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Mary Ann O'Farrell, Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush

Monday, March 13, 2000 - 08:33
Mary Ann O'Farrell, Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.  ix + 197pp.  illus.  $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8223-1903-9).  $17.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-8223-1895-4).

Reviewed by
Laura Mooneyham White
University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Mary Ann O'Farrell's Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth Century English Novel and the Blush extends an already burgeoning line of Foucauldian analyses of the connection between the social and somatic through a study of the blush, that physiological response so readily employed in nineteenth-century novels as a sign of a character's real feelings—shame, embarrassment, self-consciousness, or erotic interest. O'Farrell works throughout to distinguish between the expressive blush, a sign of "deep personal truth (expressive of character, of self, of the body)" and the mechanistic and/or social blush, a blush that arises as "the appropriate local response to and inevitable product of the pressure of social circumstance" (111). She argues that the use of the blush in the nineteenth-century English novel becomes increasingly complex, undermined, and reconfigured as authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James work through their growing awareness of the blush as mechanical, concomitantly losing a faith in the more innocent expressive blush, as well as losing faith in the blush as novelistic device. Extending her discussion to other forms of somatic telling (stumbling, swooning, the scar), O'Farrell argues that each new device which attempts to reclaim a simple expressivity becomes convoluted with cultural twists almost as soon as it is deployed, whether the device at issue is the scar on Rosa Dartle's mouth in David Copperfield or the recurrent stumbles and fumbles of Margaret Hale, the heroine of Gaskell's North and South. O'Farrell is particularly adept at showing this authorial discomfort with the blush as device in her discussion of Dorothea in Eliot's Middlemarch, rightly noting that Eliot describes Dorothea as blushing more than several dozen times in the novel while nonetheless maintaining as narrator a contradictory belief that Dorothea is a character who does not blush, or blush much: what Dorothea's "blush tells is what the silliest of novelistic blushes have long been known to tell . . . [but] Eliot's desire to assert the rarity of Dorothea's blush registers her own irritation with a blush that has been debased and robbed of expressivity by convention" 120–21).

There is something contrived nonetheless in O'Farrell's version of literary history and its involvement with the blush. The central distinction, between the expressive blush and the social, one revealing simple emotional truths untouched by culture and the other mechanically reproducing society's obligations, tends to collapse under O'Farrell's ever more nuanced accounts of particular blushes. The expressive blush can offer only a heuristic starting point, for this blush which comes to the face as a register of feelings beyond the reach of culture does not exist and never existed in the English novel. A brief examination of O'Farrell's first distinction between expressive blush and social blush, made in the opening chapter on Pride and Prejudice, may make this difficulty clearer. O'Farrell begins with the blush that promises true feeling, on the cheeks of both Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, and then moves to the unblushing cheeks of their unregenerate sister Lydia, who late in the novel returns home with her captive bridegroom Wickham. O'Farrell makes much of the fact that Elizabeth and Jane blush for their sister—blush for Lydia's embarrassing situation and for the embarrassing situation in which Lydia's and Wickham's recklessness has placed the Bennets; as Austen describes the scene, "[Elizabeth] blushed, and Jane blushed; but the cheeks of the two who caused their confusion suffered no variation of colour." In this scene we are to see the beginning of mechanistic, social, or obligatory blushing (the terms are used more or less interchangeably throughout this study) as O'Farrell sees the phenomenon: "Austen's writing makes and enforces a social and physical law: for her characters, it is as if in this room, at this time, so much blushing must occur; if those responsible for the pressure of its imperatives do not respond to that pressure, response then becomes the social obligation of those who recognize the insistence of its pulse" (17). But the blushing for others and for their own situation that takes place in this scene is no more obligatory or voluntary than the other blushes of the novel, nor are those other blushes less innocent of cultural tinct. Characters in novels—and real people—blush when they feel or think something that makes them ashamed, or embarrassed, or self-conscious, and shame, embarrassment, and self-consciousness are themselves artifacts of cultural experience. More to the point, there is no clear trajectory of movement from belief in the expressive blush to the mechanistic in the nineteenth-century novel, for the earliest Austen novels and the last novels of Henry James show an almost equal authorial awareness of blushing as "the embodied assumption of a social obligation" (123).

A secondary theme advanced by O'Farrell concerns the intersections of the blush—most clearly legible on pale skin—with issues of race and class. Beginning with Darwin's meditations on the biological utility of the blush and the blush's status as moral index, O'Farrell explores the way Austen, Dickens, and others make use of the biological fact that darker skin, whether dark naturally (i.e., through race) or darkened through sun, wind, or hard work (i.e., through class), cannot blush as recognizably. From Sir Walter's bigotry against sailors in Persuasion (they cannot be desirable tenants for his estate because their skins are "rough and rugged," quot;weather-beaten," and "mahogany" [43]) to Steerforth's breezy assumption of greater sensitivity than the working-class Peggottys in David Copperfield ("They may be thankful that, like their coarse rough skins, they are not readily wounded" [87]) to the "lovely blackamoor," Lizzie Eustace in Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds (116), O'Farrell demonstrates the complexities of complexion read through class or race. She shows how these novelists and others generally hold up for ironic distaste those of their characters who presuppose that because certain darker skins are harder to read, the souls and minds of those beneath the darker skins have less worth reading; she also shows that these authors become themselves caught at times in the metonymic connection between skin and character. As O'Farrell notes about Trollope, for instance, "Trollope's contrast of Lizzie's brownness with the brilliance of color that constitutes [ideal] Trollopean complexion invokes such racial terms as those in which Darwin casts his debate about the moral status of complexion" (116).

The issue of the skin as legible and thus superior by virtue of the metonymically assumed more sensitive inner life becomes further vexed with the introduction of artifice, either through rouge or acting. O'Farrell canvasses such figures as Miss Mowcher the cosmetician in David Copperfield, the actress O'Neal instanced in Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret, and Lizzie Eustace of The Eustace Diamonds—who in her simulations of anger is capable of "calling the thinnest streak of pink from her heart, to show that there was blood running in her veins" (116)—to demonstrate the complications wrought on the semiotics of blushing by the fact that blushing can be manufactured. But the very existence of these clearly voluntary blushes, blushes with "well-behaved utility" (118), renders all the more problematic the other form of "obligatory" blush O'Farrell has been at pains to establish, i.e., blushes that come to the face because society's teachings have led one to react with embarrassment or shame in certain circumstances.

O'Farrell writes in a highly wrought contemporary style, with playfully labored and convoluted prose and reachings for puns and the demotic at perhaps too-regular intervals. Note, for example, the following about Middlemarch's protagonists: "Their blushes (his frequently noted, hers broadly dismissed) establish some relation between the imagined bodies of Dorothea and Will: an almost sexy complementarity, or a supplementary Fred-and-Ginger give-and-take (she gives him depth / he gives her sex)" [125]). And, as something of an aside, may I say that I for one will be relieved when criticism puts aside "perversity" as a critical heuristic; most of the insights in this generally very useful and pleasurable book would be strengthened were it not for the author's insistence on stretching her insights into the realm of what she herself terms the notorious and perverse. Emblematic of this point of view is the conclusive statement of her first chapter on Austen: "Jane Austen discovers pleasures in the ability of embarrassment's pangs to recover a sense of the body in manners; readers of Jane Austen may discover those pleasures and acquire a habit of mind that, reading sometimes perversely, reads nonetheless with perverse accuracy" (27). Telling Complexions has, however, conspicuous rewards for the reader, if one attends most closely to its nuanced close readings of the novels, most particularly those of Persuasion and David Copperfield, and much of value to say about the complexities of the blush as narrative sign. Towards the end of this study, O'Farrell quotes George Eliot in Daniel Deronda as asserting that "[a] blush is no language: only a dubious flag-signal" (121). O'Farrell's work amply demonstrates the limits of Eliot's assertion, and works out the language of the blush in the English novel as eloquently as it can be interpreted.