- Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body by Peter J. Capuano
Mid-way through Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body, Peter J. Capuano discusses a remarkable exchange in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847–48). In the scene, George Osborne approaches Rebecca Sharp at a Park Lane gathering, intending to patronize the young governess by “[holding] out his left hand towards her” (qtd. in Capuano 102). George’s complacent magnanimity is punctured and parried with a definitive manual gesture from Becky: “Miss Sharp put out a right fore-finger—” (qtd. 100). Immediately following the unfinished sentence’s em dash is Thackeray’s illustration of the scene, which features as its focal point Becky’s assured, ruler-straight right hand, aimed, like a typographical index symbol, at George’s discomfited, flailing left hand. The illustration makes graphic the oppositions embodied in the encounter: Becky—female, impoverished, socially vulnerable—is seated stably and confidently, while George—male, wealthy, relatively privileged—stands in an awkward, off-balance moment of arrested movement. The illustration also captures Becky’s gestural triumph in the scene, her raised hand positioned in a plane of equivalence with George’s, a key moment in the emergence of what Capuano calls Becky’s “ability to transform innocuous social rituals into combative gestures” (106).
In his analysis of this exchange, Capuano contextualizes the radical threat of Becky’s “freely gesticulating hand” by reference to the conduct materials that emerged after 1830 to mitigate industrialization’s dismantling of traditional class and gender structures (93). The proper public direction of the hand was so vital to these new rules of etiquette, in Capuano’s estimation, because the hand had recently become a volatile site of theological, scientific, and cultural redefinition, and Becky’s success in Vanity Fair is in direct proportion to her mastery and subversion of this new manual code. Capuano’s careful anatomization of the hand-related exchange between George and Becky indicates the close attention to textual detail that is one of the great strengths of Changing Hands. Even more compelling is the larger point that this analysis serves: despite the mass of scholarly work dedicated to delineating Becky’s manipulation and manoeuvring in the world of Vanity Fair, very little attention has been paid to the novel’s representation of actual, material hands. “What is so fascinating and yet so unnoticed,” Capuano writes, “is how literal the manipulation in Vanity Fair turns out to be” (121). Indeed, Capuano’s exposure of the social significance of hands in the encounter between Becky and George is emblematic of the general effect produced by reading Changing Hands: the centrality of hands to various threads of nineteenth-century discourse seems so obvious in retrospect. [End Page 193]
Capuano’s study reveals the hand to be fascinatingly unnoticed across an array of well-travelled classics about which it might be hard to imagine there was much left to reveal. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860–61) and Bleak House (1852–53), George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861–62), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) all serve as case studies to corroborate Capuano’s contention that we twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholars have missed the significance of the nineteenth-century hand as a site of symbolic negotiation because we are inheritors of that negotiation’s endpoint; our familiarity has bred our critical contempt. Capuano’s wide-ranging examination of this undervalued body part traces a series of shifts in the cultural operation of the hand across the nineteenth century: the hand replaces the eye as the theological exemplar of God’s work in concert with the hand’s new valuation and vulnerability in an industrial context; a reworking of gendered relationships to the “handmade” takes place as skilled male handiwork is...