Karen Bourrier. The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel. Corporealities: Discourses Of Disability Series. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015. 184 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-472-05248-6; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-472-07248-4.
Reviewed by Deborah Fratz (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater)
Published on H-Disability (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison
Martha Stoddard Holmes concludes Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (2004) by calling for a more nuanced evaluation of disabled masculinity, moving beyond reading physically compromised male characters in Victorian literature as feminized by their disability. Victorianists will welcome Karen Bourrier’s The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel, but disability and masculinity studies have the most to gain from this exploration of the dyadic relationship of strong and weak men in mid-Victorian domestic fiction. Bourrier’s work shows that disabled male characters exercise agency by honing the powers of observation and expression to create an authorial position that facilitates telling the story of the strong and silent man with whom he is paired. The “weak man” does more than prop up the normality of the central able-bodied character, by inhabiting a position of narrative power. Bourrier’s book traces the evolution of this pairing through the discourses of muscular Christianity, to more skeptical portrayals in the work of George Eliot (1819-90) and revised values of masculinity in Henry James (1843-1916). The strength of this work lies in the focus of Bourrier’s inquiry: strict attention to the workings of the strong man-weak man dyad makes a case for its literary and cultural significance, which will be useful to future scholarship in disability and masculinity in the nineteenth century.
Exploring the impact of Christian chivalric codes in Charlotte Yonge (1823-1901) and Charles Kingsley (1819-75) in the first chapter establishes the pattern that later texts will modify. Both authors offer spectacles of masculine suffering of upright Christian gentlemen, like Guy Morville in Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe (1853), who silently endures pain on behalf of those weaker than himself, including injured or invalid men like his cousin Charles Edmondstone. This relationship develops the strong man’s moral and emotional capacities, which the weak man observes alongside the reader. As a participant-observer, his own capacity for suffering “is further linked to the ability to observe and articulate these observations, strengthening the connection between disability and authorship” (p. 30). The methodical establishment of this claim offers a fresh interpretation of a mode of masculinity for disabled male characters. While Yonge’s novel fully embraces this manifestation of manly Christian suffering, Kingsley’s works Westward Ho! (1855) and Two Years Ago (1857) show greater ambivalence. If strong, silent men like Tom Thurnall suffer too much physical duress, they risk disablement, but Kingsley continues to value action over words, as emblematized in his heroes’ tendency to silence or stammering. Kingsley’s preference for action draws into question his faith in the power of his own profession as author. Bourrier excels here in establishing the model that other Victorian authors will modify and challenge, by clearly delineating her argument with the support of other scholarly work, and seeming to anticipate the readers’ questions and objections.
However, some of the bolder claims sound risky, and it does well to read carefully, keeping in mind the scope of her argument. For example, when Bourrier states that “physical illnesses and injuries are not emasculating,” she stakes this claim exclusively for narratives featuring the dyadic male relationships she describes (p. 32). It cannot be generalized to other Victorian novels featuring disabled men, such as Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s (1816-55) Jane Eyre (1847) or Eugene Wrayburn in Charles Dickens’s (1812-70) Our Mutual Friend (1865). A statement such as the “Victorian view of disability ... was not as stigmatizing as our contemporary view,” strictly applies to her particular subject, mid-Victorian domestic fiction, and Bourrier is not making a totalizing statement about Victorian culture, nor about the lived experience of disabled people of all socioeconomic classes (pp. 15-16). As critical schools evolve, there is a tendency to contradict earlier claims and theories, which sometimes risks overstatement. Bourrier does not make that mistake, but readers should be aware of the scope of such claims.
The next two chapters’ investigation of the strong man-weak man dyad tend to focus on the former. Thomas Carlyle’s (1795-1881) prescriptions for work and manly silence manifest in the title character in Dinah Craik’s (1826-87) John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), whose industry and self-restraint, particularly in speech, figure him as a gentleman despite being born a poor orphan. Halifax further proves his worthiness through his tender caretaking of his employer’s son, Phineas Fletcher, whose emotionality and loquaciousness figure him as the narrator of his strong friend’s story, which includes economic and social success through factory ownership and marriage to a middle-class woman. While many stories end with the hero’s marriage, Phineas’s narration continues when he goes to live with Halifax’s family, making him a kind of “maiden” uncle to his friend’s children. While Phineas represents an alternative masculinity through his authorial position and nontraditional role in a patriarchal household, the emphasis on Halifax suggests that in this novel, the character with a disability still operates primarily as a crutch propping up the idealized gender norms of the hero. While the chapter devoted to George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) also focuses on the able-bodied Tom Tulliver, it provides a more nuanced evaluation of the disabled character, Philip Wakem. Bourrier gets beyond the triangulation of Tom, his sister Maggie, and Philip as her suitor to focus tightly on the male characters’ early relationship, and Eliot’s critical response to idealized masculinities found in Thomas Hughes’s (1822-96) Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). Unlike other strong man-weak man pairings, Tom and Philip’s relationship is not mutually improving: Tom’s preference for action makes him rigid, impatient, and unwilling to communicate, while Philip’s observational powers and affective range fail to flower into a powerful authorial position when his sensitivity to social rejection prompts his self-imposed isolation. This chapter offers fine critical insights as it reveals how Victorian authors question the meaning of the dyad that Bourrier establishes.
Bourrier shows how Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) diverges most from the original dynamic of the strong man-weak man paradigm. Caspar Goodwood, the man of action and captain of industry, appears outmoded in the modern age of English gentleman, whose wealth facilitates such profound leisure that indolence and invalidism nearly collapse into one another. Indeed, “so widely valued is the invalid’s ability to observe quietly that his lifestyle is adopted even by able-bodied men” (p. 103). Bourrier’s identification of this mode of masculinity, arising from a disabled condition, makes the most radical departure from previous assessments of disabled male characters and the assumption that they lack effective agency. Invalid Ralph Touchett does not simply narrate Isabel Archer’s story through his observations but forwards the plot by dividing his inheritance with her. Ralph’s motivations are not entirely selfless. He enjoys being the observer-narrator, moving his heroine into the position that results in her triangulation with Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle. Bourrier significantly breaks away from earlier scholarship on how disabled characters function in literature. They do not exist only to shore up the normativity of central characters, or increase the emotional volume in the narrative, or provide the proving ground for the heroes’ moral challenges. Here, disabled characters have and use agency, arising from the powers of observation and expression, for their own purposes.
The conclusion asserts that “the narrative consequences of the pairing of the strong man and the weak man continued to be provocative for novelists throughout the nineteenth century and beyond, and that the trope continues to hold affective power to this day” (p. 124). After evaluating E. M. Forster’s (1879-1970) The Longest Journey (1907) and Somerset Maugham’s (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage (1915), the conclusion alludes to several texts using this trope, including late twentieth-century novels and their film adaptations, such as Rodman Philbrick’s (b. 1951) Freak the Mighty (1993) and John Irving’s (b. 1942) A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). Bourrier might have chosen to limit her conclusory chapter to the most immediate heirs of the Victorian era, the Edwardians, and the generations most affected by World War I. Ford Madox Ford’s (1873-1939) The Good Soldier (1915) lends itself well to her argument; Bourrier would get beyond the Sedgwickian triangulation, as she did with other texts, and dissect the tensions between men with different physical abilities and powers of observation and expression. Analyzing the masculine pairing in this novel could be very fruitful for investigating disability and masculinity in light of military ideals. However, her omission might be deliberate, given how powerfully the Great War affected social perceptions of disabled men, when medical advances allowed wounded soldiers to survive into civilian life. It would provide enough material for another book. One of the best qualities of The Measure of Manliness is how carefully Bourrier limits the scope of its investigation.
Asking that Bourrier analyze other novels is a criticism that turns back on itself. The desire to apply her claims to other texts testifies to the merits of her argument. This book fills a gap in the scholarship on disability and masculinity by offering a wider range of literary representations of the masculine mode, and it will encourage future research.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Deborah Fratz. Review of Bourrier, Karen, The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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