Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain

by Maria H. Frawley

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Nineteenth-century Britain did not invent chronic illness, but its social climate allowed hundreds of men and women, from intellectuals to factory workers, to assume the identity of "invalid." Whether they suffered from a temporary condition or an incurable disease, many wrote about their experiences, leaving behind an astonishingly rich and varied record of disability in Victorian Britain.

Using an array of primary sources, Maria Frawley here constructs a cultural history of invalidism. She describes the ways that Evangelicalism, industrialization, and changing patterns of doctor/patient relationships all converged to allow a culture of invalidism to flourish, and explores what it meant for a person to be designated—or to deem oneself—an invalid. Highlighting how different types of invalids developed distinct rhetorical strategies, her absorbing account reveals that, contrary to popular belief, many of the period's most prominent and prolific invalids were men, while many women found invalidism an unexpected opportunity for authority.

In uncovering the wide range of cultural and social responses to notions of incapacity, Frawley sheds light on our own historical moment, similarly fraught with equally complicated attitudes toward mental and physical disorder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226261225
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Maria H. Frawley is an associate professor of English at George Washington University. She is the editor of Harriet Martineau's 1844 book Life in the Sick-Room.

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Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Maria H. Frawley

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 Maria H. Frawley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226261204


Invalids and Authority in Nineteenth-Century Britain
The beginning of Inquiry is Disease: all Science, if we consider well, must have originated in the feeling of something being wrong.

-Thomas Carlyle, "Characteristics"
In 1852 the publishers Aylott and Jones in London issued a work titled The Invalid's Own Book, written anonymously by "a Fellow Sufferer." Invoking a rhetoric of reticence familiar to mid- Victorian readers, the author uses the preface, dated November 1850, to justify the "little work" by asserting her own beneficent motives and the book's utilitarian promise. "The compilation of this little work originated in the attempt to cheer and profitably employ some of the solitary hours of one who for many months has been confined to the bed of affliction," she explains. Later she continues: "In the hopes of presenting, in a small compass, many topics of consolation to some fellow-sufferer, to whom the compiler would not otherwise have access, this little volume is committed to the press. Accompanied by the Divine blessing, she trusts that her labour will not be in vain."

The passage is vintage Victorian in its depiction of a lonely sufferer seeking from her own bed of affliction to console others, envisioned as similarly confined to their sickrooms and in need of solace. Like many men and women of the period, the person who wrote this book assumed that her identity as "invalid" would speak for itself on the book's title page. Similarly, she assumed a community of sufferers to whom her thoughts could be directed. She was not alone in her efforts, for books, tracts, and essays with titles such as The Solace of an Invalid, An Invalid's Day, Literary Gleaningsby an Invalid, and The Idle Hours of an Invalid appeared throughout the nineteenth century.

This book is a study of what it meant to identify oneself as invalid in nineteenth-century Britain and of what the culture of invalidism tells us about a particular moment in literary, medical, and social history. In what ways did the term "invalid" designate a medical condition, and what kinds of medical conditions could fall under that rubric? In what ways did invalidism signify a social role? And did that role confer status or rather marginality and insignificance? While some of the period's best-known intellectuals, writers, and activists (e.g., Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Henry Huxley, and Harriet Martineau, to cite just a few) were known to have identified themselves as invalids at key points in their careers, we know little about how the experience of invalidism differed for those leading more ordinary, less celebrated lives. Beliefs about illness and health affected men, women, and children in different ways, as did factors such as class, religious affiliation and belief, and sexual orientation. These and other factors combined to produce important variations throughout the century in how individuals would respond to chronic illness and, as important, how others would respond to them. Yet in a range of ways that this book will explore, the experience of invalidism might be said to have subsumed other determinants of identity. Individuals could declare themselves "invalid" (or be designated by society as "invalid") and know that that identity would then supersede other dimensions of their personhood.

Just as the Victorians cannot be held responsible for inventing invalidism, neither can they be credited with creating the figure of the invalid or its near relations-the cripple, the malingerer, the valetudinarian, the hypochondriac, the malade imaginaire. Nevertheless, in the first half of the nineteenth century the figure of the invalid assumed a kind of public visibility unparalleled in earlier periods of English history. Charting the conditions that promoted this ascendancy, I will argue that the invalid assumed prominence because the figure apotheosized stasis. As Harriet Martineau wrote in Life in the Sick-Room, "It is when death is not to be looked for, nor yet health, that the test is applied" (33). Neither healthy nor critically ill, the invalid instead occupied what Alexander Shand, in an essay titled "The Pleasures of Sickness," rhapsodically described as a "blessed borderland of convalescence" (546). However "blessed" was the "borderland" that the invalid occupied, extended or chronic illness could also signify stagnation, immobility, and, in a broader sense, all that could be considered inconclusive. In "The Convalescent," Charles Lamb evocatively likened his condition to a "flat swamp" (Essays of Elia 271). Epitomizing inertia, the invalid expressed the culture's profound skepticism not simply about the inability of scientific medicine to cure, but also about other social movements, institutions, and ideologies premised on the notion of progress-the economic progress of the nation, the spiritual progress of the pilgrim.

Although the paradigm of crisis and recovery has long been believed to be constitutive of Victorian literature and a basic premise of realist fiction- "to be ill is to produce narrative," Athena Vrettos writes in Somatic Fictions (2)-the invalid's presence in that fiction unsettles the apparent truisms underlying the paradigm. Examining illness as a "rite of passage issuing in personal, moral, or social recuperation," Miriam Bailin makes an astute observation that complicates the pattern of crisis and recovery: "The conventional pattern of ordeal and recovery takes on its particularly Victorian emphasis in the location of the desired condition of restored order and stability not in regained health but in a sustained condition of disability and quarantine" (Sickroom 6). Signifying not crisis, but rather a state of lingering, stasis, and inertia, invalidism challenged what John Freccero identifies as "the very nature of narration" itself-that is, "the fact that a sentence, a life, or a book must have an ending" (28). Moreover, if convinced of the invalid's capacity to access spiritual truths unavailable to the healthy, Victorians were equally compelled to regard the figure with doubt, and this ability to simultaneously embody competing claims of truth and fraudulence, and thus to express cultural anxieties about duplicity and the power of the impostor, helped to secure the invalid a powerful narrative and cultural position. Praising Joseph Joubert for his authenticity ("his changeless preference of being to seeming, knowing to showing, studying to publishing") Matthew Arnold remarks, "for what terrible public performers have some invalids been!" (172).

Evidence of the invalid's omnipresence in nineteenth-century culture is abundant and stems from a wide range of sources. Lithographs, watercolors, engravings, and etchings by artists as varied as George Cruikshank, George Du Maurier, and Francis Engleheart routinely depicted the infirm, afflicted, and bedridden. In its representation of a young invalid woman both marginalized from the scene and arguably central to it, Thomas Webster's popular painting of 1843, "Sickness and Health," exemplifies the figure's ambiguous status within domestic culture (fig. 1). While artistic renderings tend to depict invalids as young and female, other arenas of representation present invalidism, if indirectly, as more universal. Among the many "new inventions" promoted in the pages of the influential medical journal the Lancet and advertised in other forms of print were invalid cups and spoons, chairs, beds, and couches-devices akin to the "patent invalid carriage with 'a thousand springs' " that enabled Elizabeth Barrett Browning to travel (Hewlett 82-83) (figs. 2 and 3). Skimming the London Times for the period, one finds articles promoting special life assurance societies for invalids, articles describing associations and institutions designed to aid invalid children, invalid women, and invalid soldiers and sailors, and announcements of such newly patented items as "invalid bedsteads" and "net hammocks for invalid travelling." Advertisements in popular magazines and newspapers appealed to invalid consumers with promises of healing balms and extracts, effervescing lozenges, and "universal plaisters" for conditions as varied as cancer, asthma, "white swellings & Hard Lumps; Hard Lumps," and "inflammations of every kind." Noting that "illness and its fragile twin, health, were marketable commodities," Katherine Ott describes the lucrative market in patent medicines, atomizers, and chest expanders that tuberculosis in particular made possible. "Like so many Ezekiels calling dry bones to life, consumptives bought scales, thermometers, sputum cups, paper handkerchiefs, rubber pocket liners, tents, recliner chairs, invalid beds, awnings, and disinfectants," she writes (88). Support groups and aid associations for invalids sprang up, and "invalid asylums" courted the families of the afflicted with brochures detailing the comfort, care, and security that awaited the invalid relative too difficult to care for at home. Prayer books and hymnals written for (and occasionally by) sufferers appeared alongside more secular tracts of consolation and self-help. Cookbooks and household manuals devoted to the special dietary needs of the invalid or dyspeptic proliferated.

Travel books and medical guides to health resorts from the period abound in images of the English invalid abroad. Studying southern and Swiss health resorts in 1883, the physician William Marcet observed "young people with a family disposition to consumption; ladies fatigued by the London Season; persons suffering from chronic rheumatism whose pains and stiffness of limbs are invariably increased by cold; elderly people with bladder infections; other invalids undergoing general wasting and gradually losing strength from disease of the kidneys; people with weak hearts, who are utterly incapable of exerting themselves in cold weather; scrofulous children; and persons recovering from some long debilitating illness" (313). "Almost everyone is filled with the belief that he is debilitated," wrote one exasperated physician in 1882 (qtd. in Shorter, Bedside 63). The travel industry catered to the invalid in search of health, with special vehicles such as the "invalid tricycle," "invalid carriage," and railway cars designed to accommodate the sufferer with special needs. Publishing houses rushed to meet the emerging market for guides specifically directed to the interests and "requirements" of the invalid abroad.

Invalids populate the landscape of nineteenth-century fiction as well. Characters as different as the valetudinarian Mr. Woodhouse in Jane Austen's Emma, the crippled but powerful Countess Neroni in Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers; bedridden Margaret May, moral center of the Evangelical novelist Charlotte Yonge's The Daisy Chain; Margaret Dawson, the invalid around whom the various narrators of Elizabeth Gaskell's collection Round the Sofa gather; mysterious and malicious Mr. Fairlie in Wilkie Collins's Woman in White and bitter Mrs. Milroy in Armadale; and the patient made invalid by his physician's overdrugging in Charles Reade's bestselling novel It Is Never Too Late to Mend suggest something of the range of uses to which novelists found they could put the invalid. Perhaps most pointedly, at the century's end Oscar Wilde created in The Importance of Being Earnest the hypothetical figure of Bunbury, an "invaluable permanent invalid" uncle who allegedly resides in the country, providing his creator, Algernon, with a ready-made excuse to escape from undesirable city obligations. In Wilde's play, the term "Bunburying" becomes synonymous with lying. Yet if nineteenth-century novelists and playwrights poked fun at the invalid overly preoccupied with aches, pains, and bodily distress, they also found in the figure an emblem of sensitivity and insight. The invalid could stand for the threatening or duplicitous, but so too might he or she represent, as in Yonge's vision, integrity and holiness. The fictional invalid might as easily play philosopher as fraud.

Invalidism and Authorship

Given the variety of these fictional roles and the range of the invalid's cultural presence, it is perhaps no surprise that in the nineteenth century "the invalid" functioned as a legitimate authorial identity. Compendiums of bibliographic information reveal that narratives by invalids proliferated in Victorian England as in no other age. All but one of the narratives written anonymously by invalids listed in the British Library's History of Printed Books were published between 1835 and 1891. Listings in Poole's Index of Periodicals and in The Wellesley Guide to Victorian Periodicals similarly reveal a clustering of essays and articles written by invalids during Victoria's reign. George Henry Lewes wrote in an 1864 Cornhill Magazine essay that "Whoso speaks on Health is sure of a large audience" (qtd. in Haley 3), but he may just as well have continued, "Whoso speaks on Ill Health is sure of one even larger."


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Table of Contents

1. "All My Afflictions": Invalids and Authority in Nineteenth-Century Britain
2. "Beyond Hope, Help, or Remedy": Confession, Cure, and the Hypochondriac's Narrative
3. "In Search of Health": Invalids Abroad
4. "Sin-Sick Souls": Christian Invalids and the Literature of Consolation
5. "The Range of Our Vision": Self, Surveillance, and Life in the Sickroom
Afterword: Centers, Margins, and Vanishing Points: Locating Invalidism in the Nineteenth Century
Works Cited

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