Disability Studies Quarterly
Winter 2005, Volume 25, No. 1
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. 252 pages, 8 half-tones, $49.50, Cloth 0-472-09841-1.

Reviewed by Christine Ferguson, University of Alberta

Martha Stoddard Holmes's Fictions of Affliction is a book that should revolutionize the way that disability studies scholars approach literature. Rather than simply using Victorian texts to reiterate the stock thesis that literary characters with disabilities are rarely rounded or realistic—a statement that, while frequently true, no longer requires much critical insight—Holmes seeks to show us what is specifically Victorian about the way that disability has been construed in fiction. In doing so, she restores historicism to a field desperately in need of it.

Her starting point is the 19th century melodrama, a popular theatrical form that reveled in emotional excess and regularly featured deaf, mute, blind, and crippled protagonists. In a fascinating sidelight on theatre history, she demonstrates that the melodramatic predilection for disability was practical rather than simply aesthetic. The use of mute characters provided an ingenious way for unlicensed entertainments to get around the early 19th century restriction on the use of spoken dialogue to patented theatres. The extraordinary bodies of people with disabilities became popular on the stage because of their emotive visual force, creating meaning for able-bodied spectators through their sheer physicality and without recourse to the spoken word. By the time the dialogue restrictions were lifted in 1843, the cultural association between melodrama and disability had become so ingrained as to seem spontaneous and wholly natural. Just as the melodrama had frequently produced disability on its stage, now disability produced a melodramatic effect when it appeared in fiction, journalism, medical discourse, and educational theory. While Holmes's designation of melodrama as the generative force for the affective response to disability seems a bit overstated—surely this conditioned reaction has a more varied provenance than what she suggests—she is to be commended for rooting her constructionist thesis in compelling and specific historical detail. Fictions of Affliction is not merely content to tell us that disability is a social construction; it shows us how and why this construction became so pervasive during the period when, as Lennard J. Davis has argued, the concept of the physical "norm" was being consolidated (Davis, 1995, p. 24).


Holmes's readings of specific texts are as agile and inventive as her governing thesis. She recovers neglected literary treatments of disability, such as Wilkie Collins's Hide and Seek and Poor Miss Finch, showing how their strong and desiring heroines subverted surrounding stereotypes of disabled women's dependency and asexuality. Further chapters elucidate the relationship between masculinity and physical defect in 19th century texts and the performances of "melodramatic figurations of disability" (2004, p.135) in the autobiographical writings of prominent disabled Victorians such as Harriet Martineau, Henry Fawcett, John Kitto and Elizabeth Gilbert. Rather than seeing these individuals as complicit with ableist prejudice, Holmes claims that their occasional incorporation of mainstream representations of disability should be read as a strategy of self-empowerment. Writers such as Kitto and Martineau referenced the culturally-enshrined pathos attached to deafness in their life writing to further distinguish their own triumphs in the face of their supposed physical abjection. While the use of a damaging stereotype on any terms might seem unpalatable to today's disability activists, Holmes cautions us to forestall our judgment and remember the considerable ideological constraints placed on disabled writers attempting to fashion an autobiographical identity for themselves in Victorian Britain. "In a world in which a deaf person's source of authority or empowerment are extremely limited," she writes, "the identity of colossal sufferer is hardly one to discount" (2004, p. 164).

Throughout the final chapter and, indeed, the entirety of Fictions of Affliction, Holmes takes an avowedly activist stance. She refuses to depict people with disabilities as the silent and helpless recipients of condescending stereotypes; instead, she presents them as culturally savvy individuals who challenge what damaging myths about disability they can, and exploit the ones they can not. Such an endorsement of the agency of people with disabilities will surely be welcomed by anyone with a personal or professional interest in the subject. The book also will be of much benefit to literary scholars, who will find a great starting point for future research and syllabi in the book's appendix of "Physically Disabled Characters in Nineteenth-Century British Literature." Holmes's excellent study will hopefully inaugurate a more sophisticated, nuanced, and historically-contextual paradigm for investigating the aesthetic representations of disability.


Davis, L. J. (1995). Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. New York: Verso.