Telling Complexions

The Nineteenth-Century English Novel and the Blush

Telling Complexions

Book Pages: 192 Illustrations: 2 figures Published: February 1997

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

In Telling Complexions Mary Ann O’Farrell explores the frequent use of "the blush" in Victorian novels as a sign of characters’ inner emotions and desires. Through lively and textured readings of works by such writers as Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, and Henry James, O’Farrell illuminates literature’s relation to the body and the body’s place in culture. In the process, she plots a trajectory for the nineteenth-century novel’s shift from the practices of manners to the mode of self-consciousness.
Although the blush was used to tell the truth of character and body, O’Farrell shows how it is actually undermined as a stable indicator of character in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, North and South, and David Copperfield. She reveals how these writers then moved on in search of other bodily indicators of mortification and desire, among them the swoon, the scar, and the blunder. Providing unique and creative insights into the constructedness of the body and its semiotic play in literature and in culture, Telling Complexions includes parallel examples of the blush in contemporary culture and describes ways that textualized bodies are sometimes imagined to resist the constraints imposed by such construction.


“Exploring the complexities of the blush ads both expressive and mechanical, effect and cause, affect and manners, involuntary and willed, Mary Ann O’Farrell convincingly argues for its function as the crossroads of writing and the body in nineteenth-century British fiction. . . . O’Farrell finds rich, fertile, and unexplored ground in her topic, which gives new vitality to the category of the novel of manners. . . . In critical writing as complex and complected, as suggestive and rewarding, as it is acutely attuned to the nuances of its subject, Telling Complexions is incisive on topics ranging far from its (only superficially narrow) focus. It is a pleasure to read a writer who takes so much pleasure in her reading, who pursues her insights into the making of literary writing with such sanguine rigor and panache. This is a book written with sense and sensibility, with pride if not prejudice, and with deep persuasion.” — Willian H. Cohen, Novel

“O’Farrell is . . . a skilled close reader who is adept at amassing textual detail in support of her argument.” — Catherine Maxwell , Review of English Studies

“O’Farrell’s compelling arguments about the construction of somatic and social ideals through the use of the blush in literature makes Telling Complexions a work of interest to a wide range of disciplines.” — , The Virginia Quarterly

“Pursuing its original topic through novels by Austen, Gaskell, Dickens, and George Eliot, O’Farrell analyzes two main ‘attractions of the blush for writing’: as an ‘event of the body’ and as an ‘act of interpretation.’ Between the two, O’Farrell argues, the blush marks a convergence between the body and writing, and its ‘hybrid allure’ places special demands upon the interpretive capacities of the novel. Although focused mostly on nineteenth-century fictions, Telling Complexions considers its findings in relation to more recent works like Salman Rushdie’s Shame, while remarking wittily on how the spate of 1990s films adapting Austen’s fictions—notably Clueless—clearly reveals that the dual lineage of the blush lives with us still.” — , Nineteenth-Century Literature

“This exquisitely subtle book brings together deconstruction and the body to focus on a previously neglected figure in the 19th-century novel: the blush. O’Farrell’s insightful, . . . meticulously argued close readings . . . contribute significantly to the history of representations of the body in literature. Highly recommended.” — , Choice

“With a playful, supple mind and equally supple prose, she demonstrates persuasively that novelistic blushes indulge and explore cultural fantasies according to which character is legible, so that it is possible to glimpse, beneath the shifting layers of a complexly structured and artificial social world, some remnant of who someone ‘naturally,’ really is. The chapters on Jane Austen are especially rich, subtle, and suggestive.” — Beth Newman, South Central Review

“Telling Complexions uses the figure of the blush as a point of departure in order to provide us with a finely nuanced and happily perverse way of reading the body in the novel. . . . [I]t reinstates pleasure and supplements by-now predictably Foucauldian reading of the nineteenth-century English novel with a liberal dash of Barthes. And it is a relief (not to mention a pleasure) to see the pleasures of the novel, like those of the blush, recognized and celebrated and frankly enjoyed.” — Kelly Hager , Victorian Studies

“As brightly as the blush that is its subject, this new study of the English novel blazons an extraordinary critical talent: even after we have absorbed her powerful sense that the skin is deeper, more densely lined with social text than we ever imagined, her prismatic sensibility—an exorbitant exercise of what Jane Austen, who would know, called ‘the right of a lively mind’—must remain one of a kind.” — D. A. Miller


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