I recently learned that Charlotte Brontë was very interested in the size and shape of people’s heads. “Learned” is possibly the wrong way of putting it, because it gives the impression that I am any the wiser or more enlightened since noticing that when Charlotte Brontë’s protagonists are making character assessments, they place a lot of value and emphasis on how someone’s head looks.
I realized this because my dad, who is a self-described Charlotte Brontë fan, sent me a five-minute voicenote of him reading from what he considers to be a particularly funny bit from her 1857 book The Professor. It is quite funny: the typically hard-done-by and resentful main character, a schoolteacher, goes off about how much he hates all the terrible children he has to teach. One girl is his real enemy, disrupting his classes by “making noises with her mouth like a horse” and “sustaining a swinish tumult.” I liked that, especially the horse noises, but this is the part that really pulled me up short: “She had precisely the same shape of skull as Pope Alexander the 6th … her head sloped up in the penthouse shape, was contracted about the forehead, and prominent behind”. Sloped up in the penthouse shape.
Something about the weird vigor and emphasis made it seem like it was probably going to be a recurring theme, and sure enough, five minutes on Project Gutenberg revealed that Charlotte Brontë had apparently embraced phrenology with both of her tiny little hands. I had never noticed this before, but it’s all over the place once you start looking. From Villette: “we are alike—there is affinity between us. Do you see it, Mademoiselle, when you look in the glass? Do you observe that your forehead is shaped like mine — that your eyes are cut like mine?” Jane Eyre: “For a handsome and not an unamiable-looking man, he repelled me exceedingly: there was no power in that smooth-skinned face of a full oval shape… there was no thought on the low, even forehead; no command in that blank, brown eye.” Try it! See how much time and energy in Jane Eyre is given over to descriptions of foreheads. See Lucy Snowe in Villette, lustily contemplating M. Paul’s “vigorous” and “powerful” head. Mmm.
I truly don’t know what to make of this. All I know about phrenology is that a) it was wholeheartedly endorsed by a number of Victorian thinkers, b) that it formed a useful pseudoscientific justification for some truly barbaric policies and beliefs, and c) that the boundary between a) and b) was often blurred to being indistinguishable. But where does this leave my dad’s best friend, Charlotte Brontë? I don’t know. I can’t find any evidence to suggest that she took her interest in people’s head shapes in a particularly sinister direction. I don’t know how to establish whether she was more interested in shapes of heads than other writers of the period. As they do on so many things, my feelings on the matter of Charlotte Brontë and head sizes lie somewhere between “lol” and “I don’t know.”
I do know this, though: anyone reading who knows anything significant about either Victorian pseudoscience or the life of Charlotte Brontë is very annoyed right now, because all this is so obvious to them, has been covered in so many workshops and seminars, torn apart and examined and understood, and here I am laying it on the table like it’s news to anyone at all. The other thing I know for sure is that, if I were so inclined, I could turn all of the above into an intoxicatingly abrasive thread and briefly become a bright star in the firmament of what I like to call “Buckle Up Twitter.” We all know exactly how it would go, but if you will indulge me:
BUCKLE UP, SLUTTY RAGAMUFFIN HISTORIANS. GATHER ROUND, O YE CLUSTER OF FURIOUS WHORES. JOIN ME, LADS AND LASSES, FOR THIS TALE OF MOTHERFUCKING WHIMSY AND WOE, 19TH CENTURY STYLE. CHARLOTTE BRONTË ? CUTE AND HARMLESS? ABSOLUTELY THE FUCK NOT!! HARK, WOMEN WHO HAVE BUILT THEIR PERSONALITY AROUND WEARING DISGUSTING CHUNKY JEWELRY AND REFERRING TO THEMSELVES AS “BLUESTOCKINGS”. HALT, MEN WHO QUOTE WITHNAIL AND I SO MUCH EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE IN THEIR THIRTIES, AND WATCH ME, KARL SNARKS, PISS COPIOUSLY ON THE GRAVE OF CHARLOTTE BRONTË , GASLIGHTER EXTRAORDINAIRE, AND SKULL FUCK HER TINY PROBLEMATIC HEAD. FUCKEN SIT THE FUCK DOWN AND LET ME TELL YOU SHOWER OF IMBECILES ABOUT PHRENOLOGY. 1/236
I encourage you to imagine the rest, or even to write it yourself, because it turns out that directing your most aggressive instincts toward a meaningless target is quite fun, if only for a short while. I imagine this is why people do it so much. That, and the subsequent relentless affirmation by the kinds of people who use the word “fuckery” and say stuff like “this is the level of pettiness I aspire to 11/10 would read again.” I am thinking of the response to February’s “Beau Brummell invented toxic masculinity” episode, in which the 19th-century English fancy man Beau Brummell, as infamous a dandy as one can be, was “taken down” in a grueling thread which neatly encapsulated all the worst qualities of Buckle Up Twitter: bewilderingly irate, laden with a combination of baroque linguistic flourishes and performatively subversive swearing, assumption of complete ignorance on the part of the audience, fondness for the word “gaslighting,” a powerful youth pastor-like eagerness to “meet people where they are,” high likelihood that it will be retweeted by people who refer to themselves as “Scolds” in their twitter bios, strong urge to lay the blame for the ills of the 21st century firmly at the foot of a basically random actor or event, total erasure of most things that have ever happened.
BOYS. MY BOYS. Do you know why you dress Like That? Why you have that haircut? Do you know whose fucking fault it is that "acceptable" colors for men are: black, grey, navy blue, olive drab? It is because of one man.— Alexandra Rowland✨ (@_alexrowland) February 25, 2019
BEAU FUCKING BRUMMELL
The Beau Brummell thing was a particularly outstanding example of the genre, and while many people seemed to enjoy it a surprising amount, the person who wrote it also got a bit of shit for it. There were a number of responses by confused fashion historians, all saying basically the same thing, which is that Beau Brummell did not invent the idea that men should be self-conscious about what they wear. Other responses, by people who were not fashion historians, tended more towards the “this method of communicating makes me feel bad; like I am watching someone give a TED Talk with their fly open” line of thinking. You don’t have to know who Beau Brummell was to understand that the leap from “fashion edicts of one small Regency-era man” to “men in 2019 don’t understand why they shouldn’t catcall women” is an impossible one.
Overall, the negative responses were such that that you’d think it would warn off those who were thinking of heading down that path themselves. In fact not. Buckle Up Twitter will not be vanquished by things like “historical accuracy” or “profound embarrassment.” The other day I saw evidence of a thread, now sadly deleted, with the premise that the writing maxim “show, don’t tell” expected and indeed demanded an act of emotional labor from the reader that was similar if not identical to the emotional labor extracted by white men in their dealings with the rest of the world. There was a thread “calling out” King Leopold of Belgium.
I have seen threads that would make your eyes water, and in all cases, the responses were not what I personally would have anticipated. Things being what they are, I would have thought that a thread that began like “LISTEN UP DICKHOLES: TIME FOR A RANT ABOUT HOW LAVRENTIY BERIA WAS A TOTAL JERK AND A REAL PERV” would end with an apology and a promise never to do it again, but why would you apologize when you are met with joy and delight? The thing about Buckle Up Twitter, hard as this may be for right-thinking people like me to accept, is that a lot of other people LOVE IT. They absolutely love to be told that they are morons and that all of this is actually Beau Brummell’s doing.
I can think of a few reasons for this. There is something undeniably reassuring about pinning the blame for a frightening and dangerous problem on a single individual. It doesn’t make the problem go away, but it does make it comprehensible. If you believe that you can pinpoint exactly why and how things came to be so broken, if you can trace it back like a single thread in a dandy’s coat, you can pretend to yourself, even briefly, that those problems be fixed.
In fact, taking a dramatically reductive view of the past is very much in keeping with a particular kind of anti-intellectualist sentiment — the one that assumes, or pretends to assume, that no one actually likes “difficult” books or movies or art, and that they are only saying they do in order to seem smart or trick someone into having sex with them. There is a lot of it going around, lately, a lot of people trying and failing to strike a tonally consistent register that lies somewhere between “I am sophisticated enough to complicatedly enjoy things that stupid people like” and “Fuck you for even suggesting that it is possible to draw a distinction between smart things and dumb things: they are the same.”
Buckle Up Twitter threads tend to proceed from two assumptions. The first is that no one but the author of the thread has ever read a book, and the second is that no one actually ever needs to read a book in order to understand anything, because what do you need a motherfucking BOOK for when you have ALL THE INFORMATION YOU COULD POSSIBLY NEED RIGHT HERE IN THIS GODDAMN BITCH OF A THREAD. There’s not a whole lot of daylight between that and the insistence that, I don’t know, no one in the history of the world has ever had any reason or desire to read Ulysses.
But this all speculation, and slightly paranoid speculation at that. There might be a much more obvious reason that this mode of communication continues to thrive: because people find it funny. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but there’s no way of ruling out the possibility that people find it incredibly amusing, and that all they want in this world is to be berated about Nell Gwynn by a woman wearing a T-shirt that says “It’s Wine O’ Clock Somewhere.” I don’t really know what to say about that.
I would like it to stop, though, because while humor is subjective and there are worse things than being shouted at about random historical figures, it does seem like there is a lot of potential for this to develop into something much more embarrassing and stupid. Don’t tell me that we are not three or four minutes away from many book series called stuff like THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE MOTHERFUCKING ROMAN EMPIRE, where the past is only examined or discussed in terms of how it might be 100 percent relevant to the post-woke and terminally online, and where everything else is discarded, and nothing is complicated, and it’s all just that one person’s fault, and you don’t really have to think about anything.
When she wasn’t distracted by the appealing slope of a forehead, Charlotte Brontë wrote some other things about how we comport ourselves in the world. Jane Eyre somewhat famously tells us that she “would always rather be happy than dignified.” The quote probably has some explanatory power here — too bad that bitch is canceled.