides closure to its readers without relying on the criminal’s body to give him or her away. While Collins most directly problematizes this plot device, all three novels seem aware that written texts, like the physiognomic body, may fail to offer straightforward, easy-to-read and reliable testimonies about identity. After all, even official documents such as Helen Talboys’s, Joseph Wilmot’s, and Laura Glyde’s death certificates and tombstones cannot be trusted. In the end, The Woman in White comes the closest to offering an alternative. Collins shows just how desperately people want to read easy answers on the surface of the body and the text, but by offering a narrative written by multiple narrators with their own voices, perspectives, and biases, readers are asked to do the hard work of piecing together the truth, filling in the gaps, and reading against the grain. While all sensation novels of the 1860s are not as critical of physiognomy as Lady Audley’s Secret, Henry Dunbar, and The Woman in White, most of them do engage in debates about the merits of physiognomy, and the lens I provide here offers the possibility of further study on the novel’s readers of bodies and texts.


Works Cited

Berland, Kevin. “Inborn Character and Free Will in the History of Physiognomy.” Physiognomy in Profile: Lavater’s Impact on European Culture, edited by Melissa Percival and Graeme Tytler. University of Delaware Press, 2005, pp. 25-38.

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Henry Dunbar. 1864. Edited by Anne-Marie Beller, Victorian Secrets, 2010.

—. Lady Audley’s Secret. 1862. Edited by Natalie M. Houston, Broadview Press, 2003.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. 1860. Edited by Cynthia Brantley Johnson, Pocket Books, 2005.

Cowling, Mary. The Artist as Anthropologist: The Representation of Type and Character in Victorian Art. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Cox, Jessica. “Reading Faces: Physiognomy and the Depiction of the Heroine in the Fiction of Wilkie Collins.” Wilkie Collins: Interdisciplinary Essays, edited by Andrew Mangham, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007, pp. 107-121.

Craton, Lillian. “Female Masculinity in Sensational Fiction, 1860-1890.” The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. Cambria Press, 2009. pp. 121-168.

Dallas, E.S. “The First Principle of Physiognomy.” Cornhill Magazine, vol. 4, no. 23, Nov. 1861, p.569.

Dames, Nicholas. “The Clinical Novel: Phrenology and Villette.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, vol. 29, no. 3, Spring 1996, pp. 367-390.

Dickens, Charles. “The Demeanor of Murderers.” Old Lamps for New Ones: And Other Sketches and Essays, Hitherto Uncollected. New Amsterdam Book Co., 1897. p.269. Google Books. Accessed January 2012.

Eastlake, Lady Elizabeth. “Physiognomy.” The Quarterly Review, vol 90, 1852, pp. 62-91.

Fahnestock, Jeanne. “The Heroine of Irregular Features: Physiognomy and Conventions of Heroine Description.” Victorian Studies, vol. 24, Spring 1981, pp. 325-50.

Flint, Kate. The Victorians and the Visual Imagination. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Gaylin, Ann. “The Madwoman Outside the Attic: Eavesdropping and Narrative Agency in The Woman in White.” Texas Studies in Literature & Language, vol. 43, no. 3, 2001, pp.303-333.

Graham, John. “Lavater’s Physiognomy in England.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 22, 1961, pp. 561-572.

Hartley, Lucy. Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression in Nineteenth-Century Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Haweis, Mary Eliza Joy. The Art of Beauty. 2nd ed., Chatto & Windus, 1883. Archive.Org. Accessed 15 August 2015.

Hollington, Michael. “Dickens and Cruikshank as Physiognomers in Oliver Twist.” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 7, no. 2, 1990, pp. 243-54.

—. “Monstrous Faces: Physiognomy in Barnaby Rudge.” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 1, 1991, pp. 6-15.

—. “The Live Heieroglyphic: Physiologie and Physiognomy in Martin Chuzzlewit.” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 10, 1993, pp. 57-68.

Kronshage, Eike. Vision and Character: Physiognomics and the English Realist Novel. Routledge, 2018.

Lavater, John Caspar. Essays on Physiognomy. W. Locke, 1793. Archive.org. Accessed 10 Oct. 2018.

LeBas, Pierre. “Phases of Physiognomy.” Dublin University Magazine, vol. 68, no. 406, Oct. 1866, p. 466.

Lysack, Krista. Come Buy, Come Buy: Shopping and the Culture of Consumption in Victorian Women’s Writing. Ohio University Press, 2008.

“On the Study of Physiognomy.” Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Nov. 1818, p. 417.

Pearl, Sharrona. About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Harvard University Press, 2010.

“pencilled | pencilled, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, Accessed 20 Nov. 2015.

Perkins, Pamela., and Mary Donaghy. “A Man’s Resolution: Narrative Strategies in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 22, no. 4, 1990, pp. 392-402.

“Physiognomy.” Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, vol. 2, no. 59, 16 Mar. 1833, p. 55.

“Physiognomy.” Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, vol. 21, no. 545, Apr. 1866, p. 420.

“Physiognomy, founded on Physiology, and applied to various Countries, Professions, and Individuals; with an Appendix, &c. &c.” Metropolitan Magazine, vol. 10, no. 40, Aug. 1834, p. 107.

[i] In Physiognomy and the European Novel (1982) Graeme Tyler points out that physiognomy originated in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Egypt, China, and the Middle East (35). Victorian histories of physiognomy typically position Aristotle as the father of physiognomy in the ancient world to lend the science credibility. As Mary Cowling points out in The Artist as Anthropologist, during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries physiognomy’s reputation suffered because it became associated with metoposcopy and chiromancy, forms of divination that claimed to predict destiny by examining the lines on the foreheads and palms, respectively (15). In England, Elizabeth I and George II went so far as to ban the use of physiognomy, declaring it a form of charlatanism (Cowling 15).    

[ii] Despite his rhetoric here, Lavater’s physiognomic theory was not purely deterministic. As Kevin Berland points out in his contribution to Physiognomy in Profile: Lavater’s Impact on European Culture (2005), Lavater suggests physiognomy reveals “both innate potential and the motivations and tendencies that change or confirm this potential” (31).

[iii] Although physiognomy and pathognomy were often confused or conflated, strictly speaking physiognomy analyzes “facial anatomy”, while pathognomy examines “the fleeting signs of human emotions”, facial expressions (Cowling 13). See Lucy Hartley’s Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression (2001) for a further discussion of pathognomy.

[iv] Indeed, while Lavater differentiated between physiognomy proper, the related pseudoscience of pathognomy, and self-fashioned aspects of appearance, even he sometimes blurred the lines separating these categories. For example, he notes that the physiognomist should consider “the whole system, bones as well as flesh, figure, colour, gait, voice, even smell” (139). Unsurprisingly, in practice many self-fashioned aspects of appearance and identity such as clothing, accessories, posture, gait, accents, language, tone, and cleanliness affected people’s physiognomic assessments.

[v] See Eike Kronshage’s Vision and Character: Physiognomics and the English Realist Novel (2018) for an in-depth discussion of physiognomy and literary realism that emphasizes nine canonical novels’ “underlying principles of representation and aesthetic imagination in terms of physiognomic interpretation” (19). See Nicholas Dames’s “The Clinical Novel: Phrenology and Villette” (1996) and Graeme Tytler’s “‘The Lines and Lights of the Human Countenance’: Physiognomy in George Eliot’s Fiction” (1999), “Physiognomy and the Treatment of Love in Shirley” (2011), and “Physiognomy in Anne Bronte’s Fiction” (2012) for a discussion of how novelists such as Brontë and Eliot highlight the difficulty of making objective physiognomic judgments. See Michael Hollington’s “Dickens and Cruikshank as Physiognomers in Oliver Twist,” (1990), “Monstrous Faces: Physiognomy in Barnaby Rudge” (1991), and “The Live Heieroglyphic: Physiologie and Physiognomy in Martin Chuzzlewit” (1993) for discussions of how Dickens highlighted the problem of poor readers in his early novels and pursues not only distinctions “between degrees of fitness and skill in the deciphering of the codes in question” but also “between degrees of legibility and illegibility in the surfaces of human appearance” in Marin Chuzzlewit (61).

[vi] Dickens famously declared in his 1856 article “On the Demeanor of Murderers” describing the notorious poisoner William Palmer, “Nature never writes a bad hand. Her writing, as it may be read in the human countenance, is invariably legible, if we come at all trained to the reading of it” (269). In addition, both Dickens and Brontë had their skulls read by phrenologists. In her letters describing her experience, Brontë praised the accuracy of the reading (Dames 367).

[vii] See Jeanne Fahnestock’s “The Heroine of Irregular Features” (1981) for a discussion of how Collins’s heroines from The Woman in White, No Name, and The Law and the Lady have physical features that accurately reflect their personality traits. See Jessica Cox’s more recent “Reading Faces: Physiognomy and the Depiction of the Heroine in the Fiction of Wilkie Collins” (2009) for a more in depth discussion of several of Collins’s physiognomically legible heroines and some, such as No Name’s Magdalen Vanstone, that have more contradictory physiognomies. See both Jenny Bourne Taylor’s In the Secret Theatre of the Home (1988) and Lucy Hartley’s Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression (2001) for examples of poor readers who misread the physiognomic body.

[viii] For example, see Katherine Montwieler’s “Marketing Sensation: Lady Audley’s Secret and Consumer Culture” (2000), Talairach-Vielmas’s Moulding the Female Body in Victorian Fairy Tales and Sensation Novels (2007), Krista Lysack’s Come Buy, Come Buy: Shopping and the Culture of Consumption in Victorian Women’s Writing (2008), and Tabitha Sparks’s “To the Mad-House Born: The Ethics of Exteriority in Lady Audley’s Secret” (2012).

[ix] The passage reads: “Among all privileged spies, a lady’s maid has the highest privileges; it is she who bathes Lady Theresa’s eyes with eau-de-cologne after her ladyship’s quarrel with the colonel; it is she who administers sal-volatile to Miss Fanny when Count Beaudesert of the Blues, has jilted her. She has a hundred methods for finding out her mistress’ secrets. She knows by the manner in which her victim jerks her head from under the hair-brush, or chafes at the gentlest administration of the comb, what hidden tortures are racking her breast—what secret perplexities are bewildering her brain. That well-bred attendant knows how to interpret the most obscure diagnosis of all mental diseases that can afflict her mistress; she knows when the ivory complexion is bought and paid for—when the pearly teeth are foreign substances fashioned by the dentist—when the glossy plaits are the relics of the dead, rather than the property of the living; and she knows other and more sacred secrets than these” (346).

[x] Late in the novel, Collins partially explains this uncanny resemblance between Laura and Anne by revealing they are secretly half-sisters. However, from a physiognomic perspective their extremely similar physical appearance would have still been unsettling.

[xi] For example, in “A Man’s Resolution: Narrative Strategies in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White” (1990), Pamela Perkins and Mary Donaghy argue that Walter’s stated purpose in constructing The Woman in White rings hollow, considering his initial description of Laura, which denies her subjectivity and individuality (393). In addition, they point out that Walter never invites Laura to testify on her own behalf and attempts to deny Marian’s continued acts of agency throughout the second half of the novel (399). In “The Madwoman Outside the Attic: Eavesdropping and Narrative Agency in The Woman in White,” (2001) Ann Gaylin goes even further than Perkins and Donaghy, designating Walter as the novel’s undetected villain: “A third, even more insidious enemy of female narrative agency lurks within the pages of the novel; in retrospect, [Walter] is actually more treacherous [than Sir Percival and Count Fosco] through his seeming alliance with the female characters” (306-307).

Please follow and like us: