Peter J. Capuano, Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body

Peter J. Capuano, Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body (The University of Michigan Press, 2015). 340pp. ISBN 9780472121403

Descriptions of hands flood Victorian novels, and yet, until now, they have received minimal critical attention when compared to other organs (e.g., faces, brains, eyes, skulls, etc.). Their pervasiveness, according to Pete Capuano in Changing Hands, is precisely why they have gone unnoticed by critics for so long, hiding in plain sight. Capuano’s book is arguably the first full-length critical study of hands that reads them in a literal sense rather than as metonymic stand-ins for various forms of embodied experience. Reading the surfaces of hands and their value much the same way Enlightenment scholars did the face, Capuano offers a literary history of the hands’ role in religious, industrial, gender, scientific, and racial debates throughout the nineteenth century in England. From the hands of Victor Frankenstein to the signatures of Jekyll and Hyde, Changing Hands offers a historically grounded reading of hands in nineteenth-century canonical novels that both lays the foundation for Victorian hand studies and establishes its relevance to all fields of Victorian scholarship.

Significantly, throughout his study Capuano compares references to hands in nineteenth-century novels to those of the eighteenth-century, offering a new critical perspective on the relationship between industrial advancement and religion during the 1830s. This perspective situates literal hands at the crux of discussions about human value, divine authority, and industrial mechanization. Reading discrepancies in multiple editions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818; 1831), Capuano suggests in Chapter 1 that hands in the novel embody the shift from Enlightenment’s privileging of the eye and face to the nineteenth century’s focus on the hands, especially dramatized when Victor opens his eyes and is horrified with his handiwork, exemplified in the creatures hands. Drawing upon Charles Bell’s Bridgewater Treatise The Hand (1831) in Chapter 2, Capuano claims that Frankenstein only begins to gesture at a major issue of the period that comes through in the focus on hands:  the dangers of the “overreaching” associated with manufacture. He argues that the drastic increase of references to hands in industrial and other novels throughout the century proved a response to poor working conditions and the loss of limbs as a result of industry. The hand, according to Capuano, had become ‘simultaneously the most valuable and most vulnerable part of the human body’ by the early nineteenth century (p.48).

In Part 2, Capuano’s interpretation of two specific novels, Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849) and William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848), reveals how readings of the surfaces of hands might contribute to feminist scholarship that seeks to understand gender spheres in relation to manufacture. By ignoring the work of hands in Shirley for example, we miss important gender critiques and a reading of female hands that connects the consolidation of gendered spheres with manufacture, uniting the seemingly disparate narratives at the heart of this novel that have continued to stump critics. Middle-class women, precluded from certain types of labour now find their newfound handiwork increasingly domestic, monotonous, and obsolete, much like the experience of men whose hands were replaced by machines. Vanity Fair, in Capuano’s reading, focuses on the manoeuvring and manual “warfare” that drawing room politics requires of women with social aspirations. Though Capuano makes clear that he reads Vanity Fair as an attack on Becky Sharpe’s social treatment rather than an indictment of the gender and class systems that put her in that position, Changing Hands indicates clearly a need to re-read this text and others in light of the significant role hands played in social conduct and the establishment of gender norms.

Hands also hold bearing on critical race studies. Highlighting the prominence of hands in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1860-61) and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) in Part 3, Capuano establishes how hands reflect national anxieties about race and eroding social classes in the wake of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Hand encounters and descriptions in Dicken’s novel function as the locus or organ that collects and works through disavowed discourses in terms associated with genetic and social inheritance. In a revolutionary reading of Daniel Deronda, Capuano asserts that Daniel’s Jewishness is legible in the surface of his hands and not his circumcised penis, which has been the consensus among scholars. Offering an extensive explanation of Eliot’s research into Judaism and the role of hands in its religious scripture, Capuano asserts that it’s no mistake that Daniel’s Jewishness is legible to Mirah, Mordecai, and ultimately Daniel’s mother when looking at or touching his hands.  Essential for scholars of Eliot and Dickens, both chapters establish valuable connections between hands, heritage, and the transformative power of touch.

In a related context, Capuano notes the rising interest in graphology during the latter half of the century, Capuano reads several sensation novels through the lens of hands and handwriting. In Part 4, he suggests that handwriting, upon which the mystery of so many of these novels rest, highlights anxieties about retaining individuality in the wake of an increasingly mechanized world.  Articulating a stunning link between education and mechanization, he argues that in Dickens’s Bleak House (1853-54) even legal documents, which placed great restrictions on handwriting, betrayed traces of the individual.  Capuano’s reading of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), which concludes this section, contributes to feminist scholarship on sensation fiction by revealing a widespread cultural anxiety about new forms of technology and women’s appropriation of it through his focus on handwriting. He highlights that, despite Lady Audley’s ability to utilize new technology to transform herself, her handwriting reveals the crimes she has committed. Even in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Capuano reminds us, it is the handwriting that identifies Jekyll and Hyde as different sides of the same person. Capuano concludes Changing Hands by suggesting that in an increasingly digital and cybernetic age ads, political campaigns, and commercials that increasingly focus on hands as important markers of human connection are continually overlooked. Capuano’s Changing Hands is a must-read for scholars working on hands or tactility in any period or field of study.

Kimberly Cox, Chadron State College