A science of beauty? Femininity, fitness and the nineteenth-century physiognomic tradition in mid-nineteenth century Britain


Hartley, Lucy (2001) A science of beauty? Femininity, fitness and the nineteenth-century physiognomic tradition in mid-nineteenth century Britain. Women: A Cultural Review, 12, (1), 19-34. (doi:10.1080/09574040110034093).

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Description/Abstract

Hartley discusses the place of beauty in scientific debates about human nature, primarily as the representation of symmetry and in particular its association with Woman. It was often held that superior physical appearance was the expression of superior moral and mental development in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. Indeed, an analysis of beauty derived from the connection between appearance and character (as emblems of body and mind respectively) deems physicality the index of mental and sometimes, but not always, moral development. Hartley suggests that the particular alignment of beauty and science in the period draws on biological narratives of improvement in order to sustain a vision of the stability of the social order. One of the sources for these narratives is the physiognomical teachings of Johann Caspar Lavater which were responsible for popularizing physiognomy in the nineteenth century. Physiognomy, the practice of seeing the expression of emotion as signs of character and mind, supports and sustains a belief in the connection between body and mind; by seeing physical appearance, and especially beauty, as an index of mental and moral development, Hartley shows how nineteenth-century writers such as Rev. W. T. Clarke, Alexander Walker and Herbert Spencer were sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly drawing on the physiognomical tradition. The accounts of beauty offered by Clarke, Walker and Spencer present beauty as proportion, most often embodied in the fitness of the female body, while at the same time expressing the impossibility of maintaining proportionate sexual relations. It is this contradiction that is explored, starting with Clarke's description of personal beauty, followed by a short summary of Lavater's physiognomical teachings, and then a consideration of the explanations of beauty and fitness offered by Walker and Spencer.

Item Type: Article
ISSNs: 0957-4042 (print)
Related URLs:
Keywords: appearance, beauty, character, femininity, fitness, physiognomy, proportion, science, symmetry
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Q Science > QP Physiology
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
Divisions: University Structure - Pre August 2011 > School of Humanities > English
ePrint ID: 12124
Date Deposited: 21 Sep 2005
Last Modified: 27 Mar 2014 18:03
Contact Email Address: lh2@soton.ac.uk
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/12124

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