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.[Record]

  • Mark Sandy

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  • Mark Sandy
    University of Durham

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 ...