Aviva Briefel, The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination

Aviva Briefel, The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2015) 236 pp. £ 67.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107116580

The second book published in Victorian Hand studies, Aviva Briefel’s The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination picks up where Peter Capuano’s recent monograph leaves off,1 contributing a needed perspective on intersections between race and hands in Victorian fin-de-siècle literature and culture. The Racial Hand presents a fresh examination of how amputated and severed hands in diverse and underrepresented texts come to signify race and reflect the fear of and desire for the Other inherent in the imperial project. Beginning with the rise of chirognomy, palmistry, and fingerprinting, Briefel notes that the hand was perceived popularly as an appendage capable of revealing individual identity in its shape, size, and surface characteristics. Furthermore, given the increasing visibility of the hand throughout the nineteenth century, it was commonly perceived that the hand could 'betray secrets of identity' in its very surface whether desired by its owner or not (15). Briefel’s book, however, offers a necessary complication to the primacy Victorians attributed to the hand as a marker of identity—race. Those working in racial science could find no single feature of the hand capable of distinguishing a person’s racial origins, other than skin color. Thus, literature’s attempt to locate racial difference in threatening images of severed hands, Breifel argues, reflects the fear that race may not be an essential category of distinction after all. The Racial Hand begins its analysis of Victorian fin-de-siècle literature with the question '"What the devil have my hands to do with you?"' posed by Dr. Aziz in E. M. Forester’s A Passage to India (1924) (1). The rest of her book offers a compelling answer to this question. Briefel’s attention to race and its lack of correlation with manual characteristics other than skin color renders her book an indispensable read for scholars interested in hands, gender politics, postcolonial studies, and posthumanism alike.

Reading works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Frances McNab, and Rudyard Kipling, Briefel’s first chapter lays the foundation for readings of Indian, Egyptian, female, and Congolese hands in later chapters. The severed hand in Victorian fiction reflects racial identity, she suggests, in that it ceases to belong to an individual body and instead stands in for a collective Other through its amputation. In Doyle’s 'The Story of a Brown Hand' (1899), for example, the ghost of an Afghan soldier who lost a hand in war is only satisfied when he is given another brown, severed hand to replace his own; it does not need to be his hand, just a brown one, effectively reducing the unnamed soldier to his race. Briefel asserts that this story accomplishes figuratively what the work of Francis Galton and William Hershel on fingerprints had done literally: it establishes that all brown hands are the same.

Delving deeper into depictions of Indian hands, Briefel considers how the frequent amputation of English hands by factory machines during the industrial revolution impacted representations of race relations in literature. Her second chapter argues that Indians, as well as the artefacts they create, function within literature as 'natural prosthetics' for the lost hand of the British laborer. Flora Annie Steel’s The Potter’s Thumb (1894), Briefel asserts, illustrates how Indian labouring hands and their crafts can '[reverse] conventional structures of dependency on which colonial relationships were supposed to rest'; the Indian artisan inspires the English protagonist’s art in the novel, shifting typical structures of dependency (77).  That said, the focus on Indian hands and the items they manufacture as 'natural prosthetics' detracts from the chapter’s interesting argument that Indian craftsmen are reduced to their labor (and thus their hands) in fiction as a way for the English artist to reclaim the manual exceptionalism lost as a result of industrialization.2 Still, the chapter offers a convincing reading that introduces the concept of ‘hereditary dexterity’ to her reading of the collective racialization of hands introduced in Chapter One.

In contrast to the restorative power of Indian handicraft, Egyptian manual artistry, as discussed in Chapter Three, threatens England’s perceived evolutionary superiority in the figure of the female severed mummy’s hand. Both responding to and elaborating on Katherine Rowe’s economically driven reading of dead hands in Victorian fiction,3 Briefel reads the severed hand of Egyptian mummies as a distinct, racialized image that 'conveys an evolutionary process that has bypassed the Western hand' in its reanimation (89). Briefel contextualizes her reading of the mummy’s severed hand and its desire for vengeance within the popular interest given to Egyptian artefacts excavated and shipped to England for museum displays. The mummy’s severed hand becomes a racialized image, both feared and desired, by invoking an 'irrecoverable past' thereby inserting English hands into the historical narrative as those that look to the future (78).

Chapter Four proves particularly relevant to scholars studying physical and sexual violence enacted on the female body as punishment for perceived sexual transgression. Briefel points to the sadism inherent in the imperial imaginary through her focus on fictional depictions of 'brutal' Eastern practices of amputation, which served as punishment for brown women who had interracial affairs with white men.  While English men in these tales are never directly responsible for the amputation, they engage in a fetishistic fantasy in which they long for a more direct involvement in the crimes evidenced by the amputated female hand. Briefel draws attention to the way in which the amputated hand of the Eastern woman, in contrast to the dead hand of the female mummy, signifies sexual violation, 'teas[ing] out the strange appeal that Eastern punishments have for British men' (128).

Concluding her book with English humanitarian efforts in the Congo, Briefel raises her most important questions regarding hands: 'To what extent did the ‘"use" of Congolese hands as proof […] of Belgian cruelty dehumanize their owners? And, subsequently, what does it mean to define human rights by transforming people into objects?' (148). Addressing how the Congo Reform Association debates and fin-de-siècle detective fiction query the severed hand as evidence of identity and how Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) rejects the primacy attributed to hands in fin-de-siècle discourses on identity, Briefel considers the hypocrisy inherent in defending peoples’ rights by reducing them to objects, returning to Dr. Aziz’s question with which she began her book ('"What the devil have my hands to do with you?"'), she concludes with a provocative response: 'Nothing at all. Not any more' (154). The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination is an essential read for Victorian, Modernist, and even Postmodern and Contemporary scholars. Briefel’s excellent book contributes to the fields of hand, literary rape, feminist, postcolonial, and posthuman studies, demanding that we explore the ethical implications of reading the hand in the Victorian imagination as a signifier of either individual or collective identity by contending with questions of race all too often overlooked.

Kimberly Cox, Chadron State College

1 See Peter Capuano’s Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body (Ann Arbor, MI: U Michigan P, 2005).

2 For recent discussions of manual prosthetics see Sue Zemka’s article, “1822, 1845, 1869, 1893, and 1917: Artificial Hands,” published in BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net and Claire Stainthorp’s article, “Activity and Passivity: Class and Gender in the Case of the Artificial Hand,” forthcoming in Victorian Literature and Culture in 2017.

3See Katherine Rowe’s Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999).