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Reading the Body in the Eighteenth-Century Novel
Juliet McMaster
Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
£47.50, 194 pages, ISBN 1-4039-3314-6.

Véronique Alexandre
Université de Caen


The title of this book raises expectations of good things to come in a wide range of subjects—reading, the body, the novel, the eighteenth century. Because the book is short the reader expects the demonstration to be broad and personal. Unfortunately the book is descriptive rather than analytical, event-driven as opposed to problem-driven. This is probably linked to the fact that the author has no theory against which to reflect on the body in the eighteenth-century English—though the word does not appear in the title—novel. Juliet McMaster justifies her choice in the preface: "Rather than postulating a factitious overall development among eighteenth-century novels […] I have chosen to address separately the prominent codes for reading the body as parallel movements, and in each to draw a range of examples that are not necessarily causally related" [xiii]. As a result of this separateness the discussion is at pains to move forward dynamically. There are also additional problems such as Juliet McMaster's full trust in legibility based on the adequacy of words to things, or her referring repeatedly to "informed" or "sophisticated" readers without defining precisely who she means. Who were the "sophisticated" readers in the eighteenth century? Were they all so positively minded as Juliet McMaster suggests? Who in fact is reading the body in this book? The eighteenth-century public or Juliet McMaster—a twenty-first century reader… with nineteenth century views—as we shall discover.

If we follow Juliet McMaster's ideas, there is very little problem and practically no tension or countercurrents to be detected in the area of body legibility. To be fair, she does have a chapter on the illegibility of the body in Tristram Shandy at the beginning of the book, but her conclusion harks back to her original programme:

But just as [Tristram Shandy] is a parody of the novel form which by breaking all the rules proves that they are there, so Tristram's sad admission that our minds shine not through the body, that the body can't be read off "like coarse print," as Huck Finn puts it, is one more proof that for Sterne, as for his fellow novelists, the body matters, and that it signifies the mind it clothes even if the signification is often unfathomable. [30]

It is true that Mark Twain is not an eighteenth-century English novelist, but Juliet McMaster recurrently uses material out of the nineteenth century to support or further illustrate her points about the eighteenth century, thus defeating the very idea of historicity. On the other hand—or similarly—meaning for Juliet McMaster is straightforward and the categories she sets up and works from make it unnecessary for her discussion to go into the complex areas of what it means to mean. For Juliet McMaster there is such a thing as truth—to be found under the aegis of rationality. It is true, of course, that when Yorick feels the grisette's pulse, as underscored in Chapter 1, a link is posited between the heart as a physiological organ and the heart as the seat of feelings, but Sterne borrows as much from the medical and scientific spirit of his age when he writes this scene as he hands back in terms of evasiveness, inconclusion and undermining. Meaning in Juliet McMaster's book is restricted to one aspect and the relationship between society and art is envisaged by her as a one-way process [i.e. society influencing the arts and not the other way around]. But literature does as much borrowing as it does questioning and redressing, as illustrated by Yorick's famous claim: "I felt such undescribable emotions within me, as I am sure could not be accounted for from any combinations of matter and motion. I am positive I have a soul; nor can all the books with which materialists have pester'd the world ever convince me of the contrary." The author, though, wants to prove that a system of correspondences ascribing specific meaning to specific signs had seduced virtually all in eighteenth-century Britain [or is it eighteenth-century Europe? The scope is not clear].

Reading the Body in the Eighteenth-Century Novel is divided into four major sections. The first is about "the body as medically considered" [xv], with emphasis on the medical discourse of the time to explain the relationship between body and mind. Juliet McMaster explains that Descartes's new theory of the body as a machine was not well received by the medical profession and the old theory of the four humours dating back to Hippocrates went on prevailing, "although falling out of fashion in some quarters (as well they might be after 24 centuries)" [5]. She also writes: "Purges, vomits, and bloodletting were the primary remedies applied in a huge range of disease." The purpose of this venting was "to get the inside disease out" [7]. In short, the medical model was based on the belief that body and mind worked as a pair, producing and receiving signals from the other. This is known and only worth writing about if a new cast is put on the subject, leading to a new interpretation. Examples are taken from Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, Smollett and Richardson. The latter ("a strong believer, too, in the physical effects or affectations of the mind" [19]) had a correspondence over a ten-year period (1733-1743) with a famous physician George Cheyne, the author of The English Malady, or a Treatise of Nervous Diseases of All Kinds (1733). Again this is known. Wollstonecraft and Burney follow—logically (?!): "To deprive a woman of a proper vent for her nervous disorder, is to risk illness and insanity" [23]—and the word "psychiatry" occurs in their company [23]. Juliet McMaster is not interested in questions of power or politics. Most of the time she seems to be following Ranke's advice to nineteenth-century historians to provide an objective report of what actually happened.

Sterne, we are told in the preface, "never fits neatly into any system" [xv]. But do most writers? Thus Tristram Shandy supplies material in Chapter 2 to qualify ideas presented in Chapter 1: "Sterne, through Tristram, is always seeking the right metaphor for the relation of mind to body, one that will convey not simple equivalence, but the discontinuities and contiguities of flesh and spirit" [30]. Juliet McMaster briefly discusses "the discontinuity of mind and body as the most fertile source of laughter" [27], the limitations of the body ("prone to the advances of age, mutability, and death" [32]), and the process whereby "The soul subsides to the mind, the mind to the body, the body to its lowest end" [36]. She also discusses the Shandean obsession with genitals, and "male anxiety about sexual potency" [40]. This is interesting (though well known again), but the conclusion (quoted above) reinstates the body—first principle-as if bodies roamed the streets of novels—and not lives.

The second section of the book is about physiognomy: "It is possible to read many eighteenth-century novels as documents in the ongoing debate on physiognomy" [45]. But before going any further Juliet McMaster explains "doublethink": "We know that we all make judgements about characters that are based on appearance, and that we do so all the time. But we still tell ourselves not to do it" [43]. Is this relevant to the subject? Is this what one expects to find in an academic book? It must be Aristotle's influence. Indeed, Aristotle's Physiognomonica, a treatise establishing correspondences between the physical shape of faces and mental make-ups, was for most still a reference in the eighteenth century. Charles Darwin (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872) is mentioned en passant as a contributor to the belief that physical characteristics are of significance. The reader may wonder why Charles Darwin (also mentioned in the preface, briefly discussed in Chapter 4 and mentioned again in Chapter 7) features in a book about the eighteenth century—like Mark Twain before. The answer is certainly that Darwin puts the body first and has made such a good case for the physiological principle that it is always tempting—though not very sound in contexts prior to the nineteenth century—to rely on his good name. In any case, Fielding and Hogarth who rejected what Fielding called the "Doctrine of Physignonomy" for its crudity [50] shows that not everybody was willing to reduce movement and life to a set of codes. Juliet McMaster grants that they were not unique in their scepticism but she does not develop this point because Lavater's Essays on Physiognomy which was published in England in the 1780s and had an enormous impact on society led to a renewed fashion in reading faces. Human contact could be facilitated if people could deduce what other people were like by simply looking at their faces and assess the "pregnancy of the nose" or "the breadth of the eyelids," as when Lavater finds signs of Descartes's genius (and good reasons for admiring him) in his facial features [55-56]. To bolster her argument Juliet McMaster moves to the nineteenth century and the case of phrenology. She writes: "If it is possible to determine character by examining the structure of the skull, one may avoid trusting the wrong clerk, hiring the wrong servant, or marrying the wrong spouse. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, the convinced phrenologist might have exclaimed" [57]. Again as in the case of eighteenth-century readers, It is hard to know who is speaking: a nineteenth-century convinced phrenologist or Juliet McMaster herself? Juliet McMaster likes the idea of finding certainties in a face but, following a dualistic approach, she is prepared to be deceived and to switch to another code: "The reader, who has hitherto proceeded safely on the novel-reader's assumption that looks are indicative of character, is alerted by all this emphasis to switch to another, equally familiar convention, that appearance is deceptive" [51]. Whether it is straightforward or deceptive, Juliet McMaster insists on the presence of articulated meaning in a face: So faces are "sets of signs to be read. They clamourously assert and declare. They are harder to disguise than speech; they can nevertheless lie, slander and commit libel. The one thing they apparently can't do is shut up" [60]. Why should so much emphasis be placed on exposure and distrust? Is that really what literature is about?

The third section is about facial and bodily expression, i.e. passing emotions made legible by the face and the body. At the beginning of Chapter 4 Juliet McMaster speaks of "that familiar satisfaction in a comforting system of signs and correspondences at work in pathognomy, as in physiognomy" [69]. She adds:

As students and professors of literature, we are all familiar with the pleasure of literacy, a certain delight that through poring over little black marks on a white sheet we have access to a whole world of complex signification. We congratulate ourselves on cracking the code, and all the more so as the code gets more complex. As words are the sign of things so motions of the face and body are the legible signs of what passes in the mind. [69-70]

It is clear that Juliet McMaster aspires to the model of objectivity operating in nineteenth-century science and the sense of mastery that goes with it. The twenty-first century reader is not so intent on mastery wonders about the validity of the code-cracking metaphor. Is reading really about gathering information? In Chapter 4, connections are established between material found in eighteenth-century novels and eighteenth-century paintings. Juliet McMaster explains how both artistic areas were influenced by various sets of instructions published by Le Brun (1734), Hogarth (1753), but also Reynolds (1777), and by the actor David Garrick, whose Essay on Acting (1744) was part of the same trend. She explains that Le Brun's "systematic codification of the visible expression of the passions" [75], along with similar discourses positing body legibility, appealed to a public very willing to read the signs and establish correspondences: "As Garrick was famous for his expressive actions, so Hogarth was famous for his expressive countenances, his speaking pictures, his legible sequences" [81]. A study of Richardson's Clarissa completes and qualifies the material found in Chapter 4. The approach remains literal. The expression "the painter's frozen moment" ("Garrick, who was not restricted to the painter's frozen moment but had the actor's advantage of performance through time" [78]), is indicative of Juliet McMaster's continuous disregard for the invisible in art.

The fourth section centres on gesture and "Suiting the Action to the Word." The actor Garrick who produced very precise instructions to get maximum legibility from fellow actors is used again here. Garrick's style is imperative and precise in ascribing mental states to gestures and body positions:

[H]ow are the different Members of the Body to be agitated ? Why thus—His Eyes must be revers'd from the Object he is most intimidated with, and by dropping his Lip at the same time to the Object, it throws a trembling Langour upon every Muscle… his Toes must be inverted from the Heel, and by holding his Breath, he will unavoidably give himself a Tremor to the knees, and if his Fingers, at the same Time, seem convuls'd. [128]

But Juliet McMaster does not analyse critically the nature of Garrick's discourse, in terms, for instance, of rationality trying to chart the invisible, pinning down causes and consequences, with a view to ensure universal comprehension and leave no room for doubt—or indeed interpretation—in an age that believed passionately in reason. Garrick's instructions are a form of control, but Juliet McMaster leaves all political analysis aside. She states: "His attention to the 'lower Part' of the body is notable, where other authorities paid so much attention to the hand." This is interesting but the analysis goes no further, and the reader is left guessing who the other authorities were. However Juliet McMaster explains that the turned-in feet mark [the character's] "humble status and lack of dignity" and she goes on to find supporting evidence in Henry Siddons who published a book similar to Garrick's in 1807, and jumping from there to Victorian times, she writes: "English nannies of the Victorian period taught their charges to turn their feet outwards, as 'rich people' do, not inwards, 'like poor people'" [126]. Yet another aside which distracts from the specificity of the eighteenth century. But Garrick may have been too legible and some members of the public found him excessive as pointed out by Deirdre Lynch whom Juliet McMaster quotes too briefly—"for others Garrick overdid it, and this was so much 'grimace'" [126]. This again is interesting but the point is not developed. In fact, Juliet McMaster admires Garrick's expertise at mimesis and she cannot muster enough distance to "assess his reception critically: Garrick was master of actions as of facial expressions, and also a respected writer on his art" [126].

Sterne, on the other hand, offers more complex answers and Juliet McMaster bends her own rules to accommodate his complexity. In fact, whenever excerpts from Sterne appear on the page, the book moves from the narrow and seemingly well-ordered confines of body legibility to the wider expandable horizons of questions, ironies, personal views, confusion, difficulties to communicate—and fun. Chapter 7 is devoted to a study of Camilla by Frances Burney, which illustrates and qualifies the material found in Chapter 6, but because the arguments are not bound up together the demonstration fails to cohere.

The book ends on Jane Austen, in an attempt to show that things changed in the first decades of the nineteenth century but this is either too much or not enough. If Juliet McMaster had put explicit emphasis on change and included it in her discussion from the beginning, her references to Jane Austen or sometimes Dickens, the Brontës, George Eliot or Darwin might not have sounded out of place. The same applies to the quote from Margaret Atwood's Blind Assassin at the end of the preface which only serves to reveal Juliet McMaster's hesitation in the choice of a vantage point for the book: "Much of this is specific to the eighteenth century, and most vividly articulated in the novels of the day. But the concerns are perennial" [xvi]. Similar signs of confusion appear elsewhere in the preface: "The novel is a large and comprehensive medium, with room to incorporate competing theories, and a generous tolerance for inconsistency" [xiv]. Whose inconsistency? The reviewer wishes Juliet McMaster had postulated an overall development in eighteenth-century novels instead of toing and froing between texts and centuries, and adding personal remarks to an already weakened mix. Theory offers the example of ideas linked organically converging broadly towards a central thesis, which is what the book lacks. Theory has its downsides and can raise questions of consistency and bias, but not as many questions as a book that refuses any theoretical bias—while in fact having one, which is that science, viewed positively in the manner of the nineteenth century, reveals all:

But swift advances in the scientific readings of DNA for example, show a new way to read "the motto of our Soules." This new blueprint for an essential identity is so far used mainly for physical purposes—as Fielding's sceptical host will look in a man's face to see if he has the smallpox, but not to judge of his moral character. But as DNA is increasingly used to predict certain mental dispositions and psychoses, it's not hard to imagine a "new-age" Lavater who will diagnose moral and spiritual characteristics from bodily fluids. A new debate on determinism is already launched. Today's microbiologist, like Sir Thomas Browne [English physician and philosopher, 1605-1682, mentioned in Chapter 3], can equally claim—albeit employing different language—that "the finger of God hath left an inscription upon all his workes." [68]

This may not be a theory but a personal opinion, which, as a personal opinion, can be felt throughout the book shaping the slant that the author puts on history and text.


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