Depictions of Beauty in the Victorian EraMissing Works Cited “What is beauty anyway? There’s no such thing.” (Pablo Picasso)
The Victorians’ obsession with physical appearance has been well documented by scholars. This was a society in which one’s clothing was an immediate indication of what one did for a living (and by extension, one’s station in life). It was a world, as John Reed puts it, “where things were as they seemed” (312).
So it is not surprising to find that the Victorians also placed great faith in bodily appearance. To the Victorians, a face and figure could reveal the inner thoughts and emotions of the individual as reliably as clothing indicated his occupation. There is abundant evidence of the pervasiveness of this belief in the literature of the period. According to Reed, “Victorian literature abounds with expressions of faith in physiognomy” (336). He quotes a passage from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to prove the point: “Jane Eyre, for example, trusts her initial perception of Rochester, whose brow ‘showed a solid enough mass of intellectual organs, but an abrupt deficiency where the suave sign of benevolence should have risen'” (146; ch. 14, Reed 336).
In the Victorian novel, physical appearance was a primary means of characterization (Lefkovitz 1). A hero or heroine’s beauty (or lack thereof) was probably the most important aspect of his or character. As Lefkovitz points out, beauty is always culturally defined. How then, did the Victorians define it?
For women, that definition is a strange mixture of ideals. The Victorians admired both the strong, hearty, statuesque lady (modeled on Queen Victoria herself) and the weak, fainting beauty, who Lefkovitz uses the French word mourante to define: “dying, languishing, expiring, fainting, fading” (36). The former type was most popular in the first half of the century, according to Federico:
A woman’s body in the first decade of the century was . . . under considerable scrutiny, and the ideal against which she was measured was tall and statuesque, stately, elegant, refined . . . nothing is considered so outre [excessive] as a slender waist, while the en bon point is the ne plus ultra [utmost point; meaning a towering, powerful-looking woman] of feminine proportions. (30)
Many writers embraced this strong, sculpted, large-bodied female type, if only to use her as a comparison to the more delicate beauty that became popular later. According to Lefkovitz, the two conventions meet (and clash) in George Eliot’s Adam Bede: “Bessy Cranage .