Words From Victorian Novels Used to Describe People That Are Terrible at Describing People

How well turned is your chin, when you really think about it?

Victorian novels often use vague and unhelpful words to describe characters. The same words are used over and over again in every Victorian novel. Words like good-humored, pale, fine, pleasing, intelligent face, and brilliant complexion. They’re such Victorian-novel-words, too; they completely fit in with the dense language. Thus, they are easy to plow through, but if you stop and think about them you’re like, “I don’t know what this description actually means, I couldn’t possibly tell you what this person looks like based on these words.” Some of the words are so vague as to be meaningless. Some of them are just plain weird ways to describe someone.

That thing where you can’t see her face because it’s not actually there (Monet’s ‘Woman with a Parasol, facing left,’ 1886)

These terrible and undescriptive descriptions usually occur when a character is described for the first time, a.k.a., the most important description of the character. Without going into the connotations and meanings these words had in the nineteenth century, it’s safe to say that today, they sound absurd. Many of these words are used in a positive way to describe someone who’s attractive and kind, usually a love interest. So you know what the description is trying to say, but it’s just not very specific at all. Not every descriptive word in a Victorian novel is terrible. Some of the descriptions have normal, helpful words like tall, young, or handsome. You can find them in the same sentences as the terrible words! But the terrible words are truly terrible! I’m including Jane Austen in all of this, even though her books aren’t Victorian, because she does this too. Without further ado, some requests for clarification.

Jane Eyre

by Charlotte Brontë

“He was young — perhaps from twenty-eight to thirty — tall, slender; his face riveted the eye; it was like a Greek face, very pure in outline…”

His face was pure in outline? How can the outline of someone’s face be impure? If their skin is rough or wrinkly? Basically this is just a terrible way of saying his face looks perfect.

“His features were regular, but too relaxed…”

So… he’s too chill?

“There was no power in that smooth-skinned face of a full oval shape: no firmness in that aquiline nose and small cherry mouth…”

How can someone’s nose be not firm? If it has no bones in it?

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy

“She was a fine and handsome girl — not handsomer than some others, possibly — but her mobile peony mouth and large innocent eyes added eloquence to colour and shape.”

Isn’t everyone’s mouth mobile? Because we use mouths to talk?

Far From the Madding Crowd

by Thomas Hardy

His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character.

Easy motions? That sounds like every move he makes is relaxed and languid… which just sounds like he’s high?

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

by Anne Brontë

“Her complexion was remarkably fair and brilliant, her head small, neck long, chin well turned, but very short…”

What does brilliant complexion even mean? Let’s say brilliant means bright here. How can someone’s face be bright? Doesn’t that depend on how much light is currently on their face? So it must be figurative. I guess when a gentleman sees a pretty lady, her face can be figuratively shining. Sure.

How can your chin be not well turned? If it’s crooked? If it’s too pointy? Add in the “but very short” and it seems like this chin is the subject of disapproval. Like, it’s an even, symmetrical chin, but it’s too small, damn it.

“Her complexion was clear and pale; her eyes I could not see, for, being bent upon her prayer-book, they were concealed by their drooping lids and long black lashes, but the brows above were expressive and well defined; the forehead was lofty and intellectual…”

So, she has clear skin?

If her eyebrows are expressive, I guess that means she uses them a lot when she talks? I hope not too much, because then she would look insane. I suppose well-defined just means not bushy, neat, and orderly.

If your forehead is lofty, is it just really high up on your face? Does that mean it’s small or large? Or does it mean you have a high hairline? As for the second part, what does someone with an intellectual forehead look like? Beats me. How can your forehead be intellectual? What kind of forehead does an intellectual have? Basically, I have no idea what this forehead looks like.

“Eliza’s figure was at once slight and plump…”


North and South

by Elizabeth Gaskell

“She sat facing him and facing the light; her full beauty met his eye; her round white flexile throat rising out of the full, yet lithe figure…”

In case you were wondering, yes, flexile is just a weird way of saying flexible. So, she has an impressively flexible throat? How can you tell? Do you watch her while she’s swallowing? What a normal way to describe someone!

“No one thought about it; but Margaret’s tall, finely made figure, in the black silk dress which she was wearing as mourning for some distant relative of her father’s, set off the long beautiful folds of the gorgeous shawls that would have half-smothered Edith.”

Finely made by who? This compares a human woman to a doll that was finely made by a craftsman or something. That’s still not very descriptive. Like, she looks like someone did a good job making her?

“The lines in her father’s face were soft and waving, with a frequent undulating kind of trembling movement passing over them, showing every fluctuating emotion…”

You know when the lines in someone’s face frequently undulate and tremble? No? Me neither. This whole thing makes no sense.

Pride and Prejudice

by Jane Austen

“But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.”

Explain to me how someone’s eyes can make their face seem smart.

“He was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing…”

Pleasing basically just means attractive. She’s pleasing to you. That means she’s attractive. But pleasing figure is subjective, so basically, the only thing we’ve learned is that she’s light. Other than that, she could look like anything.

“His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.”

Fine like delicate? Or good? No one knows!

“Lydia was a stout, well-grown girl of fifteen, with a fine complexion and good-humoured countenance…”

She has a pleasant face. Which I guess means she’s always smiling and in a good mood? Combined with “stout” and “well-grown” it sounds like a very polite way of saying she’s plump and jolly.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you read a character description and can’t picture the character in your head, you’ve just been subjected to some terrible and undescriptive Victorian novel character description.

Madeline Raynor is a New York City-based writer. She writes for Slate and Entertainment Weekly, and has written for New York Magazine, The Billfold, and Splitsider. She loves Victorian novels, period dramas, and all things Tina Fey.