Never judge a book by its cover. This popularly overused proverb never ceases to lose its relevance; it is, indeed, hard to argue against. Appearances often can be deceiving. Can anyone claim that when meeting new people he/she does not pay attention to their appearances and the notorious ‘social status’? Everyone has a snapshot evaluation instinct. Nonetheless, many try to argue that they do not take this into account.
Physiognomy, the assessment of one’s personality or moral characteristic by appearance, is a recurring topic throughout the novel. Physiognomy grew popular throughout the 18th and the 19th century and was even discussed seriously in the academics. From the beginning of the novel, an application of physiognomy made Doctor Stevens decide to rescue Mervyn.
Stevens’ physical description of Mervyn, and in particular his “youth, unspoiled…uninured”, allow us to justify the “claim to affection”, on a physiognomic level. Based on his clothing alone, Stevens is able to infer a ‘manlike beauty…so powerful’, he can make definitive statements about Mervyn’s fortunes and ‘misfortunes’. The sense of innocence of character that Stevens acknowledges even before conversing with Mervyn illustrates this physiognomic attitude of the era.
Mervyn is not an exception to applying these norms. However, he goes further, metamorphosing outward-in; his personality, thoughts and beliefs evolve with each new facade. After going through his own Welbeck-endorsed transformation, Mervyn is in fact committing his ‘original sin’ in the book. The initial exterior transformation soon enough develops into the interior transformation, or perhaps self-reconstruction. To put in more metaphorical terms, Mervyn initially wears a Mask, and he becomes the Mask itself.
I was now conscious of a revolution in my mind. […] Subsequent incidents, perhaps, joined with the influence of meditation, had generated new views. On my first visit to the city, I had met with nothing but scenes of folly, depravity, and cunning […] but my second visit produced somewhat different impressions…[I met] beings who inspired veneration […] If cities are the chosen cities of misery and vice, they are […] the soil of all the laudable and strenuous productions of the mind. (Brown, 221)
Mervyn, however, is not the only person to transform, or seem to transform. He too commits the error of misjudging someone based on their physical appearance and endowments, on several occasions. Priding himself on his superior analytical and deductive abilities, and taking into consideration his antiestablishmentarian stance (with regards to gender roles especially), it is thus notable that he falls into the trap of stereotype. This is particularly acute with the curious case of Eliza Hadwin. Mervyn comments:
Her total inexperience gave her sometimes the appearance of folly […] Ah! thought I, sweet, artless, and simple girl![ …] the extreme youth, rustic simplicity and mental imperfections of Eliza Hadwin (Brown, 215, 221)
Upon Eliza demonstrating a mental proficiency at par with Mervyn’s, he remarks,
I was suprized[…]I had certainly considered her sex unfitting[…]I could not deny, that human ignorance was curable by the same means in one sex as in the other (Brown 224)
Be it by sex, by clothing, by class, by appearance, eloquence or education, and through the character of Welbeck, Brown goes to lengths to show that people aren’t always who they seem to be, and that intuitively, there is something we can gain, and a lot we lose, when we use physiognomy.
By: Suel, Kee, and Kefa