Fictions of Affliction

Physical Disability in Victorian Culture
Martha Stoddard Holmes
Reveals the cultural meanings and literary representations of disability in Victorian Britain


Tiny Tim, Clym Yeobright, Long John Silver---what underlies nineteenth-century British literature's fixation with disability? Melodramatic representations of disability pervaded not only novels by Dickens, but also doctors' treatises on blindness, educators' arguments for "special" education, and even the writing of disabled people themselves. Drawing on extensive primary research, Martha Stoddard Holmes introduces readers to popular literary and dramatic works that explored culturally risky questions like "can disabled men work?" and "should disabled women have babies?" and makes connections between literary plots and medical, social, and educational debates of the day. The first book of its kind, Fictions of Affliction contributes a new emphasis to Victorian literary and cultural studies and offers new readings of works by canonic and becoming-canonic writers like Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and others.

Martha Stoddard Holmes is Associate Professor of Literature and Writing Studies at California State University, San Marcos.

Praise / Awards

  • "In this often-fascinating study, Holmes historicizes the emotional coding of disabled bodies, identifying three main character types in Victorian culture---'[t]he afflicted child, the begging imposter, and the unmarriageable woman.' Such types, she argues, were highly flexible in practice, meaning that they could be put in the service of autobiographical self-assertion as well as fictional condescension."
    ---Choice Magazine
  • "An absolutely stunning book that will make a significant contribution to both Victorian literary studies and disability studies."
    ---Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory University
  • ". . . a very welcome addition to an under-researched field. . . . [A] lively and thought-provoking description of literary and historical accounts of the disabled in Victorian England."
    ---Keir Waddington, Cardiff University
  • ". . . 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. . . . 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. . . . Holmes's excellent study will hopefully inaugurate a more sophisticated, nuanced, and historically-contextual paradigm for investigating the aesthetic representations of disability."
    ---Disability Studies Quarterly
  • ". . . a nuanced explication of the current, often conflicting meanings of disabled characters in Victorian culture. It should prove useful for studies in fields beyond disability and Victorian culture, given its historicist analysis of genre, medicine, gender, class, and social reform. . . . Perhaps the greatest service this book offers, however, is its fine-grained and historically grounded dissection of how and why Victorian literary, medical, and social texts accommodated such contradictory discourses around disability. It is a worthy addition to the study of literature and medicine. . . ."
    ---Literature and Medicine
  • "Stoddard Holmes establishes that Victorian melodrama informs many of our contemporary notions of disability. . . . We have inherited from the Victorians not pandemic disability but rather the complex of sympathy and fear."
    ---Victorian Studies

  • "[Holmes'] humane standpoint, her close readings of novels, different forms of life-writing, non-fictional political and sociological treatises, and legislation enable us to see which writers come closer to presenting disabled characters as valuable human beings who could or do live lives worth living despite or even because of the treatment they have received."
    --The Victorian Web

Look Inside

Copyright © 2004, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted May 2004.

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 248pp.
  • 8 B&W photographs.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2009
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-06841-8

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  • $26.95 U.S.

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