Access is variable, subjective, contextual—there is no definitive and singular way to theorize or cultivate accessibility. The insight that access, as Tanya Titchkosky argues, is a process of "continued questioning" (29) finds an echo in the methodology of Clare Walker Gore's Plotting Disability in the Nineteenth-Century Novel (2020). Writing at the intersection of literary studies and disability studies, Walker Gore offers a compelling dissent from some of the most formative scholars of this critical dialogue—Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Lennard Davis, David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder—and their tendency, as she puts it, to "impose an overarching narrative of consistency" on the cultural texts they analyze (9). As disability studies continues to embrace more capacious understandings of its key concepts, Plotting Disability provides a kindred offering by detailing "the astonishing variety of narrative work" performed by disabled characters as a refutation of any "one, 'Victorian' way of seeing disability" (3, 236). For Walker Gore, considerations of generic variation and authorial style are paramount in her richly intertextual readings of the period's fiction.

In other words, disability means differently across nineteenth-century literature and even within a single text. What unites the cast of characters examined by Walker Gore is the immense amount of labour they perform to facilitate or disrupt the plotlines of their respective novels. Walker Gore troubles a common slippage in literary disability studies between people and characters, refusing to view literary representation as a mirror of the social treatment of disabled individuals. By opting for a "formalist" rather than "overtly political" lens of interpretation (6), prioritizing aesthetics over ideology, she generatively shows how being marked as disabled in reality and in fiction ramifies in distinct ways. While the oppressive view that disability is synonymous with an inability for gainful work was common in nineteenth-century society, nineteenth-century fiction instead approaches disability as a distinct qualification for doing the work of plot. In Walker Gore's formulation, "the incapacitating effects of disability as a social identity are frequently enabling at the level of narrative" (4). Whether a blind heroine from Poor Miss Finch (1872) or a consumptive visionary in Daniel Deronda (1876), the figures of Plotting Disability attest to how their novels could not get the job of storytelling done without them.

Again, however, Walker Gore emphasizes that the narrative contributions of these figures are importantly variable. Charles Dickens's bustling melodramatic novels equate disability with minor status, but then allow disabled characters to balk at their narrative marginalization by distracting the reader's attention from the plotlines of the ostensible "main" characters. By contrast, Dinah Mulock Craik's domestic fiction is filled with disabled protagonists and narrators who use their bodily differences as the impetus to explore alternatives to the conventional narrative trajectory of matrimony. In this way, "the treatment of disabled characters" often "signal[s] generic affiliation" (16): how a disabled character is conscripted into the work of narrative is intimately yoked to the kind of novel they inhabit.

The structure of Plotting Disability is in itself an argument for the ubiquity and relevance of disabled depiction: its four chapters eschew a single-text focus, while half also avoid a single-author focus. Instead, Walker Gore's exclusive attention to the novel form allows her to include robust analyses of disability in nearly twenty different texts by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charlotte M. Yonge, Dinah Mulock Craik, George Eliot, and Henry James. She deliberately blends canonical and comparatively obscure novels while demonstrating how their respective plotting of disability contributed to their critical fortunes, both in Victorian England and in contemporary academia.

Walker Gore's reading practice is both demanding and rewarding to her audience due to its penchant for comparison. To fully appreciate her interpretation of Henry James's Kate Croy, for instance, one also needs an understanding of a range of heroines in Dickens, Thackeray, and Eliot. The crowding of Plotting Disability with a compendium of nineteenth-century characters is indicative of Walker Gore's overarching aim "to demonstrate the value of attending to disability for literary criticism" (13), rather than explicating the importance of literature for disability studies. However, the payoff of her approach is clear. To view the disability of Jenny Wren from Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) as an enabling condition that allows her to fulfill otherwise contradictory roles in the novel's plot, as Walker Gore invites us to do (62), not only alters how we see one character—it also changes how we read all of Jenny's physically and narratively small predecessors that populate the previous three decades of Dickens's career. This is not due to a few concluding sentences that hurriedly connect a range of characters; rather, it is because Walker Gore stitches relevant references to a diverse swath of Victorian characters into the fabric of her interpretations of individual texts every bit as "neatly" as Dickens's diminutive seamstress stitches dresses for her dolls (Dickens 787).

Building on a range of prior scholarship in original and thoughtful ways, and never shy of analytical complexity, Walker Gore's book is as generous as it is persuasive. She ends by meditating on how disabled Victorian characters—through their adaptation, continued popularity, and influence on literary successors—"have gone on working…well into our own time, and…still have something useful to offer us" (235). The careful work apparent in every page of Plotting Disability likewise ensures that it will have "something useful" to offer scholars of the representation and reception of disability for many years to come.

Works Cited

  • Dickens, Charles. Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). Penguin Books, 1997.
  • Titchkosky, Tanya. The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning. U of Toronto P, 2011.
  • Walker Gore, Clare. Plotting Disability in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Edinburgh UP, 2020.
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