Tag Archives: Victorian bodies

On Topography and Hunger in Mary Barton

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


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.”

Floating Academy: Victorian Bodies and Disability’s Centrality to Victorian Scholarship

By Kylee-Anne Hingston

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 to “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.

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

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

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.