* The following is a guest post by Kylee-Anne Hingston, who recently defended her dissertation on disability and narrative form at the University of Victoria *

In a 2006 article in Victorian Literature and Culture, Julia Miele Rodas lamented that, at that time, “disability [was] still generally regarded as an isolated concern, of literary or cultural significance only insofar as it may serve as a convention or an icon of affect” (378). The article, “Mainstreaming Disability Studies?,” reviewed two seminal works in Victorian disability studies (Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction and David Wright’s Mental Disability in Victorian England) and provided an overview of disability studies in the humanities for the journal’s readers. More importantly, however, it encouraged scholars to acknowledge disability’s centrality to Victorian studies and the humanities.

At the beginning of my academic career in the late aughts and early teens, my experiences as a disability studies scholar attending conferences attested to Rodas’s statement that “most scholars continue to think of disability as a non-central issue” (378). At smaller Victorianist conferences, I was often the only person or one of two people speaking about disability. At a larger humanities conference I attended in 2011, there were two Victorianist papers on disability (including my own) and one only disability-studies panel, which focused on Spanish literature and film and which I happily sat in on, in spite of not speaking Spanish, simply for the sake of fellow feeling. The panel’s attendees felt the marginalization of disability particularly sharply: the panel was held in a room wholly inaccessible to wheelchair users due to a two-step rise from the rest of the floor where the conference was held.

But I have since witnessed changes in conference culture that demonstrate a movement towards “mainstreaming disability studies.” For instance, at the Victorian Studies Association of Canada’s recent annual conference, which took Victorian Bodies as its theme, not only were there a panel, a plenary lecture, and a workshop devoted to Victorian disability, but also several papers in other panels that incorporated disability studies into their arguments. (Tweets from the conference are storified here.)

Poster for VSAWC 2015 conference
Poster for VSAWC 2015 conference

During the conference, what struck me most forcefully about the increased representation of Victorian disability studies was the fruitfulness of intersections between disability studies and other approaches to Victorian literature and culture. Martha Stoddard Holmes demonstrated how childhood studies and disability studies shed light on each other in her plenary lecture, “Liminal Children: Making Disability and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” In the lecture, Holmes traced the interconnected development during the Victorian era of disability and childhood’s “otherness,” which was identified by presumed vulnerability, asexuality, and inability to labour. Examining Victorian representations of childhood, Holmes noted a frequent denial of “futurity” in depictions of disabled children. In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for example, while readers discover that Tiny Tim Cratchet “does NOT die,” they find out nothing about his adulthood; therefore, in spite of readers’ joy that Tim lives, the bulk of their emotional investment in him occurs through imagining him die earlier in the story.

Kristen Guest’s paper “Mr Peter’s Dirty Hands: The Policeman’s Body in The Trail of the Serpent” likewise modelled this kind of fruitfulness. Guest brought disability studies into her work on Victorian portrayals of police officers’ liminal class status to reveal how Mary Elizabeth Braddon probes Victorian anxieties about the bodies of policemen and criminals. Guest’s paper unfolded how the dirty hands of the novel’s detective, Mr Peter, signify his disability as a user of alphabet sign language and his working-class position, but they also provide a map for misreading his character as incompetent.

IMG_4102_2
Moon Type Edition of the June, 1935 issue of Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the Blind. Photo by Paisley Mann.

The most collaborative union of disability studies with other discourses occurred in the SSHRC-funded workshop, “Books Without Ink: Raised Print and the Reading Body,” led by Vanessa Warne. In “Books Without Ink,” workshop participants visited several stations displaying rare artefacts that related to blind reading in the Victorian era. The artefacts, generously loaned by the University of Manitoba’s Archives & Special Collections, included raised print books and magazines, and illustrations and photographs of blind students reading raised print globes and sheet music. Participants were encouraged to touch the artefacts (after having washed their hands thoroughly first!!!) and to bring their own special knowledge and expertise to investigating and interpreting the items. In the last twenty minutes of the workshop, after having viewed each station, the participants reconvened to discuss their observations and to ask Warne questions. In this session, the participants brought their special knowledge on Victorian literacy and education, on media, on nineteenth-century print culture, on illustration, and so on, while Warne brought hers on Victorian disability and blindness, having a productive and illuminating conversation about what the artefacts can tell us about disability and the Victorian era.

Rodas foresaw this kind of fruitfulness in 2006, saying, “it seems that more may be accomplished when the voice of disability, or the voices that interrogate the constructs of disability, are mingled with and heard by a larger set of discourses” (383–84). As an attendee of Victorian Bodies, I was privileged to witness the rich scholarship produced when disability studies mingles with other discourses.

Works Cited

Guest, Kristen. “Mr Peter’s Dirty Hands: The Policeman’s Body in The Trail of the Serpent.” Victorian Bodies. Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. Kelowna, BC. 10–11 Apr. 2015. Conference Paper.

Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. The Corporealities Series. Ann Arbour: U of Michigan P, 2004. Print.

—. “Liminal Children: Making Disability and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Victorian Bodies. Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. Kelowna, BC. 10–11 Apr. 2015. McMaster Lecture.

Rodas, Julia Miele. “Mainstreaming Disability Studies?” VLC 34.1 (2006): 371–84. Web. 24 Feb. 2010.

Warne, Vanessa. “Books Without Ink: Raised Print and the Reading Body.” Victorian Bodies. Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada. Kelowna, BC. 10–11 Apr. 2015. Workshop.

Wright, David. Mental Disability in Victorian England: The Earlswood Asylum, 1847–1901. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford UP, 2001. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

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2 thoughts on “Victorian Bodies and Disability’s Centrality to Victorian Scholarship

  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful post–I am now doubly sorry that I wasn’t at VSAWC this year! But it’s wonderful to have a conference write up like this one accessible, to continue the disability studies theme.

  2. Great post!!!! As a scholar of dysfluency studies, I feel especially enthused by the changes you have noticed. Dysfluencies are even marginalized in the broader field of disability studies, and I still feel that I am the only scholar studying in any extensive way the wealth of material in Victorian literature and culture about stuttering, stammering, echolalia, aphasia, and other forms of speech dysfluency. Here’s hoping that as disability is “mainstreamed” so to is dysfluency studies.

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