Phrenology: a note

In Chapter 5 (Volume 1, Chapter 5) of the novel, talking about Miss Temple, Jane says that she possesses ‘a considerable organ of veneration'. This may seem a puzzling remark to a twenty-first century reader, but the Victorians would have known exactly what Jane means.

Visual interpretation of the brain

Phrenology was a popular means of character analysis in the period when Jane Eyre was written and first published. It was developed by an Austrian doctor called F. J. Gall (1758-1828) and was intended as an aid to understanding the nervous system and the functioning of the brain. The practice was based on the assumption that various brain functions could be located at different points on the skull, so that its shape – showing the size of ‘bumps' or ‘organs' – was an indication of the degree of development of a personality trait in the person whose head was examined in this way.

Its popularity and use spread well beyond the medical world, however, and the reading of bumps became a means of understanding and describing personality. Phrenological heads (usually made of china) were available, with the various parts of the brain marked out, showing the mental quality to which they referred: courage, amorousness or veneration, as with Jane. Clients could pay to have their bumps read in this way; and, with the aid of a china head, almost anyone could set up as a phrenologist, and – at a price – produce a character sketch of their subjects.

Scientific interpretation of character

These days, phrenology is regarded as a pseudo-science, but in the nineteenth century it was regarded as a respectable study. George Eliot, for instance, a highly intelligent and intellectual woman, well-read in science, was much influenced by phrenology at one time in her life. References to bumps and organs are quite common in nineteenth-century fiction and in an age before Sigmund Freud had introduced the vocabulary of psychoanalysis, it could offer a short-hand means of describing a character's personality.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.