The latest book by Aviva Briefel, a professor of English and cinema studies, is entitled “The Racial Hand in the Victorian Imagination.” At a book release celebration on Thursday, she spoke about its topic: the racial significance of non-white hands in the Victorian period.

“Victorians believed that we could read somebody’s character through their hands, or the shape of their fingers or through the lines in their hands or through a whole range of different things,” said Briefel. “But one identity category that Victorians really struggled to find and couldn’t locate was race.”

As there was a general frustration at the inability of Victorian scientists to use the hand as evidence for racial difference, such as through fingerprinting, Briefel argues in her book that this frustration translated to literary writers who would in turn imagine different ways the hand could be racialized in their fiction.

“Hands of non-white individuals were used by literary texts as way of thinking about race and creating fantasies about racial identity,” said Briefel. “Victorians were very invested in the idea that identity could be read through the body.”

With her last book, “The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century,” Briefel researched the way art forgery completely obscures the work of the individual who forged it. 

In the process of thinking about how artistry is concealed, Briefel began to think about the role of hands in artistic labor and the fascination of Victorian society with the hands of Indian craftsmen.

“As England was moving more toward an industrialized, machine-based economy, even in their production of art, there was almost this kind of fascination with hands that were still producing things,” explained Briefel. “That got me thinking about the fascination more generally with non-white hands during the period and non-white hands actually either making things or being scrutinized in some way.”

Due to the incredible amount of primary source material available about hands during the Victorian period, Briefel was met with the daunting task of narrowing down everything, from palmistry manuals to mummification, into her book.

“I ended up trying to limit in each chapter a certain topic that I would look at,” said Briefel. “So one is about Indian craftsmanship, one is about the Victorian fascination with mummy’s hands, one about fingerprinting and one about eastern punishments that involve the cutting off of hands as a result of theft or other kinds of crimes.”

While horror, especially in film, is another subject of interest to Briefel, she states she did not make any direct connections to horror film in her book. Instead, Briefel describes how her course offered this semester “Victorian Plots,” although not specifically focused on the topic, reflects a lot of the topics she has written about.

“There’s a lot of intersection between the material that we read in that class, which is often adventure fiction involving imperialism that finds a place in the book, obviously in a more focused on hands kind of way,” said Briefel. “Also the aspect of identity in in crime in Victorian fiction definitely comes in there.”