The significance of hands in British literature during the 18th and 19th centuries was the topic for the semester’s second Graves Lecture presented by Dr. Kimberly Cox, assistant professor of English and Humanities, Oct. 24.
Cox said she has been studying hands and their importance in literature for the last eight years.
According to Cox, the handshake was the basis for showing the importance of the use of hands. Different types of handshakes reflected cultural backgrounds and prejudices, as well as acknowledged gender roles restricted by social standards.
Cox said one Victorian-era etiquette book identified 21 styles of handshakes used in social relations and is often represented in British literature, but the number could really be infinite. Only two of the handshakes were associated with women since women seldom shook hands with gentlemen due to social standards.
Cox said there were dangers when using hands, specifically with touching, including violence, compassionless love, and anxiety.
The 1840s British broadside ballad, “Tis Hard to Give the Hand Where the Heart Can Never Be” by Charles Jeffrys was used to effectively explain the difficulties and dangers of touching during the Victorian-era.
Cox used a research grant awarded by Chadron State College last year to have the ballad performed by Bobby Pace, an accompanist in CSC’s music department, and CSC student Asha Mullins. They used Charles Glover’s 1858 score and performed the ballad for the first time in 200 years.
The ballad supported the tradition of a woman giving her hand to a man to show her approval for marriage. Cox argued the ballad is directly related to women who are forced into marriage, an analysis made possible by Pace and Mullins’ recording that gave clarity to the key and pitch of the voice expected to sing the ballad.
Cox said the lines “Tho’ a parents stern command / Claims obedience from me” and “And I will not give the hand / Where the heart can never be” indicate the woman in the ballad did not want to be married and was forced into an arranged marriage.
The importance of the hand in human evolution was also discussed. Cox said during the 1800s the human hand marked a difference in the development of man and lower animals.
Researchers also believed hand development reflected brain development which meant people with high levels of tactile sensitivity were thought to have greater intelligence.
While today’s society no longer polices handshaking or practices the pseudo-science of hand-phrenology, Cox still considers touch to reflect cultural anxieties about interpersonal relationships. Cox said that humans still worry about an appropriate handshake for a job interview, for example. The dangers, pleasures, and social politics associated with Victorian touching, Cox said, are still alive and well today.