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Reviewed by:
  • Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Bodyby Peter J. Capuano, and: The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imaginationby Aviva Briefel
  • Mary L. Mullen (bio)
Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body, by Peter J. Capuano; pp. xv + 323. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015, $80.00, $39.95 paper.
The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination, by Aviva Briefel; pp. x + 218. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, £67.00, $103.00.

Peter J. Capuano and Aviva Briefel in Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Bodyand The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imaginationpersuasively argue that hands are the center of a changing cultural discourse in the Victorian period. Focusing on how developments in industry and evolutionary science reconfigured the hand's relationship to the body, Capuano emphasizes the materiality of the hand in the midst of its increasing metaphorization. He argues that the hand acquires new meaning in the Victorian period precisely because it risked being replaced with machinery and "stripped of its status as a supposedly God-given appendage" (13). In turn, Briefel contends that the material hand shaped imperial relationships in the late nineteenth century as she examines how hands signify and fail to signify race. According to Briefel, late Victorian fiction gave meaning to "the racial illegibility of hands" and, in the process, activated colonial fantasies as well as colonial anxieties (22). While representations of the racial hand often sought to render it an object that reaffirmed colonial control, Briefel shows how these hands also subvert colonial discourses. For both Capuano and Briefel, the hand's importance as an object of knowledge, body part, and signifier of identity and humanity in the Victorian period results from its instability. Hands matter to Victorian fiction because the knowledge that they provide and relationships they represent change with the growth of industry, evolutionary theory, and Empire.

The range of fiction that the two books cover convincingly demonstrates the importance of hands to literature of the period. Indeed, Capuano draws on the methods of distant reading to argue that hands are the most described body part in fiction of the period. The majority of his eight chapters interpret canonical novels spanning from Frankenstein(1818) to Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde(1886). His reading of Bleak House(1852–53) in conversation with eighteenth-century epistolary fiction is especially interesting, making the case that nineteenth-century novels surprisingly give more attention to penmanship and handwriting than their eighteenth-century counterparts. For Capuano, Captain Hawdon's legal hand shows the lingering traces of individuality that persist in otherwise mechanized and uniform writing practices, which allows Charles Dickens to reflect on increasingly mechanized literary labor. His interpretation of Becky Sharp's embodied manipulations in Vanity Fair(1847–48), that at first glance has little to do with either industrialism or evolutionary theory, shows the extent of his argument.

In turn, Briefel focuses on fin-de-siècle fiction in her five chapters as she reads detective fiction, gothic tales, mummy stories, and imperial fiction. In this literature, racialized hands are often detached from the body, signifying race as they transform from people to things. Her fourth chapter on physical mutilation as a form of punishment demonstrates how she moves from individual stories to complex imperial networks. Interpreting work by Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Cross, Arthur Conan Doyle, and William Le Queux, Briefel argues that these texts ostensibly depict bodily amputation to demonstrate the shocking persistence of violent forms of punishment in India. Although these narratives seek to distinguish between England and India, they betray the sadistic imperial desire that accompanies descriptions of corporeal punishment. Specifically, stories of women's pain give British men pleasure as they blur the boundaries between West and East. [End Page 367]

Together, Capuano's and Briefel's interdisciplinary methodologies raise questions about literary historicism. Both books are historicist, and yet, they understand literature's relationship to history differently. For Capuano, who is interested in the materiality of the hand, representations of hands in literature function as historical evidence. Capuano seeks to differentiate his emphasis on materiality from...


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pp. 366-369
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