Navigating genre : writing disability, illness, and female agency in the Victorian novel.
This dissertation concerns the intersection between disability, genre, and female agency in Victorian novels. It considers three mid-nineteenth-century novels with ill or disabled female characters from different genres: domestic realism, social problem—specifically Condition of England, and sensation fiction. In each, the novelists utilize disability and illness to not only navigate the conventions of their genres but to investigate the Woman Question. The first chapter on Harriet Martineau’s Deerbrook argues that though she is a minor character, Maria—“lamed” in a carriage accident—is significantly disruptive, and as she breaks into the narrative of novel, it is a formal reflection of her non-normative body’s interruption of the typical nineteenth-century narrative. She is disruptive to the novel’s domestic realism genre because not only is she unmarriageable, but her philosophy on happiness and vocation favors Romantic ideologies. The second chapter on Mary Barton argues that Elizabeth Gaskell manipulates illness and disability in her novel to unite disparate story lines and critique not only the Condition of England, but the Condition of England for women. Gaskell wields the disabilities of Margaret and Mary to empower the women and strengthen their agency. Margaret’s blindness becomes the means to her independence, and Mary claims her power by asserting control over her hysteria. The third chapter argues that Hide and Seek by Wilkie Collins utilizes the uncertainty created by the hybridity of the sensation genre to challenge visual epistemology by using the deaf character of Madonna as a site of interrogation. In positioning Madonna as an object to be seen, but also as the Seer, he uses the epistemological implications of Madonna’s deafness to explore Victorian anxieties about what can be known, particularly when perceived via sight. The final chapter applies this scholarly investigation to the classroom by presenting a pedagogical approach informed by the principles of disability studies and offering an undergraduate upper-division literature course titled: “Reading Disability and Illness in the Victorian Novel.” Following the premise of the first three chapters, the course poses disability and illness as a means for navigating genre in Victorian novels.