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The Variable Body in History


Edited By Chris Mounsey and Stan Booth

The essays in this book explore the different ways the body has been experienced and interpreted in history, from the medieval to the modern period. Challenging the negative perceptions that the term ‘disability’ suggests, the essays together present a mosaic of literary representations of bodies and accounts of real lives lived in their particularity and peculiarity. The book does not attempt to be exhaustive, but rather it celebrates the fact that it is not. By presenting a group of individual cases from different periods in history, the collection demonstrates that any overarching way of describing bodies, or unifying description of the experience of the myriad ways of being in a body, is reductive and unhelpful. The variability of each body in its context is our subject.
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‘The awful individuality of suffering’: Disabled Characterization in Dinah Mulock Craik’s Olive and A Noble Life 203


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‘The awful individuality of suffering’: Disabled Characterization in Dinah Mulock Craik’s Olive and A Noble Life


This essay explores two rare examples of Victorian novels which have disabled protagonists, Dinah Mulock Craik’s Olive (1850) and A Noble Life (1866). These novels are radical in being centred on the experience of disabled characters, and anticipate the social model of disability in their depiction of disability as a socially constructed category. However, I argue that Craik ultimately fails to construct fully functional disabled protagonists, and that it is this very failure which makes these novels so interesting. Craik’s unwillingness to engage directly with certain aspects of disabled experience not only reveals something about contemporary constructions of disability, but speaks to the limitations of the social model of disability at the present time.


Disabled characters are common in nineteenth-century fiction, but disabled protagonists are vanishingly rare. Disability plays an important part in many novels, but it is practically never the subject of the novel: Tiny Tim plays a crucial role in ‘A Christmas Carol’, but the story is not about him. The purpose of Tim’s inclusion is to melt Scrooge’s heart, his ‘active little crutch’ a device to aid Scrooge on his journey towards finding the spirit of Christmas, not to help Tim himself get anywhere in particular. Tim not only acquiesces in his narrative role but is made to voice his acquiescence, recognizing...

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