Is there room for sympathy and sentimentality in discussions of disability in literature? Disability studies scholars and activists usually scorn representations of disability that invite pity—a kind of sympathy—and we are equally critical of sentimental stories of overcoming. But in Victorian literature, sympathy is essential to the narrative significance of disability, in ways that cannot always be reduced to pity. Some basic challenges for disability studies scholars in Victorian literature are to identify which forms of sympathy in representations of disability are problematic, and to analyze harmful or stereotypical representations without seeming to condone them. Karen Bourrier's The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel (2015) explores a range of sympathetic and sometimes sentimental relationships between men to make the surprising argument that disability played a role in forming Victorian ideals of manliness. Although The Measure of Manliness opens the door for a broader consideration of sympathy in disability studies, it is not adequately critical of Victorian constructions that are objectionable, such as the conflation of disability with a sensitive and literary disposition, and the assumption that disabled characters make good narrators because their lives are a relative void that throw the meaningfulness of "healthy" lives into relief.
The analytic focus of The Measure of Manliness on mid-century domestic realist novels enables Bourrier to zero in on a moment in the history of English masculinity when the eighteenth-century man of feeling had given way to the nineteenth-century self-made man. The heroes of the industrial age subscribed to a version of manliness that emphasized emotional restraint, and the call to be strong and silent precluded the possibility of these figures telling their own stories. Thus the disabled friend or brother was a narrative necessity. Each chapter of Bourrier's book centers on one or more novels that pair a nondisabled "strong man" with an invalid or disabled "weak man." The relationships range from tender friendships to bitter rivalries to indifferent acquaintances, but all serve what Bourrier calls a "normative function": normal manliness is defined in contrast to illness, invalidism, and disability (17-18). Although most disability studies scholars would take issue with such binary comparisons, Bourrier puts a positive spin on the pattern: "The persistence of the pairing of the strong man and the weak man shows that, rather than being marginalized in a Victorian culture that valorized health and vitality, weakness and disability served a necessary function in shaping narrative form, and in forming ideals of Victorian manhood" (24). She credits Victorian novelists with anticipating "contemporary arguments that sickness and disability are not fixed biological states but part of a culturally constructed continuum of ideas about the fit body" (16). However, the strong man/weak man identifications in her examples are never in flux: though the strong man may be vulnerable to illness or injury, and though the weak man is sometimes the more admirable character, the opposition never reverses itself; which man belongs to which category is never in question. The book's close readings are founded on a dichotomy that conflates disability with feeling, and healthy or normative masculinity with emotional limitation.
Bourrier's prime example is Phineas Fletcher of Dinah Mulock Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman (1856). Phineas is an invalid who, "having so little else to do" (53), narrates his strong friend's ascent from rags to riches. Whereas ablebodied male heroes were not supposed to sing their own praises, weakly or disabled male characters were not held to a standard of silence. For the Victorian novelists Bourrier discusses, disabled characters are sympathetic to the suffering of others because they have experienced suffering themselves, and this leads (somehow) to a heightened capacity for articulating complex feelings and emotions. Moreover, their outsider status gives them reign to observe and thus narrate the norm. Noticing that disabled narrators proliferated as Victorian ideals of manliness shifted, Bourrier usefully historicizes the alliance of disability and literacy in the popular imagination. The Measure of Manliness reconstructs how, in the Victorian mindset, narrative came to be regarded as the natural occupation of the otherwise idle invalid. But it never criticizes this assumption as a stereotype.
Disability helped to define Victorian ideals of manliness, then, by representing what did not qualify as manly. Further, disabled people were convenient objects of chivalry. Bourrier's first chapter assesses the high church masculinity and muscular Christianity in novels by Charlotte Yonge and Charles Kingsley. In Yonge's family drama The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), the invalid brother Charles Edmonstone supplements an understated narrative voice: his emotional trajectory mirrors that of the plot. Charles is a "spoiled" cripple, and it is he who undergoes a "moral transformation" (29) through the caring influence of the agile Guy Morville, model of Christian gentlemanliness. For both Yonge and Kingsley, sentimental sickroom scenes in which men nurse one another are sites of moral education. In Kingsley's Crimea war novels, Westward Ho! (1855) and Two Years Ago (1857), heroes Amyas Leigh and Tom Thurnall learn the chivalrous value of protecting the weak through their friendships with weaker men, which "reveal the hero's capacity for Christian selflessness" (40). Bourrier characterizes the friendships between strong men and weak men in Yonge and Kingsley as mutually instructive: the strong men develop a sense of Christian duty through caring for weaker men, and the weak men cultivate morality by witnessing and admiring the selflessness of the strong men. The question Bourrier fails to raise in her analysis is whether this model of sickroom chivalry paves the way for benevolent racism and sexism. This is a model in which able men have everything to give and disabled men have everything to gain. More attention to intersectional discourses that not only feminize disabled men and racial others, but also disable women and non-English races, could have resulted in a more critical response to Victorian chivalry, and arguments that characterized Empire as a benevolent civilizing force for needy natives. "In locating the foil to the muscular Christian's strength close to home, in his weak brother, friend, or rival," Bourrier writes, "I depart from criticism […] which has tended to find the weak effeminized other in colonial settings" (28).
Bourrier's evaluation of Dinah Mulock Craik's John Halifax, Gentleman is perhaps the test case for the monograph. The reciprocal friendship of the invalid Phineas Fletcher and the self-made (gentle)man John Halifax is the rule to which all other novels considered in The Measure of Manliness offer exceptions. Phineas's life is punctuated by "seasons of excessive pain" (qtd. in Bourrier 21) and the dull monotony of invalidism, and he finds purpose and excitement in narrating the more colorful events of his friend John's life. When not vicariously recounting John's rise to success, Phineas dwells on his own humble domestic routines, which structure the narrative with moments of repose. As John's loyal friend, Phineas humanizes an otherwise relentless-seeming social climber by interpreting his emotions and evidencing his tenderness. Part of John's manliness is his silence and humility, and thus he cannot be both protagonist and narrator: "Craik's solution to the problem of how to narrate the story of a man who is so sparing of his words is to have Phineas, the hero's friend and companion, articulate those desires that he cannot or will not, including praising his friend's achievements" (57). Though Phineas's labor of writing is valuable, Bourrier submits, it is relegated to the margins while John's industrial career dominates the pages.
Later chapters investigate novelistic departures from the strong man/weak man dyad as established by Craik. The relationships in Eliot and James's novels are not mutually affirming: Tom Tulliver and Philip Wakem of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860) are rivals from boyhood; Caspar Goodwood and Ralph Touchett of James's The Portrait of a Lady (1881) are mere acquaintances who are nevertheless defined in opposition to one another. Both Eliot and James devalue the businessman-hero with unsympathetic portrayals of self-made men. Eliot suggests "the industrial demand for physical uprightness leads to moral rigidity" (91), a criticism James reinforces with his depiction of Goodwood, the hearty industrialist, as lacking in social graces. For Bourrier, James presents an alternative model for modern masculinity with Touchett, an invalid-observer with a shrewd aesthetic sensibility. Regarding these novels, Bourrier contends, "the critical focus on femininity has obscured a broad analysis of a midcentury trend that tied the capacity for sympathy to disabled, often masculine bodies" (98).
With the variety of relationships between men explored in the monograph, there are ample opportunities to interrogate the often sentimental terms in which disability is valued. Ultimately, disability gives ablebodied men the chance to perform generosity and charity; meanwhile the isolation that disabled characters endure enables literary enterprise. What exactly is the problem with sentimentality? Stuart Murray argues in "Autism and the Contemporary Sentimental" that sentimental representations, in which disabled characters facilitate the growth of nondisabled characters who become more sympathetic through caring, simultaneously deprive disabled characters of their own opportunities to grow. Though Bourrier maintains that "each has something to learn and something to teach" (136), disabled masculinities primarily serve to articulate nondisabled masculinity in the novels she assesses. Bourrier gestures toward a critique of sentimentality in the book's final pages, with reference to contemporary young adult films Simon Birch and The Mighty (both 1998):
In a recent article on the two films as a pedagogical tool in the middle school classroom, the authors find the representation of the disabled adolescent boy protagonists problematic in their message that disability is a pitiable condition that can be overcome through the heroism that the disabled boy learns in his long suffering. (135)
Bourrier answers that an awareness of the "historical arc" of such friendships could be part of a more critical pedagogy (136). She acknowledges that the trope is "too sentimental" for contemporary conceptions of adult male friendships (135), without analyzing sentimentality itself or explaining its appeal to Victorian readers as opposed to modern audiences.
On the whole, The Measure of Manliness leaves me wrestling with the question of how we, as literary disability studies scholars, can be critical of problematic representations of disability in the literature we study while maintaining appropriate historical awareness. Bourrier avoids the trap of imposing anachronistic editorial judgments on the authors she examines. But because the book is not invested in social justice or lived experiences, the lasting effects of the strong man/weak man binary on disabled lives are not theorized. Nor does Bourrier venture outside of literary analysis in order to consider the social worlds in which these texts were created, and helped shape. Insofar as the book focuses on constructions of gender and disability, a more thorough and nuanced contribution to recent work on intersectionality was expected. But the tight focus on dichotomies of strength and weakness in mid-Victorian domestic realist novels means there is little consideration of cognitive or psychological disability, and no consideration of race. That said, scholars of Victorian literature unfamiliar with disability studies will find The Measure of Manliness a handy introduction, with teachable interpretations of "a powerful emotional trope that remains a distinctly Victorian feature of the literary and filmic landscape today" (Bourrier 124).
- Murray, Stuart. "Autism and the Contemporary Sentimental." Literature and Medicine 25.1 (Spring 2006): 24-45. http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/lm.2006.0025