Descriptions of people, of characters in novels, particularly thorough introductory top-to-bottom inventory descriptions, are typically useless, by which I mean artistically useless, because the details are so often unconnected and almost random, and useless to the reader who has no hope of remembering anything but a general impression. All of that detail just disintegrates.
Here is an amusing exception, from early in The Woman in White (1860). It is the narrator’s first view of a major character, Marian Halcombe, from a distance, with her back turned:
Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. (The First Epoch, VI)
Readers of Wilkie Collins know that the nature of the description changes when the woman turns around, but I am not so interested in that right now. What caught my attention was, of course, the peculiarity of the description. The “easy, pliant firmness” of the head, for example, or that “natural circle.” Who talks or writes like this?
In fact, the description is natural for the character, because he is a drawing master. He is breaking his subject down into her component parts, as he might do if he were to draw her, or as he might instruct a student. I would guess that a search through contemporary guides to drawing would unearth that “natural circle.”
It’s a nice touch. Too bad Collins does not follow through with more passages like this, but I suspect he feared making his hero – the narrator is the novel’s action hero, so to speak – too eccentric. His (the hero’s) later descriptions are more conventional. The genuinely eccentric Mr. Fairlie has a face that is “thin, worn, and transparently pale, but not wrinkled,” eyes that are “rather red round the rims of the eyelids,” hair that is “soft to look at,” "little, womanish, bronze-leather slippers" and so on, lots of nice writing but much too much to remember, well-suited to create a strong impression of Fairlie’s personality, if not his actual appearance.
Well, hair that is “soft to look at” is kind of strange. My point is that the first look at Mr. Fairlie does a good job of creating the Mr. Fairlie who I carried through the rest of the novel, but does not tell us much of interest about the character who describes him, while the catalogue of Marian’s form a few pages earlier reveals the mentality of the narrator too. That’s it; that’s my point. Collins works on the idea throughout the book, unfortunately indulging himself more when the minor characters are narrating, "unfortunately" because the minor characters are weirder and funnier. The major characters are visibly deformed by stays, the conventional constraints of being the hero or heroine (of the strong or weak variety) of a Victorian novel.
Perhaps I will think of something else to say about The Woman in White later.