Friday, January 27, 2012

Physiognomy and Jane Austen

While reading Patricia Meyer Spacks Annotated Pride and Prejudice, I read a footnote in reference to the following statement from Elizabeth (in speaking to Jane): “I can much more easily believe Mr. Bingley’s being imposed on, than that Mr. Wickham should invent such a history of himself as he gave me last night; names, facts, every thing mentioned without ceremony. If it be not so, let Mr. Darcy contradict it. Besides there was truth in his looks.”

My take on that quote was that Elizabeth believed Wickham’s tale because he was an accomplished liar and gave nothing away by his facial expressions. But according to Spacks, there was more to it than that:

“Interest in physiognomy, a pseudo-science that purports to read character from facial expression, was widespread in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries... Joseph Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss clergyman, wrote an extensive treatise on the subject (1778). Translated into English in 1793, it exercised considerable influence. Austen, however, is skeptical. A propensity to judge people on the basis of their looks turns up again in Emma, where Emma’s initial enthusiasm for Harriet Smith is based mainly on the girl’s “soft blue eyes” and her “look of sweetness.” Both Elizabeth and Jane have consistently cited Wickham’s looks as evidence of his amiability and authenticity.”

According to Wikipedia, physiognomy is the assessment of a person's character or personality from his outer appearance, especially the face… The practice was well-accepted by the ancient Greek philosophers, but fell into disrepute in the Middle Ages…. The popularity of physiognomy grew throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century, and it was discussed seriously by academics, who saw a lot of potential in it. Many European novelists used physiognomy in the descriptions of their characters, notably Balzac and Chaucer… A host of other 19th century English authors were influenced by the idea, notably evident in the detailed physiognomic descriptions of characters in the novels of Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Bronte.”

My question is: In the above quote, was Austen referencing physiognomy when Elizabeth spoke of Mr. Wickham’s “looks?” Spacks states that in regard to physiognomy, “Austen, however, is skeptical,” but then suggests that Austen was referencing this pseudo-science in Emma’s description of Harriet Smith. Was she also referring to physiognomy in Lizzy and Jane's exchange? Personally, I think it’s a bit of a stretch OR I may be making too much out of it. What do you think?


  1. Maybe I am reading this wrong. I think some people, like you say, are well-practiced liars and if there is some truth in the lie, (like Wickham's) then I believe it is easier to believe. To me, physiognomy sounds just like an explanation of why we believe, like and get creeped out by some people based on their looks. But like I said, maybe I just read this all wrong. Also, does some of this go along with discernment?

  2. I think a lot of what we think about people are from "body language," that is, visual clues. But when Austen wrote that passage, was she referring to physiognomy? If she regarded it as a pseudo-science, would she have Lizzy a believer? I'm probably making way too much of this. :) Mary Simonsen

  3. Physiognomy is actually a topic I studied at some length in college, and yes, I absolutely believe that Austen hints at it in the line you quote from P & P (though the practice of Physiognomy wouldn't reach its heyday until after her death). I think her skepticism in such notions is beautifully expressed in Elizabeth being so very wrong about Wickham, despite the "truth in his looks". Austen always emphasizes the importance of people's actions in determining their characters, rather than their words and appearance, while practitioners of physiognomy (the psychiatrists of their day) would publish pictures of melancholics, alcohols, and murderers as diagnostic tools, believing that these conditions were manifested themselves visibly. It is not unlike Phrenology in this sense.

    So glad to see it under discussion! I think knowledge of Physiognomy provides great insight into 19th century literature, where such notions are often at work.