‘The Lying Changefulness of a Deceitful Skin’: Blushing in Rhoda Broughton’s Nancy (1873)

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Rhoda Broughton’s understudied novel Nancy presents an anti-adultery plot, in which the nineteen-year-old narrator refuses to betray her forty-seven-year-old husband. This paper looks at the battle between Nancy’s body and mind which threatens the domestic harmony of her May-December marriage, namely, what she terms the ‘lying changefulness’ of her ‘deceitful skin’.

Nancy is highly attuned to her physical self, detailing her body’s appearance, senses, feelings, and reactions. She is one of a group of six ‘ungenteel’, ‘vulgar’, and spirited siblings. United in terror of their tyrannical and unpredictable father, they are connected in such a way that they seem to comprise a single, many-limbed body. Nancy is wrenched apart from this collective self when she attracts the attention of her father’s friend Sir Roger Tempest, whom she decides to marry largely ‘to give the boys a helping hand’. Their marriage begins to suffer when they suspect each other of adultery, exacerbated by Nancy’s physical responses to Roger’s questions, her tendency to blush uncontrollably, along with the recurrent swelling of her nose and eyes. Blushing is a method of involuntary, silent communication which here, rather than revealing Nancy’s true feelings, results in misunderstandings which drive the plot.

In The Physiology of Mechanism of Blushing (1839), Thomas Burgess attributes this involuntary symptom ‘to the exquisite sensibility of youth, which […] wears gradually away in advancing years’. In Nancy’s case, blushing is a visible manifestation of the internal conflict of her rampaging adolescent body, separated from the rabble of her sibling group, as it adapts to her new role as an adult married woman. Her body in this period of transition becomes untrustworthy and uncontrollable. Yet the ‘burning’, ‘throbbing’, and ‘tingling’ that accompany her blushing also hint at Nancy’s awakening desire for her husband, the forming of a new united self.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 6 Jul 2018
EventVictorian Popular Fiction Association conference 2018: War and Peace - Institute of English Studies, Senate House, London
Duration: 4 Jul 20187 Jul 2018


ConferenceVictorian Popular Fiction Association conference 2018
Internet address


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