Tag Archives: Victorian bodies

Wilkie Collins and the Sensational Baby

Black and white photograph of a baby in a bonnet.

Baby ‘Pictet,” by Julia Margaret Cameron, image courtesy wikimedia commons.

by Tamara Wagner

The Victorian baby is generally thought of as a cliché, a useful icon of domesticity, an accessory in idealisations of motherhood, childhood, or the family. Once one takes a closer look, however, the baby of nineteenth-century popular culture emerges as a very volatile and flexible figure that appears in surprising forms and undertakes a range of narrative functions. The most provocative manifestation of odd literary babyhood in Victorian fiction is indisputably the sensational baby. Sensation novelists were aware of the controversial potential and often played out striking instances of incongruity, and yet the most revealing instances push the placements of infants in sensational scenarios beyond their usefulness as emblems of innocence that enhance – through sheer force of contrast – a sensational incursion into the domestic. Instead, babies are central to mysteries or import a potential threat. Wilkie Collins not only features infants in startling moments that play with the baby’s expected sentimentalisation; he challenges conventional representations of such controversial issues as illegitimacy, child-stealing, or adoption. In the process, he exposes the precariousness of childcare at a time when blended families were fairly common, but there was little to no legal protection for informally adopted or fostered children. He also interrogates normative conceptions of breastfeeding, for example, and in his early sensational novel Hide and Seek (1854), a clown’s wife offers to suckle a starving infant at the roadside, drawing attention to the wide variety of very visible breastfeeding scenes in Victorian literature. In his later novels, he explores the distress of birth mothers who have given up or lost their babies and creates one of the most explicit evocations of a baby-farmer in nineteenth-century fiction. Collins’s fictional babies indeed offer a compelling entry-point into a revealing re-examination of the ambiguities and contestations that lay underneath the Victorian iconography of babyhood.

Wagner, Tamara S. “Wilkie Collins’s Sensational Babies: Lost Mothers and Victorian Babyhood,” Victorian Review, vol 43, no 1, Spring 2017, pp. 129-142.

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On Topography and Hunger in Mary Barton

This week’s guest, Thomas A. Laughlin, has a PhD in English from the University of Toronto.

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William Wyld, Manchester from Kersal Moor, 1852

“Mrs. Gaskell could not just give what we would now call a ‘slice of life,’ partly because she wanted to offer more, but also partly because the novel as a form was felt to require movement, the progress of a story. This is the problem of form. Mrs. Gaskell has to overcome the difficulty that whereas her strength lies in evocation, description, analysis of a situation, the strength of the novel seemed to lie in the fact that it could absorb readers in a story, that is, that it worked through plot.” (Gill 22)

This is the famous contradiction and tension at the heart of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel, Mary Barton. The novel gathers more content and conflicts than its narrative can adequately process. The plot, we have to admit, isn’t the greatest. Nor is there much satisfaction to be derived from the characters, who, in my opinion, are obstinately and unbelievably single-minded in their concerns and pursuits. But personally, I like that it begins in the countryside, dwells in the twisted streets and back alleys of a Manchester working-class neighborhood, traverses both the factory floor and the union meeting, brings back news of the Chartists’ disappointed presentation of the People’s Charter to the Parliament in London, connects the working class to the wandering “lumpen” masses, involves a secret assassination plot, follows Mary to Liverpool and almost all the way out to sea, has a courtroom melodrama, and ends with Mary and Jem emigrating to Canada! There is a kind of topographic euphoria in the novel—a will to connect and “complete,” as Eric Hayot might say (see Hayot 60-67). Each topos is as vivid and valid—that is, as believable and necessary—as the previous, even if their relationship remains arbitrary, a connecting contingency of geography. Continue reading

Interview with Kylee-Anne Hingston at VSAWC 2015

Our final interview at the 2015 VSAWC Conference, Victorian Bodies, was with Kylee-Anne Hingston, who researches how narrative form and focalization in Victorian fiction contributed to the era’s understanding of the disabled body. In particular, she examines the narrative techniques Victorian fiction used to represent the body and recreate bodily experiences.

Dr. Hingston came to study Victorian disability in a roundabout way; her original area of interest was children’s literature, but through her interest in the invalid figure in children’s literature (e.g. Beth in Little Women, Colin in The Secret Garden, etc.) began studying disability theory and Victorian literature.

In the two clips below, Dr. Hingston explains how focalization in works such as Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories to challenge the medicalization and abnormalization of the disabled body.

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Interview with Nadine LeGier at VSAWC 2015

At the 2015 VSAWC conference, Victorian bodies, we sat down with Nadine LeGier to talk about disability studies and Victorian culture.  Dr. LeGier, who researches deafness and letters in Victorian culture at the University of Manitoba, began her academic career as a Victorianist and first heard about disability studies shortly before beginning her Ph.D. at the University of Manitoba, where she was supervised by Vanessa Warne, a disability scholar and Victorianist working on blindness and literacy in the Victorian era.

In our discussion about her research on deafness and Victorian letters, Legier told us how Amy Levy‘s deafness is often neglected in scholarship on Levy. In the video below, Dr. Legier discusses how Levy’s poetry effectively expressed the experience of deafness through language, particularly in constructing and reconstructing identity as Levy’s hearing loss became more significant.

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Touching on the intersection of disability studies and disability activism, Legier suggests that teaching as a person with disability is a type of activism itself—both in demonstrating the presence of disability in academia and in participating in projects working towards accessibility in the university setting, such as the Liberated Learning Project at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, where Legier lectured in the past.

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Interview with Martha Stoddard Holmes at VSAWC 2015

At the 2015 VSAWC conference, Victorian Bodies, Dr. Martha Stoddard Holmes gave the inaugural McMaster Lecture, “Liminal Children: Making Disability and Childhood in Nineteenth-Century Fiction,” which examined the intersecting developments of disability and childhood as cultural constructs. Victorian Review had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Stoddard Holmes, who wrote Fictions of Affliction, the seminal book on disability in Victorian literature,  about her research and what led her to it.  She told us that her interest in disability was instigated by Victorian studies, just when the field of disability studies was emerging in the humanities in the 1990s.

In the following video clip, Dr. Stoddard Holmes discusses the need for critically studying disability’s cultural construction, and she relates how examining Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens novels led her to become aware of that need. Additionally, she explains how the Victorian era was a crucial time in the development of disability as an object of discourse and social identity.

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In our discussion with her, Dr. Stoddard Holmes also informed us how activism plays an important role in the field of disability studies, particularly since the study of disability in the humanities came out of disability rights movement that began in the 1970s. In the video below, Dr. Stoddard Holmes describes some of the social restrictions faced by an important Victorian activist for the blind, Elizabeth Margaretta Maria Gilbert—restrictions that appeared even after her death through the biography written by her good friend and fellow women’s activist, Frances Martin.

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Dr. Stoddard Holmes also noted that in her research experience, she has often found that the Victorians engaged in issues regarding disability that we are still engaging with in the twenty-first century, sometimes in “less imaginative ways than in the nineteenth century.”