Our next meeting: 10th of March

All are welcome to attend our next meeting on March 10th – as ever at 6:30pm – 8pm in room S2.39 at King’s College London, Strand building.

This time, Clare Walker-Gore (PhD student, University of Cambridge) will talk to us about ‘“Half Man, Half Chair”: Sensationalising Disability in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady’

Here is the abstract for the paper:
In this paper, I will focus on Wilkie Collins’s representation of the disabled character Miserrimus Dexter in his 1875 novel The Law and the Lady. Miserrimus is introduced as “fantastic and frightful”, his use of a wheelchair sensationalised as the “blending” of “man and machinery”, and in a series of images he is depicted as inhuman or animalistic. Yet the “grotesque horror” of this representation gives way, I will argue, to a challenging exploration of what it means to be fully human, to ‘count’ as a novelistic character. As the sensational plot unfolds before us, the husband whom Valeria is seeking to clear of murder, and the marriage she is trying to save, seem less and attractive, Macallan’s cruel sexual rejection of his ‘ugly’ first wife turning out to lie at the heart of the mystery, and Miserrimus’s thwarted passion for her assuming a tragic aspect. The characters who have been deemed marginal turn out to be at the heart of the mystery; the hero recedes before us both in interest and in moral stature. Miserrimus’s uncomfortable relationship with his ‘slave’ Ariel, whom he regards as sub-human due to her intellectual disabilities, but whose devotion to him is unswerving, even heroic, comes to seem a grotesque mirror-image of Macallan’s relationship with his first wife, and perhaps even with Valeria.
I will argue that we are forced to see the novel’s ‘normal’ characters through a prism of the ‘freakish’, categories that are further collapsed by Valeria’s relationship with Miserrimus, in which his difference seems to fascinate and compel her, as it does the reader. The scene in which Miserrimus attempts to kiss Valeria was seen as so shocking that, to Collins’s fury, the editor of The Graphic (in which the novel was serially published) cut it: I will ask whether Miserrimus is humanised by his denied desires, or whether the scene confirms him in his dehumanised identity as the novel’s grotesque villain. More broadly, I will attempt to address the question of how ‘sensational’ characterisation challenges our conception of how characters are made ‘human’ for us: do we feel for Collins’s sensational creations as we do for George Eliot’s ‘real’ people, for example? What does the connection between sensationalism and disability do for our understanding of either category, and in the last analysis, what would it mean to claim full humanity for “the creature in the chair”?

This paper will be combined with a discussion on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s introduction to her book Extraordinary Bodies. We would like for you to read this introduction before coming to the meeting, so that we can incorporate everyone’s questions and opinions into our discussion. We hope that the reading material and the paper will together provide a good introduction to disability studies.

We will circulate a PDF of the introduction among our mailinglists – if you have not yet received the reading material but would like to, send us an email at being.non.human@gmail.com and we will gladly send you a copy.

We hope to see you there!


About beingnonhuman

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers. The group was set up and is run by Sophia Wilson and Lydia Zeldenrust. Our group is funded by the English departments of King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London. View all posts by beingnonhuman

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