His countenance, voice, and manner had established him at once in the possession of every virtue. She tried to recollect some instance of goodness, some distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence, that might rescue him from the attacks of Mr. Darcy; or at least, by the predominance of virtue, atone for those casual errors, under which she would endeavour to class what Mr. Darcy had described as the idleness and vice of many years continuance. But no such recollection befriended her. She could see him instantly before her, in every charm of air and address; but she could remember no more substantial good than the general approbation of the neighbourhood, and the regard which his social powers had gained him in the mess. – Pride and Prejudice
Though they may not be aware of it, readers of 19th century literature are inevitably familiar with the theory of physiognomy: the notion that a person’s character can be assessed through their external appearance. Authors of the period almost invariably utilize the practice to delineate their characters, and Jane Austen is no exception, even as her physical descriptions of characters are notoriously brief. I’m particularly cognizant when physiognomical depictions creep into my reading, in no small part due to my research into psychiatric practices of the time (please refer to my novel, The Madness of Mr. Darcy), which relied heavily on appearance to diagnose disorder. I could name countless instances in Austen novels that rely on the theory. What more need we know about John Thorpe or Sir Walter Elliot than what we learn immediately upon introduction? However, I also believe that if there is one message that remains constant throughout all of her works, it is that appearance can be deceiving and actions speak louder than words. How do we reconcile this seeming contradiction?
First, I think we need to keep in mind how very wide spread the theory of physiognomy was in the late 18th century, when Austen wrote her earliest novels. The idea dates back to Classical Greece and has ebbed and surged it’s way through Western philosophy ever since. It’s revival in the 18th century is largely due to the writings of Johann Kasper Lavater, a Swiss pastor and poet affiliated with the early Romantics, whose writings on physiognomy in the 1770’s were published in German, French, and English. His theories became so mainstream as to become part of everyday parlance, so that even a critic of physiognomy would very likely still utilize its conventions.
I believe that this is exactly what Austen does, providing physiognomical depictions of certain characters and then actively undermining them. The most obvious examples of this are Willoughby and Wickham. Both are charming men with the appearance of goodness, whose subsequent actions reveal how very despicable they really are. This is a tool Austen utilizes in every one of her books. Look at characters like Mary Crawford, Frank Churchill, and Mr. Elliot: all are possessed of an external appearance that hides the corruption of their interiors. There are certainly also abundant examples of Austen characters whose exteriors perfectly mirror their souls, but Austen teaches us not to trust first impressions. We must wait until a person’s behavior reveals the truth behind their intentions.
The topic is much in my thoughts having just finished rereading Lady Susan (by the way, if you haven’t read it before or are planning to again, our read-along of the novel a few years ago is an excellent accompaniment. Find it at The Writer’s Block forum). Written in the mid-1790s when Austen was not yet twenty, this short epistolary novel relies on a subversion of physiognomy to drive its plot. We don’t have a description of the title character until six letters into the story, but her true character has already been laid bare. She is a conniving, unfeeling, and immoral woman, bent on indulging herself at the expense of others, including her only child, Frederica. Though she has never met her sister-in-law, with whom Lady Susan comes to stay, Mrs. Vernon and her relations know enough of their guest to think the very worst of her. Mrs. Vernon’s brother, Mr. De Courcy, writes of Lady Susan in the most scathing terms and yet yearns to see her, much like some oddity on display in a circus side show. Despite his firm prejudice against her, he totally succumbs to her charm. Mrs. Vernon is not as easily deceived. When she finally meets Lady Susan, we finally receive the following description of her:
Well, my dear Reginald, I have seen this dangerous creature, and must give you some description of her, though I hope you will soon be able to form your own judgment. She is really excessively pretty; however you may choose to question the allurements of a lady no longer young, I must, for my own part, declare that I have seldom seen so lovely a woman as Lady Susan. She is delicately fair, with fine grey eyes and dark eyelashes; and from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older. I was certainly not disposed to admire her, though always hearing she was beautiful; but I cannot help feeling that she possesses an uncommon union of symmetry, brilliancy, and grace. Her address to me was so gentle, frank, and even affectionate, that, if I had not known how much she has always disliked me for marrying Mr. Vernon, and that we had never met before, I should have imagined her an attached friend. One is apt, I believe, to connect assurance of manner with coquetry, and to expect that an impudent address will naturally attend an impudent mind; at least I was myself prepared for an improper degree of confidence in Lady Susan; but her countenance is absolutely sweet, and her voice and manner winningly mild. I am sorry it is so, for what is this but deceit? Unfortunately, one knows her too well. She is clever and agreeable, has all that knowledge of the world which makes conversation easy, and talks very well, with a happy command of language, which is too often used, I believe, to make black appear white. She has already almost persuaded me of her being warmly attached to her daughter, though I have been so long convinced to the contrary. She speaks of her with so much tenderness and anxiety, lamenting so bitterly the neglect of her education, which she represents however as wholly unavoidable, that I am forced to recollect how many successive springs her ladyship spent in town, while her daughter was left in Staffordshire to the care of servants, or a governess very little better, to prevent my believing what she says.
Lady Susan’s appearance is entirely deceptive, and Mrs. Vernon is only safe from her guest’s enchantment because she has prior knowledge that guards against its influence. She provides the story with its conscience, coming the closest to the narrative voice we are accustomed to in an Austen novel, and anticipating the discernment of heroines like Elinor Dashwood and Fanny Price, who perceive the faults behind a charming exterior even while those closest to them are blinded by it. Sense and Sensibility is an excellent example of Austen’s ability to subvert our expectations using physiognomy, as not only are the charming revealed to be sinister (Willoughby), but also the vulgar prove themselves steadfast friends (Mrs. Jennings). Austen further explores this paradigm in Pride and Prejudice, tweaking it with romance, and producing the perfection that is Mr. Darcy. As this is where my analysis gets increasingly complex, I shall abandon it for today and resume the discussion later. I must say how great it feels to be working on an essay, even if in fits and starts. My children leave me little time for such pursuits these days. Thanks for reading!