The Unspeakable: Liminal Texts, Liminal Disabilities

Louise is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow where she completed her undergraduate degree in English Literature and her MLitt in Victorian Literature. Her PhD thesis explores the representation of illiteracy in the Victorian novel and aims to challenge the perception of illiteracy as a homogenous experience through an engagement with Disability Studies.

In this blog post, I’m going to be discussing the very boundaries of what we might call a disability; taking the stammer or speech impediment as an example of a condition that is circumstantially disabling, I will focus on the figure of the stammerer in James Malcolm Rymer’s The Unspeakable (1855) and the issues that arise when we adopt an approach to a text that is informed by Disability Studies, but when the condition in question is only temporarily disabling.   This blog post is taken from a side project to my PhD research and is, as such, fairly tentative.

the unspeakable

The study of the speech impediment, or ‘Dysfluency Studies’ to use Chris Eagle’s terminology from his 2014 collection of essays Talking Normal: Literature, Speech Disorders and Disability, is a newly-identified area of research within the wider context of Disability Studies, but it is one that is fraught with contradictions.[i]

A stammerer is only considered ‘disabled’ at the point at which they are unable to speak as ‘normal’. To this extent, stammering occupies a liminal and complex space in between normalcy and the understanding of disability that literary scholarship has developed that is reliant on based on visual demarcations.

In the advent of the 2010 Equalities Act, numerous ‘invisible’ disabilities have come to be legally recognized, these include: mental health issues, autism, ADHD, chronic fatigue, obesity, and specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.[ii] Conditions which, through their invisibility and the fact that they are often only circumstantially disabling, would be considered ‘liminal’ or ‘borderline’.

Joshua St. Pierre notes that, while he is ‘hesitant to place stuttering categorically alongside more visible disabilities’, he recognizes that ‘stuttering comes under distinct social pressures and punishments absent from the experience of clearly defined visual disabilities’.[iii]

In recognizing the complications that come from a condition that is not so visually-marked, St. Pierre proposes that ‘space must be carved out in the emerging field of Disability Studies for liminal forms of oppression which straddle boundaries and disrupt binaries of abled/disabled, normal/abnormal’.[iv] The consideration of conditions that sit on the boundaries of normalcy, such as stammering, prompts the question: at what precise point is a person considered ‘disabled’?

The Unspeakable; Or the Life and Adventures of a Stammerer (1855) is attributed to the prolific writer of Penny fiction and protégé of the periodical publisher E. Lloyd, James Malcolm Rymer – best known for being one of the authors attributed with the original Sweeney Todd – The String of Pearls.[v] The text itself is a hybrid of sentimental cheap fiction and reactionary pathography.

During the 1840s and 50s there was much debate in medical communities on the treatment of stammering.[vi] In 1841 James Yearsley gave a paper before the Westminster Medical society advocating the surgical treatment of stuttering which was later published as Stammering, and Other Imperfections of Speech, Treated by Surgical Operations on the Throat (1841). This sparked great debate as to the ethics of invasive, rarely curative surgery that removed the uvula and soft palate in the following years. The Unspeakable was published mere months after another importance treatise to which the author is grateful for advocating a cure by means of speech therapy, James Hunt’s, A Treatise on the Cure of Stammering etc. etc. with the Memoir of the Late Thomas Hunt (1854).  James Hunt worked with most of the era’s well-known stutterers, including Charles Kingsley, Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald.  

The Unspeakable is arguably the final word of this public medical debate as few additional publications on the matter appear after its publication in 1855.  It is also the only one of these contemporary treatises that was presented as a narrative, however, due to the elevated and sentimentalised language of the text in which the author was ‘rescued…from a state of mental prostration’, it was soon asserted that The Unspeakable was not the work of non-fictional pathography that it was originally taken for, but a work of sentimental fictional rhetoric advocating a non-surgical approach.

The Unspeakable maps the journey from childhood to early adulthood of Charles Monkton. Monkton is sent away from his home to school by his new step-mother and the mysterious and evil stammerer Mr. Ogden. He finds at school that he has developed the very affliction that he mocked Ogden for and he is ridiculed by his peers. Monkton later escapes from the school to find his father dying and his will missing, seeking assistance from his father’s old friend, Monkton is enrolled in Eton where he experiences similar difficulties. Upon reaching adulthood it is discovered that Monkton has been disinherited and Ogden has stolen the proof of his legitimacy. The narrative ends with Monkton having his inheritance rightfully restored and being cured of his stammering through speech therapy.

There are some instances where Disability Studies’ theoretical approach and terminology are utterly indispensible. In David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s seminal exploration of the function of disability in literature, Narrative Prosthesis, they theorise that disability is used ‘first as a stock feature of characterization, and, second, as an opportunistic metaphorical device’ which renders ‘the disabled body…a potent symbolic site for literary investment’.[vii] In other words, disability is used as prosthesis or a symbolic crutch for narrative impetus. In The Unspeakable, the construction of the stammering Mr. Ogden’s villainy and the threat that he poses to Monkton relies upon the established dialogue between disability and metaphor. When Mr. Ogden introduces himself to Monkton ‘he [goes] through a series of such extraordinary and terrible contortions of countenance…as though he were practicing the convolutions of a rattle-snake’ (20), the physicality of Ogden’s stammer is ‘terrible’ and dehumanising; it is this display of affliction that marks Odgen out as a villain. His shifting ‘contortions of countenance’ dramatizes an on-going struggle for supremacy between the ‘countenance’ of able-bodied respectability and something Other.

There are various moments in the text where its narrator seems to overstep the mark of modesty by playing on established conventions of disablement in order to evoke greater sympathy from its readership. Throughout his narrative Charles describes a multitude of instances in which others pity him: his stammer is greeted with ‘a look of commiseration’ (37) by his first teacher, a local girl whose father has locked Charles in his wood-house tells Charles ‘“I pity you”’ (84) as she frees him. By the end of his ‘Boyhood’ narrative Charles himself begins to describe himself as a person who should be pitied: ‘“I am still the poor orphan boy”’ (88) he cries to Miss Atherton at the death of his Guardian and by the time he encounters the girl he falls in love with he has become a ‘poor pariah of society’ (106). His transition from the child who upon his first stammer does not realise or accept that he is afflicted, ‘Afflicted! Afflicted! Thought I, how am I afflicted?’ (33), to the adult whose heightened awareness of his condition has him construct himself as an object of pity, a ‘poor pariah of society’ is intended to be pitiable. As a pathography, the text is seen to dramatize the oft theorised, socially constructed transition from impaired to disabled.

As a ‘Romance of Stammering’, to use the words of one reviewer, The Unspeakable seems to have left itself open to derision and mockery due to its unwavering commitment to sentimentalising the speech impediment.[viii] Disabled characters whose sole role is to evoke pity in the nineteenth-century reader are common in canonical Victorian fiction, Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) being equally the most well-known and the most cited example of this trope.[ix] It is the sight of the crippled boy’s body that inspires the able-bodied to think of Christ on Christmas Day. In The Unspeakable, those that witness Monkton’s affliction are also inspired toward strong feelings – most often, the uncontainable need to mock or to deride the sufferer. His classroom stammering is greeted with ‘a roar of delight’ (32) and the morally dubious Sir Willoughby Vane has the audacity during their first meeting to presume ‘“You won’t be furious if we laugh, will you?”’ (94).

Tiny-tim-dickens

Considering the way in which both Tiny Tim and Monkton view themselves as an object of pity, the difference in the reception of their disabilities is startling. It is the mode of disability that appears to control the reception of the affliction. Tiny Tim is visually a ‘cripple’, his body is utilised as a potent site for the reflection of Christian discourse whereas Monkton’s body is, for the most part, able. This bodily normalcy prevents his body from being appropriated into metaphor on sight, as Tiny Tim’s has been, however, it also means that for those moments in which his disability is active, he becomes liable for derision.

There is no established etiquette available to inform how persons of liminal disabilities should be received in society and in literary text. By extension, this could offer a reason why the discussion of liminal disabilities, such as speech impediments, mental illness or obesity, in disabled terms is less theoretically comfortable than the discussion of those more totalising, visually marked disabilities.

In regards to the consideration of liminal disabilities, the established theoretical framework of Disability Studies offers a glancing critical understanding of the representation of these ‘invisible’ disabilities. There are certain basic critical concepts, such as narrative prosthesis, which can be applied to liminal disabilities with equal success. However, due to the circumstantial nature of liminal disabilities, their usual invisibility can prevent their affliction from being taken seriously. Further exposition of established theoretical practice and its insufficiencies in regards to James Malcolm Rymer’s The Unspeakable and the general study of speech impediments in Victorian literature and culture is needed in order to fully capture the challenge of approaching liminal disabilities in literary text.

__________________________________

[i] Chris Eagle, Talking Normal: Literature, Speech Disorders and Disability (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2014), p. 3.

[ii] ‘Definition of Disability Under 2010 Equality Act’ <https://www.gov.uk/definition-of-disability-under-equality-act-2010&gt;, [accessed 20.11.2015].

[iii] Joshua St. Pierre, ‘The Construction of the Disabled Speaker – Locating Stuttering in Disability Studies’ in Talking Normal: Literature, Speech Disorders and Disability (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2014), p.19.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] James Malcolm Rymer, The Unspeakable; or the Life and Adventures of a Stammerer (London: Clarke & Beeton, 1855).

[vi] There were an abundance of treatise on stammering during the 1840s/50s, these included: James Yearsley, Stammering and Other Imperfections of Speech, Treated by Surgical Operations on the Throat (1841); James Wright, The Stutterer’s Friend; or the Plea of Humanity and Common Sense, against two publications: one written by “A Physician” incognito, advertised “The Stammerer’s Handbook” but entitled a “Treastise on the Nature and Causes of Stammering” and the Other by Mr Yearsley entitled “Stammering and Other Imperfections of Speech, Treated by Surgical Operations on the Throat” (1843); James Hunt, A Treatise on the Cure of Stammering etc. etc. with the Memoir of the late Thomas Hunt (1854).

[vii] David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and Dependencies of Discourse (2000), p. 49.

[viii] Edmund Saul Dixon, ‘Psellism’, Household Words, Vol. XIV, No. 349 (29th November, 1856).

[ix] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 60.

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2 responses to “The Unspeakable: Liminal Texts, Liminal Disabilities

  1. Pingback: “Half Man, Half Chair”: Disability and Personhood in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady | The Victorianist: BAVS Postgraduates·

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