Kimberly Cox, “A Touch of the Hand: Manual Intercourse in Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (pp. 161–191)

Characters in the works of Anne Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, and Bram Stoker communicated their passions, reciprocated desires, and negotiated the power dynamics of their social and romantic relationships through their hands. Despite the recent work on Victorian hand studies, little attention has been paid to such moments when characters’ hands touch. This essay introduces the term “manual intercourse” as a way of referring to all literary depictions of tactile encounters (whether handshakes, caresses, uninvited grasps, or other accidental manual interactions) while acknowledging the silent, embodied communication and exchange inherent in such moments of physical connection. Taking Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as an example par excellence, this essay explores how reading a novel through characters’ manual intercourse opens new ways of understanding and interpreting intense moments of emotional intimacy that language fails to represent adequately. Since emotions can be communicated through the quality, pressure, duration, and circumstance of a touch, manual intercourse in such novels allows for the possibility of excess sentiment that cannot be simply expressed through speech. Further, though nineteenth-century etiquette books dedicated entire sections to delineating types of handshakes acceptable in certain social situations, this essay suggests that some Victorian novelists challenged traditional gender ideology and the power structures inherent in it through representations of manual intercourse that either adhere to or deviate from traditional handshake etiquette.

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