Saints, sufferers, scroungers and symbols: exploring Victorian representations of disability

Dr Clare Walker Gore is one of seven new Junior Research Fellows at Trinity this year. She explains her research and outlines her plans

Your research explores disabled characters in nineteenth-century fiction. Why does this interest you?

What Katy DidI’ve always had a passion for Victorian novels, ever since I was very young and fell in love with Little Women and What Katy Did. Probably because I use a wheelchair myself, I was always especially interested in the disabled characters in these novels. I wanted to know why the most saintly female characters are nearly always invalids; why invalids can’t get married; why some disabilities are used to mark a character out as villainous, but others seem to be a sign of virtue.

As I developed a more theoretical interest in character and plot during my studies as an undergraduate at Cambridge, these questions came back to me. When it came to choosing a subject for my doctoral work, I realised that exploring the representation of disabled characters would enable me to think about characterisation and plotting more generally, as well offering a fantastic selection of characters to work on. From Dickens’s saccharine Tiny Tim to his villainous Silas Wegg, from Anthony Trollope’s femme fatale Madeline Neroni to George’s Eliot’s tragic Philip Wakem – there was so much to choose from!

My research also led me to explore the work of less well-known writers, who often treat disability quite differently from their more canonical counterparts. When you begin to read more adventurously, you realise that disability is everywhere in nineteenth-century fiction, but many of the novels which feature disabled characters in central roles have been forgotten. I wanted to understand why.

The word ‘disability’ has various meanings today. Was that the same in the Victorian period and what light has your research thrown on ideas about and meanings of disability?

img5_0We are very much still living with Victorian ideas about disability, which shape our our attitudes and even our language Although some Victorian words like ‘crippled’ and ‘lame’ have mostly dropped out of our vocabulary, our modern terminology is rooted in early Victorian culture.

While it’s clear that people have always tried to sort bodies into categories and define some people by bodily difference, it was the New Poor Law in 1834 that created a legal category of persons deemed unable to work. Theoretically, these ‘disabled’ people were entitled to less harsh treatment than other paupers in the workhouse. The emergence of the welfare state (in however distant and even brutal a form) and the development of the category of disabled people – who might have nothing physically in common with one another, besides being defined by difference understood as incapacity – are intertwined.

Fiction of the period reflects this imperative to categorise: novelists interrogate what it means to be able to ‘work’, to live a worthwhile or productive life, and also how characters can be sorted, ordered, classed. The complex relationship between people and characters, social categories and fictional ones, is at the heart of my work.

What is the most interesting or important discovery you have made?

img4_0Probably the most exciting and surprising discovery I’ve made – somewhat by accident, it has to be said! – has been just how varied and how interesting disabled people’s lives were in the Victorian period. I started off looking only at fictional characters, but trying to understand these representations led me to look at biographies of disabled people – some of whom led extraordinary lives!

Looking at the representation of disabled aristocratic men in novels, for example, led me to research the life of a real aristocrat with physical impairments – Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, who was born without hands and feet, and who led an incredibly eventful life, full of exotic travels and adventures. Whereas disabled men in novels tend to be celibate and effectively restricted to domestic roles, he was an MP and had a large family – totally unlike the fictional representations of him, in other words.

My next project focuses on the intersection between fiction and life-writing, as illustrated by fictional and non-fictional representations of disabled people.

Discovering the novels of less well-known writers like Dinah Mulock Craik and Charlotte M. Yonge has also been an important part of my research. To be honest I didn’t expect to become so passionate about novels by deeply religious women writers, who can seem off-puttingly earnest at first glance. It turns out they are much more interesting than they first appear – and I’m now trying to spread the word! I’ve even worked on a new edition of one of Craik’s novels, A Noble Life, to try and bring her to a wider audience.

Why did you apply for a JRF at Trinity?

img7I was looking for the opportunity to continue my research, hopefully to turn my PhD into a book, and to start working on my next project on auto/biographies and novels. I just wasn’t ready to let the subject go, and a research fellowship at Trinity offered the perfect opportunity to go on doing what I love most. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to pursue my research in such beautiful surroundings, and in a place where so many great scholars have lived and worked.

Alongside your research, do you have other plans while at Trinity?

img2_0As well as working on a book (or two!) I’d like to share my work with a wider audience: the amazing people whose lives I’ve read about deserve to be better known! As a BBC New Generation Thinker, I have really enjoyed making radio programmes and a short film, and I hope to do more of that. I am keen to teach too, if I get the chance: I can’t resist the opportunity to try and persuade students to love Dickens as much as I do!

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