Tag Archives: disability studies

“To Read Her Face”: Investigating the Body in the Serial Edition of Braddon’s Thou Art the Man

by Courtney A. Floyd

Fig. 1. “Good Advice!” the Weekly Telegraph, 14 April 1894, p. VIII. Newspaper image © The British Library Board.

Can we really consider newspaper novels and their later volume editions to be the same book? This question, or one much like it, was posed to me by my PhD advisor toward the end of my dissertation defense. My answer––an entirely sincere series of alternating “yeses” and “nos”––reflects something of the invigorating complexity that arises when working with a serial novel in its original publication context.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Thou Art the Man (1894) changed very little between its serialization in the Weekly Telegraph from 6 January to 9 June 1894 and the publication of Simpkin’s three-volume first edition later that year. Aside from a chapter division, a surname change, and an alteration to one character’s defining traits, the text of the serial novel and the first edition are almost identical. But within the context of the Weekly Telegraph, these minor differences pack an immense semantic punch.

I first encountered Thou Art the Man in its volume edition (as reprinted by Valancourt in 2008). An M.A. student working on a thesis about women detectives in late-Victorian and neo-Victorian fiction, I read the novel as a sort of gender-swapped sensation plot nested in a detective story. Its pseudo-detective protagonist, Coralie Urquhart, simultaneously served as a patriarchal enforcer, policing the behavior of the heroine, Lady Sibyl, and a challenge to patriarchal order. This duality, I argued, is characteristic of the woman detective––a paradox that undermines any investigatory success she might achieve. But, in the context of the Weekly Telegraph’s numerous advertisements for patent medicines and beauty products, Coralie’s characterization is much more complex even than this ideological ambiguity.

Juxtaposed with patent medicine advertisements that confound text, testimonial, and cure, narrowly defining the healthy and ideal body in order to narratively disable potential customers to drive up sales (see fig. 1), Coralie’s detective work in Thou Art the Man takes on new meaning. For Coralie, in a manner reminiscent of these advertisements, works to uncover her quarry’s embodied secrets in and through texts––claiming the “power to read [Lady Sibyl’s] face” only after she’s interrogated Lady Sibyl’s bookshelves (27). Her newfound corporeal literacy allows her to avoid reliving family narratives of degeneracy and disease. And, in doing so, she becomes part of a larger nineteenth-century discourse about bodily (dis)ability and the mediation thereof by the printed page.

To read more, see Floyd, Courtney A. “Take It When Tendered”: M.E. Braddon’s Thou Art the Man and the Weekly Telegraph’s Media Model of Disability,” vol 45, no 1 (2019), pp. 59-80.

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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”