There are, who to my person pay their court:
I cough like Horace, and, though lean, am short,
Ammon’s great son one shoulder had too high,
Such Ovid’s nose …
The Muse but serv’d to ease some friend, not wife,
To help me through this long disease, my life …
— Pope’s Horatian Epistle to Dr Arthbutnot
Dear friends and readers,
I’m glad to be able to report my review of Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture has now become available on the Victorian Web. I single out Trollope’s depiction of Madeline Neroni’s ways of coping with her disability as unusual and worth thinking about.
Susan Hampshire as Madeline having stage-managed this, Alan Rickman as Slope at the center (Barchester Chronicles, scripted Alan Plater)
Although published some 6 to 7 years ago, the book has not been superseded. It remains as relevant as it was in 2009; sadly, what is described and analyzed are attitudes of mind and feeling towards those labelled disabled widely prevalent today.
I am personally and academically interested in this topic. Just now teaching Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, I hope eventually to write and to publish either here on the Net or conventionally in paper an examination of Gaskell’s treatment of mental as well as physical disability in her fiction. Her perspective is that of the caregiver. There are quite a number of essays on disability in Gaskell’s fiction, e.g., by Martha Stoddard Holmes herself: “Victorian Fictions of Interdependency: Gaskell, Craik, and Yonge,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 1 (2007): 29-42. (“Well at Pen Morpha”). Deborah Fratz has written one out of Ruth, as well as an excellent review of Holmes’s book: “Fictions of Affliction,” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies 3:3 (Winter 2007); “‘A feminine morbidness of conscience’: disability, gender, and the economy of agency in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth.” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, 127 (2015):4ff.
Chris Hammond, illustrator for Mary Barton and Cranford: a scene from Mary Barton where a female character is too weak to stand
I took extensive notes on Holmes’s book as well as other essays, secondary studies and the novels of the era discussed by Holmes. A sample of some themes in Holmes I was not able to include in my review:
William Lindsay Windus (1822-1907), Too Late (a rare depiction of TB in its last stages: Windus was attacked and the picture hurt his career badly)
Preface: Holmes asks, What cultural texts inform the meanings we give disability? what kinds of bodies raise our hackles? Which ones evoke fear, pity, desire, disgust? How does all this end in our limiting the way our bodies are allowed by us to feel? She tells of the tension, awkwardness, and cant she saw in classrooms trying to discuss disabilities. The students could not see themselves as disabled — among those who spoke. It usually ended in everyone expressing compassion, inspiration and then defensiveness and boredom.
Dickens is so typical in his drenching of such a character in melodrama, sentimentality and healing. She instances the movie An Affair to Remember and how it was alluded to in Sleepless in Seattle. Holmes wants to disrupt this connection of melodrama with disability. Apparently a trope of Victorian novels is the disabled woman who cannot marry and becomes a conduit for another woman to marry; tremendous emotional excess surrounds the figure because she cannot marry or should not. How terrible (Victorians thought) to transmit disability. Orphans of the Storm a silent film that harked back to a popular Victorian story. Why was, is it so dangerous to imagine a disabled woman as desiring or a biological mother? In the body of her book she provides extensive detailed analyses of the novels and/or novelists’ work, and of the those people with disabilities who wrote memoirs or about whom biographies were written.
Holmes connects the treatment of disabled people to perceptions of disability as an issue about work: who works and who doesn’t. One problem, what is work anyway? What people then (and today too) look at is who is an “imposter” (thus villainous, not deserving) and who “really” disabled; what is cared about is the relationship of such a person to income and work as “innocent” or “guilty.” Disability is not cared about as such, but only as it impinges on what’s thought important. Mayhew’s London Labor and the London Poor is a major document.
1870 Education Act included a provision that poor law guardians were to send blind, dumb, lame, deformed, idiotic, insane children to charitable institutions to be educated; no money was provided and in fact nothing done. In 1893-4 a provision making it compulsory that blind and deaf children go to school. Not clear if it was enforced (I know what services are available cease in the US when the person finished high school — so 12th grade, around age 18.) Raymond Williams makes short work of nostalgia over Elizabethan treatment of crippled, disabled.
Holmes’s book makes Foucault emerge as not only irrelevant and unreal but doing yet more harm to attitudes – justifying simply putting the disabled on the streets after you close their “prison-asylum”. (In many 18th century historical studies, his evidence is said to be wholly inadequate).
Is disability less speakable today? Holmes seems to think so. The disabled person not recognized as disabled is freer – but at the same time, it’s the person who is “near normal” but needs help that is the person most people resist recognizing – lest it threaten their own self image.
Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson reading
Chris Mounsey’s superb collection of essays: The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century. (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2014).
Disability is used as a perspective to examine culture – as we examine culture from the perspective of class, gender, race, sexuality. All these different groups are made to define themselves negatively against the hegemonic “norm”. The norm defines itself by what it is not. We find that excluded people either acquiesce or they become victims. People look for activities whihc bring about change to improve the excluded person’s experience. He maintains this way of defining the self does not help disabled people create better attitudes towards themselves
He made me remember distinctly — though I know it to be so — that Pope was a crippled person, called a cripple, ill of a central disease in his body frame, disabled, and that Johnson was disabled too. The two men after whom ages have been name: as in The Age of Pope (alternative: Augustan) and The Age of Johnson (alternative: Sensibility). The only novel I can think of which from the 18th century which has a disabled or crippled character is Burney (in Camilla) and it’s she who left the most graphic (unpleasant) pictures of Johnson. Austen only presents disability fleetingly in an encounter in her letters (if the man she makes signs to is that). She also has Mrs Smith. Mounsey discusses Helene Deutsche’s books, Resemblance and Disgrace and Loving Dr Johnson – both are book length studies of a disabled person
He argues we must talk about and think about disability in terms of limitations; how it limits the person and help them cope with these limitations . Accept that these are their limitations. Antidiscrimination laws for both people marginalized importantly helps. Not worry ourselves about hegemonic norms.
He distinguishes this way: Homosexuality is socially constructed, blindness is not. Sexuality is partially socially constructed; so too racism . You want to imagine the lived experience of the disabled person irrespective of abled people. You don’t worry yourself about their lack of intersection with these large acts or events that are said to be normal.
On some histories of disability: Kim Neillsen’s history cannot divest itself of this binary of abled versus disabled people no matter how rich her refusal to fall into generalities and abstractions. David Turner on disability in the 18th century focusing on deformity (probably because that is what was recognized) but still uses class race and gender as tools of analysis. 1999 Elizabeth Bredberg said that accounts of the live experience of disabled people is underrepresented. There is more work published about deaf people than any other disability – we need people with “interpretive competence.” Much of their history has been a fight to use sign language as their means of communication. Now sign language is ephemeral and individual —
William Hay (1695-1755), was small man with a deformed spine, a poet, politician, husband and father, Whig member of parliament. Hay tells of mocking terms for himself: did he take them seriously, Mounsey asks, The ODNB by Taylor does not mention the man was a “born a hunchback dwarf” until penultimate paragraph. We are not told of the marriage beyond it was one showing loyalty to Whig party. Hay wrote treatises on laws for the poor with suggestions for better relief, a long poem, on principles of morality and Christianity, on civil gov’t, left extensive diaries, translation of Martial. Hay published his essay on “Deformity” a year before his death when he said he was never free from casual abuse, and says we cannot treat disabled people as if disability were marginal to their lives. Hay attacked Bacon for saying people with irregular bodies have twisted minds. At one point he scorns a woman who is deeply sick and allows someone to marry her for her money (Lady Mary Belair).Meanwhile the Critical Review called Hay good-natured and ignores barbed Martial epigrams where Hay took Pope as a his model. Why? Hay waited until he was dead and his victims too to publish. Hay wrote about how he waited.
Mounsey was partially sighted when young and is now wholly blind. Blind people have fought for more braille texts ;now Mounsey could read when a child and now he uses audiobooks and text-to-voice mechanisms. He now relies wholly on aural and finds the experience itself very different and equally valid 15 – it took 2 years to learn to do well. He is disabled in reading the way a deaf person mostly is not – he is stressing people are variable and we should all help one another He has a friend who will not accept her blindness; refuses to go places, insists on reading using a kindle with the letters hugely magnified but soon tires 18. This reminds me of many widows who refuse to go out. People need to build a capability to live with an altered capacity – to find alternatives. Yes I agree.
Then come the essays in the volume.
Barnaby Rudge and his one friend, a raven (Phiz) — seen as uncanny
A few notes on Janet Lyon’s extraordinarily insightful “On the asylum road in Mew and Woolf:”
I can’t even begin to do justice to this essay. It is a deeply anti-asylum argument. This is just one small note from it, and a recommendation to read it yourself (bibliography included in the review). Lyon includes the startling cruel insults Woolf will hurl at disabled people (such as when she sees a group of downs syndrome people walking down a road they are “idiots” who ought to be “killed”. These remind me on tone and intensity of Austen’s harsh jokes — women in childbed and dead babies. I wondered if Austen’s closeness to disabled people, to the wretched of her society,her own lesbian-spinster or just spinster state formed part of her alienating way of presenting human bodies in her letters. Both acutely sensitive people.
Lyon quotes the great and powerful poems of Charlotte Mew that Penelope Fitzgerald’s late 20th century biography grew out of. Fitzgerald wanted to look and to look away. She identifies vulnerability with disability. Woolf identifies the disabled on the street with the wretchedly poor and miserable there too. With old lone women.
The early history of asylums in the 19th century not only went about to lock up unwanted people but would ferret them out of neighborhoods to fill these places. The strongest thrust of these places and the culture that produced them is to control the person defined as disabled, to keep them apart from everyone else, and then to dismiss them from life. Unlike Holmes and even Chris Mounsey Lyon concentrates on mental disability which is more threatening to the average person — thus the horror, the assertion of something uncanny.
From Charlotte Mew’s “The Changeling”
Sometimes I wouldn’t speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel’s feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat’s black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell’s sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That’s why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn’t do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything …
We all remember the early treatment of Brendan Coyle as the disabled Mr Bates (2010, Downton Abbey)
As a general final note here: There is a problem when one uses novels or films as evidence for serious psychiatric or neurological or sociological problems. We do this so often since it’s become an accepted way of reading novels, as part of cultural studies. But novels are written to sell and to a wide public and obey conventional plot-designs. We should remember that the writer no matter how perceptive, humane, acute, is a product of his or her era, is making up the evidence, and the novel is intended to be read as a novel, the film (with actors playing parts) seen as a film.