Fiction and fact: JRF Dr Clare Walker Gore delves into writers’ lives

Dr Clare Walker Gore came to Trinity in 2016 from Selwyn College after her PhD which explored the fictional representations of disability in the Victorian period. In the second of a series of Q&As with Trinity’s Junior Research Fellows, Dr Walker Gore explains the extent to which novelists such as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte Yonge and Dinah Craik relied on the concept of disability to make their plots work. And she outlines her new project about women novelists’ fiction and life writing.

 How are you spending your time at Trinity?

The nineteenth century was really when disability emerged as a social category, and I became interested in how fictional disability is plotted in the nineteenth-century novel: what plot-lines disabled characters carry, what plot roles they are allowed to play. Although disabled characters tend, like disabled people, to be defined by their perceived inability to work, it is actually their disabilities that enable these characters to perform a whole host of necessary plot roles. From Dickens’s Tiny Tim, whose ‘active little crutch’ melts Scrooge’s heart, to George Eliot’s Philip Wakem, who is able to sympathise with the heroine Maggie precisely because he is excluded from ‘normal’ masculinity, disability has a vital part to play in the plots of nineteenth-century novels. The extent to which Victorian novelists rely on the concept of disability to make their plots work has been largely overlooked, but once you start to look for it, you see that disability is everywhere in the Victorian novel, and works in fascinating ways.

In my first year at Trinity, I developed these ideas further and revised and expanded my thesis into what I hope will be book, adding a new chapter exploring the representation of invalids in novels by George Eliot and Henry James. Both these authors rely on characters with fatal illnesses to set in motion inheritance plots, and I became intrigued by the way ideas about disability shape these increasingly complicated plots, from Eliot’s Daniel Deronda to James’s The Wings of the Dove.

I’m now in the second year of the Fellowship, and I’ve started work on a new project on fiction and life-writing. Currently, I’m looking at auto/biographies of female novelists in the Victorian period, and thinking about how women writers represented themselves (or were represented) as the heroines of their lives, and how they managed the divergence of their own life stories from the fictional narratives that they created. How did they write about their professional lives, their careers, their sometimes unconventional romantic lives or unsuccessful marriages, when these things were pretty much unrepresentable in the novels they wrote?

George Eliot, for example, lived most of her adult life in a loving partnership with a man to whom she was not married, and so when her husband came to write her life, he had to navigate the tension between how she wanted to be seen – as a deeply serious, morally engaged writer – and how feared readers might see the facts of her life. The result is a biography so discreet as to be rather dull: his biography saves Eliot from the taint of scandal at the cost of sanitising her richly complex life.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of her friend Charlotte Brontë is much more successful but also involves a certain sleight of hand; she represents her friend as being in many ways like her most famous creation, Jane Eyre, but had considerable difficulty trying to make the marriage plot shape her story when really, Brontë’s work was considerably more important in her life than her very brief marriage.

I am fascinated by the way nineteenth-century women writers tackled the formal challenges of writing their lives as women, just as they had to tackle the practical and personal challenges of navigating the literary marketplace while grappling with social and familial expectations about what was appropriate for women.

What does the Junior Research Fellowship mean to you?

For an academic just starting out, the gift of time is hard to overstate. Having the space to let ideas develop, to let projects grow at their own pace, is incredibly valuable. Trinity’s Title A Fellowship is also wonderfully unconstraining: you don’t have to commit yourself to a definite programme of research and can follow your ideas where they lead you. My current project isn’t exactly the one  I envisioned originally, it has developed as it has gone along, and I have really appreciated the flexibility the Fellowship offers in that respect.

What interests you most about your research?

In my current project, I am enjoying the glimpses of how writers have tried to understand their own lives, how they try to make sense of their experiences, to shape them into stories when so often, they are quite unlike the fictional stories they chose to tell. The mismatch between content and form is fascinating – and I think it speaks to the tension that so often manifests in women’s lives, between how women feel they ought to be, according to gendered social codes, and how they actually are.

In my last project, I was intrigued by the way that social categories of embodiment are re-inscribed but also re-written and re-imagined in fictional writing – by the ways that disabled characters both represent and yet do not represent disabled people – and I suppose that in a similar way, I am enjoying the intersection of lived and represented experience in my current project.

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