My family and close friends have recently been made aware of this, and now I share it with you: Reader, I have re-read Jane Eyre. I first encountered this novel back in middle school: WOW, so much of this book was lost on my little 13-year-old mind. One of the many themes I caught this go round, which I did not my first, was the theme of phrenology that repeatedly inserted its head, most obtrusively to me a modern student of Victorian literature, into the narrative of this story. It is a little remembered pseudoscience (ehm- I use this word lightly) today, but in its day it was kind of a big deal. I thought, dear Reader, it might be fun to throw some light on the countenance of this lately unappreciated discipline and briefly look at how it has changed since the days of Bronte.
Today words like ‘countenance’ are understood in a sort of general way but are not in common use. Like, for example, the word sensibility (as in Sense and Sensibility), it doesn’t make much sense these days but in the 19th century it described someone who was exceptionally sensitive. It is easy for us to gloss over words like these as we have a general idea of what they mean, but we fail to appreciate the full cultural context. Let me return to countenance; judging it (as is often done in Victorian novels) was more than just gauging what mood a person was in- it is the tell tale signs of physiognomy manifest, the study of someone’s personality based on their outer appearance, particularly the face.
This is closely related to the sub field of Phrenology, or the set of theories aimed at determining a person’s character traits based on the shape and size of their skull. Dr. Franz Gall was the father of ‘modern’ phrenology in the late 18th century. He came up with the system when he observed certain physical traits seemed to consistently correspond to character traits (the genesis of this was when he noticed some of his school fellows who were good at memorization all happened to have particularly large eyes). He concluded that the brain is made of separate ‘organs’ and that the size of the organ determined its potency. Since the skull shape is based on the shape of the brain (so Gall thought), one can make certain generalizations about an individual based upon the size and shape of the skull. Below is one of many images of the day which diagram the divisions of the brain into organs.
Interestingly enough Gall was shunned by the church because his work was considered contrary to ecclesiastical teachings. But not to worry about Gall, he found a happy exile in France. Other critics in Britain published a pretty damning review of Gall’s book in The Edinburgh Review and elsewhere throughout the 1820′s and 30′s (you can read more about the highly entertaining phrenological ridicule here). However, Gall defended himself and won some British fans. And this is not all together unsurprising as the tenets fit neatly into the rationalization of British imperialism.
Getting back to Jane Eyre, characters are reading each other and employing the observational techniques of physiognomy constantly. In Chapter 14, during that famous scene where Jane tells Rochester he is ugly, we are offered the following description, “He lifted sable waves of hair which lay horizontally over his brow (blah blah blah, we all know he is supposed to be ugly), and showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have stood.” (Chapter 14)
Rochester, who is by the by particularly good at reading eyes, catches Jane examining his face. He defends himself a few lines later by arguing that he does, in fact, have a conscious and “points to the prominences which are said to indicate that faculty.” (Chapter 14)
There are literally dozens of reference to physiognomy and phrenology that I could list here, but for the purpose of a blog post I think this illustrates my point. Its interesting that Charlotte Bronte choose to put so much emphasis in physiognomy, and yet both the main characters of this novel are repeatedly described as plain, and even not handsome at all, in fact most people call Rochester an ugly man- it makes you wonder what she really thought of it- or if this was some sort of projection of her own insecurities about her physical appearance.
But it wasn’t just Jane Eyre, you can see physiognomy and/ or phrenology playing a role in character descriptions in Wildfell Hall, Villete, anything by Dickens- especially in Dickens’ female characters (he was a true Victorian)- and pretty much any major novel of the day. Indeed this theory of relating character traits to physical traits had been around for a while (approximately 5th century BCE Athens).
At any rate, the theory took hold as evidenced by the popular literature of the day. Charlotte Bronte even had her own phrenology professionally read. You may read it for yourself here at this excellent website by Peter Friesen devoted to primary documents that would have been available to the Brontes in their lifetime.
But the rest of this story has yet to be told, for certain pearls have proven to be more or less true, with the blaring exception that skull measurements is not a reliable indicator of a person’s character traits. But lo! physiognomy is still being applied in a more traditional sense in certain parts of the world. Check out this awesome assessment of Kin Jung-un of North Korea, translation compliments of The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
I also found this recent 2009 article from the BBC that asked individuals to identify personality traits based on a head shot alone. The results, in short, said that women were more easily ‘read’ than men. Although interesting, I question the methodology of this particular study, but check it out and let me know what you think.
Photo Credits: Utter despair: Wikipedia, Individuality: History or Phrenology, Diagram of divisions of brain: cerebromente.org (Renato M.E. Sabbatini,PhD), Locations of the Organs: History of Phrenology, Assessment of Kim Jung-un: Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.