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Victorian Studies 44.4 (2002) 694-696



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Physiognomy and the Meaning of Expression in Nineteenth-Century Culture, by Lucy Hartley; pp. xii + 242. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, £37.50, $54.95.

In this new overview of the significance of physiognomical thinking from Johann Caspar Lavater to Francis Galton, Lucy Hartley traces the understanding of human expression through a range of scientific and aesthetic theories. Where some earlier treatments of nineteenth-century physiognomy (for instance, those by Graeme Tytler, Sally Shuttleworth, Jeanne Fahnestock, and Christopher Rivers) have stressed its influence on Victorian fiction, Hartley is more interested in its implications for the understanding of human character. [End Page 694] She examines varying ways of treating the expression of the emotions between the late-eighteenth and the late-nineteenth centuries and investigates their implications for assumptions about human origins and human nature. While charting the gradual progress from arguments for design to the beginnings of a more modern, materialist understanding of the human mind and body, she also demonstrates the continuing influence of physiognomical thinking on later science. She argues that in addition to shedding light on larger debates about "man's place in nature," physiognomical theorizing also can help illustrate changing definitions of what constituted scientific explanation during the period.

One virtue of the study is its ability to trace similar debates about human character and the mind/body relationship through a variety of discourses: associationist philosophy, traditional physiognomical interpretation, Pre-Raphaelite portraiture, sensation fiction, evolutionary science. A brief summary cannot do justice to the wide range of thinkers included in her account. Her first chapter puts the essentialist thinking of Lavater in the context of earlier theories of Charles Le Brun and David Hartley, while the second considers the tension between Charles Bell's conviction that expression was the product of design and his increasing sophistication about physiological contributions to the expression of the emotions. Chapter 3 examines the Pre-Raphaelites' rejection of idealized human forms in favor of "ordinariness" and its implications for their understanding of human character from expression. Mid-century treatments of female beauty and character lead in the next chapter to a consideration of how sensation fiction (using the example of Wilkie Collins) threatened to disconnect morality and character from emotion and sensation. The remaining chapters trace the rise of a more materialist understanding of emotional expression in the work of Charles Darwin and Galton, arguing that both were influenced by physiognomical thinking but also that they overturned its assumptions in fundamental ways.

The study pursues claims that are hardly ground-breaking: that traditional forms of physiognomy relied on normative and essentialist constructions of character; that in an era when the definitions of science and the boundaries between natural and supernatural were in flux, physiognomy could be considered scientific (or, in the author's words, could be included "within the remit of the sciences of the mind" [18- 19]); that the Pre-Raphaelites were heavily influenced by Bell's theories; that evolutionary theories of emotion replaced transcendental explanations with more empirical ones. These emphases, as well as extended illustrations of concepts like associationism or natural theology, suggest that the book may be aimed at, and more useful for, those with relatively little expertise in nineteenth-century scientific thought. For the more advanced student, the measure of this study must be taken from the insights produced by the specifics of its discussion of well-traveled ground, and here I suspect that readers will find much to frustrate them. The strength of the book lies in its demonstration of how pervasive physiognomical thinking was during this period. Holding its various forms of evidence together with a compelling thesis, however, requires more explicit control over the argument than the author at times provides. Chapters tend to be organized into distinct sections that shift the focus among different authors, texts, or theories, often without a persuasive assertion of the logic connecting these diverse case studies. Much of the discussion proceeds through extensive quotations from primary sources that too often are presented as if their relevance...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 694-696
Launched on MUSE
2003-03-25
Open Access
No
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