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THE HAND-MADE TALE: HAND CODES AND POWER TRANSACTIONS IN ANNE BRONTE'S THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALLl MELTNDA MAUNSTiIX University of Victoria A hand was silendy put form from die carriage window. I knew diat hand, diough a black glove concealed its delicate whiteness and half its fair proportions, and quickly seizing it, I pressed it in my own — ardendy for a moment, but instandy recollecting myself, I dropped it, and it was immediately wididrawn. (478) This passage opens die conclusion to Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The coupling hands express with intimacy, sensuality and urgency die encounter between Helen Huntingdon and Gilbert Markham. This vivid tableau reveals in a proleptic instant the subtle dynamics of their relationship: a half-veiled, half-revealed feminine hand offered from die darkened interior, ardently seized by a masculine hand from below, wididrawn in a confusion of recollection, resignation, and rejection. The text will slowly unravel diese threads in die succeeding pages, but die hands of the two protagonists have anticipated dieir dilemma and their passion in theatrical dumb-show. Michie writes: Victorian novels are frequently about women's hands: hands that stand for hearts, and hands that are won and offered by themselves. The hands that are offered with hearts, diat represent in themselves something higher, constitute one of the centers of value in the nineteenth-century novel. They form a synecdochal chain where die heart represented by the hand is in itself a synecdoche for more obviously sexual parts of the body that enter into a heroine's decision about whom to marry. Asking for a hand is an entrance into Victorian Review 23.2 (Winter 1997) 44Victorian Review die female body, die touch of a hand frequently die first touch between lovers. (98) Michie's "synecdochal chain" was a Victorian commonplace in an age where convention ruled. Anne Brontë refined die concept by her repeated and deliberate focus on die hands. Psychonomy (die study of die hands as diey reveal character and potential) and die larger field of physiognomy were popular forms of encoding in die Victorian period (Fahnestock 334). Indeed, in a period which constructed multifarious conversational and conventional barriers, ingenious codes based on die interpretation of physical characteristics offered die possibility of communicating extremely detailed information. Cowling remarks, "It is almost impossible to overlook die scattered physiognomical references which occur throughout die works of major Victorian novelists" (54). Taylor comments on "a particular interpretative context which had come to permeate psychological, aesdietic, and fictional conventions by die mid-nineteendi century, a context shaped by die perceptual codes of physiognomy and phrenology" (48-9). She describes this as "a semiotic system in which outward signs were die index of latent intellectual and moral traits" (49). Cowling states diat physiognomical references in die novels of Charlotte Brontë "are often bodi extensive and specific" (54). As Helen Graham naively remarks to her aunt, "I am an excellent physiognomist" (154). Anne Brontë would have access to popular analysis of bodily features as indicators of character, perhaps including die more specialized Psychonomy ofthe Hand.2 In a contemporary study of die hand first published in 1843 The Psychonomy of the Hand or, The Hand an Index of Mental Development (translated from die French works of Messieurs D'Arpentigny and Desbarrolles) Beamish begins: Wim die hope of opening up a new phase of edinological inquiry in diis country, which shall be free from anatomical perplexities, T venture to call attention to die evidence which die human Hand affords of diose physical, intellectual, and moral endowments, by virtue ofwhich Man claims superiority, (preface v) "What Lavater has done for physiognomy," Beamish maintains, "MM. D'Arpentigny and Desbarrolles have sought to accomplish for Chirognomy3 and Chiromancy4 (preface v). The book posits a scientific basis for judgements of character based on physical peculiarities of die individual human hand, and goes into painstaking detail to prove iL As he foregrounds the hand as "an index to die natural tendencies of individuals" (91), Beamish articulates the essentially synecdochic relationship it holds widi die person represented. Bronte's exploitation MELINDA MAUNSELL45 of die hand in her novel draws on this entiiusiastic atmosphere of scientific revelation and die...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 43-61
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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