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“A woman’s flush of triumph lit her eyes”: Hardy, Darwin, and the Blush

“Une lueur de triomphe lui enflamma le regard” : Hardy, Darwin et le rougissement
Phillip Mallett


Thomas Hardy’s third novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, began appearing in serial form in September 1872; Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was published in November of the same year. Darwin provides a detailed study of the blush, which he views as unique to human animals; Hardy’s novel offers a virtual typology of blushing. The three principal characters, Elfride, Stephen and Knight, blush or flush with pique, triumph, jealousy, perplexity, mortification, vexation, embarrassment, anger, gladness, and shame; their faces become red, vivid scarlet, an angry colour, vermillion, crimson, lily-white, pale, livid, cold, heated, and bright. Drawing on Darwin’s work, this paper asks what Hardy might have meant by a “flush of triumph”, and in particular, how a physical response (“flush”) relates to the mental one (“triumph”): whether one causes the other, is a function of the other, or a constituent part of the other. It then seeks to situate that discussion in regard to Havelock Ellis’s remark in 1883 that Hardy was “only willing to recognize the psychical element in its physical correlative”.

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  • 1 Burgess opens his discussion by proposing that “Blushing may be considered the poetry of the Soul!” (...)

“[The cheek is the] external arena of the emotions of the soul – that focus of every involuntary exhibition of internal feeling and sympathy”
Thomas Burgess,
The Physiology or Mechanism of Blushing, 1839 (Burgess 115)1

  • 2 I am not concerned here with the further question of whether or how a woman’s flush differs from a (...)
  • 3 Pallor, in which blood drains from rather than flows into the face, can readily be explained with r (...)

1My title comes from a passage early in Hardy’s third published novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, serialized in Tinsleys’ Magazine between September 1872 and July 1873, and issued in volume form in the latter year. Elfride Swancourt, the owner of the blue eyes, persuades a reluctant Stephen Smith to agree that if forced to choose he would save her, and leave his mentor, Henry Knight, “the noblest man in England”, to drown: “‘There; now I am yours!’ she said, and a woman’s flush of triumph lit her eyes” (Hardy 2009, 62). The phrase is a striking one, and poses a number of questions: in particular, what is the connection between the emotion (“triumph”) and its physical manifestation (“flush”)? Are we to assume that the triumph occurs independently of the flush, of which it is then the cause, or instead that the emotion and its expression are mutually constitutive, two sides of a single coin? How, if at all, does a flush of triumph differ from (say) a flush of rage or jealousy?2 If, as we like to believe, emotion is at least in part under the control of the will, is that also true of the flush that expresses or accompanies it? And conversely, if the blush is “involuntary”, as Thomas Burgess proposed and common experience seems to suggest, what does that imply about the degree of our freedom to refuse or to allow the emotions that trigger it?3

2The aim of this paper is to explore the blush or flush as it appears in Hardy’s fiction, and to do so in relation to Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published by John Murray in November 1872 – the month after the instalment of A Pair of Blue Eyes narrating Elfride’s triumph: neither work can have influenced the other – and an immediate bestseller (Richardson 69-79). Darwin had planned to discuss the emotions and their expression in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, only to find that he had too much material and needed a further volume; the Expression can thus be read as an extended coda to the Descent. Central to both books is an assertion of the continuity between (in Hardy’s noticeably relaxed phrase) “the human and kindred animal races” (Hardy 1976, 557). In the Descent Darwin argued that what we call the “moral sense” a phrase often used to posit a separate mode of apprehension, like those of sight or touch  had in fact developed gradually from the various social instincts, including “love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason”, that we share with non-human animals. Our capacity to act as moral beings, on the basis of sympathy rather than the struggle to survive, affords no evidence for the existence of some special faculty, whether mental, emotional, or spiritual, unique to humanity. His conclusion is unequivocal: “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin 2003, 126). One of his aims in Expression was to add substance to this claim by documenting the numerous points of likeness between the human emotions and the manner in which they are expressed – joy, grief, fear, and so on – and those of the higher animals. The significance of the blush in this context is that it seems not to meet the general rule: unlike other familiar forms of expression, such as the smile or frown, blushing occurs only among human beings.

3Darwin set out to provide a natural history, in evolutionary terms, of the expression of the emotions. He offers three kinds of explanation. The first, the principle of “serviceable associated habits”, proposes that expressive behaviours that were useful to our progenitors have over time become innate, and continue to be called into play through association. So, for example, our ancestors learned to raise their eyebrows to increase their field of vision and take in new information; Darwin observes that we continue to raise our eyebrows in surprise, or “when we earnestly desire to remember something; acting as if we endeavoured to see it” (Darwin 1998, 224). The second is the principle of antithesis: some expressions and gestures have developed in opposition to other and more basic ones. In Darwin’s example, we shrug our shoulders to suggest impotence or uncertainty, as the antithesis to raising our arms to show readiness to fight. The third principle is the “direct action of the excited nervous system on the body” (69): a venting or overflow of excess psychic energy in otherwise purposeless movement, independent of the will, as for example when we writhe with misery as if in physical pain, or when intense happiness quickens the circulation and thus stimulates the brain, which in turn reacts on the whole body, as we see in “our young children, in their loud laughter, clapping of hands, and jumping for joy” (80).

  • 4 Darwin’s choice of terms here is a little odd. Shyness and modesty are usually seen as traits of ch (...)
  • 5 The “change of colour” is “a genuine example of moral instinct – it is the result of a consciousnes (...)
  • 6 Darwin consulted both Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1789) and Charles Bell’s Essays on the Anato (...)
  • 7 Mary Ann O’Farrell argues for a distinction in the nineteenth-century novel between an expressive b (...)

4In developing these principles, Darwin insists on the physical basis of the emotions, the universality of their expression, and the extent to which humans share forms of expressive behaviour with other, non-human animals. This gives a particular interest to Chapter 13 of Expression, covering “Self-attention Shame Shyness Modesty: blushing”,4 in which he identifies the blush as “the most peculiar and most human of all expressions. Monkeys redden from passion, but it would require an overwhelming amount of evidence to make us believe that any animal could blush” (Darwin 1998, 310). Earlier theorists, such as Thomas Burgess in The Physiology or Mechanism of Blushing (1839), had argued that the capacity to blush proved that humans had been gifted by their creator with a conscience, and knew when they had crossed the line between right and wrong. 5 This is consonant with the idealist theories of Johann Lavater in the 1780s, and later of the anatomist Charles Bell, which held that by a wise decision of the deity the human face was essentially legible: the “moral life of man”, wrote Lavater, “reveals itself in the lines, marks, and transitions of the countenance” (Lavater 9)6. Darwin instead offers a naturalistic explanation, implicit in his chapter title: blushing derives from the habit of “self-attention”. Crucially, however, it also has a social dimension: “It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us which excites a blush” (Darwin 1998, 324). Darwin’s hypothesis is that the blush originated among our ancestors in the heightened self-awareness that occurs when we realise that others are regarding our personal appearance, and especially our face. This self-attention reacts through the vaso-motor system on the facial capillaries and causes them to relax, with the consequent familiar reddening of the cheeks. Reiterated through countless generations, the process has become so far habitual that we have learned to blush whenever we suspect that any one is blaming, praising, or simply noticing, not only our physical appearance but also, through the power of association, “our actions, thoughts, or character” (343). Whether in relation to our conduct or our appearance, the precondition of the blush is the belief that we are or might be observed by other people. It is this inter-subjectivity, the capacity to think of the self as seen by others, or thought of by others, that Darwin sees as distinctively human7.

  • 8 Both Hardy and Darwin notice that where the flush reflects an excited emotion it may also produce a (...)

5At this point, a comment on terminology is necessary: my title refers to the blush but, inconveniently for my purpose, the quotation within it speaks of Elfride’s “flush of triumph”. Darwin makes a physiological distinction between the flush and the blush. The former, he suggests, is produced by strong emotions such as anger or great joy, which cause the face to redden by increasing the flow of blood to the heart, whereas what he calls the “true blush” is owing to changes in capillary circulation in the facial skin. At times Hardy seems to make a similar distinction, associating the flush with more urgent or violent emotions than the blush, but he is not consistent in doing so. Thus, for example, Stephen “flushes hot with impulse” when he proposes that he and Elfride should marry in secret, while she responds with “quick breathings, and hectic flush, and unnaturally bright eyes” (Hardy 2009, 93);8 Knight flushes “with mingled concern and anger at [Elfride’s] rashness” when she walks on the parapet of the church tower (153). However, Elfride’s “slow flush of jealousy” when she overhears a kiss and wonders if it was given by Stephen, and if so to whom, seems not to be of this sudden and overpowering kind (66). Later, when Knight recalls telling Elfride that he had never kissed a woman, he experiences a flush “which had in it as much of wounded pride as of sorrow” (284). This accords with Darwin’s argument that the blush arises from self-attention in relation to the opinion of others, and it’s not clear that any significance attaches to calling it a flush. When Elfride realises that Knight is allowing her to win at chess, she starts up with an “angry colour”; this might be an intense form of blush, but the fact that her heart is beating so “violently” that the table is “set throbbing by its pulsations” suggests the flush is dominant (159). The same point might be made about her “flush of triumph”. Whether this is wholly a flush, caused by an excited beating of the heart, or a blush, produced by the sense of her self as seen by others and triumph seems to imply an awareness of others, whether as an audience to one’s success, or as rivals to be vanquished is difficult to determine; perhaps there are elements of both. In this paper the flush is considered only when the context suggests that it might equally have been named a blush.

  • 9 “I was a child till I was 16; a youth till I was 25; a young man till I was 40 or 50” (Hardy 1985, (...)

6There is no evidence that Hardy read Expression (or indeed that he read firsthand any of Darwin’s work, since none of Darwin’s books were in his library), but if he had he would have found it congenial. Like his own notebooks, Expression is a treasure-trove of curious details, anecdotes and observations, intermixed with bold speculation, and Hardy’s natural history of the blush chimes closely with Darwin’s. The narrator remarks that Stephen Smith has “a boy’s blush and manner” (Hardy 2009, 14); Stephen is twenty years old, but he is, as Hardy confessed of himself, late in development9, and his propensity to blush is a sign of his immaturity. Darwin notes that blushing is more common among women and the young, and the tendency is one of the characteristics shared by Elfride and Stephen:

“The truth is,” said Stephen blushing, and rather ashamed of having pretended even so slightly to a consequence which did not belong to him […] (Hardy 2009, 33)

I suppose you are wondering what those scraps were?” she said, as they bowled along up the sycamore avenue. “And so I may as well tell you. They are notes for a romance I am writing.”
She could not help colouring at the confession, much as she tried to avoid it. (36)

7In both instances the blush reflects a fear of interrogation and subsequent exposure. Neither character wishes to colour up; the reaction is involuntary, and, if anything, intensified by the effort to control it. As Darwin noticed, one cannot blush at will: an actor can simulate a frown or a smile, but not a blush. Nor can we cause a blush by physical means, in the way that we can cause laughter by tickling: “It is the mind which must be affected” (Darwin 1998, 310). So far is this the case that among the causes of blushing is the fear that one might be about to blush, or is told, untruthfully, that one is already doing so.

8Perhaps surprisingly, given his insistence that expression was bound up with sociality, Darwin shows little interest in the possible communicative power of the blush. A cultural or evolutionary explanation might be that it serves as a signal, however reluctant the signaller: the blusher implicitly acknowledges social norms or boundaries, such as the age one ought to be to carry out a professional task as an architect, or the qualifications one ought properly to have before appearing as an author; confesses that these norms have been overstepped; and through the blush tacitly apologises for the fault in doing so. The evolutionary benefit lies in the way the blush placates the group, and thereby lowers the chance of conflict.

9This is plausible, but evidently the blush does not always or only function as a signal: as Darwin points out, we can blush when alone, or in the dark. Even in these cases, however, the cause of the blush “almost always relates to the thoughts of others about us  to acts done in their presence, or suspected by them” (Darwin 1998, 334). In the opening chapter of Far from the Madding Crowd, published two years after Expression, Bathsheba (the reader has yet to learn her name) looks round to make sure there are no spectators before she studies her face in her mirror: “she blushed at herself, and seeing her reflection blush, blushed the more” (Hardy 2002, 12). It is enough to raise a blush that she is regarded by herself, or by her own image in the looking-glass; though as much as shame, shyness or modesty, what we witness here is perhaps also a quasi-conspiratorial feeling of shared delight.

10Elfride and Stephen colour up, in the above examples, with a sense of shame or fault, but as both Hardy and Darwin notice we can also blush at praise or admiration, even when unspoken, as Elfride does when playing and singing to Stephen: “So long and so earnestly gazed he, that her cheek deepened to a more and more crimson tint as each line was added to her song” (Hardy 2009, 21-22). The use of “cheek” rather than “cheeks” may have been off-hand, but it is intriguing; there is some evidence that where an observer’s attention is directed to just one side of the face, as Stephen’s is here as he watches Elfride in profile  he has just moved from her right to her left, so she must be aware of this  that side will turn a deeper red than the other.

  • 10 Darwin noticed as “a curious question” that while the blush causes only the face, ears and neck to (...)

11If it is true that women and the young blush more often than (for example) a man of Knight’s assumed maturity, one reason might be that the pressure to obey social conventions weighs more heavily on them. In his professional life at least, Knight sets the norms, rather than having to defer to those set by others. Away from his work, however, he is hardly less vulnerable than Stephen: when he tells Elfride that he has never kissed a woman, “The man of two and thirty with the experienced mind warmed all over with a boy’s ingenuous shame as he made the confession” (Hardy 2009, 270-271)10. The “experienced mind” belongs to the reviewer and barrister-at-law, not to the first-time lover, who in this respect is little more than a boy  and, as appears later, has an adolescent terror that the woman he loves might be able to compare him unfavourably with a rival. The reviewer, his identity consolidated within the “huge” editorial “WE” of The Present (60), does his work invisibly, while the lover is all too painfully aware of being seen: when Elfride remarks that she thought he was “rather round-shouldered”, “Knight looked slightly redder” (165). He “get[s] red” again (282) when Mrs Swancourt tells him that his comments in praise of amatory clumsiness merely reflect his lack of experience. The key element in each case is the sense of exposure, as he finds himself stripped of the role in which he had clothed himself.

  • 11 The notable exception is George Eliot, another close reader of Darwin, though she is unwilling to a (...)

12For the most part Victorian fiction treats the blush as a unitary phenomenon: heroine after heroine grows red, with no further detail offered11. Both Darwin and Hardy, however, discriminate between different physical kinds of blush. Elfride’s blush at the piano deepens by degrees as she becomes increasingly conscious of Stephen’s gaze, and her own reaction to it. Hardy anticipates here a distinction made by recent commentators between the classic and the “creeping” blush, which typically develops more slowly and lasts longer (Crozier 2010, 2012). The term itself occurs twice in The Woodlanders. When Fitzpiers pays a medical visit to Felice Charmond, he observes “a blush creep slowly over her decidedly handsome cheeks” (Hardy 2005, 169). Her blush develops in tandem with a process of mental reflection, as she wonders if Fitzpiers recognizes her from their earlier meeting, years before, and concludes that he does not. The interplay between an unspoken thought and a gradual change of colour is repeated when Grace Melbury reads the letter telling her that she will soon be free to marry again: “a creeping blush tinctured her white neck and cheek” (246). By contrast, when she guesses that her father has also written to Giles, urging him to renew his courtship, “the discovery sent a scarlet pulsation through her for the moment” (251). The three elements here are analytically distinct  a mental act (“discovery”), an internal physical response (“pulsation”), and its external manifestation (“scarlet”) – but they are experienced as virtually instantaneous.

13Darwin asserts that the “tendency to blush is inherited” (Darwin 1998, 311). Hardy had reached the same conclusion. In Far from the Madding Crowd, the unlucky Joseph Poorgrass is an inveterate blusher, despite various attempts to cure him, including putting him to work as errand-man in the “horrible sinful situation” of the Women’s Skittle Alley at the back of a Casterbridge public house – presumably in the hope of inuring him to embarrassment, rather than as a form of aversion therapy. His affliction may reflect no more than Hardy’s desire to differentiate the minor characters, comparable with Andrew Randle’s involuntary alternation in the same novel between stammering and cursing (akin to Tourette’s syndrome, though this wasn’t identified until 1885), or Jan Coggan’s “multiplying eye”, but as Joseph explains with some complacency, “Blushes hev been in the family for generations” (Hardy 2002, 60).

14Enough has been said to show how often Hardy and Darwin agree in their observations of the blush. One final example will suffice. Darwin remarks in Expression that “Every one must have noticed how easily after one blush fresh blushes chase each other over the face” (Darwin 1998, 312). Hardy certainly had: when in Desperate Remedies Edward Springrove invites Cytherea Graye to go rowing with him, the narrator, as so often in Hardy’s fiction, chooses to describe her physical response rather than her thoughts: she “looked uncertainly at the ground, then almost, but not quite, in his face, blushed a series of minute blushes, left off in the midst of them, and showed the usual signs of perplexity in a matter of the emotions” (Hardy 2003, 41). Between them, the naturalist and the novelist offer a detailed typology of the blush, both as experienced by the blusher and as interpreted by the beholders, but whether its various forms the sudden blush, the creeping blush, the series of blushes  arise from or can be traced back to different mental states, remains for both an open question.

  • 12 The outlier is Jude the Obscure, in which Jude (as a boy) and Sue each blush once, and Arabella not (...)
  • 13 A memorable example of the latter occurs when Tess stands outside the locked door of Angel’s parent (...)
  • 14 For further discussion of the scene, see Dillion & Mallett.

15Hardy’s interest in how and why men and women change colour runs throughout his work12. This emphasis on what is visible on the body, and more particularly on the face, is not fortuitous. It is an aspect of his resistance, as Havelock Ellis noticed in one of the best contemporary essays on Hardy’s fiction, to the direct representation of the consciousness of his characters. His usual method of narration is instead impersonal: as Ellis puts it, “he is only willing to recognize the psychical element in its physical correlative. This dislike to use the subjective method or to deal directly with mental phenomena is a feature in Mr. Hardy’s psychology which has left a strong mark on his art” (Ellis 358-359). Hillis Miller makes a similar point in Thomas Hardy: Distance and Desire when he observes that almost every sentence Hardy wrote is “objective”: “His self­awareness and that of his characters are always inextricably involved in their awareness of the world. Their minds are turned habitually outward” (Miller 1). We learn what characters think or feel either through their bodily reaction, or through what they see, or the novelist sees on their behalf13. Consider, for example, the scene in which Clym confronts Eustacia after having discovered, or so he supposes, her part in his mother’s death. She is coiling her hair, and sees his face reflected in the looking-glass, “ashy, haggard, and terrible”: “And while she looked the carmine flush with which warmth and sound sleep had suffused her cheeks and neck dissolved from view, and the deathlike pallor in his face flew across into hers” (Hardy 2006, 269). Clym’s conclusion is that she “knows what is the matter”, because “[he] see[s] it in [her] face”. But the narrator tells us no more than her change of colour: we have no access to her thoughts14. As the scene progresses, we “see” a number of physical reactions: a “shudder” which causes the fabric of her nightdress to shake, a “slight laugh”, a deep flush (“the red blood inundated her face”), a fit of sobbing. There are individual words suggestive of her feelings (“weary”, “bitterness”, “indifferently”), but there is no attempt to get behind them. Finally we are told that her hands “quivered so violently” that she is unable to tie her bonnet-strings: moments later, she leaves (270-274).

  • 15 In contrast, George Eliot’s account of the interview between Dorothea and Rosamond in Chapter 81 of (...)

16This is a method of narration all Hardy’s readers will recognize15. My point, of course, is that the blush is one of the physical actions he finds most helpful to this method. In A Pair of Blue Eyes, taken here as a representative text, Elfride, Stephen and Knight blush, flush or turn pale with pique, triumph, jealousy, perplexity, mortification, embarrassment, vexation, anger, gladness, and shame; their faces become rapid red, vivid scarlet, crimson, vermillion, lively red, an angry colour, lily-white, livid, cold, heated, and bright. We are told a good deal about the precise physical change, as when Elfride reacts to seeing Stephen Smith again for the first time after her engagement to Knight: “She pressed a hand to her eyes, as if to blot out the image of Stephen. A vivid scarlet spot now shone with preternatural brightness in the centre of each cheek, leaving the remainder of her face lily-white as before” (Hardy 2009, 248). But it is left for the reader to judge how this specific change of colour correlates with the psychical event that in some way prompts it.

  • 16 The punctuation and emphasis are Darwin’s; “slight” is an interlinear insertion.

17That way of putting it leaves open several questions: in particular, whether the relation between the emotion and the blush is causative or merely associative. In Notebook N, begun in 1838 and marked “Private”, Darwin proposed that emotions could be described as “effects on the mind, accompanying certain bodily actions”, but then hesitated over the verb: “but what first caused this bodily action. if the emotion was not first felt?” Yet he was reluctant to assign priority, and a clearly causative role, to either mind or body: better, perhaps, to regard an emotion and its expression as a single event, each a constituent part of the other. The note continues: “without <slight> flush, acceleration of pulse. or rigidity of muscles. – man cannot be said to be angry” (Darwin 1987, 581-582)16. Or, as Hardy might have responded, without a sudden flush and a brightening of the eyes a woman cannot be said to feel triumph.

18The mind, Darwin remarked elsewhere in the notebook, “is function of body” (Darwin 1987, 564). Hardy didn’t have access to Darwin’s early thoughts, but he did read and take notes from Auguste Comte, and from G. H. Lewes expounding Comte’s ideas, including in 1877 an abridged quotation from his essay on “The Course of Modern Thought”:

Physiology began to disclose that all the mental processes were (mathematically speaking) functions of physical processes, i.e.  varying with the variations of bodily states; & this was declared enough to banish for ever the conception of a Soul, except as a term simply expressing certain functions. (Björk I, 92; Hardy’s underlining)

19Comte in particular was so far persuaded of the physical basis of our affective life that he saw no reason for a science of psychology: physiology alone would suffice. That Hardy had some sympathy with this position is suggested by the tendency of the novels to register subjectivity somatically, in terms of physical sensation or changed perception of the outer world, rather than through introspection or free indirect discourse, as in the work of George Eliot or Henry James: hence the recurrence in Hardy’s fiction of such words as “palpitating”, “irradiated”, “faint”, “trembling”, “listless”, “tremulous”, and the frequent references to the waves of the blood, and the throbbing of the pulse. Deleuze suggests that Hardy’s characters are not so much “people or subjects” as “collections of intensive sensations” (Deleuze 39-40). So, of Bathsheba, kissed by Troy in the hollow amid the ferns:

That minute’s interval had brought the blood beating into her face, set her stinging as if aflame to the very hollows of her feet, and enlarged emotion to compass which quite swamped thought. It had brought upon her a stroke resulting, as did that of Moses in Horeb, in a liquid stream here a stream of tears. She felt like one who has sinned a great sin. (Hardy 2002, 185)

20Similarly, Tess Durbeyfield is such “a sheaf of susceptibilities” that her blood is “driven to her finger-ends” by Angel’s touch (Hardy 1986, 253); the “highly charged” Eustacia Vye is alternately “fired” and cooled” by a “cycle of visions”, each change visible on her features (Hardy 2006, 102). As Hardy noted from Comte’s Social Dynamics, “Feeling” is “the great motor force of human life”, and feeling takes its origin in the body (Björk I, 68).

  • 17 For the quotation and useful discussion, see Davis.
  • 18 Hardy used the phrase when reading Henri Bergson in 1915 (Hardy 1984, 400), and recalled it as the (...)
  • 19 An earlier version of this paper made the further point that there is something more at issue for H (...)

21But Hardy was reluctant simply to assign priority to the body over the mind. In 1882 he transcribed part of a Spectator review arguing that the external “framework” of the universe might have “inner qualities analogous to those which we call mental” (Björk I, 148). The context here is W. K. Clifford’s proposition, in an essay of 1878 entitled “On the Nature of Things-in-Themselves”, that while a molecule of inorganic matter does not possess consciousness, it does possess “a small piece of mind-stuff […] When matter takes the complex form of a living human brain, the corresponding mind-stuff takes the form of a human consciousness, having intelligence and volition” (Clifford 57-67). Lewes’s essay on “Modern Thought” reaches a similar conclusion, albeit by a different route: “all physical facts are mental facts expressed in objective terms, and mental facts are physical facts expressed in subjective terms” (Lewes 321; italics in original)17, These ideas appealed to Hardy, as ever anxious to oppose “our old friend Dualism”18, though it is not clear in either case that they are a solution to the problem of the mind-body relation rather than merely a restatement of it. But as Hardy often insisted, he was a poet and a novelist, not a philosopher. Physical and mental facts are not identical in his fiction, but – so far as he could come to a conclusion – they appear as twin halves of a single event. It may be that the ambiguous work done by the little word “of”, in “a woman’s flush of triumph”, reaches as far as the more formal discussions of Clifford, Bergson, Lewes, or Herbert Spencer19.

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Richardson, Angelique, “‘The Book of the Season’: the Conception and Reception of Darwin’s Expression”, After Darwin: Animals, Emotions, and the Mind, ed. Angelique Richardson, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013: 51-88.

Scarry, Elaine, “Work and the Body in Hardy and Other Nineteenth-Century Novelists”, Representations 3 (Summer 1983): 90-123.

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1 Burgess opens his discussion by proposing that “Blushing may be considered the poetry of the Soul!” (Burgess 7). The Oxford English Dictionary, more prosaically, defines a blush as the “reddening of the face caused by shame, modesty, or other emotion”.

2 I am not concerned here with the further question of whether or how a woman’s flush differs from a man’s.

3 Pallor, in which blood drains from rather than flows into the face, can readily be explained with reference solely to physiology: fear, etc., causes blood to flow from the skin towards the skeletal muscles, where it will be needed to assist flight or defence.

4 Darwin’s choice of terms here is a little odd. Shyness and modesty are usually seen as traits of character rather than emotions. Most recent investigators speak instead of embarrassment.

5 The “change of colour” is “a genuine example of moral instinct – it is the result of a consciousness of guilt, and as such leads us to infer, that it was with this intent the blush was originally designed by our Maker” (Burgess 26).

6 Darwin consulted both Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy (1789) and Charles Bell’s Essays on the Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression (1824), which extended the principles of natural theology to the human system of facial muscles.

7 Mary Ann O’Farrell argues for a distinction in the nineteenth-century novel between an expressive blush, which is the sign of “deep personal truth (expressive of character, of self, of the body)”, and the obligatory or social blush, which forms the “appropriate local response to and inevitable product of the pressure of social circumstance”, but the idea of an expressive blush, innocent of social or cultural pressures, is unconvincing (O’Farrell 111).

8 Both Hardy and Darwin notice that where the flush reflects an excited emotion it may also produce an apparent brightening of the eyes: “a woman’s flush of triumph lit her eyes.”

9 “I was a child till I was 16; a youth till I was 25; a young man till I was 40 or 50” (Hardy 1985, 408).

10 Darwin noticed as “a curious question” that while the blush causes only the face, ears and neck to redden, “the whole surface of the body often tingles and grows hot”, as presumably happens here to Knight (Darwin, 1998, 314).

11 The notable exception is George Eliot, another close reader of Darwin, though she is unwilling to allow that a blush can be interpreted: “A blush is no language: only a dubious flag-signal which may mean either of two contradictories” (Eliot 2003, 420).

12 The outlier is Jude the Obscure, in which Jude (as a boy) and Sue each blush once, and Arabella not at all.

13 A memorable example of the latter occurs when Tess stands outside the locked door of Angel’s parents’ house: “A piece of blood-stained paper, caught up from some meat-buyer’s dust-heap, beat up and down the road without the gate; too flimsy to rest, too heavy to fly away; and a few straws kept it company” (Hardy 1986, 409). In its evocation of the futility of movement, the impossibility of peace, and the aching loneliness that conjures up an image of “company” between paper, dust and straw, the passage conflates the narrator’s sense of the fragility of human consciousness, and Tess’s own desolation.

14 For further discussion of the scene, see Dillion & Mallett.

15 In contrast, George Eliot’s account of the interview between Dorothea and Rosamond in Chapter 81 of Middlemarch spells out the relation between the physical and the psychical before moving (as Hardy rarely does) into free indirect speech: “Rosamond, wrapping her soft shawl around her as she walked towards Dorothea, was inwardly wrapping her soul in cold reserve. Had Mrs Casaubon come to say anything to her about Will?” (Eliot 1997, 779).

16 The punctuation and emphasis are Darwin’s; “slight” is an interlinear insertion.

17 For the quotation and useful discussion, see Davis.

18 Hardy used the phrase when reading Henri Bergson in 1915 (Hardy 1984, 400), and recalled it as the title for a satirical poem in his posthumous collection, Winter Words (Hardy 1976, 892).

19 An earlier version of this paper made the further point that there is something more at issue for Hardy, as not for Comte or Lewes. It has often been noticed that Hardy’s characters exist in a process of constant interchange with the external world, especially through their work; they are both marked by it, and leave traces of themselves on it (Scarry 1983; Irwin 88-115). But in insisting on the physical basis of our affective life, Hardy also marks our continuity with the universe around us. The human body throbs and pulses; so does the outer world. Blood flows in waves; so do sound and colour. This is more than a matter simply of analogy, but to make the case properly would require extensive quotation, and a separate essay.

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Electronic reference

Phillip Mallett, “A woman’s flush of triumph lit her eyes”: Hardy, Darwin, and the BlushFATHOM [Online], 5 | 2018, Online since 22 April 2018, connection on 03 February 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Phillip Mallett

Phillip Mallett is Honorary Senior Lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, a Vice-President of both the Hardy Society and the Thomas Hardy Association, and since 2008 editor of the Hardy Society’s journals. In addition to essays on writers from John Donne to Larkin and Heaney, his published work includes a biography of Rudyard Kipling as well as an edition of his Limits and Renewals, and scholarly editions of Hardy’s The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Under the Greenwood Tree. He has also edited a number of collections of essays, most recently Thomas Hardy in Context for Cambridge University Press and The Victorian Novel and Masculinity for Palgrave. He is currently working on new editions of Tess for Norton, and of the Mayor for the Cambridge edition of Hardy’s novels and stories.

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