Eike Kronshage, Vision and Character: Physiognomics and the English Realist Novel

Eike Kronshage, Vision and Character: Physiognomics and the English Realist Novel (Abingdon: Routledge: 2018) 230 pp. £29.59 Pb, £92.00 Hb, ISBN: 9780367887360

In Vision and Character: Physiognomics and the English Realist Novel, Eike Kronshage has taken an innovative step towards establishing nineteenth- and early twentieth-century physionomics as a literary theory. Vision and Character is a collection of case studies focussing on selected works from Jane Austen; Charlotte Brontë; George Eliot; Charles Dickens; Joseph Conrad; and Virginia Woolf. Kronshage presents these authors in chronological order to help demonstrate the changing attitudes towards physiognomics and its pseudoscientific reputation, as the reader is led through the nineteenth-century via the evolution of literary realism. Although at times the pull-through argument feels stretched, the close focus within each chapter’s case study allows for the in-depth analyses of how these texts and authors engage with the physiognomic debate. However, with the exception of Brontë, the majority of these cases focus on the authors’ exclusion, or deliberate misuse of physiognomics. It is here that this case-study presentation reveals its downsides. While providing a platform for close-analysis, at times these intimate readings make the chapters feel disjointed. Tackling the complex theory of physiognomy – even only in its relevance to literary realism – means the vastly different approaches to physiognomy and character by these authors leaves the reader somewhat at a loss when attempting to draw Kronshage’s argument together. The case-study layout puts more pressure on the Introduction and Conclusion, which, in my opinion, have fallen short of the task.

The Introduction, however, does well to establish the working theories of both realism and physiognomics that are behind Kronshage’s analyses. He carefully outlines his interpretation of nineteenth-century realism, as ‘the first systematic break with the tradition of Aristotelian principles of genre’ inverting ‘this order by putting character first and plot second’ (3). Kronshage argues that ‘In realist fiction, character is primarily revealed through detailed physiognomic portraiture, and, consequently, many nineteenth-century realist novels are replete with physiognomic portraits’ (2). His definition of phyisognomics mostly draws from the works of George Christoph Lichtenberg and Johann Caspar Lavater, and Kronshage explains that ‘Physiognomics in this book thus refers to the relation between facial features and inner character’ (7). The author also states that he has purposefully chosen a ‘narrow concept of physiognomics’ that excludes pathognomy. As each chapter explores how literary physiognomics is engaged with, and to what extent, within these realist novels, in places the overarching argument and conclusion – that ‘the relationship between realism and physiognomics’ is based on ‘their reliance on character and vision’ (208) – feels too generalised to really bring together these individual analyses of physiognomics as a realist literary device. I feel there are wider contextual elements missing that would, at times, help to unify Kronshage’s conclusion.

For example, the text would have benefitted from more engagement with the literary history of physiognomy, particularly the philosophical concepts which developed throughout the eighteenth century, including those leading up to Lavater. Physiognomy and literary character were by no means new concepts by the nineteenth-century, and while acknowledgement of the pseudoscience’s popular history is briefly evident within the Introduction, the claim that ‘descriptions in Victorian novels are commonly much longer than those in fiction from earlier periods […] and aim at descriptive completeness’ (11), seems to sweep over the significant contributions to literary physiognomy in the mid-century novels of the eighteenth-century. For example, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and his meticulously detailed description of Sophia Western. While this study focuses on the more established physiognomic description in nineteenth-century literature, acknowledgement of earlier examples of literary physiognomics would have helped to substantiate the more conceptual foundations in this study of realist literature – especially where the developments in character description are concerned.

The restrictions of looking at physiognomics within the narrow confines of literary realism are most evident in the much shorter chapter on Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood. Here Kronshage argues that Dickens’s descriptions are both anti-realist and anti-physiognomic: they engage with, but ridicule the theory of physiognomics and instead provide exaggerated descriptions that are not in line with realism, and do not require scientific evaluation, as ‘characters usually look according to their respective generic function’ (148). But Kronshage is working with a definition of physiognomics as it relates to literary realism, where ‘physiognomics in the novel (ideally) provides both empirical data and the proper way to interpret them’ (145). As Dickens does not provide this proper interpretation, Kronshage’s assessment is that he satirises the genre. While he may satirise realism, Dickens’s characters do align with earlier concepts of physiognomy, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries where the connection between facial features and character was often built on basic, exaggerated descriptions: such as large foreheads being linked with intelligence, and dark, narrow eyes with shifty characters. Kronshage’s argument leaves little room for an interpretation of physiognomy as a literary device outside of realism.

 An exploration of the wider context of physiognomy, would have allowed for a stronger overarching argument, and a more adequate conclusion for those case studies that challenge physiognomics. For example, I found myself asking how physiognomy would have been understood outside of literature, if these were concepts familiar to readers, and how fashionable or popular physiognomics was at any given time; and perhaps a more general theory regarding how the theory works with human nature and prejudice. More focus on these wider concepts within the Introduction would have helped not only to underpin this often-complex argument about the significance of this pseudoscience within literature, but also provided a guiding hand for readers perhaps less familiar with the workings and fascinating history of physiognomics.

That said I do believe this is an important study. Kronshage effectively distinguishes the scientific ideas concerning physiognomy from his theory of literary physiognomics, claiming the two work independently: if ‘physiognomic practice is justified by the narrative itself, it can well feature as a meaningful and key epistemological concept in the fictional text’, because physiognomics has a ‘usefulness […] as a literary device, no matter how true it really was’ (11). Kronshage has recognised the significance of physiognomy on realist literature, and gone some way to establishing this influence as an applicable literary theory, one that can be analysed independently from its pseudoscientific history. Kronshage maps with incredible detail the personal and literary influences on each of these authors and their works, at times providing a very intimate reading of literary characterisation and the use of vision within these narratives. In this way, the text offers an original examination into the significance of physiognomy and its evolution as a part of literary realism.

Katherine Aske, Northumbria University