Monday, 4 February 2008

Things That Go Bump On Your Head

In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) the provincial doctor, Charles Bovary, receives a memorable birthday present: ‘Il reçut pour sa fête une belle tête phrénologique, toute marquetée de chiffres jusqu’au thorax et peinte en bleu’. Thirty pages later, disturbed by his wife’s mysterious ailments, Charles takes refuge in his office, ‘et il pleura, les deux coudes sur la table, assis dans son fauteuil de bureau, sous la tête phrénologique’. And towards the close of the novel, as the bailiffs arrive to seize Charles’s goods to settle Emma’s massive debts, his birthday present has a lucky escape. The bailiffs ‘n’inscrivirent point la tête phrénologique, qui fut considérée comme instrument de sa profession’.

Charles Bovary’s phrenological head can thus serve as a reminder to us of just how pervasive the pseudo-science of phrenology was in the nineteenth century, and it often had a distinctly radical edge to it. Phrenological lectures were popular with working-class audiences; the Owenites of New Lanark welded phrenology and utopian socialism together for a time; and even Karl Marx cheerily announced in a letter to a friend: ‘So you see, phrenology is not the useless art which Hegel imagined!’ This radical phrenological tradition came through to William Morris and his circle in the person of E.T. Craig, elderly Chartist and Co-operator, who used to offer readings in the garden of Kelmscott House. As May Morris recalls: ‘one time when we were having our characters described by the bumps on our heads, Shaw, who was one of the company and also undergoing examination, naughtily asked if he had a bump of veneration. “A bump?” shrieked the old gentleman, “why it’s a ‘ole there!” and stuck his stick into the ground to emphasise the answer’.

Did Morris ever have his own head read by Craig or anyone else? Not as far as I know; or if he did, we seem to have no record of it. Is, then, the chance of a phrenological analysis of William Morris gone for good? Not necessarily. The Phrenological Magazine published in June 1880 a four-page ‘Phrenological Description of Mr. John Ruskin’ by L.N. Fowler. It is an impressively detailed piece of work: ‘His brain is of full size and of peculiar shape, being long, high, and narrow … Form is very large …He is equally large in the organ of Size, giving fullness to the corner of the eye, next to the nose … the largest of these [faculties] is Benevolence, as seen by the extreme height of his head above the forehead’, etc. Yet far from running his fingers and calipers patiently all over the Sage of Brantwood’s face and skull, Fowler has concocted his analysis, as he himself admits in a footnote to his article, ‘from photographs’. So all is not, after all, lost in the case of Morris. A trained phrenologist, or even just a keen amateur, should be able to sit down with his or her copy of Fiona MacCarthy’s well-illustrated biography and write out a detailed phrenological study from the assorted Morrisian photographs collected there. We await results with interest!


Anonymous said...

Well, if the Owenite utopians were interested in phrenology, so too were the phrenologists interested in utopia. In fact, they even had one of their own, 'Travels in Phrenologasto' (1829) by John Trotter. in the 'Faber Book of Utopias' John Carey describes it as follows: 'At age 16 all citizens have their heads shaved, and their bumps examined. White plaster is then applied, and each individual's phrenological configuration drawn in with black lines. After this, it is illegal to wear a hat, and so everyone's character can be seen at a glance. The system allows people to be allocated to jobs that exactly fit their abilities, with a great gain in efficiency and personal fulfilment'.

Anonymous said...

Well with today's fashions for shaved heads we're half way there although in my case thanks to male baldness I'm just leaving a "window" for any roving phrenologist to look through to see that I am unfitted for work of any kind.