.... her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought
That one might almost say her body thought.
On the topic of blushing I have finally found a theme in which I can combine my time in China with Jane Austen and the English literature of the past. One of the charming things about my female students in China (ages 18 to 20) is that they still blush, readily, if you raise the topic of boyfriends. It's like travelling to a bygone age.
Do any Western young ladies still blush? Oh yes, we all can blush, or flush, from embarrassment in social situations, but what about the blush of modesty?
Maidenly purity was a central pre-occupation in English literature prior to modern times. The blush on a maiden's cheek was seen as a mark of innocence and purity. Inevitably, the heroines of Georgian, Regency and Victorian novels are described as blushing frequently.
Henry Fielding describes a girl whose "face and neck overspread with one blush," Samuel Richardson's Pamela is "all covered in blushes," Fanny Burney's Evelina is praised for her "downcast eye, and blushing cheek, timid air, and beauteous face," Hannah More's heroine, Lucila, in Coelebs in Search of a Wife can't get through any conversation without blushing: "She stopped and blushed, as fearing she had said too much." In Anne Radcliffe The Mysteries of Udolpho , "A blush overspread" her heroine Emily's cheek. Mary Brunton's Laura in Self-Controul charms a rogue: "for every voluptuary can tell what allurements blushes add to beauty." Sir Walter Scott's Rowena, on removing her veil in front of Rebecca: "partly from the consciousness of beauty, partly from bashfulness.... blushed so intensely that cheek, brow, neck, and bosom were suffused with crimson."
It is clear that for any self-respecting heroine, frequent blushing is de rigeur. Juliet has to excuse herself to Romeo: "Thou know'st the mask of night is on my face,. Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek. For that which thou hast heard me speak tonight."
Young ladies were frequently described as blushing "celestial rosy red," a phrase taken from Milton's Paradise Lost, however Milton was not referring to a maiden's cheek but to the angel Raphael's reaction when he was asked by the newly-married Adam if there is sex in Paradise.
The fluctuation of color in the face when a lady blushed was certain proof that her color was natural and not applied with rouge. In Elizabeth Gaskell's Cousin Phillis' the heroine's "colour came and went" as the artist Holdsworth gazed upon her and drew her portrait. “Paint must never hope to reproduce the faint half-flush that dies along her throat," the artist says to the Duchess in Robert Browning's poem.
Even men blush in these novels, from chagrin, self-awareness, or anger, but seldom from modesty. "I blush for you, Tom," Sir Thomas Bertram says to his son when confronting him about his debts.
Because the purity of the maidenly heroine was so important, the dramatic tension of many of the popular novels of the past derives from the threat that the lady may lose her virtue. Think of Ivanhoe, The Last Days of Pompeii, and of course Clarissa, If the lady fell from grace, then death was sure to follow, as in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and East Lynne.
The Victorian era was the hey-day of the blushing maiden. Victorian heroines were inevitably sweet and demure and portrayed as having heart-shaped faces with high foreheads, very large eyes, sweet little rosebud mouths, tiny feet and hands and of course, naturally rosy cheeks. These heroines are guileless and always astonished if somebody notices them.
In David Copperfield, little "Em'ly was confused by our all observing her, and hung down her head, and her face was covered with blushes."
Some writers, however, found this cliche of the blushing maiden cloying. Gilbert & Sullivan satirized the blushing maiden in their 1884 operetta The Mikado, when the bridesmaids advise Yum-Yum how to behave on her wedding day:
Sit with downcast eye --/ Let it brim with dew --/ Try if you can cry --/ We will do so, too.
When you're summoned, start/ Like a frightened roe --/ Flutter, little heart,/ Colour, come and go!
And in Vanity Fair, W.M. Thackeray makes fun of the typical Victorian blushing maiden, whom he openly derides: "But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia, there is no harm in saying, at the outset of our acquaintance, that she was a dear little creature; ....her face blushed with rosy health, and her lips with the freshest of smiles, and she had a pair of eyes which sparkled with the brightest and honestest good-humour, except indeed when they filled with tears, and that was a great deal too often; for the silly thing would cry over a dead canary-bird;... or over the end of a novel, were it ever so stupid..." And he contrasts her with the calculating Becky Sharp: "Amelia, hanging down her head, blushed as only young ladies of seventeen know how to blush, and as Miss Rebecca Sharp never blushed in her life—at least not since she was eight years old, and when she was caught stealing jam out of a cupboard by her godmother."
In the West, at any rate, the blushing maiden in literature has gone the way of the DoDo, and yet I feel a certain nostalgia for the idea of having something to blush about.