Blushing in Literature
Bram Stoker's Dracula is a novel that oozes gore: "gouts of fresh blood" on Dracula's lips, "which trickle from the corners of his mouth", or blood that "wells and spurts up" around the stakes being hammered into the hearts of his undead victims. But for all these messy horrors, there are also moments when the body seems intent on keeping its blood to itself, as when Dr Seward notices "a quick blush" spreading over Mina Harker's face and goes on to explain: "The blush that rose to my own cheeks somehow set us both at ease, for it was a tacit answer to her own."
For Dr Seward, it is as if this silent exchange of blushes proves that both of them remain pure of heart, untainted by the vampire's corrupt appetites. (Dracula's cheeks are described as "ruby-red" only when he is bloated with fresh blood, like an enormous leech.) What he does not explain, though, is why glowing cheeks would necessarily signify innocence rather than guilt, or health rather than disease. If the blush is a piece of body language, how should it be read?
Dracula emerged at the end of a period that had seen several attempts to explain why we blush. In 1839, Thomas H Burgess's The Physiology or Mechanism of Blushing described the "eloquent blood sympathising with every mental emotion, rising and spreading over the cheek", and demonstrated the author's own sympathy by borrowing a phrase from Donne's "Second Anniversary": "her pure and eloquent blood / Spoke in her cheeks." In 1872, Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals argued that "Blushing is the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions." (The expression "It's enough to make a dog blush" makes sense because dogs cannot blush; like all animals, they are stoically unembarrassable.) By 1897, the year in which Dracula was published, Havelock Ellis was offering a list of the symptoms associated with blushing: "dizziness, tingling of toes and fingers, numbness, smarting of eyes, singing in ears, prickling sensations of face", and more.
But despite the best efforts of science, blushing remains a physiological mystery, as slippery as blood itself. Writers who make a character blush therefore provide us with a suggestive sketch of the difficulties we confront in attempting to understand each other. A red face is as hard to read as someone else's mind. It can indicate transparent purity or dirty secrets, which is why phrases such as "the blushing bride" are so awkwardly ambiguous (is she blushing because of what she knows or what she doesn't know?), and why Milton's Raphael glows "Celestial rosie red" when Adam and Eve ask him how the angels express their love for each other. It can suggest the genuine (unlike laughter or tears, a blush cannot be caused by physical stimulus or will-power alone), or the phoney ("rouge" or "blusher" has often been criticised for painting on a look of artlessness), which is why Shakespeare has Cleopatra tease Antony by saying "Thou blushest", because on the stage it is unlikely to be true; her line is part of the play's investigation into the flexible boundary between the real and the fake.
Shame, modesty, indignation, shyness: however rich the tangle of causes that can set off a blush, what many of them have in common is a sudden crisis of self-consciousness, or what Darwin described as "thinking what others think of us". Put another way, blushing is a sign of sociability, which is why we tend not to blush when we are alone, or asleep, or too young to recognise the different looks that can be trained in our direction. Even if we are always to some extent strangers to each other, blushing reminds us of how much we share.
Perhaps this is why writers are so sensitive to blushing. From Laurence Sterne, whose A Sentimental Journey has a good claim to being the most red-faced novel in English (it boasts the first recorded use of "embarrassed" in its modern sense of "bashful"), to Keats, who was praised by Henry James for his "magnificent rendering of flush and bloom" (even the sunset in his great ode "To Autumn" is like a huge blush being cast across the landscape), the way that individual writers tackle blushing does more than add bursts of local colour to their writing. Like the contagious blush in Dracula, such moments warn that each of us carries around a private world of hopes and fears that might not be intelligible to another person's eyes, even as they allow us briefly to entertain the fantasy of wearing our hearts on our faces.