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The Mismarked Body of Phoebe Marks: Physiognomy, Social Class, and the Sensational Double in Lady Audley’s Secret, by Sarah Lennox, University of Florida

Victorians Institute Journal Digital Annex

The Mismarked Body of Phoebe Marks: Physiognomy, Social Class, and the Sensational Double in Lady Audley’s Secret
In sensation novels of the 1860s, the human body often turns out to be one of “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors” (James 594). Many of these novels, including Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), suggest that, contrary to the physiognomic classificatory system, the human body functions as a mysterious text that cannot be easily read or interpreted. In this paper, I propose that Braddon’s critique of physiognomy involves not only the novel’s anti-heroine, Lady Audley, but also the lady’s maid, Phoebe Marks. I argue that just as Lady Audley functions as a threatening exception to beliefs regarding the physiognomic legibility of morality, Phoebe Marks serves as a disturbing exception to theories regarding the physiognomic legibility of social class. While scholars have pointed out the ways Phoebe could play the part of the lady by imitating her social superiors and altering her “natural” physical appearance with beauty products, I suggest that Phoebe’s surprisingly aristocratic physiognomy—which is emphasized through her innate resemblance to Lady Audley—undermines the very idea that the classes are biologically and physiognomically distinct.
For Victorians who believed in physiognomy, both real and fictional bodies were thought of as legible texts that could be read to reveal clues about an individual’s identity. In fact, John Caspar Lavater, the eighteenth-century pastor who popularized the science in its modern form, described physiognomy as the study of “the original language of nature,” a “divine alphabet” inscribed upon the human exterior by the hand of God (“Lavater” 258). By the nineteenth-century, physiognomists had published hundreds of manuals that claimed to crack the code of the human form. Many readers believed that these guides allowed them to discern much about an individual’s identity, including his or her morals and social class.@
Within discussions of physiognomy, Lady Audley’s Secret is most famous for its obvious rejection of the Platonic principle of kalokagatheia, which states “the morally best [are] the most beautiful, [and] the morally worst [are] the most deformed” (Lavater 99).@ Generally speaking, Lady Audley’s beautiful exterior belies her immoral and criminal deeds, and, more specifically, her individual features fail to reveal her personality traits to those who look upon her. For readers aware of basic physiognomic principles, Lady Audley’s “large and liquid blue eyes” (90) denote a passive, flexible character; her “tiny, straight,”(101) and “delicate” (90) nose indicates a mild temperament; her small, rosy lips promise a refined rather than a sensual disposition; and her yellow curls—which, Braddon tells us, “fall about her face like the pale, golden halo you see round the head of a Madonna in an Italian picture”—mark her as a domestic angel (278). In other words, Braddon’s use of physiognomic and literary conventions leads the reader to expect a feminine, childish, angel-in-the-house who is charmingly incapable of acting for herself. However, Braddon famously subverts these expectations by delivering a “beautiful fiend”: an intelligent, calculating woman who, over the course of the novel, abandons her child, lies about her identity, enters into a bigamous marriage, commits arson, and attempts murder—all while remaining as lovely as ever.
Of course, for a beautiful woman to commit these egregious crimes would have been shocking under any circumstances, but in the case of Lady Audley, the offenses become all the more terrifying because they leave no visible trace upon the surfaces of her body. Lavater and those who followed him argued that “[f]requent repetitions of the same state of mind impress, upon every part of the countenance, durable traits of deformity or beauty” (Lavater 99). In other words, immoral or criminal thoughts and acts (and the corresponding facial expressions) were believed to permanently mark the face, changing a person’s features over time to reflect the type of person they had become. Completely contrary to this principle, by the end of the novel, Lady Audley’s physiognomy still shows no permanent changes. In fact, the day after she makes a confession of her crimes, Lady Audley “smile[s] triumphantly as she contemplate[s] the reflection of her beauty” in the mirror, and rejoices that “the days were gone in which her enemies could have branded her with white-hot irons” (379). Braddon’s anti-heroine knows that it is only through such a brand, a literal inscription burnt into the flesh, that her body could become permanently marked and her crimes made legible.@ Contrary to the comforting assurances of physiognomists, Lady Audley’s innate physical appearance does not reveal her immorality nor does it change over time to reflect her repeated crimes.
In the same way that Lady Audley’s appearance undermines theories regarding the physiognomic legibility of morality, Phoebe Marks’ physical features disrupt popular beliefs regarding the physiognomic legibility of social class. According to most nineteenth-century physiognomists, an individual’s physiognomy could change due to his or her virtuous or vicious behavior, but these alterations would not be so drastic as to change his or her essential class identity or the visual markers of this class status (Cowling 170). John Ruskin, for example, echoes this belief when he states, “a wicked or foolish gentleman is still a gentleman—and an amiable or wise plebian still a plebian” (quoted in Cowling 179). The physiognomic belief that one is born into a particular social class, and that regardless of one’s virtues and successes, that social class will always mark the face and body, assumes an essential class identity that remains visible on the body’s surfaces.@
We know that Braddon was aware of the types of physiognomic markers writers typically used to indicate a character’s working-class status, because she employs them in her depiction of other characters in the novel, including Phoebe’s husband, Luke Marks. According to Johann Gottfried Schadow’s nineteenth-century work on national physiognomies, “the low type, to be found among the inferior classes of various countries, is described as rustic and coarse, with typically large nose, mouth, and jaws” (quoted in Cowling 125). @ Appropriately, the first time readers meet Luke, he is introduced as an ill-mannered, boorish rustic: “a stupid-looking clod-hopper” with shaggy red hair growing “low upon his forehead” (65). He is also “big” and “broad-shouldered” (65), because, like the “stout oxen grazing in the meadows round about the Court” (66), he is built for manual rather than intellectual labor. While his “well-shaped” (65) nose may at first appear promising, its large size expresses Luke’s intractable, domineering personality rather than a more admirable strength of character. His mouth, the feature most closely associated with the appetites, is “coarse in form and animal in expression” (65-66), yet again indicating his low-class status, affiliation with the animal rather than the human, and insatiable desire for money and alcohol. This trend persists throughout the novel, as not only Luke’s mouth but also his face, hands, clothing, and voice are similarly characterized as “coarse” (413, 417, 164). This consistency demonstrates that Braddon was aware of physiognomic and literary conventions regarding the depiction of working-class characters, which, in turn, makes her subversive depiction of Phoebe Marks a deliberate challenge to physiognomy. Unlike Luke, whose social class is revealed in a coarse physical exterior, Phoebe’s lower social class is not legible in the solid, permanent features of her face and body.
Rather than endowing Phoebe with a traditional working-class physiognomy, Braddon provides her with an aristocratic one, and this unusual choice becomes all the more apparent and threatening because Phoebe’s physical features specifically resemble those of her social superior and mistress, Lady Audley. The physical resemblance between Lady Audley and Phoebe works on two levels. First, what physiognomists would call the permanent or solid features of the face and body of both women resemble one another. Second, as Lady Audley points out, Phoebe has the ability to further enhance this innate likeness by buying products that will allow her to change the aspects of appearance that are easily altered, like the shade of her hair or the cut and color of her gown.
Critics of the novel tend to stress the extent to which Lady Audley’s role as a domestic angel and a member of the upper-class is a calculated performance, and, consequently, they have also emphasized the ways in which she teaches Phoebe to look and act the part of the lady. For example, in “Marketing Sensation: Lady Audley’s Secret and Consumer Culture” (2000), Katherine Montwieler persuasively argues that Lady Audley’s Secret functions like a subversive conduct manual, which “show[s] poor women how to affect gentility, and once they have accomplished this goal, how to perfect it” (43). Montwieler argues that, in part, this performance is achieved “through the purchase of material possessions” (43). Drawing on the work of Lori Ann Loeb, she explains that some of these possessions, including “creams to whiten the complexion, fringes to improve the coiffure, and corsets to mold the female figure” (45), allowed women to fashion their bodies in the image of the “perfect lady” (quoted in Montwieler 45). Braddon certainly draws attention to these consumer products and their ability to alter a person’s “natural” appearance, when Lady Audley insists to her maid, “Why, with a bottle of hair dye, such as we see advertised in the papers, and a pot of rouge, you’d be as good-looking as I any day, Phoebe” (95). Braddon also draws attention to the effect of clothing on the perception of a person’s social class. For example, on Phoebe’s wedding day, the former lady’s maid wears “a rustling silk of delicate gray, that had been worn about half a dozen times by her mistress, [and] looked, as the few spectators of the ceremony remarked, quite the lady” (143). Here, expensive, high-quality clothing allows Phoebe to approximate the look of gentility, and strengthens the resemblance between herself and her former mistress.
However, while Braddon does show that working-class women like Phoebe have the ability to imitate their social superiors, and hide, cover, or alter their physical appearance through the use of beauty products and clothing, she also claims something even more subversive: she reveals that the working-class Phoebe Marks closely resembles her aristocratic mistress even without altering her body’s surfaces. Indeed, contrary to long-standing physiognomic principle, Braddon asserts that Lady Audley and Phoebe’s innate and most permanent physical features are very similar, supporting the idea that even the body’s “natural,” unaltered surfaces may fail to reveal social class.
Lady Audley’s aristocratic features are explained not only by her place in the gentry at the time of the novel, but also through her lineage. At first, Lady Audley’s features, including her “fair” complexion (90), “tiny, straight” nose (101), small, “rosy lips” (90), and “delicate,” “fragile” frame (329, 90) may seem to mask not only her immoral acts but also her humble social origins. However, although Lady Audley complains that she suffered the “bitterness of poverty” as a child, her father, although fallen in status and sorely lacking capital, is a gentleman nonetheless (358). Indeed, even as a child, Lady Audley recognizes that, despite her poverty, she has a higher social status than “the coarse rustic children” that surround her (358).
Phoebe’s appearance, on the other hand, cannot be justified in this way. Her “pale face,” “light grey eyes,” “small features,” “compressed lips” and “slim and fragile” figure recall a washed-out version of Lady Audley’s distinctly aristocratic face and body (64-65). In fact, both women have heard others comment on these physical similarities, and Lady Audley readily acknowledges that the only noticeable difference between herself and her servant is Phoebe’s lack of color. Lady Audley tells Phoebe, “you are like me, and your features are very nice; it is only color that you want” (95). Significantly, it is the seemingly immutable, permanent features of the face and body that these women share. While Lady Audley’s aristocratic features may be explained by her father’s status as a gentleman, Phoebe’s similar features completely obscure her working-class origins.
Until now, critics have either failed to acknowledge the innate physical similarities between Lady Audley and Phoebe, or have overlooked the physiognomic significance of their cross-class resemblance in favor of more psychologized readings of Braddon’s character doubling. For example, in her otherwise excellent reading, Montwieler contends that “Phoebe and Helen’s similarity is not even so much physical as temperamental” (57) and that “the two women don’t possess a striking physical likeness” (57). In Sororophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture (1992), Helena Michie readily acknowledges the characters’ physical resemblance, but struggles to determine why Braddon includes these details. First, she hypothesizes that it may be a mere “trace of a previous idea for the plot” that Braddon ultimately abandoned (65). She argues that, alternatively, Braddon may have crafted Phoebe as “a double without a function,” a symbol of “duplicitous excess” that highlights Lady Audley’s powers to replicate her identity both through other characters and within herself (65). However, it is a mistake to assess Phoebe’s physical appearance and status as a double solely for what it can tell us about her mistress. Because Phoebe is a working-class character, her physiognomy conveys information that Lady Audley’s cannot: it reveals that Braddon’s novel undermines the physiognomic legibility of not only morality, but also social class.
The fact that Braddon endows a servant like Phoebe with what a physiognomist would call the same permanent physical features as her aristocratic mistress is shocking because it was precisely this type of feature that physiognomists believed was the least susceptible to manipulation and therefore the most trustworthy. While physiognomists examined all aspects of physical appearance, they put particular stock in the shape, size, and relative placement of what they called the “solid,” “firm,” or “permanent” physical features, such as the nose, mouth, lips, forehead, and overall skeletal makeup. Lavater, for one, assures readers that “[t]here are many features, or parts of the body, that are not susceptible [to] dissimulation” (83-84). He asks, by way of example, “What man […] however subtle, would be able to alter the conformation of his bones, according to his pleasure?” (84). While physiognomists conceded that some people might try to deceive others by altering their appearance, they looked to these permanent features as reliable signposts of identity, because, unlike something like hair color, which could be easily transformed with dye, these features seemed harder to change or disguise. Thus, by giving her aristocratic anti-heroine and her working-class maid similar permanent facial features, Braddon is doing much more than showing one’s physiognomy can be successfully disguised or altered by cosmetics, hair dye, or clothing. She suggests that, contrary to popular belief, in some cases there may be no reliable physiognomic information to hide.
As a lady’s maid, Phoebe enjoys privileged access to the family’s private spaces and activities, and her physiognomy renders her an even greater threat to the Victorian home, both as an assistant to Lady Audley and in her own right.@ First, the self-interested partnership that exists between the two women always has the potential to extend into new territory because of their physical resemblance. Early on, Phoebe proves that she is a valuable ally to Lady Audley by keeping her secrets and warning her of Robert Audley’s comings and goings at the Castle Inn. Phoebe demonstrates that that she is willing and able to abet and/or conceal Lady Audley’s crimes when it proves financially beneficial. Thus, although the two characters never actually switch places, the threat that they could do so in order to further Lady Audley’s schemes persists throughout the novel. In addition, as critics like Montwieler have pointed out, Lady Audley teaches Phoebe how to improve her social and financial position by playing and looking the part of the lady, which suggests that if Phoebe were to leave her husband and create a new identity like Lady Audley, she too has the potential to disrupt the Victorian institutions of marriage, family, and home. And, because Phoebe is a working-class woman whose permanent physical features look aristocratic, she stands to make an even more scandalously advantageous match than Lady Audley. Finally, Phoebe’s physiognomy poses a threat to the upper classes, because it challenges their superior position in society. The aristocratic physiognomy of the upper classes, which was thought to reflect their superior morality and intelligence, was used by some to justify their ascendant position in society. By challenging the physiognomic assumption that each class of people had a different type of physiognomy that reflected their inherent, biological inferiority or superiority, Braddon implies that the essentialized justification for social stratification is itself flawed.
Thus, it is important to consider not only the ways in which Lady Audley’s beautiful appearance naturalizes her position as the presiding angel of Audley Court, but also the ways in which Phoebe’s surprisingly aristocratic features and her resemblance to Lady Audley threaten to dismantle physiognomic beliefs about the legibility of social class. By considering the tenuous, unstable relationship between class, morality, and bodily truths in the novel, we find that, according to Braddon, the very people we think we know best—our spouses, friends, and employees—sometimes turn out to be “the mysteries at our own doors.” And because their bodies do not reveal their secrets, we invite them inside.
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