The narrative construction of the female body in the British novel of the 19th century

Diploma Thesis, 2007

133 Pages, Grade: Gut


Table of contents


1. Social, cultural and political background
1.1. A woman’s role in 19th century society
1.2. 19th century society’s opinions on courtship and marriage
1.3. Illness in the 19th century

2. Looks in the 19th century novel
2.1. Beauty and its consequences
2.2. The decline of beauty
2.3. The correlation between looks and character

3. The body in illness
3.1. Nervous illnesses – hysteria and hypochondria
3.2. Illness as the consequence of hysteria and grief
3.3. Illness – a token of change
3.3.1. Change of character
3.3.2. Change of plot
3.4. Illness as matchmaker
3.5. Illness affecting others
3.6. Illness as a means of punishing improper behavior
3.7. Fainting
3.8. Insanity

4. Revealing complexions
4.1. The blush
4.1.1. Revealing romantic feelings
4.1.2. Awareness of (in)correct conduct
4.1.3. Embarrassment
4.1.4. Guilty conscience
4.1.5. Excitement
4.1.6. Anger
4.2. Blanching
4.2.1. Psychological reasons for blanching and paleness
4.2.2. Paleness as a sign of physical illness

5. The body in motion
5.1. Demonstrations of the body
5.2. Moving (un)gracefully
5.3. Movement reflecting inner restlessness
5.4. ‘Moving together’

6. Proofs of sentiment
6.1. Caresses, kisses and tears
6.2. Looks
6.2.1. Expressive looks
6.2.2. Inquisitive looks
6.2.3. Inability and unwillingness to look
6.3. Smiles
6.4. Handshakes
6.5. Varieties of the voice
6.5.1. The voice as a means of proving a character’s emotional state
6.5.2. The voice as a sign of power(lessness)
6.5.3. The interrelation between voice and personality
6.5.4. The importance of the voice for the blind Mr. Rochester
6.6. Tokens of affection






Based on a variety of social and cultural confinements regarding the depiction of certain parts of the female body in literature, 19th century British novelists had to concentrate on those bodily attributes of women which were considered proper and decent to be displayed in writing. Answering the social rules prohibiting the public exhibition of female passions and feelings, such as sexual arousal, love or wrath, authors turned to methods of substituting the direct reference to those very emotions, thereby employing the parts of the female body they could with a clear conscience depict in their interpretations. This method of illustrating the female body in connection with women’s emotional state is going to be discussed on the basis of Jane Austen’s novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre and the short novel Daisy Miller by Henry James.

One of the means of depicting a woman’s personality, character traits and emotions is to put them into a relationship with her outward appearance. Beauty, plainness and ugliness together with specific individual bodily attributes, such as a woman’s eyes, hair or figure, are often employed to mirror a character’s personality and bear evidence of her emotional state.

A prominent feature of 19th century literature, used to demonstrate the interdependency of mind and body, is illness. The body suffering from physical as well as mental diseases is frequently instrumentalized by novelists as a messenger delivering information about a person’s emotional condition. Additionally, 19th century authors tend to use illness as a starting point for character and plot changes as well as romantic relationships between men and women, and refer to a character’s sickness as his or her lawful punishment for improper conduct.

One of the most important tools for novelists in revealing their characters’ thoughts and emotions is the female complexion. Frequently subject to blushing or turning pale, the female face functions as an apt communicator of a woman’s mind and heart. A blush can uncover a character’s romantic affections, embarrassment, guilty conscience, excitement or anger, and can be seen as an indicator of a woman’s awareness of incorrect conduct. Paleness often reflects a character’s shock or despair and is attributed to poor health.

Novelists often turn to the depiction of the female body in motion in their wish to express a woman’s health or sexuality. However, particular movements of the body can also be ascribed to a character’s restlessness, thus displaying her uproar of emotions. Disabled in their liberty to depict physical contact between men and women by the codes of 19th century society, authors tend to resort to dancing as the ultimate meeting between male and female bodies.

The female body provides its environment with a variety of further proofs of sentiment, the most important ones naturally being caresses, kisses and tears. Looks and facial expressions are attributed similar importance in communicating a character’s emotions as gestures. The voice also adopts a crucial role in women’s interaction with their environment. Its inflection frequently reflects a character’s personality and emotional state and gives the reader the opportunity to draw conclusions concerning her place in a power relationship.

All these factors, supported by a thorough introduction to the social, cultural and political backgrounds of the three concerned novelists, shall be discussed and interpreted in the course of this thesis.

1. Social, cultural and political background

In order to be able to fully comprehend the concept of a 19th century British novel with its complex storylines and characters, which are liable to appear strange and unnatural to the modern reader, one has to get thoroughly acquainted with the rules and habits of the respective society, along with its cultural history. Thus it is the task of this first chapter to investigate the social, cultural and political backgrounds of the three writers central to this analysis, focusing particularly on the role of women in 19th century Britain, as well as the subjects of courtship, marriage and illness in this specific context.

1.1. A woman’s role in 19th century society

In order to point out the ideal image of a 19th century British woman as desired by society, the writings of clergyman Thomas Gisborne concerning the importance of women shall be cited:

In three particulars, each of which is of extreme and never-ceasing concern to the welfare of mankind, the effect of the female character is most important. First, In contributing daily and hourly to the comfort of the husbands, of parents, of brothers and sisters, and of other relations, connections, and friends, in the intercourse of domestic life, under every vicissitude of sickness and health, of joy and affliction. Secondly, In forming and improving the general manners, dispositions, and conduct of the other sex, by society and example. Thirdly, In modelling the human mind during the early stages of its growth, and fixing, while it is yet ductile, its growing principles of action; children of each sex being, in general, under maternal tuition during their childhood, and girls until they become women. (Gisborne, 12-13)

Gisborne’s descriptions of the levels of female importance in society in his conduct book Inquiry into the duties of the female sex already indicate women’s confinement to the domestic space. 19th century society was characterized by its high acceptance of the concept of the “separate spheres of the sexes” (E. Allen, 11). Women were supposed to posses the innate qualities of “modesty, of delicacy, of sympathetic sensibility, of prompt and active benevolence, of warmth and tenderness of attachment;” (Gisborne, 23), and were thus predestined to function as moral standards for both husband and children. Under the pretence that their obligations in raising children, entertaining friends and devoting themselves to domestic purposes “harmonized with their nature” (E. Allen, 11), women were entirely confined to the domestic sphere[1]. They were considered authorities when problems of morality or conduct arose within this sphere, whereas the man possessed the sole power over everything relating to professional affairs.

The notion of women as ethical authorities, in respect thereof even superior to men, stood in opposition to their inferiority to men with regard to their social and legal status.

The idealisation of woman’s moral influence in the domestic sphere obscured the glaring contradiction of ascribing woman a superior moral virtue and yet rendering that superiority inferior to the masculine legal, social and economic restraint. (E. Allen, 12)

From this very discrepancy between the make-believe importance of women to society and the actual reality arouse a rebellion against the concept of the woman’s dedication to domestic idyll. This rebellion was led first and foremost by middle class women, who, unless there were children they had to take care of, were of material use neither at home nor outside the house and thus, while “sitting in the newly conceptualised home with nothing to do” (E. Allen, 11), had plenty of time and were mostly educated thoroughly enough to reconsider their role in society.[2]

American society and culture, which shall here be shortly discussed with regard to Henry James’ background, were slightly different; however, the notion of women as preservers of domestic comfort, filling the need for moral authorities, was widely the same. One of the most considerable differences between American and British habits of raising and treating women was the greater extent of freedom accorded to young, unmarried girls in America:

[T]hey went out by themselves, had ‘gentlemen friends’ and enjoyed themselves generally at their own leisure. Often given greater education than their European counterparts, and certainly greater freedom of knowledge they could, as Kipling said, both talk and think. Encouraged in brightness and vivacity, what better representatives of young, free and democratic society? (E. Allen, 22)

This freedom of behavior and acquaintance however lasted only as long as women were unattached and disguised by “American ignorance, innocence and fresh youth” (E. Allen, 25). The ultimate goal for American as well as British women was the marriage to an eligible bachelor, which finally set an end to liberty and engagements out of the private space even for American women.[3]

The American and the British concepts of the qualities a woman had to possess and the abilities she had to obtain in order to be labeled ‘accomplished’ were widely similar. According to Hester Chapone, author of the conduct book On the improvement of the mind, a woman had to have a firm grasp of literature, especially poetry, English literature and Greek mythology, French, writing, arithmetic, history and religion, an understanding of music and a certain aptitude for dancing and drawing in order to deserve the name.[4]

The controversial relationship between the social and cultural concept of women and their actual treatment and behavior in American as well as English society was a vast inspiration for 19th century – particularly female – authors, who delighted in including female concerns in their storylines, especially focusing on themes of love, passion, domesticity and moral issues.[5] American 19th century author W. D. Howells applauds Austen’s and her contemporaries’ fictional endeavors:

The most beautiful, the most consoling of all arts owes its universal acceptance among us, its opportunity of pleasing and helping readers of every age and sex, to this group of high souled women. They forever dedicated it to decency; as women they were faithful to their charge of the chaste mind; and as artists they taught the reading world to be in love with the sort of heroines who knew not only to win the wandering hearts of men but to keep their homes pure and inviolable. They imagined the heroine who was above all a Nice Girl; who still remains the ideal of our fiction, to whom it returns with a final constancy. (Howells, cited in: E. Allen, 26)

The fact that Howell’s reception of 19th century novels written for example by Jane Austen can be considered as only partly correct concerning the pureness of the heroines and the irrevocability of moral standards is going to be proven in the later chapters of this analysis.

1.2. 19th century society’s opinions on courtship and marriage

Among the most frequent topics dealt with in 19th century conduct books and didactic novels was the question of courtship and its correct procedure. Jane Austen, the Brontё sisters, Henry James and their contemporaries also based their marriage plot on different approaches to courtship and its consequences for all parties concerned. Jan Fergus states that the reason for the courtship theme being thus exploited in 19th century literature is the fact that it was actually “the only approved form of sexuality” (Fergus in: Monaghan, 67) to be depicted in private and public writing.[6]

The proper approach to courtship in the 19th century was well documented, which gave the members of society the opportunity of judging upon the correct behavior of young men and women in their environment and reprimanding them if their conduct could not be considered as attending the desired procedure. As there was no opportunity for young lovers to meet in privacy, the stages of courtship – “initial attraction, flirtation, infatuation and love” (Fergus in: Monaghan, 68) – were thoroughly watched by the curious and vigilant eyes of society. Particularly the proper behavior of women involved in courtship was described in great detail and therefore subject to public review.

Chapone, in her letter “On the Regulation of the Heart and Affections”, writes about the entanglement of the young female heart in its search for “friendship” (Chapone, 80), the term here including nonsexual female friendships as well as romantic relationships between men and women. Regardless of which type of friendship a young woman is looking for, she is instructed to watch out for several virtues in the person of her choice. “A deep and sincere regard to religion” (Chapone, 87), a “due regard to reputation” (Chapone, 89), excellent understanding and “good sense” (Chapone, 91) as well as a “good temper” (Chapone, 93) are qualities such a companion unconditionally has to possess. Additionally, young women of impeccable birth are emphatically instructed to avoid the acquaintance with people inferior to them: “Above all things avoid intimacy with those of low birth and education; nor think it a mark of humanity to delight in such society;” (Chapone, 97).

The authors of conduct books especially caution women against affecting a proud and vain manner in courtship, a warning deriving from the notion of women being particularly liable to abandoning themselves to their vanity:

Pride and vanity – the vices opposite to humility – are the sources of almost all the worst faults, both of men and women. – The latter are particularly accused – and not without reason – of vanity, the vice of little minds, chiefly conversant with trifling subjects. (Chapone, 62-63)

In courtship, vanity is perceived as the most dangerous attribute of women, leading them to misconduct and misery.[7] Bearing this suggestion in mind, society tended to agree with Gisborne’s conviction of women’s duty to “close their ears to compliments” (Fergus in: Monaghan, 69)[8]. Women being subjects to men’s attempts to “intoxicate the head, and beguile the heart, by every mode and every extravagance of compliment” (Gisborne, 102), Gisborne states that

[t]he effects of such treatment and intercourse on young women are deeply and permanently mischievous. She who is already vain, frivolous, and affected, instead of deriving from the behaviour which she experiences from the other sex motives and encouragements to improvement, is confirmed in her faults more and more; (Gisborne, 103)

One of the most important rules for women in courtship was their obligation to assume passivity in their relationships with men. Women, who were not supposed to reveal their affection before the men acknowledged theirs, and were even afterwards called to caution in unfolding the whole extent of their fondness, were attributed the role of the passive recipients of sentiments.[9] In view of these restrictions of women’s exhibition of affections, 19th century novelists had to find ways of displaying their heroines’ emotions without violating the codes of society, an endeavor which is going to be one of the major topics of this analysis.

Gisborne dedicated his letter “Considerations antecedent to marriage” to the factors apt to influence a woman’s choice of her husband. He despises the notion of a “good match” (Gisborne, 233) being determined by a man’s “rank and fortune” (Gisborne, 233), highlighting the fact that financial prosperity and social status cannot by any means be the exclusive basis of a happy and satisfactory marriage:

From those who contract marriages, either chiefly, or in a considerable degree, through motives of interest or of ambition, it would be folly to expect […] that such marriages, however they may answer the purposes of interest or of ambition, should terminate otherwise than in wretchedness. Wealth my be secured, rank may be obtained; but if wealth and rank are to be main ingredients in the cup of matrimonial felicity, the sweetness of the wine will be exhausted at once, and nothing remain but bitter and corrosive dregs. (Gisborne, 235-236)

Hester Chapone also maintains that only such marriages can be expected to last happily for both parties which are “made on rational grounds – on suitableness of character, degree and fortune – on mutual esteem, and the prospect of a real and permanent friendship.” (Chapone, 112). Both Gisborne and Chapone thus support the opinion that mere love and affection for each other indeed cannot be the only, but definitely important factors on which a marriage should be based.[10] In agreement with this concept, Jane Austen mocks 19th century society’s understanding of women’s felicity in marriage being dependent on their husband’s financial wealth in her novel Sense and Sensibility:

“The lady, I suppose, has no choice in the affair.” “Choice! – how do you mean?” – “I only mean, that I suppose from your manner of speaking, it must be the same to Miss Morton whether she marry Edward or Robert.” “Certainly, there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son;” (S&S, 278)

“[A]ll intents and purposes” (S&S, 278) here being the collective term for the financial fortune and social status of a first born son, Jane Austen criticizes the fact that women were not supposed to utter any complaints or refusals if they were able to marry a man of consequence and money. Contrary to society’s convictions on this matter, clergymen, authors of conduct books as well as novelists and authors of didactic novels were certain that the basis for every prosperous relationship should not be wealth, but reciprocal esteem.[11]

With regard to the correct procedure, the period of courtship was inevitably to be followed by marriage, which was considered as women’s ultimate goal in life: “The conjugal idyll was […] the paradigm of earthly aspiration” (E. Allen, 13). Chapone referred to marriage as the “highest kind of friendship, […] which, in its perfection, is so entire and absolute a union, of interest, will and affection, as no other connection can stand in competition with.” (Chapone, 103). However, due to 19th century both British and American law systems, marriage caused women to lose a great number of their legal rights. Before they were married, English women were for example legally empowered to own property, a right which was withdrawn after their wedding day[12]:

Appropriately termed “coverture” because of the suppression of the wife’s independent legal existence, this legal code mandated that upon marriage a woman’s real property, notably freely held land, passed to the control of her husband, along with her personal property, such as money, jewellery, and other such possessions. Under these circumstances, the wife could not even bequeath her personal possessions to particular heirs without the approval of her husband. The wife’s body also legally belonged to her husband. (Albert Labriola)

The “Divorce and matrimonial causes act” in 1857, authorizing secular divorce for the first time in English history, amounted to an enhancement of women’s rights; however, marital equality was still not achieved:

Under provisions of the law, a husband could be ordered to pay maintenance to his divorced or separated wife. He was also denied the right to the earnings of his wife if he had deserted her. A woman who was legally separated or divorced was granted the property rights of a single woman so that she could inherit and bequeath property on her own. The legislation, however, continued to retain a double standard concerning the basis for divorce. A husband needed only to prove that his wife was an adulteress, whereas a woman had to prove adultery and either incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion. (Albert Labriola)

A legal sentence enabling women to keep earnings or property acquired by them after their marriage was not issued until the “Married Women’s Property Act” in 1870. In 1882, British women were finally in a position to retain the possessions they had owned before their marriage due to a second act of the same name.[13]

Apart from the legal regulation of the position of women in marriage, the role of the married woman was also determined by society. The importance of the female role in marriage was mostly seen in relation to the husband[14], with a strong focus on women’s ability to function as a model of morality and propriety for men:

Among the most important of the duties peculiar to the situation of a married woman, are to be placed those arising from the influence which she will naturally possess over the conduct and character of her husband. (Gisborne, 245)

In agreement with the concept of the wife rating amongst the ‘properties’ of her husband, it was her first and foremost obligation to provide a home that “cheered, calmed, soothed and stabilised” (E. Allen, 13) her husband and avoid upsetting him as far as possible with extravagant requests and improper desires. Honesty, modesty and obedience were amongst the most desirable virtues in a wife:

Let it ever be remembered, that she who by teasing, by wheedling, by finesse under any shape whatever, seeks to weary or to deceive her husband into consent or acquiescence, acts no less plainly in opposition to her duty of scriptural obedience, than she would have done had she driven him into compliance by the menaces and weapons of an Amazon. (Gisborne, 252-253)

With regard to the disclosure of the woman’s affection for her husband in marriage, advice was given by several authors of conduct books and journals that it was still best for women to conceal the true degree of their affection in front of their husbands. However, even Gisborne acknowledged the fact that reserved affection was rather harmful to than advantageous for the happiness of a marriage:

The advice which has been seriously given, that a married woman should ever conceal with care from her husband the extent of her affection for him; is happily too absurd to gain many converts among women who really love those whom they are united with; and too difficult to be frequently put in practice by wives of that description, should they blindly desire to follow it. (Gisborne, 254)

It can be deduced from this statement, coming from a clergyman and author of a conduct book, that, contrary to courtship, marriage finally enabled women as well as men to give free reign to their affectionate emotions for each other, provided that the display of these emotions was confined to the private, domestic sphere.

1.3. Illness in the 19th century

19th century British society can be characterized by the dichotomy between people’s immense interest in health and medical matters and the actual failure of medical practice in curing the most common diseases. The fact that illnesses that can nowadays be easily prevented with the help of vaccination, such as influenza or rabies, or diseases which can now be cured by means of adequate medication, as for example tuberculosis or malaria[15], were perceived as a real threat by 19th century society, served as a repeated theme in 19th century novels.

Anita Gorman refers to the medical conditions in 18th and 19th century Britain as such:

Much of what passed for medical practice was primitive and erroneous, often causing harm to the patient. […] Citizens of England feared the slightest cold, the lightest fall, knowing that small disabilities could lead to death. Like men and women of today, [the] people were concerned with their health, often exaggerated their illness, and worried about their bodies. They often sought treatment that was ineffective and even dangerous; many were damaged by such practices as bleeding and purging and the ingestion of ineffective or harmful medication. (Gorman, XII)

Many doctors practicing in the 19th century relied on knowledge that had not undergone any material changes since Hippocrates. Galen’s theory of humors and such cures as bloodletting, purging or blistering were frequently found among the doctrines their treatments were based on. The effectiveness of such practices was often measured by the sedateness and docility of the patient, which is now known to have resulted from weakness and loss of blood rather than from an honest amendment of the patient’s condition.[16] This incompetence and ignorance of doctors was frequently reflected in 19th century writing, authors depicting them not as the widely prestigious individuals they are perceived to be nowadays, but as comical characters whose attendance should be avoided under all circumstances.

The fact that people in 19th century Britain can rather be seen as living in spite of than because of the remedies prescribed by doctors and apothecaries is made obvious by Gorman’s reference to some of the most popular ‘household remedies’ administered to the diseased:

A Clinical Guide, popular in Edinburgh in 1801, lists both useful remedies – castor oil, opium, digitalis – but also exotic ones, such as syrup of pale roses, crabs’ eyes, pearls, and the unexplained “sacred elixir”. (Gorman, 2-3)

Bearing in mind that not only those cures that are enlisted as “exotic” but also the actually effective ones, such as digitalis or opium, can be considered as vastly dangerous for the human body when administered without utmost care, we get to understand people’s fear of illnesses of any kind.

People in 19th century Britain were also fascinated by the obvious interdependence of mind and body, manifesting itself in illnesses such as hysteria and hypochondria or melancholia. Such mental ailments were prominent themes in 19th century writing, a fact that is going to be discussed in a later chapter of this analysis.

In general, matters of mental and physical diseases were frequently taken up by 19th century British novelists. More often than not the adaptation of such maladies as tuberculosis – usually referred to as ‘consumption’ –, influenza or hysteria in their novels functioned as a coping device for the respective authors, as almost every one of them had made acquaintance with the one or the other disease in the course of their lives. Charlotte Brontё, whose mother died at the age of thirty-eight from what is know presumed to have been uterine cancer, had to watch her two eldest sisters Elizabeth and Maria die from consumption when they were only ten and eleven, an event in her early life which Charlotte later on assimilated in her novel Jane Eyre on the basis of the character of little Helen Burns. Charlotte’s brother Branwell suffered from alcoholic disease, her sister Anne was afflicted with asthma. Those weaknesses paved the way for their dying of consumption together with their sister Emily between 1848 and 1849. By 1949 Charlotte, being no more than thirty-three, was the only surviving sibling of six.[17] Henry James had to watch his sister Alice, who is referred to as having been suffering from nervous complaints for a long time before her death, die from what is now believed to have been breast cancer. Jane Austen herself died from Addison’s Disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys, at the age of forty-two.

With reference to this knowledge on the medical conditions in the 19th century and the novelists’ own unfortunate experiences with popular diseases, the theme of illness and death shall be discussed in the third chapter of this analysis.

2. Looks in the 19th century novel

Every age and every society has its beauty ideals, and so did the people in 19th century Britain. However, the task of this first chapter is not to examine the general beauty ideals of the 19th century British society, but the beauty standards constituted by those three authors who are of central interest for this analysis. The following discussion is going to highlight Austen’s, Brontё’s and James’ construction of beauty ideals in their novels and the impact the choices they make concerning the looks of heroines, anti-heroines and everything in between have on the reader’s perception of their characters and storylines.

2.1. Beauty and its consequences

According to Gorman, “beauty […] marks not an unchanging ideal but a relative standard” (Gorman, 172). For this reason we do not find a generally accepted, detailed list of bodily attributes decisive for a character to be legitimately called a beauty. Blond, curly hair for example frequently ranks among the features of stunningly beautiful women in the novels of our interest, as for example in the case of Georgiana Reed in Jane Eyre; however, this scheme cannot be applied to all female characters who are referred to as handsome, which proves that it is by no means essential for a woman to have such hair in order to be considered a beauty. There are of course factors which are to be found in the appearance of every female character who is validly referred to as pretty, as for example a fine complexion, a certain regularity in her features or a tall and fully formed, womanly figure. Still, as one can well discern from this enumeration, these attributes are formulated rather vaguely, leaving the authors a lot of space to impress their own personal sense of beauty upon their characters.

Jane Austen, whose female heroines – in agreement with the marriage plot – are usually depicted as personifications of everything that is beautiful and charming, uses a variety of different methods to make her characters’ beauty obvious to the reader. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor’s and Marianne’s looks as well as the appearances of their rivals are referred to in great detail by the narrator.[18]

Miss Dashwood had a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure. Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so correct as her sister’s, in having the advantage of height, was more striking; and her face was so lovely, that when in the common cant of praise she was called a beautiful girl, truth was less violently outraged than usually happens. Her skin was very brown, but from its transparency, her complexion was uncommonly brilliant; her features were all good; her smile was sweet and attractive, and in her eyes, which were very dark, there was a life, a spirit, an eagerness which could hardly be seen without delight. (S&S, 48)

By offering no exact details as to the color of Marianne’s eyes, which we can only presume to be brown according to the narrator referring to them as “very dark” (S&S, 48), or the composition of her hair and figure, Austen, though assuring her readers of Marianne’s extraordinary beauty, still gives them a chance to develop their own mental image of their heroine. Elinor’s character is even more open to interpretation, as the author merely acknowledges her fine appearance without specifying her looks any further.

The difference in detail between the descriptions of the two sisters’ looks coincides with the different directions the two characters are led into[19]. As Marianne is going to be depicted in a passionate, spirited and comparatively sexual manner, this image, based on her relationship with Willoughby, is already created in the description of her bodily qualities. The author thus satisfies the need for the affirmation of Marianne’s qualities being sufficient to provoke Willoughby into everlastingly defining Marianne as his “secret standard of perfection in woman” (S&S, 353). Elinor, in contrast to her sister, is illustrated as a reserved, sensible character, which legitimates the reduced publication of her bodily attributes.

The power of beauty in the marriage plot is made obvious with the characters of Mrs. Palmer and Lucy Steele. Despite of the women’s inferiority in insight and understanding, their handsome exterior has misled two rather reasonable men into committing themselves eternally to them, a misjudgment which Mr. Palmer –“through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman” (S&S, 109) – is probably never going to cease regretting.[20]

Similarly to Mr. Palmer, Edward also has to face a life with a woman whose bodily allurement caused him to connive at her intellectual deficiencies. Her knowledge of the uncomfortable consequences the substantial arguments of beauty can have for gentlemen who are inexperienced in this respect also soothes Elinor in her disappointment about Edward’s engagement and even prompts her to feel pity for him:

She might in time regain tranquility; but he, what had he to look forward to? Could he ever be tolerably happy with Lucy Steele; could he, were his affections for herself out of question, with his integrity, his delicacy, and well-informed mind, be satisfied with a wife like her, illiterate, artful, and selfish? (S&S, 134)

Gentlemen who are tricked by outward appearances into marrying women utterly inferior to them in their intellectual qualities cannot only be detected in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. Bennet’s sarcastic, eccentric behavior in Pride and Prejudice can also easily be traced back to the dissatisfaction and regret he feels concerning his marriage to a hysteric, shortsighted and low-minded woman:

Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanquished forever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown. (P&P, 228)

This account of Mr. Bennet’s attitude towards his wife and the consequences his fatal decision to marry her has had on his life and happiness perfectly shows that for a person to fall in love, beauty might be sufficient inducement; however, in order for two people to become closely attached to each other and respect each other for life, beauty alone is not enough.

Charlotte Brontё’s gloomy character Mr. Rochester also had to make this experience in his early life, yet for him the consequences of his marriage to Bertha Mason, who was then considered the “boast of Spanish Town for her beauty” (JE, 343), exceed the regrets Mr. Palmer or Mr. Bennet have to suffer considerably, as he is bound for his life to a lunatic who can neither be a friend nor a loving wife to him.

The suggestion that visual and sexual attraction unaccompanied by esteem and agreeing minds can be fatal regarding the future of the parties involved was widely accepted in Victorian literature. The Victorian worldview implied a strong belief in the meaningfulness of the class system and the antagonism of culture and nature.[21] Those convictions were contradicted by what D. Allen calls “the chaotic in-difference” (D. Allen, 31) of sexuality.

If Victorian culture is based on a belief in difference, on the necessity and the validity of segmenting and organizing “the real,” then the sexual, associated not only with the chaos of nature but also with a biological realm that resists differentiation, is finally problematic for the Victorians precisely because it subverts the very logic of difference on which the binary opposition and taxonomies that structure the Victorian worldview are predicated. (D. Allen, 31)

By depicting unfortunate marriages like the ones of Mr. Palmer, Mr. Bennet and Mr. Rochester, whose former affection for their wives was solely based on sexual attraction, 19th century novelists acknowledge the threat of the sexual for humanity and the dangerousness of its tendency to subvert the traditional belief system.

If beauty implies the power of capturing men’s affections even for women who are deficient in understanding and reason, ugliness can be perceived to have the reverse effect. Pride and Prejudice contains at least two characters whose brains would have easily guaranteed them an eligible husband, if their want of beauty had not prevented them from winning a gentleman’s heart. One of these characters is Elizabeth’s good friend Charlotte Lucas, who is several times referred to as being “very plain” (P&P, 44). Her misfortune in terms of her appearance in the end prompts her to marry Mr. Collins, who is vastly inferior to her regarding insight and deliberateness; however, “at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.” (P&P, 120). In agreement with the reader’s feelings on Charlotte consenting to marry the more than slightly ridiculous Mr. Collins, Elizabeth is perplexed by her friend’s decision, which brings up the necessity for Charlotte to avow herself:

“I see what you are feeling,” replied Charlotte, – “you must be surprised, very much surprised, – so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it all over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.” (P&P, 123)

The absence of beauty does not only prevent Charlotte Lucas from cherishing romantic thoughts, it also causes Mary Bennet to develop another attraction than a handsome exterior, which she hopes is going to help her to succeed in the marriage plot. “[I]n consequence of being the only plain one in the family, [Mary] worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments” (P&P, 25). In contrast to Charlotte Lucas, Mary however possesses also a “pedantic air and conceited manner” (P&P, 25), which additionally prevents her from gaining an eligible gentleman’s affections.

It has been mentioned above that Jane Austen used various methods in order to describe her characters’ outward appearances to the reader. In Pride and Prejudice“Austen uses the reactions of other characters” (Gorman, 172) in order to point out the strengths and flaccidities in her characters’ looks. For this reason, the reader is confronted with some difficulties in trying to discover what Elizabeth Bennet actually looks like. Mr. Darcy, who at first refers to Elizabeth as being “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt” (P&P, 13) him, at a later stage marvels at the extraordinary beauty of her eyes[22]:

But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; (P&P, 24)

Even though Darcy’s objectiveness concerning Elizabeth’s looks may be impaired by his romantic feelings for her, his descriptions of the young heroine can nevertheless be considered more reliable than those of Caroline Bingley. Not only is Darcy moderated in his enthusiasm for Elizabeth by his unwillingness to allow himself to have tender emotions for her, Miss Bingley’s haughtiness and the jealousy she bears towards Elizabeth also give his observations the advantage over hers when it comes to credibility. Therefore the reader can neglect Miss Bingley’s abuse of Elizabeth’s looks with a clear conscience.

I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character; there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I never could perceive any thing extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion, which is intolerable. (P&P, 258-259)

Even if we were inclined to believe Caroline Bingley’s assertions concerning the features of Elizabeth’s face, her assurance of the young woman’s eyes to have a “sharp, shrewish look” (P&P, 259) cannot be trusted, as there is sufficient evidence throughout the novel that her eyes are actually her finest attribute. Considering Miss Bingley’s immense jealousy of Elizabeth, the above quoted speech can actually be taken as a strong proof of Elizabeth’s good looks, as Caroline would certainly not regard such an abuse as necessary if Elizabeth were not such a threat to her plans.

Jane Bennet’s looks are, similarly to Elizabeth’s, not accounted for by the narrator. She is often referred to as the beauty of the family by Mrs. Bennet, who, however, is not depicted as the most reliable of characters. Still we can trust that Jane is truly blessed with a thorough amount of beauty, as Mr. Darcy, whom we can consider even more creditable in his descriptions of Jane than in those of Elizabeth, admits her to be the “only handsome girl in the room” (P&P, 13). The fact that Jane’s looks eventually have the power to “re-kindle […] the admiration of her former lover” (P&P, 319) offers additional proof of her beauty.

The proverb saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder can well be trusted upon in the case of Brontё’s heroine Jane Eyre. After referring to her as being “not pretty any more than [he is] handsome” (JE, 151) in the beginning of their acquaintance, Mr. Rochester later on at the time of their engagement addresses Jane as “a beauty just after the desire of [his] heart, delicate and aёrial” (JE, 291). Not only the dry observations of St. John, telling us that Jane “looks sensible, but not at all handsome” (JE, 380), but also – and even more convincingly – Jane’s own accounts on her appearance reveal the truth to the reader:

I ever wished to look as well as I could, and to please as much as my want of beauty would permit. I sometimes regretted that I was not handsomer: I sometimes wished to have rosy cheeks, a straight nose, and small cherry mouth; I desired to be tall, stately and finely developed in figure; I felt it a misfortune that I was so little, so pale, and had features so irregular and so marked. (JE, 113-114)

By enumerating everything Jane is not and though wishes to be, Charlotte Brontё reveals her own beauty standards to the reader; standards she, contrary to Jane Austen, does not apply to her heroine but to Jane’s rival, Blanche Ingram. Mrs. Fairfax answers Jane’s inquiry after Blanche’s appearance as such:

Tall, fine bust, sloping shoulders; long, graceful neck: olive complexion, dark and clear; noble features; eyes rather like Mr. Rochester’s: large and black, and as brilliant as her jewels. And then she had such a fine head of hair; raven-black, and so becomingly arranged: a crown of thick plaits behind, and in front the longest, the glossiest curls I ever saw. (JE, 181)

Considering the looks of Brontё’s second personification of beauty in Jane Eyre, Georgiana Reed, who is referred to as having “ringleted yellow hair” (JE, 257), as opposed to Blanche’s black curls, it again becomes obvious that every author of course has a certain conception of perfect beauty; however, this conception cannot be pinned down to details as for example the color of eyes or hair.

Brontё frequently calls the reader’s attention to the benefits beauty allows characters to have in life and opposes these benefits to the sufferings of Jane Eyre. With the indulgence of Eliza and especially Georgiana Reed – “Her beauty, her pink cheeks and golden curls, seemed to give delight to all who looked at her, and to purchase indemnity for every fault.” (JE, 22) –, Jane has to experience at an early stage of her life the advantages of handsome people over her own plain self. An interaction between Abbot and Bessie, two employees at the Reeds’ house, about Jane’s unfortunate history thus shapes her self-perception for life:

[‘I]f she were a nice, pretty child, one might compassionate her forlornness; but one really cannot care for such a little toad as that.’ ‘Not a great deal, to be sure,’ agreed Bessie: ‘at any rate a beauty like Miss Georgiana would be more moving in the same condition.’ (JE, 34)

The permanence of the impression this conversation has left in Jane’s heart and mind becomes obvious in her interaction with Mr. Rochester, when Jane finally reveals her emotions for him in a desperate outbreak:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? – You think wrong! – I have as much soul as you, – and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. (JE, 284)

Missing every feature that is in general considered beautiful and gracious, Jane entirely lacks the confidence to try to win Rochester’s heart. She is so used to being handicapped due to her appearance that she cannot believe him to cherish tender feelings for her even after he has repeatedly assured her of the fact. However, even if Jane is captured by her incredulity in the beginning, by making Rochester fall in love with her unimposing little heroine, Brontё finally breaks through the scheme of appearance weighing more than personality.

The only author relevant to this analysis who does not give away any details in his description of his heroine is Henry James. Indeed Daisy Miller is frequently referred to as being “tremendously pretty” (DM, 92), but what exactly constitutes her beauty James is not willing to communicate. Apart from the fact that Daisy has “wonderfully pretty eyes” (DM, 53), “extremely pretty hands” (DM, 55) and “happy dimples” (DM, 88) and is superior to most other women in “her complexion, her nose, her ears, [and] her teeth” (DM, 53), we know very little of the young American’s outward appearance. James’s vagueness in describing Daisy’s looks resembles the moderate information the reader gets on her personality and her motives. The method of leaving the reader in the dark about the details of the characters’ lives can thus be detected throughout the novel.

With reference to James’ approach to defining his heroine’s appearance as well as her personality and actions, the function of this information gap between the author and the reader, which is evident in Daisy Miller, shall be discussed. Wolfgang Iser states that “[r]eading is an activity that is guided by the text; this must be processed by the reader, who is then, in turn, affected by what he has processed” (Iser, 163). Contrary to face-to-face interaction, the reader, while processing the information given in a text, does not get any affirmation of his analysis and can thus never be sure of the accuracy of his interpretation[23]. However, according to Iser, “it is the very lack of ascertainability and defined intention that brings about the text-reader interaction” (Iser, 166).

By including so called “spots of indeterminacy” (Ingarden, cited in: Iser, 170) in his novel, James gives his readers the opportunity to constitute their own heroines, agreeing with their own socially and culturally determined ways of perception.[24] Additionally, the gaps in James’ novel, arising “out of contingency and inexperienceabiliy […], function as a basic inducement to communication.” (Iser, 166):

[I]t is the gaps, the fundamental asymmetry between text and reader, that give rise to communication in the reading process; the lack of a common situation and a common frame of reference corresponds to the contingency and the “no-thing” which bring about the interaction between persons. Asymmetry, contingency, the “no-thing” – these are all different forms of an indeterminate, constitutive blank which underlies all processes of interaction. (Iser, 167)

In order for the interaction between the text and the reader to be successful, the reader has to avoid making projections without taking the already given conditions into consideration. The reader can only successfully fill the gaps in a text if he achieves to constitute his own mental image with reference to the actualities defined in the text.[25]

2.2. The decline of beauty

Even though she frequently emphasizes the handsome exterior of her heroines, the fact that beauty is transient is not denied by Jane Austen, which becomes obvious in her novel Sense and Sensibility. Among the many reasons which can cause human beauty to fade, such as advancement in years or hard work, Austen also acknowledges illness, whether mental or physical, to be an important factor influencing her heroines’ appearances.

Marianne, whom the narrator has in the beginning affirmed to be the most striking beauty in her family, superior even to Elinor, grows careless of her appearance in her grief about Willoughby. However, it is not only her neglect, but also her nervous illness that causes her beauty and thus her chances of succeeding in the marriage plot to decline, a fact that is known also to her brother John:

At her time of life, any thing of an illness destroys the bloom for ever! Her’s has been a very short one! She was as handsome a girl last September, as any I ever saw; and as likely to attract the men: There was something in her style of beauty, to please them particularly. I remember Fanny used to say that she would marry sooner and better than you did; […] She will be mistaken, however. I question whether Marianne now, will marry a man worth more than five or six hundred a year, at the utmost, and I am very much deceived if you do not do better. (S&S, 214-215)

John’s speech again confirms the fact that in 19th century society, the chances of a young woman in marrying a wealthy gentleman were measured in direct relation to the amount of her beauty. Due to the facts that firstly John Dashwood is not the most trustworthy character in the novel and secondly the narrator does not give a detailed account of Marianne’s outward appearance after her recovery, we do not know if her beauty has effectively been destroyed by her illness. We only know that, contrary to her brother’s predictions, Marianne is in the end married to a most eligible gentleman.

Marianne’s husband Colonel Brandon however has been introduced to the reader as a man who has already got acquainted with the power of illness in destroying a woman’s beauty and can thus be trusted not to be easily led astray by Marianne’s supposed loss. On the contrary, his bitter experiences regarding his former love Eliza – “hardly could I believe the melancholy and sickly figure before me, to be the remains of the lovely, blooming, healthful girl, on whom I had once doated” (S&S, 196) – rather contribute to the intensity of his feelings for Marianne.

The capability of grief to be the reason for a character to lose his or her beauty is also acknowledged in Pride and Prejudice. Due to Jane Bennet’s extraordinary beauty, her mother relies on her eldest daughter to capture the affections of an eligible bachelor and thus take at least part of her mother’s responsibility for the other four Bennet girls out of her hands. For this reason, Mrs. Bennet’s fear for Jane’s beauty after the great disappointment the young woman has to suffer regarding Bingley’s indirect rejection of her, as well as the mother’s grand relief in seeing her daughter return from London “in undiminished beauty” (P&P, 213), can easily be comprehended by the reader.

2.3. The correlation between looks and character

Based on the medieval concept of thinking in analogies, Michel Foucault has identified four similitudes in the world of prose, claiming that there is always a resemblance between the personality and the body, which is represented through various outward signs: “There are no resemblances without signatures. The world of similarity can only be a world of signs” (Foucault, 25). With reference to the first of the four similitudes, “convenientia” (Foucault, 17), Foucault depicts the interrelation of body and soul as such:

Body and soul, for example, are doubly 'convenient': the soul had to be made dense, heavy, and terrestrial for God to place it in the very heart of matter. But through this propinquity, the soul receives the movements of the body and assimilates itself to that body, while 'the body is altered and corrupted by the passions of the soul' (Foucault, 17)

Foucault maintains that the human body exhibits signs of its owner’s character and emotional state[26]. These signs are inevitably legible to the people in the concerned person’s environment. The body thus communicates a character’s personality and constitution:

[W]e have known, ever since the Greeks, that the strongest and bravest animals have large and well-developed extremities to their limbs, as though their strength had communicated itself to the most distant parts of their bodies. In the same way, man's face and hands must resemble the soul to which they are joined. (Foucault, 27.)

In agreement with Foucault’s concept of similitudes, Wiltshire maintains that “[i]n practice, and as dramatized, people continually make equations between the body and the moral character, between vigour and comeliness and worth.” (Wiltshire, 55). Jane Austen as well as Charlotte Brontё frequently make use of different bodily criteria in order to express the character traits of a certain person. Especially facial notes are commonly perceived as mirroring a character’s personality, as it is for example the case with Edward’s mother Mrs. Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.[27]

Until the middle of the second volume, Mrs. Ferrars has been known to the reader only by means of descriptions of and hints at her character delivered predominantly by her daughter Fanny and Lucy Steele. However, the image of Mrs. Ferrars implied in those small bits and pieces of information, containing for example her unwillingness to allow Edward to marry below his standing, is already sufficient in order to bias the reader against the old lady. The impression of her given by various characters is confirmed by the narrator in chapter twelve of the second volume by means of comparing her outward appearance with her character traits:

Mrs. Ferrars was a little, thin woman, upright, even to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow; and her features small, without beauty, and naturally without expression; but a lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong characters of pride and ill nature. She was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas; and of the few syllables that did escape her, not one fell to the share of Miss Dashwood, whom she eyed with the spirited determination of disliking her at all events. (S&S, 219)

If a bright complexion and a vivid countenance are supposed to stand for health, passion and spiritedness, as we have learned by means of Marianne’s appearance and personality, Mrs. Ferrars is depicted by the narrator as a sick, embittered and unemotional woman, as the sallowness of her complexion and the sourness in her appearance unmistakably show. The smallness of her bodily features resembles her tendency to begrudge herself as well as the people in her environment every available indulgence, a trait that perfectly agrees with her unwillingness to allow Edward to marry for love instead of money. The narrator explicitly refers to her haughtiness and malignance, which is visually indicated by the “contraction of the brow” (S&S, 219). Her smallness of height comes along with her smallness of mind, which does not allow her to contribute meaningfully to a conversation. All things considered, she is outwardly as well as inwardly depicted as a mean and spiteful woman.

Concerning her haughtiness and conceit, Mrs. Ferrars has a lot in common with Pride and Prejudice ’s Lady Catherine De Bourgh. However, Lady Catherine has the advantage of height and comparatively good looks and is thus rather capable of intimidating her opponents than Mrs. Ferrars, which can be taken as an explanation for Mr. Collins’ exaggerated devotedness.

Lady Catherine was a tall, large woman, with strongly-marked features, which might have once been handsome. Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them, such as to make her visitors forget their inferior rank. (P&P, 159)

This description of the lady’s appearance already implies her self-centeredness and confidence in her decisions, which agrees with her height and largeness and is mirrored by her “strongly-marked features” (P&P, 159). Her air reflects her strong sense of superiority, which gives the reader an idea of her great indignation at Elizabeth’s behavior towards her later in the novel, when the lady tries to prohibit the engagement between the young woman and Mr. Darcy.

Contrary to Jane Austen’s habits, whose characters’ physical beauty is designed to resemble their beauty of mind and personality and vice versa, Brontё contrasts a plain, but pure and honest heroine with an outrageously beautiful, but conceited and deceitful rival. Jane Eyre refers to Blanche Ingram as answering “point for point” (JE, 195) to her perfect ideal of beauty; however, she also mentions Blanche’s face to be just “like her mother’s” (JE, 196), which has formerly been described as bearing an expression of “almost insupportable haughtiness” (JE, 195), her features being “not only inflated and darkened, but even furrowed with pride;” (JE, 195). Though Miss Ingram is depicted as a beauty almost impossible to be outplayed, her meanness of nature is still displayed in her features as well as her satirical laugh and the “habitual expression of her arched and haughty lip” (JE, 196).

Jane Eyre contains a further character whose personality is reflected by her outward appearance, namely Jane’s aunt Mrs. Reed:

[S]he was a woman of robust frame, square shouldered and strong-limbed, not tall, and though stout not obese; she had a somewhat large face, the under-jaw being much developed and very solid; her brow was low, her chin large and prominent, mouth and nose sufficiently regular; under her light eye-brows glimmered an eye devoid of ruth; her skin was dark and opaque, her hair nearly flaxen; (JE, 44)

Having been the sole manager of her property since her husband’s death, Mrs. Reed possesses a strong and steadfast personality, which is reflected by her broad shoulders, the stoutness of her body and her solid chin and under jaw, both of which suggest great determination. Her whole appearance justifies Jane’s timidity in confrontations with her aunt, an emotion even increased by the uncompassionate look in the woman’s eyes. Considering the information we get on her character and her deeds, Mrs. Reed’s appearance fits her personality better than anybody else’s does in the novel.

3. The body in illness

Physical and mental illnesses play a major role in the 19th century novel. They are important for characterizing protagonists, establishing storylines, creating and resolving climaxes and often function as a means of change and growth for afflicted characters. In a century when diseases that are nowadays considered trivial, as for example infectious fever or even pneumonia, were frequently leading to the death of the diseased, illness naturally was a prominent motif in writing.

Gorman states that for example Jane Austen

[…] uses illness for a variety of purposes: to manipulate plot, to enhance characterization, and to show how people not only live with problems but actually create illnesses, both imaginary and real, as coping devices, and as mechanisms designed (however unconsciously) to privilege themselves and to control the lives of others. (Gorman, XI)

The aspect of illness as a means of affecting and manipulating others is particularly prominent in nervous illnesses. The most frequent ones in the novels of the 19th century, afflicting primarily female characters, are hypochondria and hysteria.

Regarding the outward appearance of people befallen by sickness, apart from feebleness, paleness, cavernous cheeks and a skinny figure[28], flushed cheeks and hollow eyes[29] are also counted among the visible signs for illness. The latter are particularly prominent in patients suffering from tuberculosis or – as it was then commonly called – “consumption”, which was a frequently met illness in the nineteenth century. Additionally, flushed cheeks are often attributed to hysterical fits.[30]

3.1. Nervous illnesses – hysteria and hypochondria

Characters suffering from nervous illnesses like hypochondria and hysteria predominately occur in the novels of Jane Austen. In Sense and Sensibility as well as Pride and Prejudice it becomes fairly clear that the writer agrees with the proverb of a sound mind occupying a sound body. Austen regards such illnesses with less sincerity than what was the custom in 19th century society. She tends to depict nervous complaints as superfluous indulgences, designed by afflicted people in order to manipulate their environment or get additional attention. In agreement with the aforementioned proverb such ailments rarely attack the heroines of a story. A hysterical character is usually predestined to be a comical figure, whereas a heroine has to face the world with a clear vision in order to find fulfillment in her life.[31]

This depiction of nervous illnesses is concordant with the definition of hysteria given by F. E. Kenyon, who includes “vanity, attention-seeking, extreme moodiness, [and] emotional shallowness” (Kenyon, cited in: Gorman, 6) in the characteristics of hysteria and describes hysterical people as “sexually provocative yet frigid, immature, easily swayed and resentfully dependent” (Kenyon, cited in: Gorman, 6).

A prime example of a hysterical character exactly fitting such a definition is to be found in Pride and Prejudice ’s Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet as an utterly comical character, who is not to be taken serious in any situation at all, is entirely governed by her nerves. Not capable of dealing with the worries and difficulties her situation – being the mother of five unmarried, unprovided for daughters – implies for her, she “converts her worries and her unhappiness into physical symptoms to which the rest of the family are supposed to pay their respects” (Gorman, 59). In the end of the first chapter Mrs. Bennet is accurately described as “a woman of mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous.” (P&P, 7). Her inability to brace herself not only affects her own life, but also the lives and happiness of those surrounding her.

Mrs. Bennet’s nerves are to be considered by all members of her family. She scolds Kitty for coughing, demanding compassion for her nerves, as well as accuses her husband of taking delight in vexing her and being entirely unconcerned by her nervous state.

Mrs. Bennet even puts her nerves and personal contentment before her daughters’ happiness. After Jane has been invited to Netherfield, her mother refuses her the carriage and thus forces her to go there on horseback, intending her daughter to be obliged to stay with the Bingleys overnight as she anticipates a heavy rain to come up. The risk of Jane catching a cold on her way does not occur to her as a great one; she even regards the fact that her daughter actually does get ill from riding in the rain as a fortunate coincidence, since it constitutes a necessity for Jane to stay at Netherfield and in Mr. Bingley’s environment much longer than even her mother has dared to hope. Having only the achievement of her ultimate goal – having all her daughters successfully married – in mind, Mrs. Bennet also plays down the danger of her daughter’s illness, pointing out to her husband that people do not die of colds, when in fact in the 19th century they very well did. However, her behavior is little surprising, since it is a common trait in hysterics to overestimate their own sufferings while neglecting those of others.[32]

Another event showing us the self-centeredness of Mrs. Bennet is her reaction to her daughter Elizabeth’s refusal of Mr. Collins’ marriage proposal. Caring far less about Elizabeth’s happiness in marriage than about the marriage itself, which seems to Mrs. Bennet a highly favorable alliance, she promises that she will never see her daughter again unless she aggress to enter into the engagement. When this threat turns out to be fruitless she indulges in self-pity, determined not to talk a word to Elizabeth and to talk about nothing else than her poor nerves and how ill she has been used by her family to anybody else who will listen to her:

I have done with you from this very day. – I told you in the library, you know, that I should never speak to you again, and you will find me as good as my word. I have no pleasure in talking to undutiful children. – Not that I have much pleasure in talking to any body. People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking. Nobody can tell what I suffer! – But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied. (P&P, 111)


[1] Cf. E. Allen, 11-12.

[2] Cf. E. Allen, 11-12.

[3] Cf. E. Allen, 22.

[4] Cf. Chapone, 187-200.

[5] Cf. E. Allen, 26.

[6] Cf. Fergus in: Monaghan, 66.

[7] Cf. Fergus in: Monaghan, 69.

[8] Cf. Gisborne, 101-104.

[9] Cf. Fergus in: Monaghan, 70.

[10] Cf. Chapone, 112-113.

[11] Cf. Fergus in: Monaghan, 70.

[12] Cf. Labriola in: The Literary Encyclopedia

[13] Cf. Labriola in: The Literary Encyclopedia

[14] Cf. E. Allen, 15.

[15] Cf. Torgerson, 1.

[16] Cf. Gorman, 2.

[17] Cf. Torgerson, 1-2.

[18] Cf. Gorman, 172.

[19] Cf. Gorman, 172.

[20] Cf. Wiltshire, 56-57.

[21] Cf. D. Allen, 30-31.

[22] Cf. Gorman, 172-173.

[23] Cf. Iser, 166.

[24] Cf. Iser, 170.

[25] Cf. Iser, 167.

[26] Cf. Foucault, 22.

[27] Cf. Wiltshire, 56.

[28] Cf. Sense & Sensibility, 214.

[29] Cf. Sense & Sensibility, 40.

[30] Cf. Gorman, 108.

[31] Cf. Gorman, 5.

[32] Cf. Gorman, 60-61.

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The narrative construction of the female body in the British novel of the 19th century
University of Vienna  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistk)
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Dagmar Hecher (Author), 2007, The narrative construction of the female body in the British novel of the 19th century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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