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What Is Physiognomy?
Physiognomy, or the assessment of character based on one’s external appearance, is prevalent throughout Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. In Victorian England, physiognomy was often given great importance. Some have speculated that Anne’s sisters, Charlotte and Emily, used physiognomy as a tool for character development in their novels, most notably Villette and Wuthering Heights (Pearl 195-196, 221-222). However, as is commonly found when exploring the literature and study of the Brontë sisters, there are almost no literary studies or information about Anne on this topic. This article will explore the extent to which Anne Brontë uses physiognomy in Agnes Grey through a close-reading analysis of the physical description of Agnes.
Agnes Grey, the narrator of the novel, neglects to give the readers a complete physical description of herself until well over halfway through the story. Only when the beautiful Rosalie attempts to draw Weston’s attention away from Agnes does Agnes concern herself with her external appearance. She contemplates her own image in a mirror, acknowledging that she “…could never derive any consolation from such a study: [she] could discover no beauty in those marked features,” (Brontë 122). As she examines herself, she notes her “pale, hollow cheek, and ordinary dark brown hair,” (122). This is no surprise: Agnes has not shown herself to have any extraordinary personality traits. Her average complexion and hair are not significant or outstanding in any way, in fact, these features may allow for her to blend in more and go unnoticed, as governesses were generally encouraged to do at the time. When Rosalie and Matilda walk home with their suitors, Agnes writes how the sisters’ and their friends’ eyes often passed over her, and if their gaze did “[chance] to fall on [her], it seemed as if they looked on vacancy – as if they did… not see [her],” (94).
As Agnes continues to describe herself, she describes how “…there might be intellect in [her] forehead,” (122). According to Physiognomy Illustrated, a book first published in 1833 that extensively explored the meaning behind different physical features, “…a high forehead [is] the index of large development of the brain (Simms 220). A large and developed brain, of course, was thought to correspond directly with intelligence. Agnes was brought up by a very well-educated mother, and when she searches for a new governess position, she advertises herself as being qualified in “‘Music, Singing, Drawing, French, Latin, and German,’” (Brontë 48). The “intellect” that Agnes sees in her forehead is clearly reflective of her abilities and knowledge.
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The second notable trait that Agnes observes in herself is the possibility of “expression in [her] dark grey eyes,” (122). Her eyes are not a friendly, warm brown or a bright, unique green: yet again they are quite plain and common to the casual observer. However, the subtle expression that she notes in her own eyes indicates a greater depth of character. Although Agnes is often quiet and submissive in her interactions, the reader is aware of her complaints and opinionated internal character through her writing. This expressiveness, although present in her mind, rarely shows itself to others in the story. The most notable scene in which Agnes truly displays her inner thoughts is in her interaction with Uncle Robson. When young Tom Bloomfield tells Agnes how he plans to torture some poor birds he caught, she kills them herself to save them from future misery. Uncle Robson promises to “get [Tom] another brood to-morrow,” to which Agnes responds by saying that she will simply kill them as well. The Uncle gives her a “broad stare, which, contrary to his expectations, [Agnes sustains] without flinching,” (43). This derisive action occurs directly through the stare of Agnes’s “expressive” eyes. The subtlety of this feature is indeed indicative of her character.
Anne Brontë uses Agnes’s physical appearance in order to further the development of her character, as well as other characters throughout the novel. The use of physiognomy allows audiences to identify the nature of various characters and make inferences about their personality as well as their possible role in the story. Through Agnes Grey, we can see that Emily and Charlotte were not the only sisters to employ the use of physiognomy; Anne did too.
Bronte, Anne. Agnes Grey. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Pearl, Sharrona. About Faces: Physiognomy in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Harvard University Press, 2010.
Simms, Joseph. Physiognomy Illustrated. Murray Hill, 1833.