In The Victorian Freak Show, Lillian Craton assists in the important Disability Studies project of reinterpreting metaphor in productive ways. Craton carefully examines depictions of disability in Victorian literature by Dickens, Maupassant, Wilkie Collins, Florence Marryat, and Lewis Carroll, and (re)interprets the figure of the freak beyond that of a foil for normative culture. She argues that a re-imagination of the freak conjures alliances and connections (she refers to Rebecca Stern's term "affiliation") rather than dissonance and exploitation. The main contention in the book revolves around the claim that Victorian literature, and these authors in particular, highly utilize "the image-base of the freak show" (170) and that "these images often play surprisingly positive roles in such literary imaginings" (4).

Craton spends a significant amount of time aligning herself with the work of Russian philosopher and literary critic, Mikhail Bhakhtin. Craton writes that Bhakhtin urges an acknowledgement of carnival's challenges to linguistic and ideological meaning" (19), and she also discusses Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher, and his notion that s/he who controls "cultural production of the imaginary" controls subjective reality (7-9). Saussure, Lacan, and Foucault are then hashed out in terms of a post-structuralism that rejects pre-determined and set meanings.

In Chapter One, Craton begins her re-imaginings by looking to Dickens' small "dwarf-girls" in Little Dorrit, Nicolas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, and Our Mutual Friend. Her assessment is that "Dickens' blending of the freak and the suffering girl forms a subtle criticism of the very practice of displaying physical difference for social commentary" (43). She weighs Dickens' use of sentimentalism (deemed "emotional response") in the sense that, at times, it discourages critique and questioning (44), and at other times, has copious ideological possibility when paired with the aesthetic of the grotesque. Craton's explanation of how sentimentalism and the grotesque merge to evoke more than just a "pathetic" response is one highlight of the book. However, it would have been useful if similar attention had been directed to the nuances and definitions of sentimentalism and pathos, which at times, seem to be used interchangeably.

The best examples of how Craton reconfigures odd bodies is in her treatment of Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield and Jenny Wren in Our Mutual Friend. Mowcher is a small female hairdresser who is seemingly on display for her wealthy clients to jeer at; yet, Craton tells the reader, Mowcher consciously performs to make a profit, creates her own identity, and even turns the gaze back onto her clients. Wren, in Our Mutual Friend, is another small character, a working class doll dressmaker, who in choosing her own name and performing other self-determined acts, is interpreted by Craton as being partially exploited but also able to control her own value system: Wren is "at once a self-determined subject and an object of pity" (79). For Craton, Dickens can "take us to task for moments of narrow-mindedness in our response to human variation" (85). But for Craton's reader, it can be too difficult a task to re-imagine characters like Jenny Wren as self-determined. I found it possible to see glimpses of self-determination and self-definition when Craton points them out, but often her re-imaginings are more convincing or liberatory than they might actually be.

More re-imagining takes place in Chapter Two in the context of fatness in nineteenth-century fiction. For Craton, fatness and nurturance combine to "push back against extreme images of self-abnegation also resonant in Victorian gender ideology" (91). This chapter looks at the positive potential of fat to contest unhealthy extremes of self-denial. For example, in The Old Curiosity Shop and David Copperfield, Craton argues that fat nurturers bring about a respite from suffering. Copperfield's real mother, who dies an early death from a sort of figurative starvation, is never the nurturing figure. Clara Peggotty, in contrast, Copperfield's housekeeper and mother-stand-in, is a large woman, an "inexhaustible source of nurturance" (99), and also a typical middle-class fantasy of a robust woman servant caring for someone else's children. In the Old Curiosity Shop, Jarley is also a large woman, the "image of hearty femininity," and the nurturer to Nell (107). Likewise, in Guy de Maupassant's "Boule de Suif" (Ball of Lard), Craton notes that the fat prostitute is given moral high ground. Craton redeploys fat as a positive metaphor, as while typically fatness can be coded as personal and social disorder, here, physical excess "fuels" nurturance (91). While her explanations of how positive metaphors of fatness work is engaging, at times, it feels like too much of a reduction to posit that one positive trait expressed alongside another positive trait necessarily equates their interrelatedness.

Craton provides superb historical contextualization around "The Woman Question" of the late-nineteenth century. Craton argues that social and economic shifts for women—such as those that came alongside the 1857 Divorce Act, and the 1870 and 1884 Married Women's Property Acts—coincided with the exploration of new roles for fictional women (129). Craton argues, for example, that the New Woman debate between Elizabeth Lynn Linton and novelist Sarah Grand was a main impetus in garnering momentum for crucial debates in the 1890s over women's rights (146). Craton explains how woman writers of the 1880s and 1890s shifted the genre of the sensational novel through their representations of masculine women, noting that as descriptions of the masculine woman become more positive, the feminine ideal changed to include more "masculine" attributes. Perhaps the most important point of Craton's book is here—that fictional physical extremes in literature spark social and political controversy and change outside of the fictional world.

Finally, Craton looks to Caroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) to demonstrate how "images of physical difference can encourage fiction's renegotiation of unwieldy or outdated ideological constructs" (184). Craton shows how sensationalism or "visceral bodily experience" can shake up rigid aspects of femininity and girlhood. Craton argues that extreme fantasy, imaginativeness, and visual dissimulations of Caroll's world present new understandings of normalcy, as Alice shrinks and grows and is constantly mutable. After reading the preceding chapter that contextualizes Wilkie Collins' fiction within the social movements of the period, Craton's return to traditional literary analysis feels incomplete. That being said, her discussion of Caroll reveals truths from, and (re)imagines, the stuff from childhood.

One of the strengths of Craton's work is that she expands the freak show beyond the actual freak show itself. By contextualizing characters that fall outside freak show venues within freak show metaphors, she demonstrates how the freak show image-base is iconic and conspicuous in just about all parts of culture. Craton reminds her readers that freak show imagery is indispensible in the making of meaning and knowledge.

The book is evidence that freak studies has in no way reached its zenith. In pushing the boundary of what is thought of as "the freak show," Craton impels her readers to continue to look for new cultural locations of disability—for conspicuous ways that the "image-base" of the freak show has been exploited. One concern though, is that its title seems slightly inaccurate: with a lead title such as The Victorian Freak Show, one would think the book covers the history of freak shows. But the book is not about the freak show "proper" nor is it necessarily about freak shows in fiction, rather it is about freakish-like characters in fiction and how freak meanings can be extracted from cultural iconography that has not yet have been deemed freakish.

The book does succeed in demonstrating how disability is a tool of inquiry that can alter collective memory, construct new knowledges, and shift what is valued. It would have been useful if Craton had contextualized her work more within the contemporary work of disability scholars as well as those scholars working with fiction, rather than primarily alongside "high" theorists like Bhakhtin and Althusser. None of this is to take away from the invaluable project of symbolic attentiveness. Metaphor is that which brings one thing to light in the context of another. Doesn't symbolic work inevitably connect to materiality? How might semiotics and symbolic analysis give disability studies what it needs to grow as a field? What happens after all the re-imaginings? Craton demonstrates how fiction is valuable whereby imagination is an ever important component of social change.

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Copyright (c) 2011 Zosha Stuckey



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