The Measure of Manliness

Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel
Karen Bourrier
Sheds new light on the narrative importance of the disabled man in Victorian literature and culture


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The Measure of Manliness is among the first books to focus on representations of disability in Victorian literature, showing that far from being marginalized or pathologized, disability was central to the narrative form of the mid-century novel. Mid-Victorian novels evidenced a proliferation of male characters with disabilities, a phenomenon that author Karen Bourrier sees as a response to the rise of a new Victorian culture of industry and vitality, and its corollary emphasis on a hardy, active manhood. The figure of the voluble, weak man was a necessary narrative complement to the silent, strong man. The disabled male embodied traditionally feminine virtues, softening the taciturn strong man, and eliciting emotional depths from his seemingly coarse muscular frame. Yet, the weak man was able to follow the strong man where female characters could not, to all-male arenas such as the warehouse and the public school.

The analysis yokes together historical and narrative concerns, showing how developments in nineteenth-century masculinity led to a formal innovation in literature:  the focalization or narration of the novel through the perspective of a weak or disabled man. The Measure of Manliness charts new territory in showing how feeling and loquacious bodies were increasingly seen as sick bodies throughout the nineteenth century. The book will appeal to those interested in disability studies, gender and masculinity studies, the theorization of sympathy and affect, the recovery of women’s writing and popular fiction, the history of medicine and technology, and queer theory.

“Through an entertaining and well-written discussion of male friendships in popular and critically successful novels, Bourrier engages ideas about labor and indolence; sympathy, emotional volubility, and moral development; and the role of pain and suffering in the cultural construction of Victorian masculinity. Assiduously researched, the book draws on a thorough understanding of nineteenth-century British (and American) fiction as well as literary criticism and archival sources, illuminating broader Victorian cultural discourses of ability and disability, health and invalidism.”
—Martha Stoddard Holmes, author of Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture

Illustration: Drawing by Alice Barber Stephens from John Halifax, Gentleman by Dinah Craik, 1856

Karen Bourrier is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Calgary.

Praise / Awards

  • "Bourrier’s book will be of interest not only to scholars of Victorian literature but also to students of gender, in particular masculinity, and culture."
    --David Buchbinder, Culture, Society & Masculinities

  • "...provides a fresh look at disability as a trope of nineteenth-century fiction, highlighting the importance of male relationships."
    --Disability & Society
  • "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."
  • "Karen Bourrier makes a bold and somewhat unexpected argument in The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel. She reveals how the disabled man was far from marginalised in mid-nineteenth century texts but actually held a critically central position from which he directly influenced narrative form and contemporary masculine ideals."
    --British Society for Literature and Science
  • "As an illuminating and original study of the neglected intersections of disability and Victorian manliness, Bourrier’s book contributes a significant chapter to the history of midcentury middle-class masculinity. It may become even more important as an encouraging example of what future studies in these fields may yet teach us."
    --Victorian Studies

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 184pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07248-4

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  • $74.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05248-6

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  • $35.95 U.S.

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