First Impressions Last….

Guest blogger and Effaced associate Michelle Webb (PhD project at Exeter: ‘As fowle a ladie as the smale pox could make her’: facial disfigurement in sixteenth and seventeenth century England) writes:

On November 10th 2016 the Centre for eighteenth-century studies at the University of York held their First Impressions: Faces, Clothes and Bodies 1600-1800 Symposium at the York Medical Society. Since increasing numbers of my friends and acquaintances are only prepared to socialise with me if I promise beforehand not to talk about rotting jaws or missing noses, a whole symposium based upon the theme of appearances seemed like the perfect opportunity to talk about damaged faces in front of a willing audience. It did occur to me that my paper about the scarred civil war veterans of seventeenth-century England might be an unwelcome intrusion if everyone else was discussing the somewhat prettier aspects of physicality, but it soon became obvious that I had nothing to worry about. While the wonderful range of papers encompassed everything from Pete Collinge on portraits of eighteenth-century businesswomen to Giuilia Mari on the naked legs of early modern men, by far the most persistent theme of the day was stigmatisation and the myriad ways it has been triggered by appearances.

Whether we were listening to Elizabeth Potter talking about the disfigured Jamaican Obeah-Man Three-Fingered Jack or Grainne O’Hare describing caricatures of eighteenth-century female celebrities, the debate inexorably returned to physical appearance as a site of anxiety. Paper after paper detailed the ways in which individuals found that their bodies and faces could show them up and let them down. Everything from missing limbs to red hair featured in this litany of perceived physical flaws, and by the end of the day I think most of us had been made very aware of the extent to which identity has frequently been constructed from the outside in. During the three years that I have been working on my thesis I have spent endless time considering the impact of facial disfigurement and, on occasion, worrying that I might be overemphasising the importance of tiny physical differences, so it was immensely reassuring to hear Kathryn Woods so vividly describe that even being identifiably Scottish could trigger censure in eighteenth-century London. This symposium provided ample proof that there really are a hundred and one ways in which appearance can impact upon almost every aspect of life, and it also reinforced my conviction that disfigurement is one of the great underexplored areas of marginalization and difference. If even the tell-tale freckles of Celtic skin, or the creeping retreat of a hairline, as described by Emma Markiewicz, could so profoundly alter the ways in which an individual was perceived, then surely a history of facial difference is desperately overdue.

I listened to Sarah Goldsmith delineate the profound anxiety caused by extended Grand Tours which meant that the adolescents who departed for the Continent returned to their families as unrecognizable adult men and it made me think about reactions to their contemporaries who were altered beyond recognition by the smallpox. When Sophie Morris described the immense care that went into the presentation of anatomical figures I wondered about the similar levels of exactitude required to apply cosmetics to a scarred face. By the time Karen Harvey gave her keynote address on ‘The face of Mary Toft’, discussing the depictions and the public shaming of the eighteenth-century woman who apparently gave birth to rabbits, I was more convinced than ever that first impressions really did matter in the early modern era, and that the historiography of stigmatization does not adequately reflect the role of physical appearance. Or at least not yet…

First Impressions was an interesting and very enjoyable symposium, with a wonderful range of papers attended by an informed and analytical but always supportive audience. Elizabeth Spencer and Hannah Wallace deserve high praise indeed for organising such a successful event, and if they decide to host a follow-up (Second glances maybe?) I will be first in the queue to attend.

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