The Body and its Expressive Possibility

January 12, 2021 by Essay Writer

‘A blush overspread Anne’s cheeks. She could say nothing.’ (JANE AUSTEN, Persuasion)

‘There’s a blush for won’t, and a blush for shan’t— And a blush for having done it. There’s a blush for thought, and a blush for naught, And a blush for just begun it.’ (JOHN KEATS)

Jane Austen’s novels are famed for their concern with the intricacies of sociability in her world; with much critical emphasis placed upon terms of expression, turn-taking, and the particularities of language generally. In fact, many critics of Austen’s works note the ‘performative’ nature of this sociability, which has translated into multifarious film and television adaptations of her novels. Gillian Russell, writing on Pride and Prejudice, suggests that the modern preoccupation with Austen’s presentation of sociability reveals ‘the importance of sociability as a performative event, that is, what possibilities or dreams are realized […] by men and women meeting together in a particular place and time’. However, largely ignored is the role of body language in this sociability, which, as the extracts from both Keats and Austen communicate, can be as, if not more, expressive and telling as verbal communication – as in in Anne’s case, for instance, where her ‘blush’ communicates feeling when words cannot. Of course, as John Wiltshire points out, in the realm of Austen’s polite society, ‘the latitude of bodily expression allowed men and women, but especially women, is curtailed’, a fact that indeed limits the notable instances of ‘bodily expression’, yet conversely works to make those few instances particularly telling and interesting. In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which I will be discussing, body language, both voluntary and involuntary, plays an important role in betraying feelings, expressions, and opinions that are usually suppressed verbally by rigid social codes and expectations. Bodily expression in the novel, whether intentional or not, transcends the boundaries of class and decorum, providing a subtext of desire and intent that communicates truth where verbal language fails to.

On Austen’s novels, Charlotte Bronte was said to complain that she could find in them ‘“no glance of a bright, vivid, physiognomy”’. Indeed, Wiltshire concedes that the presence of the body in Austen is often ‘merely enabling, transparent, taken for granted’, yet, he argues, comes into play as the source of ‘narrative energies’ when it becomes ‘unhealthy’. I would, however, extend this point to argue that this does not only apply to the body when it becomes unhealthy or ill in Austen, but at any point that it performs an action that communicates something that is not being expressed verbally. This occurs because of a tension that Monica Lawlor identifies between permissible values around 1800, where ‘one of the chief tensions was between conflicting attitudes to emotion and the expression of sentiment. The one valued calm and the seeming security achieved by checking and regulating emotional expression, the other valued the heightened sense of living brought about by a free and even exaggerated expression of emotion’. In Pride and Prejudice, this former value is in abundance, as Elizabeth, for example, after Mr Darcy’s confession of his affections for her, waits pointedly until she hears him ‘open the front door and quit the house’ before bursting out into tears. She then:

‘continued in very agitating reflections till the sound of Lady Catherine’s carriage made her feel how unequal she was to encounter Charlotte’s observation, and hurried her away to her room’

The use of the word ‘unequal’ here is particularly telling in revealing the novel’s attitude towards intense, outward displays of emotion as somehow degrading, or improper. The ‘proper’ way to encounter people in the terms of this novel is to, as Lawlor writes, keep one’s emotional expression ‘checked’ and ‘regulated’. Such emotional regulation is performed verbally in the novel, by adhering to the rules of conversation and sociability in the presence of others, yet this often does little to reveal truths about characters and their interiority. When the latter of the ‘values’ described by Lawlor are suppressed, the expression of emotion appears involuntarily in the novel via bodily expression and language. The primary example of this can be found in the interactions between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth. Whilst Darcy insists in verbal terms that his affections for Elizabeth do not exist because she is of a lower social status than himself, from the outset of the novel his body language suggests otherwise:

‘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, and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness’. [26]

One of the oddities Elizabeth repeatedly puzzles over in the novel is Mr Darcy’s frequent intervals of staring at her, his eyes ‘frequently […] fixed on her’.[56] And here we see for the first time, Mr Darcy’s eye working against his verbal claims made to ‘himself and his friends’, as he ‘begins to find’, and is ‘forced to acknowledge’ that in spite of his verbal assertions, his ‘eye’ works to communicate his desire for Elizabeth, against the regulations he has created verbally. We see also that body language transcends arbitrary social boundaries as Mr Darcy finds himself attracted to Elizabeth in spite ‘of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world’. And indeed, without such involuntary bodily expression, it would be nearing upon impossible to discern any affection towards Elizabeth from Mr Darcy, by merit of his coldness in manner towards her elsewhere, which puts up an effective ‘guarding’ of feeling that is not necessarily socially appropriate or suitable.

Furthermore, the prioritising of verbal sociability and regulation over emotive bodily expression means that manipulation of character is reasonably easy in the novel. For example, Mr Wickham, who turns out to be deceitful, is considered an amiable man for a large part of the novel. The consistency of this judgement is based almost entirely on his manner of presenting himself, especially verbally:

‘It was not in her [Elizabeth’s] nature to question the veracity of a young man of such amiable appearance as Wickham. – The possibility of his having really endured such unkindness, was enough to interest all her tender feelings.’ [95]

This moment comes after Wickham has claimed (falsely) that Mr Darcy had done him great wrong in the past, and his ‘appearance’ convinces Elizabeth completely. Indeed, this notion of Wickham’s good ‘appearance’ crops up frequently in the novel, as his good manners and ability to utilize cohesive social conversation and manners convince those around him of his virtuousness, a tactic so effective that Elizabeth does not dare to even ‘question’ his substance. Mr Darcy, on the other hand, who is painted as ill-mannered and rude for a large part of the novel is perceived as so because of his inability to adequately perform sociability:

‘He was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity […] Mr Darcy danced only once with Mrs Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world’. [10]

The imperative tone of ‘His character was decided’ again places emphasis on the judgement of character via the means of social etiquette. Yet when we find that the decided characters of Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy have been confused, it seems that this kind of judgement is inadequate, and indeed, the repeated references to Mr Wickham’s good ‘appearance’ posit the notion of ‘appearance’ as having the potential to be false or contrived. We see later, that when Elizabeth has realized this, she tests the reactions of Mr Wickham that are involuntary; the reactions and expressions of his body:

‘While she spoke, Wickham looked as if scarcely knowing whether to rejoice over her words, or to distrust their meaning. There was a something in her countenance which made him listen with an apprehensive and anxious attention […] Elizabeth could not repress a smile at this, but she answered only by a slight inclination of the head. She saw that he wanted to engage her on the old subject of his grievances, and she was in no humour to indulge him. The rest of the evening passed with the appearance, on his side, of usual cheerfulness, but with no farther attempt to distinguish Elizabeth[.]’ [260-1]

With the knowledge that Wickham has verbally deceived her, Elizabeth’s own body language reveals this, if involuntarily, with her ‘countenance’, and inability to ‘repress a smile’ at his continuing pretense. As a result, unable to respond verbally to Elizabeth’s non-verbal reactions, his own body language betrays his insincerity, and it becomes at last apparent that his good ‘appearance’ is a façade.

The displays of bodily expression and language I have discussed up to this point have been reasonably subtle moments of reveal or communication; yet the ‘blush’, or ‘colouring’ that occurs so frequently in Pride and Prejudice is perhaps a more immediately visual marker of body language, and again, one that is involuntary. Blushing in Pride and Prejudice tends to signal moments of desire that betray feelings normally kept in check by regulated social interactions. Late on in the novel, after Mr Darcy has been rejected by Elizabeth, and the matter, in the eyes of social decorum, has been left behind, the two meet again unexpectedly:

‘They were within twenty yards of each other, and so abrupt was his appearance, that it was impossible to avoid his sight. […] Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush. He absolutely started, and for a moment seemed immovable from surprise; but shortly recovering himself, advanced towards the party, and spoke to Elizabeth, if not in terms of perfect composure, at least of perfect civility.’

Here we see an instance in which bodily expression almost threatens decorum, but is saved by verbal expression, in Darcy’s ‘perfect civility’ in addressing Elizabeth. As Wiltshire explains, writing on the blush in Austen’s fiction, ‘it conveys the presence of desire, and especially of female desire, whilst dramatizing it, precisely, as propriety’. More outwardly expressive than the movements of an eye, or hand gestures, the blush appears only fleetingly, to give away an almost lustful desire that expressed verbally would break social decorum. This is especially important in the case of Darcy and Elizabeth, whose relationship, as I have previously mentioned, is not entirely socially desirable in terms of class, boundaries set by verbal codes.

Austen’s free indirect discourse contributes to the ‘transparency’ of the body that Wiltshire identifies, as actions and feelings are tied up into a general mass, in which body mind and speech are often seemingly working all at once in novels like Pride and Prejudice. However, the moments in which bodily expression do stand out form an important subtext to the novel, existing apart from the verbal codes, and the restrictions that are inherent in them, to communicate moments of truth where they might otherwise be masked.

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