There’s No Telling to a Certainty from a Body’s Outside”1:
The Photographic Metamorphosis of the Body in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex Novels


Entrenched in rural history, Hardy’s Wessex novels are frequently overlooked in terms of an engagement with the modern visual culture more commonly associated with authors of urban realism. This discrepancy will be addressed in this article by interrogating the ways in which optical technologies inform the visual constructions of the gendered body in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). As photography facilitated a novel way of representing the human form in the post-1870 era, a concurrent reconfiguration of the characterisation of the body emerged in the Victorian novel. This article will consider the ways in which textual bodies are constructed as composite photographs and as other products of early photography, and will demonstrate that the Wessex novels, in their employment of the lexicons of optical culture, contain deeper inflections of modernity than have previously been conceded.

The advent of photography is a highly contested topic but its commercial success can be traced from the 1850s with the development of the collodion process by which ‘innumerable high-quality prints could now be made from a single negative [and portraits were] quicker and cheaper to produce’.2 The functionality of photography was two-fold, being both an empirical tool used for detection and objective recording (for its mechanism was supposed to counteract the subjectivity of the viewer), and serving as an artistic medium. These two facets may appear contradictory but photography’s ability to capture the material world rendered its fictions all the more credible. Composite photography, the act of developing multiple exposures onto a sensitised plate, quickly became one of the many experiments of the technology. By conflating a number of images into a single representation, the practice nullified the perceived neutrality and transparency of the photographic medium, while simultaneously attempting to reveal underlying truths about a particular group or situation.

The trend of composition continued late into the century, championed by Francis Galton’s scientific profiling of human portraits. Galton’s technique extracted the ‘average features of any given group of men’, particularly criminal demographics, by photographically blending features of several individuals.3 His undertaking pre-supposed that an intrinsic and infallible link existed between external appearance and moral constitution, and that visual signs of a particular constitution could be gleaned if all highly individuated features were able to be eclipsed by common characteristics. The photographic palimpsest achieved by layering related images can be implicitly traced in the novels concerned, affording a thematic foundation for the more conspicuous optical vocabulary.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Elizabeth is the focal point for a visual convergence through which her biological identity is negotiated. The truth of her paternal origin is revealed in chapter nineteen with Henchard’s ill-timed reading of his deceased wife’s letter. He regards the sleeping Elizabeth as if for the first time:

In sleep there come to the surface buried genealogical facts, ancestral curves, dead men’s traits, which the mobility of daytime animation screens and overwhelms. In the present statuesque repose of the young girl’s countenance Richard Newson’s face was unmistakably reflected.4

After hearing the false news that Henchard is her father only moments earlier, Elizabeth is described as being similarly motionless, specifically her ‘head’ and ‘shoulders’, as if framed in a portrait. Elizabeth’s ‘statuesque repose’ presents her in a state of exhibition, prone to the contemplation of others, and it is only as such that we can see ‘Richard Newson’s face’ reflected in her own. We are in fact viewing a convergence that does not exist in ‘animation’, an effect echoing Galton’s creation of a unified image that captures something eluded or impossible in animation. The photograph constructs time as a series of discrete units that are fragmented, captured and defined only by the camera and invisible to the naked eye; ‘mobility’ is an impediment to this process as it creates a distortion of the resultant image. Elizabeth, we are informed, ‘might never be fully handsome, unless the carking accidents of her daily existence could be evaded before the mobile parts of her countenance had settled into their final mould’ (31). Her initial poverty leaves an externally-induced visible trace on the body. The contradistinction of mutable ‘mobile parts’ and the impending ‘final mould’ further emphasises the task of locating Elizabeth in her rightful place. Elizabeth’s mobile body is stable and attracts no particular attention from the narrator but, when inert, it is subject to a conceptual reconfiguration via the projections of Henchard. Daniel Novak, whose recent work concerns the influence of photography on aspects of nineteenth-century literature and culture, discusses the implications of the photographic practice by suggesting that ‘it is in the Victorian novel […] that we find these photographic models, these “novel bodies” – figures whose bodies are often merely a combination of interchangeable pieces or who are a composite, abstract, and spectral types’.5 Whilst Novak is specifically preoccupied with the prevalence of photographers’ models in fiction, his study highlights the more pervasive fiction-making capacity of photography and the fact that ‘both photographic “realism” and Victorian realist fiction produce and depend upon the effacement of particularity’.6 Elizabeth’s bodily identity is in flux; her facial features contain ‘interchangeable pieces’ according to degrees of animation but it is only in her repose that we can access any revelatory ‘pieces’. She is not only visually disrupted and reconstituted but also shifting between attendant biological identities (constructed at first as the infant Elizabeth of the opening chapter, thus inscribing the new over the old).

  1. Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (London: Wordsworth, 2000), p. 290. All subsequent references to this text will be given parenthetically. []
  2. Ronald R. Thomas, ‘Making Darkness Visible’, in Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, ed. by Carol T. Christ and John O. Jordan (Berkeley: University of California, 1995), pp. 134-168 (p. 138). []
  3. Francis Galton, ‘Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons Into a Single Resultant Figure’, in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 8 (1879) <> [accessed 12 January 2012], p. 133. []
  4. Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge (London: Wordsworth, 2001), pp. 97-8. All subsequent references to this text will be given parenthetically. []
  5. Daniel A. Novak, Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: CUP, 2008), pp. 5-6. []
  6. Ibid., p. 31. []

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