The Brontë Brow: visiting the phrenologist

PhrenologyPix

Image viaWikipedia

It is some time since those crackpot quasi-scientists, the phrenologists, were taken seriously.

A Victorian obsession, phrenology centred on the concept that the areas of the brain would betray their attributes through an examination of the skull. So you could tell what the brain and personality were – just by observing the pits and crevices of the cranium, using them to calculate the mass of each area of the brain, and thus each personality trait.

The phrenological map for the brain is fanciful, to say the least. It puts destructiveness just above the ear, and ‘amativeness’ – arousal – at the back of the skull. And the language area seems to be just below the eye.

Nevertheless, man has followed many blind alleys for every medical advance; and in the nineteenth century phrenology held just enough credibility – and fascination – for Miss Charlotte Brontë to harbour a desire to try one out.

The author of Jane Eyre had referred to phrenology briefly when she first described Mr Rochester. And now she turned to her publisher and friend, George Smith, to help her gain access to a reading.

But if she turned up as the famous author, a reading would be a synch for any crackpot head reader.

So she and George hatched a plan. They would go along to phrenologist Dr Browne, posing as Mr and Miss Fraser, two perfectly average punters on the road to enlightenment.

The pair were duly read, and studious reports published.

Miss Fraser recieved a glowing report. One worthy of Jane Eyre herself.

Her temperament nervous, the report claims, and her brain large; and she is kind to children but does not like to see them spoiled. “Her sense of duty and justice,” says Dr Browne, “would be offended by any dereliction of duty and she would express her disapprobation with warmth and energy.”

He adds: “She is occasionally inclined to take a gloomier view of things than perhaps the facts of the case justify…her sense of justice is of a very high order.”

Miss Fraser, Dr Browne continues, is endowed with an exalted sense of the beautiful, and the ideal, and longs for perfection.

But the conclusion is most interesting. “In intellectional development,” it reads, “this head is very remarkable.The forehead is at once very large and well formed. It bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding….this lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can…express her sentiments with clearness, precision and force – sufficiently eloquent but not verbose.”

Perhaps there is something in this phrenology. Or perhaps Dr Browne had glimpsed George and Charlotte on their excursions about the city, and knew their identities all along.

But his report about Charlotte mirrors her excellently.

And what of Mr Fraser?

“The estimate of my own head was not so happy,” he writes in his memoirs. He claims to have sent the original to Charlotte.

A postscript exists to this story. For a few days later George Smith ran into a friend who was also acquainted with the phrenologist in question.

“He mentioned that a friend of his [a phrenologist] had examined a lady and was so much struck by the imaginitive power she possessed that he should like to find something out about her.”

Phrenological showmanship?

In all probability, yes.

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41 thoughts on “The Brontë Brow: visiting the phrenologist

  1. What a delightfully obscure little piece of the story, Kate! How fascinating it is. I like to think that she was remarkable enough to merit an accurate reading that would have pointed to her creative genius, but poor Mr. Fraser must have felt so ordinary!

  2. I wonder if Charlotte’s verbal exchanges with the phrenologist had anything to do with his conclusion that her head:

    “. . . bears the stamp of deep thoughtfulness and comprehensive understanding….this lady possesses a fine organ of language, and can…express her sentiments with clearness, precision and force – sufficiently eloquent but not verbose.”

  3. I was very interested to read that they considered the language area to be just below the eye – wonder exactly how that showed up, in terms of pits, crevices… or maybe… bags? – I’d like to think these bags under my eyes had something positive to say about me. 😉

  4. It’s all hocus pocus I know, but how fascinating!

    (I’m so prone to getting lost that it was a family saying that I have ‘a very small bump of locality’)

  5. Something not very well known is the first name Charlotte went by: Caroline.

    The whole quote from George’s autobiography was funny. “Dr. Browne could not have had any idea whose head he was examining. A few days afterwards Mr. Richard Doyle, whom I used to see frequently, mentioned that a friend of his had examined the head of a lady, and was so much struck by the imaginative
    power she possessed that he should like to find out something about her. ‘ If he succeeds,’ said Richard Doyle, ‘ I will tell you who she is ; for, if Dr. Browne is right, the lady ought to be worth your looking after.'”

    Charlotte said the one of George was very accurate also. Part of it reads:

    “He is an admirer of the fair sex. He is very kind to children. Is strongly attached to his home. Is of a very affectionate and friendly disposition. Is of an open undesigning disposition. He is endowed with much benevolent feeling and would be liberal to those suffering in poverty. He is deferential and respectful and there is not a tincture of arrogance in his nature. He possesses a high sense of justice and much firmness; a strong love of distinction, but scarcely an adequate opinion of his own capabilities. Is fond of the ideal and romantic and possesses a strongly developed organ of language. He has a just sense of the value of time and is not prone to procrastinate. Is active and practical though not hustling or contentious. His feelings are easily moved but he has a very forgiving temper.”

    If anyone wants to see the whole phrenological estimate of Charlotte go here:phrenology.org/charlotte.html

  6. I see no reason why shapes of the head should not reveal something about the person, just as handwriting does. People are also quite happy to see ‘alternative practitioners’ look for energy points of the body and so forth?
    I was aquainted with ‘Phrenology’ from an early age, having for fun learnt the Gilbert Bab Ballad of that title. ‘Observe his various bumps, his head as I uncover it; His morals lie in lumps, all round about and over it’ … It deals with Sir Herbert White complaining that he has been assaulted, but the phrenologist policeman eventually declares the assailant to be a saint and arrests White!

  7. Phrenology fascinates me. It’s right up there with the 4 humors in terms of odd science & medicine. But the concept of the 4 humors was around for a long time, whereas phrenology seems like they were just capitalizing on the VIctorian penchant for new “scientific” study. Having said that, the phrenology charts and models were works of art.

  8. Kate, it’d be easy to dismiss this “science,” but I do recall when two different psychics were spot on about something that (1) was about to happen – he even gave an exact date; and (2) another one touched on something that had happened – including something that had been written to me. Wowzer!

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