Mary Ann O'Farrell, Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. ix + 197pp. illus. $49.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8223-1903-9). $17.95 (Pap; ISBN: 0-8223-1895-4).
Laura Mooneyham White
University of NebraskaLincoln
Mary Ann O'Farrell's Telling Complexions: The Nineteenth Century English Novel and the Blush extends an already burgeoning line of Foucauldian analyses of the connection between the social and somatic through a study of the blush, that physiological response so readily employed in nineteenth-century novels as a sign of a character's real feelingsshame, embarrassment, self-consciousness, or erotic interest. O'Farrell works throughout to distinguish between the expressive blush, a sign of "deep personal truth (expressive of character, of self, of the body)" and the mechanistic and/or social blush, a blush that arises as "the appropriate local response to and inevitable product of the pressure of social circumstance" (111). She argues that the use of the blush in the nineteenth-century English novel becomes increasingly complex, undermined, and reconfigured as authors such as Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James work through their growing awareness of the blush as mechanical, concomitantly losing a faith in the more innocent expressive blush, as well as losing faith in the blush as novelistic device. Extending her discussion to other forms of somatic telling (stumbling, swooning, the scar), O'Farrell argues that each new device which attempts to reclaim a simple expressivity becomes convoluted with cultural twists almost as soon as it is deployed, whether the device at issue is the scar on Rosa Dartle's mouth in David Copperfield or the recurrent stumbles and fumbles of Margaret Hale, the heroine of Gaskell's North and South. O'Farrell is particularly adept at showing this authorial discomfort with the blush as device in her discussion of Dorothea in Eliot's Middlemarch, rightly noting that Eliot describes Dorothea as blushing more than several dozen times in the novel while nonetheless maintaining as narrator a contradictory belief that Dorothea is a character who does not blush, or blush much: what Dorothea's "blush tells is what the silliest of novelistic blushes have long been known to tell . . . [but] Eliot's desire to assert the rarity of Dorothea's blush registers her own irritation with a blush that has been debased and robbed of expressivity by convention" 12021).