Here is another guest post by frequent commenter and friend of the Orthosphere, Dale James Nelson.
Sherlock Holmes: “You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?”
Watson: “The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as–”
“My blushes, Watson!” Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.
Watson: “I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public.”
Doyle, The Valley of Fear (1915)
Holmes’s vanity tripped him up that time. Probably he did blush then. If literature is a reliable guide, people used to blush, or even flush, quite often.
Her blood shrank back to her heart at the very thought [of marrying for wealth], and then rushed to her neck and bosom in a flood of shame.
Haggard, Stella Fregelius (1903)
Examples could be multiplied. It seems there was a Victorian-Edwardian cult of blushing as a sign of lively sensibility – so that the hero of Trollope’s Dr. Thorne (1858), Frank Gresham, blushes when an older woman suggests that a young lady might like to settle at Greshamsbury for life, i.e. marry him, and we readers certainly are meant to approve of the young man’s modesty. Such blushing reassured readers of the persistence of wholesome human feeling in a society increasingly materialistic, hurried, and impersonal.
Those who read more current fiction than I do can inform me if people still blush in novels today. My sense is that they don’t, except perhaps to get “red with anger.”
Blushing is as much a matter of the soul as of physiology. “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to” (Mark Twain). Incidentally, I think writers used to make a distinction: someone’s face might be flushed with exertion or anger, but someone blushed with love, shame or embarrassment. Authors frequently noted the rushing of blood to the face as the sign that someone was much moved.