The portrayal of childhood disability in 19th century British literature is very useful in providing information on how disabled people were viewed and presented at that time. In Victorian Britain, disability was increasingly becoming more of an interest, and ‘afflicted’ and ‘defective’ bodies were the focus of many plots of popular literature and drama. By looking at literature involving the topic of disability we not only get an insight into attitudes towards disability, but also the language that was used to describe disabled people at the time, and how that language may differ from the present day. The term ‘cripple’ and sometimes ‘deformed’ are often used, but deaf, ‘dumb’ and blind people are probably the group (within the category of disabled) that are written about the most. Terms that may be seen as offensive in today’s standards weren’t as offensive at the time. In terms of studying childhood disability in the Victorian Britain, looking at literature is helpful as the innocent, afflicted child is a common theme in Victorian literature. Disabled children are seen as “innocent” or “blessed” or “angels”, whilst being unfortunate at the same time.
They are generally presented as being accepting of their condition, and are portrayed as heroic and sweet, and able to rise above their misfortunes. Their patience and acceptance of their disability comes across as powerful to the reader, and they are likely to become the hero or heroine of the novel.
Let’s think of a well known example that relates to all of these points…
The loveable character Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’s classic novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a perfect example of the ‘innocent’ , ‘sweet’ and ‘unfortunate’ character that is portrayed in many Victorian novels. Despite his disability, Tim is still clearly an active member of his family, taking part in their religious and festive traditions, even his crutch is described as an “active little crutch”. Despite his suffering, he remains happy, grateful, and lively, which encourages sympathy and admiration from the reader. Through ‘A Christmas Carol’ and the character Tiny Tim we also get an insight into religious perspectives of disability at the time. The common view was that God was responsible for your disability, and that you have blessed with it and should therefore learn to live with it and be the best you can be. Tim regularly joins his father in going to church and hopes that people will notice him, because he is a cripple, and they should “remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see”, referring to the miracles of healing performed by Christ as recorded in the Gospels. He hopes that others can see him as a reminder of the doings and miracles of Jesus.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843) (London: Puffin Books, 2008).
Iain F.W.K. Davidson , Gary Woodill & Elizabeth Bredberg, ‘Images of Disability in 19th Century British Children’s Literature’, Disability & Society, 9:1 (1994),33-46.