In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body by Peter J. Capuano
  • John Hay (bio)
Peter J. Capuano, Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015, 340 pp. $80.00 cloth, $39.95 paper or ebook.

Peter Capuano begins Changing Hands with a simple question: “Why are hands the most described body part in the nineteenth-century novel?” (p. 12). The question stems from an empirical investigation conducted using databases of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction. By employing newly available digital humanities techniques, Capuano traces a perceptible shift in textual preoccupation: while eighteenth-century novels are filled with descriptions of facial features (especially eyes, but also hair, noses, mouths, etc.), their Victorian successors display a decided preference for hands. This macro-textual observation in turn allows him to see that Mary Shelley devoted more attention to the clutches than to the glares of Frankenstein’s creature and that William Thackeray focused more on Becky Sharp’s flirtatious fingers than on her coquettish glances. But why?

Capuano argues that the chief factors contributing to this authorial move “from gaze to grasp” were industrial mechanization and the development of evolutionary theory (p. 19). These twin forces, he maintains, created a host of anxieties about the relevance of the human body—and in particular of the human hand. Manual labor was increasingly displaced by machine technology, and the exceptional nature of a divinely modeled human form was challenged by a shared history with the anatomy of other apes. Whereas faces, and especially eyes, were important gateways to the soul for earlier writers, Victorians tended to view the proof of divine inspiration in wrists, palms, and fingers. The hand thus became “the most generative but also the most heavily contested site in the British cultural imaginary” (p. 42). Capuano examines this widespread concern through the popular fiction of the time and contends that novelists were better able to convey such cultural anxieties than were other writers.

One of the strengths of Changing Hands is its careful articulation of its position relative to a host of extant criticism on Victorian literature. Capuano enters the fray via a broad scholarly conversation regarding the new materialism and the corporeal turn. For too long, he insists, modern literary critics have been reading allusions to hands as metaphors or metonyms—as mere indicators for labor or socioeconomic status—and [End Page 558] have thus overlooked the significance of actual hands.2 He corrects this tendency by embracing new practices of “surface reading” in order to appreciate Victorian hands as material appendages.3 By doing so, he both reveals the “manual crisis” of the nineteenth century and returns to a model of what he calls “our embodied handedness” (p. 3). The Victorian period is a crucial literary era in which so many common related terms (maneuver, manners, manuscripts) and phrases (gaining the upper hand) were transitioning from literal references to metaphorical expressions; from our own twenty-first-century perspective, it can be difficult to perceive the explicit gestures to physical hands. In fact, one could characterize Capuano’s primary move as an exploration of the process by which handmade and manufactured transform from etymological equivalences to obvious opposites.

Changing Hands begins with a data-driven observation culled from digital humanities methodologies, but its eight chapters are structured by close readings of canonical novels, spanning from Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). The examinations of these novels are often accompanied by excerpts from contemporary guidebooks and pamphlets on topics such as handshake etiquette and handwriting analysis. Capuano’s recovered trove of manuals on all things manual includes texts such as Richard Beamish’s Psychonomy of the Hand (1843), which explained how the qualities of a subject’s hands could reveal personality traits. While his individual chapters each focus on hand-related themes, Capuano also addresses a wide variety of critical topics regarding race, class, and gender. He is generally interested in both “embodied handedness” and “manual discourse” (p. 107); he primarily attends to the materiality of hands, but he does not ignore the metaphorical and metonymical implications...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 558-561
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.