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Modalités de la transmission

Transformations in Narrative Prose: The Example of the Description of External Appearance

Monika Fludernik
p. 219-232

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1The early modern period is an important threshold in a number of different respects: the rediscovery of antiquity; the religious reformation and England’s separation from the continental church; the alleged invention of subjectivity (Belsey, Greenblatt); the discovery of the Americas and the rise of colonialism; the medial revolution of printing and the rise of literacy; a first wave of rural depopulation and urbanization; the rise of bourgeois self-confidence; the rise of Puritanism and the Puritan work ethic; and in literature: the rise to prominence of English drama, the invention of the domestic and of citizen drama, the rise of English fiction. It is the last of these developments that will be my topic in these pages: the beginnings of prose narratives on the model of the romance, a genre that-like the eighteenth-century novel-can be argued to owe its genesis to the coalescence of diverse models (the medieval romance, the so-called Greek novel, the Italian short tale).

2In particular, I wish to focus on one aspect in this ‘genre’, descriptions, and-within the range of descriptions-on the depiction of characters’ external appearance, i.e. their facial features, body and dress. The reason for restricting my comments to this topic in this manner is pragmatic, given the constraints of space in this volume, but also strategic, since the description of landscapes and interiors has already been studied extensively both theoretically and in reference to earlier texts (Lobsien, 1981; Bal, 1982; Korte, 1994; T. Kullmann, 1995; Wall, 2006, 2019; Fludernik/Keen, 2014; Fludernik, 2014, 2017). Moreover, there exists research on the representation of characters’ mind and consciousness (Adamson, 1995; Bradburn, 2011; Fludernik, 2011; Schmid, 2017) as well as on gestures and body language (Korte, 1992, 1993, 1997; Korte/Moser-Verrey, 1994). More generally, the issue of description is an interesting topic due to the comparative rarity of descriptive passages in the early modern period-there is very little description in Middle English, and occurrences are still relatively minimal in early modern English. Moreover, two templates for the use of description-the blazon for the praise of female beauty (Klein, 1969), and ekphrasis for the description of objects (Krieger, 1992; Klarer, 2001; Eisendrath, 2018)-are inherited respectively from Italian literature and from the classics.

3One can therefore observe how vernacular narrative slowly evolves a strategy for depicting people in more detail and how it liberates itself from the allegorical and moral parameters that ruled medieval descriptive passages. As we shall see, these developments did not occur suddenly but evolved slowly; they were also non-linear in the sense that some features persisted far longer than others or re-emerged again at later points, thus producing a simultaneous presence of more old fashioned and more modern types of description.

4The article first provides some theoretical and historical background before presenting an analysis of selected key passages and an interpretation of the results.

Definition, Theoretical and Historical Considerations

5The first issue to discuss is: what is a description? For the purposes of this essay, I will define description as a passage that is longer than a clause, which provides a linguistic depiction of what can be seen and causes a pause in the delineation of actions or events.

  • 1See Mosher (1991) on the problem of distinguishing between description and narrative of events. An (...)

6This definition, which exposes itself to contestation, excludes the depiction of processes and sequences of events; thus, the passage in which Nashe’s Jack Wilton depicts the siege of Milan (Nashe, 1987: 228) is not treated as a description but for many people would be an instance of the category.1 My pragmatic definition also excludes information on the operation of machinery (such as one would find in instruction manuals). The object of description in my definition is therefore static. This understanding of description is prototypical in narratology since passages of description or commentary are taken to be equivalent to pauses on the level of the plot-centred discourse (Chatman, 1978: 66-81). Ascriptions of visible features to objects that are very brief have also been excluded because such mini-descriptive elements of the length of a clause or less do not achieve a pause in the flow of the narrative. I therefore exclude Nünning’s “narrative mentions” and “[e]lliptical implications” (2007: 104). By contrast, Klotz, the leading German descriptologist, sees description as encompassing all attributions that exceed mere mention (“all die Zuschreibungen, die über reines Benennen hinausgehen” (2013: 10). To put it more clearly, what I will be looking at in this essay is “block descriptions” (Nünning, 2007: 106) rather than “distributed descriptions”).

7I am of course fully aware that my definition restricts the incidence of the category in texts. However, in order to be able to compare passages it is easier to look for more extensive passages and passages that are static rather than textual segments that mix the report of action with description. So far I have not said anything about realism (on this point see Riffaterre, 1986). However, one of the key theses about description is that its ‘realism’ improves with time, and it is for this reason that medieval and early modern descriptive passages are often denounced as bland, allegorical, hyperbolic or lacking in realism. This viewpoint takes a modern (or nineteenth-century) conception about realism in description as its starting point and is therefore highly problematic.

8What I will try to do in this article is to focus on observable developments in the description of people. One reason for concentrating on only one type of described object is that descriptions of different entities work differently. For instance, descriptions of landscapes have to be linked with a tradition of the locus amoenus and also with knightly adventures through woods. These kinds of sceneries recur in the medieval dream narratives and the romances, continuing into the early modern period. Descriptions of architecture, instead, display a marked development; description of urban scenarios was practically invented in the early modern period. At the same time, interiors do not make a descriptional appearance before the late seventeenth century, if not the eighteenth century. Defoe is a key innovator in this respect. By contrast, clothes and other possessions associated with the status of a person and a character’s facial features and physical appearance are already described in detail in Chaucer, and the inclination to provide such characterization increases over time, though not in a linear manner. It is this last category (dress and external appearance) that I want to consider in this essay, since the main transitional features in this category raise the question of function or purpose. Why, historically or sociologically, is the depiction of physical appearance and dress important? The lack of described interiors in narratives can, for instance, be related to the fact that interiors were mostly bare and that such furniture as was available did not yet have a proper place in rooms but was shifted around in accordance with need (Wall, 2006; Brown, 2008).

Three Examples

9In order to characterize three different prototypes of description, I wish to first cite three passages and discuss their differences before turning more fully to the early modern period and its specific forms and uses of character description.

10The first passage comes from Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and his depiction of the wife of Bath; the second passage is taken from the Old Arcadia and describes Musidorus and Pyrocles as they appear in the trial; the third extract is from Anthony Trollope’s novel Doctor Thorne (1858) and serves as an instance of the familiar mode of nineteenth-century narrative.

A Good Wif was ther of biside Bathe,
But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe.
Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt,
She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt.
In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she,
That she was out of alle charitee.
Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.
Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.
She was a worthy womman al hir lyve; […]
Gat-tothed was she, soothly for to seye.
Upon an amblere esily she sat,
Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
As brood as is a bokeler or a targe;
A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
And on hir feet a paire of spores sharpe.
            (Gen.Prol., ll. 445-73; Chaucer, 1970: 14-15)

Musidorus was in stature so much higher than Pyrocles as commonly is gotten by one year’s growth; his face, now beginning to have some tokens of a beard, was composed to a kind of manlike beauty; his colour was of a well pleasing brownness; and the features of it such as they carried both delight and majesty; his countenance severe, and promising a mind much given to thinking; Pyrocles of a pure complexion, and of such a cheerful favour as might seem either a woman’s face on a boy or an excellent boy’s face in a woman; his look gentle and bashful, which bred the more admiration having showed such notable proofs of courage. Lastly, though both had both, if there were any odds, Musidorus was the more goodly and Pyrocles the more lovely. (Sidney, 1994: 326)

And so Mary Thorne grew up and was educated. Of her personal appearance it certainly is my business as an author to say something. She is my heroine, and, as such, must necessarily be very beautiful; but, in truth, her mind and inner qualities are more clearly distinct to my brain than her outward form and features. I know that she was far from being tall, and far from being showy; that her feet and hands were small and delicate; that her eyes were bright when looked at, but not brilliant so as to make their brilliancy palpably visible to all around her; her hair was dark brown, and worn very plainly brushed from her forehead; her lips were thin, and her mouth, perhaps, in general inexpressive, but when she was eager in conversation it would show itself to be animated with curves of wondrous energy; and, quiet as she was in manner, sober and demure as was her usual settled appearance, she could talk, when the fit came on her, with an energy which in truth surprised those who did not know her; aye, and sometimes those who did. Energy! nay, it was occasionally a concentration of passion, which left her for the moment perfectly unconscious of all other cares but solicitude for that subject which she might then be advocating. (ch. 2; Trollope, 1990: 19; my emphasis)

Before looking at these passages let me say something about the functions of description. These are, basically, to identify certain qualities of the object described; to permit others to re-imagine the object; and to provide information about it (Nünning, 2007: 117). Mosher additionally notes supplementary functions such as “characterization […], delay, development of theme […]” (Mosher, 1991: 425). Not only does narrative depict a setting but it also “creates an atmosphere” (427).

11Let us first contrast Chaucer with Trollope. In the introduction to the wife of Bath, Chaucer foregrounds both her physical features (deafness, lack of teeth, face, fat hips) and her dress (headdress, tights, wimple, shoes, hat, mantle). In addition, the narrator tells us of her earlier pilgrimages (deleted above). What is striking in this presentation of the wife of Bath is the liveliness of the portrait and the illogicality of the elements strung together. The portrait of this woman is not entirely descriptive in terms of what one can see. Thus, we also learn that she has a healthy self-esteem, is an excellent seamstress and a dedicated traveler-all information that, at this point, the first-person narrator qua ‘Chaucer the pilgrim’ cannot know, although her travels may have been the subject of conversation later on and thus knowledge acquired by the narrating self. However, her dexterity with the needle and her insistence to go first in church are facts that even the narratorial self is unlikely to be acquainted with and which demonstrate authorial (omniscient) features of the narrator persona.

12The order of presentation jumps from external impressions of her physical features to her clothes (via the remark on her expertise in sewing) and then to her face, followed by a remark about her good character (“a worthy woman”), back to her face (mouth) and then to her way of riding, with emphasis on her clothes again, en passant noting her ample hips. Thus, what we learn about her face does not come in one continuous passage, nor do we get a continuous description of the way in which she is dressed. Moreover, the first information we receive about her concerns her deafness, which strikes one as an extremely odd starting point until one remembers that the narrator-pilgrim will have tried to talk with her and that conversation may have been impaired by her acoustic disability. Despite such an explanation, the visual element usually predominates in the description of people so that, even under the given circumstances, one would have expected an initial appreciation of her external appearance before turning to her deafness and character sketch.

13It should be noted that this strategy of mixing aspects of appearance, dress and moral status in the depiction of the pilgrims is not restricted to the wife of Bath, but occurs in almost all portraits of the pilgrims and must therefore be read as a consistent technique of Chaucer’s. Moreover, the order of presentation varies across pilgrims; what one finds in all the portraits is the same alternation between physical appearance, dress and characterization in terms of explicit comments on status and moral worth. Since at least some of the portraits are meant to be laudatory or at least neutral, I do not find it convincing to argue that the technique of juxtaposition and seemingly haphazard ordering is a signal of irony. The portraits are, indeed, full of implications about the moral character of the pilgrims in addition to more explicit statements, which may be tongue-in-cheek. Certainly, the collocation of the wife’s bold red face with her attribution of ‘worthiness’ sounds deliberately ironic in its non-sequitur juxtaposition of unattractive aspect and moral character.

14One can rephrase the result of the above analysis by pointing out that the inconsistencies of the Chaucerian character descriptions are due to an aperspectival view. The narrator foregrounds elements without following a predetermined order (top to bottom as in the blazon; external to internal or physical to cultural to moral), nor can one argue that the order is one from important to marginal, or even that it is perceptual, i.e. the order in which the narrator-persona may have come to learn about her individual characteristics. This absence of focalization or perspective creates a quasi-oral atmosphere since it is in colloquial narrative that one tends to remember diverse features in a jumbled manner. The main aim of the presentation may therefore be to underline the pseudo-orality and colloquial nature of the narrator’s storytelling.

15If we turn to Anthony Trollope’s realist novel from the Barchester series at the other end of the scale, we observe both a metafictional opening and a resolutely logical ordering of the description of Mary. The “author” (omniscient authorial narrator) ironically comments on heroines having to be beautiful and then presents the thesis that Mary’s inner qualities far outshine her external appearance. This thesis is then elaborated by a construction that first presents her visual features, but moves on to their supplanting by her mental qualities and personality. The narrative adroitly segues into the non-physical by focusing on how physical aspects imply mentality and character, thus leading over into her emotional and moral dispositions. Although Trollope is far from obeying the order of the blazon topoi, he does mention eyes, hair and mouth, but starts-logically-with a global view, mentioning her height and physical proportions (the small feet). In alignment with Victorian prudery, no description of the sexually connoted body parts below the face and above the feet is given-these areas, one can assume, are well covered so that her face and mouth-in action when she talks-become the constitutive sites of her spirit and temperament. It is important to note how physical features and facial expression in particular are treated as signals of interiority, which backgrounds issues of aesthetics and foregrounds realistic character appraisal.

16Having contrasted Chaucer and Trollope, let us look at Sidney’s description of the two heroes of the Old Arcadia in Book V, who before this point had figured as the Amazon Cleophila and the shepherd Dorus. (It is to be noted that in the New Arcadia we get an early depiction of the physical features of the two princes as they appear to the eyes of the Arcadian fishermen-Sidney 1987: 66). The only detailed descriptive passage in the Old Arcadia for Cleophila (Pyrocles’ disguise) is provided from the perspective of the narrator (1994: 24-25), while in the New Arcadia we get Musidorus’ perspective (1987: 130).

17The selected passage starts by comparing the older Musidorus with Pyrocles in in terms of their height. The face of Musidorus is then classified as young manliness-a beard starts to appear on his chin-and its proportionate features are “composed to a kind of manlike beauty” (326). Beauty correlates with balance of parts; here its male quality is emphasized. We then learn about Musidorus’ facial complexion (brown rather than women’s whiteness). The overall effect of his person is immediately linked to “delight and majesty”. The factor of physical beauty is therefore identified with, or conjoined to, moral worth and/or status; it signifies “majesty”. We then move to the signified of his “serene” countenance, i.e. the mental quality of reflection. (It is somewhat ironic that Musidorus’ actions previous to this scene have lacked moral severity and reflective clairvoyance.)

18The text then turns to Pyrocles, whose complexion has to be beardless and “fair” in order to explain his being able to pass for a woman. It is moreover surprising that his conduct is described as “gentle and bashful”-clearly characteristics associated with femininity; his masculinity is rescued from effacement by the reference to his deeds of courage and skill in battle. The summation of the description rhetorically contrasts the two princes in terms of ‘goodliness’ and ‘loveliness’, the latter again a quite surprising label for a male protagonist.

19We immediately note that the individual elements of the passage are arranged in a much more orderly manner than was the case for the wife of Bath. One of the reasons for this concentration on the heroes’ faces and stature lies in the fact that their dress has already been detailed extensively in the earlier part of this very long paragraph. Starting with Pyrocles being led to the trial by Sympathus, “clothed after the Greek manner in a long coat of white velvet reaching to the small of his leg; with great buttons of diamonds all along upon it” (1994: 325), we learn more about the ruff at his neck, his footwear and the “white ribbon” in his “fair auburn hair” (325). Musidorus in turn arrives with his guard, clothed in “a long cloak after the fashion of that we now call the apostle’s mantle” (note the authorial narrator persona at work), further qualified by colour. His head is then described as “black and curled” and decorated by a “Persian tiara” (all 326). The parallel in the order in which these articles of dress are delineated is striking-habiliments, colour, hair colour and head ornament, with the only difference that Pyrocles’ footwear is mentioned but not that of Musidorus.

20What we find is therefore a very systematic description of the princes, first foregrounding their wealth and stature and then their comeliness, which is immediately linked to their moral worthiness. Although their apparel is beautiful, its primary function is to indicate costliness and thus implies wealth and princely status; only when Pyrocles’ face is mentioned do we get adjectives that betray the hero’s femininity, but these are explicitly rescued from an implication of effeminacy (though that threat had been thematized in Book I when Musidorus chid Pyrocles for being love-mad).

21The function of the passage is to present a positive image of the two heroes and to prepare for the readers’ sympathy and compassion for them in the wake of their victimization at the hands of Philanax. The specifics of their clothing are meant as display-rather than as individual choice indicative of character-while their facial features are designed to provide a mirror of their moral status. We can therefore observe that the passage stands in an intermediate position of transition from Chaucer to Trollope. It already displays the orderliness which was absent in Chaucer but is clearly not foregrounding individuality or idiosyncrasy in the manner of the nineteenth-century novel.

22Naturally, to see the development of narrative description in an easy development from Middle English to modernity via a transitional stage in the Renaissance belies the complexities one needs to take into account. To start with, one has to query to what extent the three passages are typical. Chaucer, in fact, is not very typical at all since other Middle English authors are much less given to character description. Sidney’s few descriptive passages are not prototypical either. Most romances have no or very few descriptions of characters (I will return to this point in what follows), and descriptions in Nashe and other picaresque novels are different in tone and quality. Sidney is in fact closest in manner to Aphra Behn’s descriptive characterizations. When we turn to Trollope, we also need to acknowledge the diversity of character description in nineteenth-century novels-a subject that would require one or several monographs (see Korte, 1997; D. Kullmann, 2004). Briefly, not all nineteenth-century description is realistic in the manner of George Eliot, Hardy or Trollope; some tends to be ironic and pastiche-like (Thackeray), some stereotypical and allegorical (Dickens); and there are also authors who do not ‘deal in’ description. On the other hand, detailed description can even be found in stage-directions, especially those of George Bernard Shaw.

23Nevertheless, the three selected passages do sketch a tendency among those texts that ‘do’ description of people. In the remainder of this article I want to look at the early modern period in a little bit more detail to balance Sidney against the classical tradition of ekphrasis and the blazon formula.

Variations in Renaissance Description

24As I noted above, the classical tradition of ekphrasis, not particularly frequent in Middle English (but see the extensive portrayal of the three temples and their ornaments and images in “The Knight’s Tale”-ll. 1887-2092), experiences a revival in the Renaissance. Thus, Spenser has a long depiction of the “steely brand” which Artegall receives from Astraea (V, i, st. 9-10; 1987: 729) and also provides ekphrastic descriptions of Busirane’s tapestries in III, xi. In the Old Arcadia, the description of Pamela, especially of her jewelry, is ekphrastic (1994: 177), as is the long description of the armour of Surrey in Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller and also of his horse (Nashe 1987: 262-263). (There is also an ekphrastic passage depicting Juliana’s ‘progress’ through Rome to St. Peter – Nashe: 300.) Besides objects, one encounters descriptions of locations, though these, too, are not extensive. See, for instance, the long delineation of the castle of Alma and of its hall (Spenser II, ix, st. 21-26, st. 29-30; 1987: 317-319), the house of Jack of Newbury as he feasts his Majesty (Deloney, 2015: 30), or the rather brief description of the cave which Gynecia proposes as the place of assignation for her encounter with Cleophila-Pyrocles (Sidney, 1994: 157). The New Arcadia has an extensive description of Kalander’s house (1987: 69-70) and of the environment and buildings in which Basilius and his family live (1987: 147-148).

25The blazon, likewise, has a considerable currency in Renaissance texts. In the Arcadias, the most extensive blazon is a poetic one (1994: 207-211) by the shepherd Philisides. (Compare also Rosader’s “Rosalynde’s Description” –Lodge, 1995: 69-70.) In Spenser’s poetic narrative, a very detailed passage occurs in the description of Belphoebe in II, iii (st. 22-32; 1987: 238-41). In prose, we have a blazon-like portrait of Pamela (Sidney, 1994: 34). However, the blazon is entirely absent from other romances (Gascoigne’s Master F.J. or Ford’s Ornatus and Artesia).

26Besides depictions of female beauty, some men are also described in detail. Thus, in The Faerie Queene, a “young man” receives extensive attention from the narrator (II, viii, st. 5-6; 1987: 298); Una is given a non-blazon-like portrait in I, i, st. 4-5 (1987: 42), as is Alma (II, ix, st. 18-19; 1987: 316). Particularly noteworthy is the description of Dametas in the Old Arcadia:

He was a short lean fellow, of black hair, and notably backed for a burden, one of his eyes out, his nose turned up to take more air, a seven or eight long black hairs upon his chin, which he called his beard; his breast he ware always unbuttoned for heat, and yet a stomacher before it for cold; ever untrussed, yet points hanging down, because he might be trussed if he list; ill gartered for a courtlike carelessness; only well shod for his father’s sake, who had upon his death bed charged him to take heed of going wet. (Sidney, 1994: 27)

27Although this is not as lively as Chaucer’s portraits of the miller or the friar, we do learn a few unattractive details about the shepherd’s external appearance.

28Among the romances, though descriptions of people are not numerous, some do occur as in the following passage from Rosalynde about Corydon’s “holiday suit”:

[…] marvellous seemly in a russet jacket welted with the same and faced with red worsted, having a pair of blue chamlet sleeves bound at the wrists with four yellow laces, closed afore very richly with a dozen pewter buttons; his hose was of grey kersey with a large slop barred overthwart the pocket-holes with three fair guards stitched of either side with red thread; his stock was of the own, sewed close to his breech, and for to beautify his hose, he had trussed himself round with a dozen of new-threaden points of medley colour; his bonnet was green, whereon stood a copper brooch with the picture of Saint Denis; and to want nothing that might make him amorous in his old days, he had a fair shirt-band of fine lockram, whipped over with Coventry blue of no small cost. (Lodge, 1995: 117)

Comparing this with Sidney, the detail seems to imply affection rather than the kind of elegant style represented by Pyrocles’ outfit (1994: 325-326). It is striking that there is such a wealth of detail worthy of a nineteenth-century novel.

29At the same time, one finds more allegorical depictions with a ‘medieval’ tone in early modern fiction, for instance, in the masque-like entertainment that Jack of Newbury offers to his Majesty, which includes

[…] a sterne and grisly woman, carrying a frowning countenance, and her forehead full of wrinkles, her hayre as black as pitch, and her garments all bloudy, a great sword shee had in her hand all stained with purple gore: they called her name Bellona, Goddesse of warres […]. (Deloney, 2015: 37)

Here the description focuses entirely on the symbolic meaning of the masque players.

30Hence, looking at the examples of description in early modern narrative, one notices a great deal of variety. There are typical instances of ekphrasis and blazon, but the kind of lively description that we find in the Canterbury Tales is not available; equivalent passages, since they are in elevated romance style, appear to be quite different from Chaucer even when they provide a similar type of information as in the characterization of Dametas or Corydon.

31Where we do get extensive description but in a non-narrative context is the coney-catching tales, where the typical category of crook is described with his or her appurtenances; similarly Stowe’s depiction of processions and streets provides extensive descriptions of scenarios but is not narrative in the sense of delineating characters’ experiences and their ‘story’.

32What is quite striking is the fact that facial features and bodies are depicted in a rather vague manner, emphasizing stature, height and colour of hair, and with women mostly the colour of their skin, but there are no references to bushy eyebrows, crooked noses, prominent chins, high foreheads or protruding ears. (Dametas’ hairs on the chin are clearly an exception.) That kind of detail only emerges in the eighteenth century (and late in the eighteenth century at that). The emphasis on people’s apparel and on the status that such apparel entails as well as on the aesthetic qualities afforded by dress predominates. Hence, despite the variety that one can notice in the examples that I have presented, their intermediate or transitional quality is evident.

33I have not said anything about characterization in the eighteenth century so far, and with good reason. Although one finds some brief passages about individuals, for instance in Clarissa’s characterization of her suitor Solmes, the main emphasis in the eighteenth century appears to be on the delineation of moral character and a general estimation of (dis)agreeable appearance as well as on body language (Korte, 1997). Though clothes are mentioned, they no longer hold the narrative’s attention to the extent that they do in the early modern period.

34Fielding’s depiction of Sophia Western in IV, ii of Tom Jones is an exception to this general rule since it sets her in the ironic metafictional context of a discussion of sublime beauty, comparing her to Venus and the beauties of the court and then provides a mock-epic analysis of her appearance that is based on the blazon tradition. Starting with the “symmetry” of her body, the text notes her “luxuriant” black hair, commenting that her forehead is not high enough (not part of the blazon), but lists her arched eyebrows, lustrefull black eyes, regular nose and ivory-like teeth, her cheeks with a dimple (not based on the blazon-tradition), her chin and her complexion (with ironic overtones). In good puritanical manner no body parts below the face are discussed but we get an extensive appreciation of the “sweetness of her temper,” metanarratively refusing to expatiate on what the reader will be able to glean from her behaviour. Finally, Sophia is presented as “well bred” and “want[ing] a little of that ease” in her comportment which comes from intercourse with polite society (all Fielding 1996: 135-136).

35To summarize: Descriptions in the early modern period, though offering a wide variety of modes and focuses, remain stereotypically linked to classical patterns and continue the medieval emphasis on the link between external appearance and internal moral disposition. There is little interest in idiosyncratic physical detail except in the depiction of marginal and often lower-class characters. We could also detect an emphasis on comportment or-to use the eighteenth-century term-decorum, an aspect that will become predominant in the mid-eighteenth-century novel and especially in Austen. As I have tried to demonstrate, patterns of description in the early modern period therefore display transitional quality both in their choice of objects of description and in the manner in which these people are depicted. More research will need to be done on the parameters of description in early modern texts employing feature catalogues like those used by Korte (1997) for the categorization of different types of body language. The subject has not by any means been exhausted.

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1See Mosher (1991) on the problem of distinguishing between description and narrative of events. An excellent early analysis of description is provided by Hamon (1981, 1982).

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Bibliographical reference

Monika Fludernik, “Transformations in Narrative Prose: The Example of the Description of External Appearance”Recherches anglaises et nord-américaines, 56 | 2022, 219-232.

Electronic reference

Monika Fludernik, “Transformations in Narrative Prose: The Example of the Description of External Appearance”Recherches anglaises et nord-américaines [Online], 56 | 2022, Online since 01 February 2024, connection on 20 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Monika Fludernik

Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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