Report on March Meeting

Lots of topics covered in this meeting! We had a great paper from Clare Walker-Gore on disability in Wilkie Collins’s 1875 text The Law and the Lady, which generated quite a bit of discussion. Firstly, how might the historicity of the terms ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’ affect one’s reading of a text that pre-exists the current usage of these terms? Whilst the term ‘disabled’ was around during the nineteenth century, Walker-Gore highlighted that it often signified one’s inability to earn money through work. Therefore, the term ‘disabled’ was a separate concept rather than a synonym to dated terms such as ‘crippled’, ‘lame’, or ‘invalid’. Applying disability studies to literature that predates the mid-twentieth century, when ‘disability’ assumed its current meaning, therefore calls our attention to the changeability of meaning and in turn the mutability of people’s understanding of the non-normative body.

A curious aspect of applying disability studies to nineteenth-century literature is the realisation that disability is gendered. The masculinity of men who are seen as disabled is frequently called into question in such literature, the men presented either as feminised (Miserrimus Dexter wearing pink silk and ribbons, for instance) or neutered (Dexter is also, after attempting to kiss the main female protagonist Valeria, likened to a ‘child’, and so both androgynous and desexualised). It would seem that one deviation from the assumed normative body (in this case, being disabled) leads to another deviation (unexpected or destabilised gender roles). However, women who are seen as physically disabled are not presented as assuming an opposite gender role or as being either androgynous or desexualised. Instead, they are presented as hyper-feminine. This, at least, is the case for upper-class women – it would have been interesting to discuss in further detail whether class affects the gendering of the disabled woman. Whilst disabled men are typically presented as inferior – less powerful – in society, Walker-Gore highlighted the curious point that ‘invalid’ women exerted control over others through their disability, noting that a woman unable to walk would recline on a sofa and that this could give her power over the room (she could decide where the sofa was to be placed and determine where everyone else would stand or sit in the room – all orientated so that they were accessible to her).

At the time Collins was writing, there were two predominant uses of the disabled body in literature: one was the sentimental use of the disabled person, in which they were used to promote feels of charity and virtue in others (Tiny Tim being a prime example of this); the other use of the disabled person was that akin to the ‘freak show’ spectacle, in which they became something rather than someone and were the object of the normative gaze. Collins rejects both these common treatments of disability in literature by having Dexter look back and talk back. Dexter further displays his agency by acting outside of people’s expectations. For instance, he kisses Valeria who is outraged (possibly because she did not consider him attractive, but also perhaps because she therefore did not consider him to be capable of sexual desires) and gets out of chair by walking around on his hands. Dexter also knowingly performs the stereotyped sentimentalised disabled person, asking Valeria to pity him, referring to himself as a ‘poor solitary creature’. As Walker-Gore points out, it is one thing to apply this stereotype to a person, but quite another to see that person actively and knowingly perform or play up to this stereotype: such a performance highlights the falseness of the sentimentalised view (quick query off the top of my head – has any work been done on the concept of disability as a performance?). That a doctor eventually has Dexter committed to an asylum, despite the fact that he seems emotionally wrought rather than insane, could indicate the frightening fate of those who do not conform to their expected social roles: if they refuse to be constrained by such roles, they’ll be physically restrained.

Dexter’s resistance towards being treated as a stereotype or indeed an object suggests a more general struggle to be recognised as human. Through his speech and actions, Dexter clearly asserts his right to be regarded as a person. Nevertheless, Dexter offers a more complicated understanding of what this means by defining his chair as himself (‘my chair is Me’), thus suggesting a different relationship between the self, the body and objects. How closely connected to Dexter’s sense of personhood is his chair? That Dexter can discard the chair by walking on his hands suggests that the chair is not necessarily vital to his body, so Dexter’s assertion that the chair is himself implies perhaps a less physical and more immaterial connection to his sense of self. So what exactly is the status of the chair? If it is part of Dexter’s sense of self, does it possess any agency? Should we regard the chair as similar to how clothing may define other literary characters? Or does the chair not simply define but act as part of Dexter? Although stressing that he is a person, does Dexter offer another reading of the person, presenting the person not simply as a human being but as the interaction between the body and the object, between the human and nonhuman?

Thanks to Clare and all those who attended – our next meeting will be on Monday 7th April, with papers from Joanna Coleman (‘Becoming Beast: Metamorphosis in Contemporary Young Adult Narrative’) and Dr James Lloyd (‘Weland the Smith: Man or Superman?’). Hope to see you there!

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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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