Persuasions #13, 1991                                                                                                                                Pages 132-137


Jane Austen Images of the Body: No Fingers, No Toes



Department of English, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg  A3T 2N2


“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other,” Jane Austen says through her heroine, Emma Woodhouse, and a reading of Emma suggests that its author belongs to the half of the world that is unconcerned with the manifestations of human physicality.  Her narrative intricacies and turns are propelled for the most part by incident or by reason and not by the needs or responses of the body.  The brain – for Jane Austen does frequently refer to that particular fleshly organ – presides over the rest of the corporeal body which is treated with what? indifference? incuriosity? disregard? or perhaps a metaphorical shrug that all but erases.  Or else her strategy, conscious or unconscious, points to the values that she believes support a decent community of individuals.

At the same time we are never given to believe that Jane Austen finds the body repellent.  Everything we know of Emma, for instance – her spiritedness, her admiration for good sense and directness – tells us that she is not, by nature, a prude.  Yet, except for the brain, the human body is infrequently mentioned in Emma, or in any of Jane Austen’s work.  The reluctance to speak of the body’s parts, the body’s yearnings and satisfactions, reflects, of course, particular attitudes of Jane Austen’s era, but it is also consistent with the kind of writer she was.

A subtitle for this talk might be “No Fingers, No Toes,” for these particular body “bits” are not mentioned, not even once, in any of her books.  Nor are there any hips, thighs, shins, buttocks, kidneys, intestines, wombs or navels, and only a single mention of toothache (Emma 451), said by the historian Robert Darnton to have been the most commonly feared malady among all classes of people in the eighteenth century (Darnton 4).  There is, in Jane Austen’s collective work, one chin, ten ankles mostly sprained, and one liver.  (I am indebted to the 1982 de Rose and McGuire Concordance for this esoteric information.)  There are two bones (but neither one a human bone), seven elbows, five shoulders, just two noses, ten ears, only eleven legs, two wrists, six knees, two eyebrows and four eyelashes.  When we think of the hundreds of beings who populate Jane Austen’s novels, these scattered bodily parts seem, at first glance, scarcely sufficient.  The word breast is mentioned seven times, but five of these singular breasts belong to men and represent not flesh and nipple, but the centre of feeling.  (There are no plural breasts.)  People are only rarely described in terms of their bodily posture; instead it is their air which is noted, a favourite Austen word, uniting substance and impression in one verbal parcel.

True, there are 474 eyes, 506 hearts and 368 hands, but Jane Austen’s eyes, hearts and hands belong more to the eighteenth century rational system than they do to human anatomy.  Hearts record sensation, eyes are read for meaning, and hands are used metaphorically, much as we use that word, to symbolize a human transaction of one kind or another.  Faces – of which there are 160 – exist mainly to express reaction or convey meaning, and in fact, the more abstract countenance receives 164 mentions and more nearly expresses Jane Austen’s meaning.  Skin is employed a mere fourteen times, often yielding to the more metaphorical bloom, meaning the skin at a time of greatest beauty, health and vigor.  I should point out that I hesitate to put too much weight on word frequency or infrequency, especially observing that Jane Austen never once mentions the word ink that practical agent of all her expressiveness, though there is one, one only, inkstand – in Mansfield Park.  Nevertheless, images of the body are relatively rare in her writing, unless those body parts have achieved a metaphorical or abstract sense.

Part of the reason, of course, and a very large part, lies in the fact that Jane Austen is a dramatic rather than a descriptive writer, concerned with morality and using speech as her medium.  We all know how rarely she stops to describe a gown or a meal or a piece of furniture, and how those of her characters who are given to such descriptions are exposed, gently or severely, as being inferior – think, for instance, of Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey who rattles on about ribbons and muslins; think even of the unfailingly substandard Frank Churchill who travels sixteen miles for a haircut and carries on, fatally in Emma’s estimation about Jane Fairfax’s complexion, Jane Fairfax’s eyebrows – and it is Frank who utters the questionable word: skin.

This is how Jane Austen describes Harriet Smith: “She was short, plump and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features.”  There is little more information here than one would find on a modern driver’s licence.  Mrs. Elton possesses “a face not unpretty.”  Jane Fairfax is tall, but not very tall.  And here is Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility: “Miss Dashwood had a delicate complexion, regular features and a remarkably pretty figure.”  Her sister Marianne’s features “were all good.”  This is minimalist description, a checklist fulfilled, close to being meaningless.  Clearly Jane Austen’s preference is for the sharp, economic psychological summation, Mr. Knightley’s acerbic judgment of Frank Churchill as a man who “seemed to live without feeling,” or Harriet’s praising of Emma for her ability to “see into everybody’s heart,” a tribute we are to take ironically, since Emma, in her matchmaking, understands the heart of no one, least of all her own.

Occasionally physical references go hand in hand with psychological insight and thereby earn their weight.  Harriet, naive and unshaped, describes for Emma how she has recently recorded her height at the Martin farm and found she was still growing.  And there is a most curious scene in which the announcement of Mr. Elton’s engagement coincides with a discussion of a gift of pork flesh.

Aside from Jane Austen’s dramatic-rather-than-descriptive stance, her disinclination to use images of the body reflects the time and place in which she lived.  This question, of course, unfolds to reveal that larger question: what is the relationship of a text to the period in which it was written? – does the text help explain the times or do the times illuminate the text?  Lionel Trilling in his introduction to the Riverside Edition of Emma, cautions the reader against a naive belief in what has been called “the world of Jane Austen,” for no such world ever existed.  The novel Emma, he claims, is an idyll, a dream of innocence from which the real pain and judgment of existence has been subtracted, so that harmony and acceptance for the most part prevail.  An idyll allows space for the rupture and reconciliation of romantic love, but hardly any room at all for the particularity of human bodies.

Jane Austen may be silent on the major historical events of her era, but her books are full of the oxygen of contemporary social issues, culture, and economics.  We can, for instance, learn something about the rise of the yeomanry from reading Emma, and much about eighteenth century attitudes toward money and property in the opening pages of Sense and Sensibility.  We know from a wide variety of other sources what people did in Jane Austen’s times; what is harder to gauge is how they thought – because it is a mistake to believe people of the past thought as we do.  Robert Darnton tackles this problem directly in his 1984 book The Great Cat Massacre.  “Other people are other,” he maintains (Darnton 4).  Trying to understand that “otherness” during the period of the French Enlightenment – within whose twilight Jane Austen lived – he proposed entering the culture at its most opaque point, through a joke perhaps, through a fairy tale or through popular literature.  I propose entering Jane Austen’s otherness through her silences, particularly her silences concerning images of the body.

How can fiction not write about the body when so much of reality lies in it – passion, sex and regeneration, growth, illness, aging, pain, and death?  How can masculinity and femininity be defined, how is sexual tension to be achieved without reference to the body?  The human body in contemporary fiction is both plot and landscape, commentary and conclusion.  We are what we appear to be.  But the human body has a history too, and has been differently represented in art as we all know.  You will recall how the Holy Virgin was painted as ethereal for one century, earthy for another, now girlish, now mature, now innocent, now knowing, proving just how slippery our attitudes toward our bodies are.

By the late eighteenth century the hierarchical model of the body – since ancient times – had given way to the binary model in which male and female physiologies were seen as complementary.  Previously women were thought of as having abbreviated, lesser male organs, though female orgasm, like male orgasm, was believed necessary for reproduction.

Many of these beliefs were fading by the time Jane Austen was born, but it was a period of confusion, and also of hypocrisy – in the seventeenth century Pepys admitted to reading lewd books, then immediately burning them so that they would not be discovered among his other books.  Late-medieval etiquette books forbade young women to touch their noses and ears or to stare directly into the eyes of others, and it would not be surprising to find that a lingering sense of such prohibition persisted into the late eighteenth century.  Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, was persuaded by liberal theory that the rational neutral mind had no sex, even while her own life was disrupted and darkened by sexual passion.  Like other feminists she became committed to the view that women were passionless.  Leading thinkers of the time took similar stances, William Godwin believing in complete mind-over-matter powers, and Thomas Paine declaring that “there is a morning of reason rising upon the world.”  Thomas Malthus, on the other hand, vehemently disagreed, insisting along with Rousseau, that the life of the body was real.  Yes, Jane Austen seems to say, the body is real, but worth notice only when it is tempered and transcended by rationality.

We sometimes forget that the human body was an unknown country in the days of Jane Austen.  It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that the first illustration of a female skeleton was published; before that time a male skeleton stood for both.  It is said that the nineteenth century John Ruskin learned on his wedding night, to his horror, that women possessed pubic hair.  Before the twentieth century no one had seen a human egg or sperm, and well into the 1930’s basic misunderstandings about female ovulation persisted – and in much of the world still persist.

I would like to turn very briefly to Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion, resisting, if I can, reducing this splendid book to theory.  It does serve, though, almost with the clarity of a diagram, the mind-over-body notion.  Anne Elliot, you will remember, had been “a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early.”  At twenty-eight, she is “faded and thin,” so that when Frederick Wentworth sees her after many years, he confesses to finding her “wretchedly altered.”  During the course of the novel, with Anne’s and Frederick’s love reanimated, her beauty is restored, if not her bloom.  Her cheeks glow, her eyes shine, she is described as elegant and is assured by Frederick that “she has not lost one charm of early youth.”  Even her father, Walter Elliot, that connoisseur of physical appearance, notices Anne’s restoration.

The value the various characters in Persuasion assign to physical appearance neatly divides them into categories of the serious and worthy on one hand, and the frivolous and silly on the other.  We know, for instance, that we are to admire Admiral Croft when we see him removing the several looking-glasses from Sir Walter’s dressing room, and that we are not to respect Anne’s sister, Elizabeth, because she declares categorically that “an agreeable manner may set off handsome features, but can never alter plain ones.”  Captain Harville, one of those we are meant to esteem for his good sense, says during a discussion on the relative fidelity of men and women: “I believe in a true analogy between our bodily frames and our mental.”  What Jane Austen appears to be saying is that the body is without consequence unless it is yoked to reason.

The infrequency of bodily images in Emma is particularly striking since it is a novel whose most pronounced motif is that of illness, but almost always the illness is discounted as an apparition of the mind.  Mr. Woodhouse’s paranoia runs a bright comic thread throughout the book precisely because it is never translated into serious physical infirmity.  His older daughter is his heir in this respect; we are told that “anything of ill-health was a recommendation to her,” and her daughter, little Bella, is assigned, almost arbitrarily it seems, a weakness in the throat.  Mrs. Churchill’s illness is always referred to with a wink of the eye, and Jane Fairfax’s health – paleness, weakness – comes and goes in response to her relationship with Frank Churchill, failing most worryingly after their lovers’ quarrel.  Harriet’s sore throat, while seemingly genuine, is accompanied by low spirits, and occurs before an important meeting with Mr. Elton.  And what of Mr. Perry, the apothecary, who flits through the book like a ghost, entering even the dreams of Frank Churchill, dealing out, it would almost seem, images of ill health instead of healing.  We are told nothing of his cures, but only of his contagion of alarm.  But if the illnesses are psychosomatic – and the reader can’t help feeling these are the only kinds of maladies that would interest Jane Austen – they are nevertheless a vehicle for the conveying of emotional temperature.  Fever, flutters, breathlessness, pallor – these symptoms are sent out like signals to indicate the body’s momentary failure to privilege reason over emotion or, in Jane Austen’s terms, sense over sensibility.

Emma’s advancement in self-understanding is accompanied by a growth of her rational side, and we see this most clearly in the moment when Mr. Knightley makes his declaration of love.  Listening to his ardent words, she becomes “almost ready to sink under the agitation of this moment.”  Almost, Jane Austen writes, but not quite.  And then we are told that “while he spoke, Emma’s mind was most busy” (emphasis mine).  While continuing to take in every word Mr. Knightley utters, she is at the same time rapidly inventorying the situation, rejoicing in her lover’s ardour, adding up Harriet’s disappointment, and congratulating herself on not having given away Harriet’s secret; in short, she is as busy as any accountant, calculating the balance of fortune and misfortune.  As for Mr. Knightley, he rejoices that Emma is now his “by hand and word,” a sentiment that may strike a modem reader as being decidedly more chilly than body and soul, but I think, after one sets aside the legalistic interpretation of hand and word, the two phrases may roughly correspond.

It was a vision of enviable “domestic happiness” that Mr. Knightley discovered in his brother’s London household where, you will remember, he “had gone to learn to be indifferent.”  And domestic happiness, a so-called companionate marriage, can, I think, be imagined between Emma and Mr. Knightley, a marriage not precisely celibate – for the procreative purpose of marriage has never in our history fallen from view – but chiefly a respectful and affectionate coming together of two intelligences, a marriage of two minds.  (George Knightley does manifest physicality when he participates in a dance – it is as though in that scene he has been given his body – and he does claim to “love an open temper,” but, nevertheless, to imagine Mr. Knightley’s pillow talk is to invite a certain measure of hilarity for the modern reader.)

It might be thought that the infrequency of bodily images or bodily reaction in Emma would undermine the solidity of Jane Austen’s created world, and transform her various characters into talking heads.  In fact, the rarity of such allusions sometimes gives them power; it is as though minor physical allusions are code words for larger sensations.  When Mr. Knightley, in Chapter 13, draws Emma’s arm within his and presses it against his heart, we are fully persuaded of his yearning, since he has never done anything like this in the hundreds of preceding pages.  When he presses the arm yet again in the following paragraph, we understand we are in the presence of a grand passion.  In turn, Emma’s “glowing cheeks” inform us of her emotional temperature, her confusion, and the happiness that is about to overtake her.  She allows herself a “flutter of pleasure,” one of the rare instances in the novel of the body as receiver of emotional stimulation, though Emma does occasionally blush or flush with shame and once even sheds tears.

In Emma, references to the corporeal body tend to cluster around the emotional moments of minor characters or else attach themselves to analyses of character.  Frank Churchill’s attention to the cutting of his hair makes him trivial in our eyes; Mr. Kightley disapproves of this and so do we.  When Frank’s composure is rattled by the heat, Emma despises him.  And when Frank declares to Emma that he “cannot separate Miss Fairfax and her complexion,” he diminishes himself even further.  Curiously, Jane Fairfax remains stubbornly opaque as a character, though Jane Austen lavishes more attention on her physical being – her eyebrows, lashes, complexion – than on anyone else’s.  We know nothing of Emma’s eyelashes or hair colour, but we nevertheless know Emma.

To say that Jane Austen’s writing is indifferent to the human body is not precisely to say that her world view excludes it.  She is, as we know, a profound realist who understands the follies of human nature and its ability to mend itself.  Decency in the eighteenth century meant, for men and women alike, sincerity, unselfishness and a concern for the happiness of others.  The body, like Jane Austen’s inkstand, was always on view, a stubborn continuum too commonplace perhaps to require description or exposition.  She may, furthermore, ask us to question our own attitudes toward the body as a kind of software of literature.  For all the body’s powers and vulnerability, her novels demonstrate that, for her, the real dance of life lies in language and in understanding.





Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed R.W. Chapman.  3rd Ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1933.


Boone, Joseph Allen.  Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.


De Rose, Peter L. and S.W. McGuire, eds.  A Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen.  3 vols.  New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1982.

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