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Blushing BodiesMary Ann O'Farrell's Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century and the Blush. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998. ISBN: 0-8223-1895-4. Price: $49.95.

  • Mark Sandy

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  • Mark Sandy
    University of Durham

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Mary Ann O'Farrell's survey of the somatic implications associated with blushing is an ambitious critical project. Her study extends far beyond English nineteenth-century fiction to embrace twentieth-century cinematographic representations of Jane Austen's novels, the television serials of Dr Quinn Medicine Woman and Star Trek, Don Delillo's 'postmodern fantasy' White Noise and the magic realism of Salman Rushdie's Shame.

This wide-ranging approach constructs a theoretical framework founded upon Roland Barthes's notion of inter-textuality and Michel Foucault's writings concerned with the mechanics of the confessional mode. O'Farrell's interpretation of blushing as both a 'social obligation' and a revelation of 'the body's truth' shares close affinities with Foucault's account of 'power's productivity'. Her openly Foucauldian analysis of the blush as 'an instrument by which the body is enlisted in the production of legibility' is 'tempered by a sense of the real pleasures...generated by the novel's coercions.' Roland Barthes's influence is equally evident from O'Farrell's exploration of how texts elicit a response from the reader so that 'the compelling pleasures of reading Jane Austen enforce manner lessons.'

O'Farrell's opening two chapters focus on Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion to explore the signification of blushing in her fiction. O'Farrell's analysis of Pride and Prejudice is alert to Austen's subversive strategy, which re-inscribes signs of physical desire through an accepted order of manners designed to regulate the body. Crucial to O'Farrell's interpretation of Pride and Prejudice is the understanding that Austen employs the 'involuntary blush' to indicate an implicit tension between 'manners and the marriage plot'. '[T]he incivility of the blush', according to O'Farrell, enables Austen to reclaim bodily desires which otherwise exist beyond society's ordered world of manners. Such a view understands the blush's 'involuntarity' as an 'apparent sign of the body's separable will and of the body's wilful intrusion into social order.'

Yet blushing, as O'Farrell observes, functions both as a 'legible and reliable index of character' and a reminder of 'social propriety'. The latter at its most complex is represented, in Pride and Prejudice, by Jane and Elizabeth Bennett whose 'blushes [are] blushed for others'. Such a 'sense of obligatory blushing' on behalf of another indicates how Austen represents Jane and Elizabeth Bennett as 'thoroughly socialised bodies'. The extent to which Jane and Elizabeth are socialised is reinforced by Lydia's failure to respond to 'circumstantial pressure'. Even after her elopement with Wickham, Lydia remains unabashed and unblushing because, in O'Farrell's view, her 'uneducated body' possesses the enviable ability to elide 'the somatic coercions of social knowledge'. Consequently, the reaction of Elizabeth and Jane to Lydia's incapacity for remorse is dictated by an acute senstivity to those social obligations of which their sister is ignorant. What is expressed by Elizabeth and Jane is a 'mortified pity for Lydia' which, ultimately, suggests a pity for themselves and the social knowledge they have acquired.

In Pride and Prejudice, a moment of 'mortification reminds the well-mannered body of the pleasures and pains of the somatic condition.' Austen employs this 'prospect of mortification', in Persuasion, to confront 'the danger of conventional definition' and to move beyond merely reconstructing 'separation as the very sign of erotic presence'. O'Farrell's contention is that Persuasion's heroine, Anne Elliot, permits Austen 'to amplify and to resolve her contradictory sense of mortification' by addressing 'questions of knowing and narration, of sophistication and self-possession'. In Persuasion Austen inextricably links issues of mortification and narrative, as exemplified by Anne's submission to Mary's revelation about Wentworth's 'intimacy with Henrietta Musgrove'. The 'secondary place' Anne occupies in 'her sister's narrative' is mortifying, but also requires her submission to the authority of Mary's story, which is 'empowered...by its exploitation of mortification's persuasive sway.'

'The psychic and physical pains of Anne's mortification', according to O'Farrell, temporarily 'restore her complexion' either through a 'blush of embarrassment' or a 'flush of pain'. Anne's 'blushing flesh...experiences mortification at work in its inevitably conflicted mode' and acts as a reminder of the contradictory tension of Austen's deployment of the blush in Pride and Prejudice. Austen, in Persuasion, elects to 'test and reinforce her erotics of mortification' which, O'Farrell reads, as 'a product of a reinvigorated trust in the power of her conversion of the sign of manners into the sign of pleasure.'

O'Farrell's often sophisticated and subtle readings of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion offer useful insights into Austen's complex reworking of the blush as both an 'index of credibility' and a genuine confessional act. This theoretical interest in the confessional mode is reflected by O'Farrell's critical practice, which permits her own personal revelations about her experience of reading nineteenth-century novels to enter into her discourse. For instance, O'Farrell writes in her conclusion about Persuasion that 'I am mortified by the exposure of my commitment to Austen's cosmetic fantasies, by my faith in Austen's fictions.' Such confessional moments perfectly enact O'Farrell's thesis of the blush as 'a pleasing slip or inexplicable blunder' which measures the depth of a character's integrity.

Elizabeth Gaskell, O'Farrell contends, is an inheritor of Austen's 'blush as a legible signifier of character', whose loss of faith in 'the reliability of the blush' directs her towards the 'somatic blunder' as a form of substitution for the blushing complexion. Gaskell's North and South explores physical reactions—other than the blush—to promote alternative mechanisms of the body. These potential bodily 'substitutions for the blush as register of character and virtue' manifest themselves, in Gaskell's fiction as 'the blunder, the swoon, and even the suitable death'.

North and South's effort to recast Austen's mode of the blush may 'prove unsatisfactory' but the endeavour does, as O'Farrell argues, articulate the novel's 'fantasy that the body is the anxious author of its own signs and that somatic events are records of the body's marked intentions.' Paradoxically, Gaskell's fiction of the body is illogically premissed on the notion of 'seeking fixity through instability.' Consequently, the swoon cannot 'comprehensively replace the blush' because Gaskell's anxiety 'about fainting and swooning parallel her concerns about blushing'. The difficulty, for Gaskell, is the realisation that the swoon—like the blush—is 'subject to perception, liable to misunderstanding and to incredulity.' This inadequacy of the swoon and the blush as 'a stable register of character', forces Gaskell to govern them by her own narrative control, so that they are 'subjected by Gaskell's writing' to her fantasy of 'characterological legibility'. In North and South, Gaskell's 'fantasy' belies her anxieties about establishing 'a stable register' by producing 'a blush [that] proves not even reliably to be a blush.' The novel's climactic scene depicts Margaret's evening walk with Frederick, watched by Thornton's wary eye who does not yet know they are brother and sister. The complexions of Margaret and Frederick are stained by the blushing sunset, reinforcing Thornton's suspicions and indicating their innocence. The imagery of the sunset is, simultaneously, a 'semiotic failure and semiotic success', which illustrates the 'possibility of misreading' that Gaskell fears threatens the blush as a 'stable register'.

Elizabeth Gaskell's inability to believe in 'the blush as sign' is contrasted with Charles Dickens's 'management of the blush'. The blush, as in the fictions of Austen and Gaskell, is construed as 'a site of anxiety', in Dickens's David Copperfield, 'about class, about women, about the body, and about significatory excess'. Dickens's novel represents a 'move away from manners to melodrama' and, for O'Farrell, 'substitutes the scar for the blush' as 'a response to exasperation and a display of control'. Dickens averts a 'crisis of faith' through his unrelenting belief in his own work, but runs the risk that his fiction 'threaten[s] him with action and meaning...in excess of Dickensian authority.'

Such aggression is inherent in Dickens's reading of 'mortification as violence' and the 'lurid signification' of the 'blush-as-scar'. Central to O'Farrell's account of David Copperfield is Rosa Dartle, a character presented by Dickens as 'marked legibly with a scar' and yet able to escape 'legibility by manipulating her scar physically, linguistically, and behaviourally.' Dickens's treatment of Rosa Dartle's scar 'generates a familiar oscillation between anxiety and reassurance' as, on one hand, it suggests her body's subjugation to Dickens's authorial authority and, on the other, provides her body with the means 'to speak back.' In his fiction, Dickens's desire to convert the 'body...into language' manifests itself as a literal physical scar, representing Dickens's figurative attempt to linguistically control the body which, ironically, provides the body with 'a language peculiarly its own.' Even the creative of Dickens's powerful fiction confronts the tensions at play beneath its own 'fantasy of somatic confusion'.

In her concluding chapter, 'The Mechanics of Confusion', O'Farrell notes that 'the fantastical constitution of a social body is a formation wrought by confusion'. The English novel's attempted representation of this 'somatic confusion' often resort to a 'notion of [this] confusion as the experience of psychosomatic disorder through blushing' to produce 'visions of perceptible mechanical relations between and among people'. These observations endorse O'Farrell's earlier critical explorations of fictions by Austen, Gaskell, and Dickens, and their response to the body and its blushes in varying guises. This final section also provides an opportunity to contrast the somatic mode of the blush with Henry James's self-conscious blush in The Portrait of a Lady. James, O'Farrell suggests, 'knows that the fiction of the blush has collapsed into language' and so understands it as a 'figure of speech rather than [a] somatic incident.' In the Jamesian world of fiction, the blush becomes 'disembodied and denaturalised' as merely a 'figure within a figure of fiction'. The 'literary self-consciousness' of James's fiction finds its contemporary counterpart in Salman Rushdie's postmodernist novel, Shame. Rushdie's Shame depicts a 'social mechanics [which] enlists and includes the labor of the body in the service of the machine' and yet ensures that 'the body is elided' in its 'version of contemporary social mechanics'. O'Farrell describes Rushdie's Shame, as a 'fantasy of incendiary significatory powers'—governed by an 'imagination of disaster'—which permits the blush 'to end the novel'. Such an apocalyptic close is an inevitable consequence of a self-conscious and utterly disembodied blush.

Telling Complexions is an engaging, lively, and thought-provoking study that contributes to both literary criticism and cultural studies. The depth and breadth of O'Farrell's knowledge is evidenced in her lucid and enthusiastic prose, which should appeal to student and scholar alike. O'Farrell's deftly executed localised readings will prove illuminating for both established scholars of the nineteenth-century novel and those who are newly acquainted with the work of Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, and James. Whether serious student or scholar the accessible style, warmth, wit, and intelligence of O'Farrell's Telling Complexions is undeniable.