“Half Man, Half Chair”: Disability and Personhood in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady

Clare Walker Gore is an ECR, having passed her PhD viva at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Her PhD thesis explored disability in the Victorian novel. When she isn’t making grand plans for her next project on life-writing and disability in the nineteenth century, she is mostly to be found knitting and novel-reading. You can find her Academia.edu page here and on twitter here.

As though the end of term and the approaching festive season were not reasons enough to celebrate this time of year, the wet and gloomy days of late November are also now brightened up by the arrival of Disability History Month, which runs from 22 November – 22 December. Launched in 2010, DHM exists to celebrate disabled people’s lives, challenge prejudice and promote equality. As well as serving a serious political purpose, DHM offers an enjoyable opportunity to reflect on the cultural workings of disability, and everyone can get involved – whether through attending the organisation’s official events, exhibitions and talks, following the hashtag #UKDHM on twitter, or just browsing buzzfeed (I recommend this particular gem). For Victorianists like me working on the representational history of disabled people, DHM offers the perfect excuse to share our research, and introduce some of the weird and wonderful disabled figures of nineteenth-century fiction to a wider audience.

Last week, Louise Creechan discussed Victorian representations of stammering in her post ‘The Unspeakable: Liminal Texts, Liminal Disabilities’. Moving from liminal to sensationalised difference, I’d like to introduce you to a disabled character at the other end of the scale, Wilkie Collins’s legless, villainous, outrageously camp creation Miserrimus Dexter, who appears in his 1875 detective novel, The Law and the Lady. As a disabled figure whose physical difference is represented as shocking and horrific – who is at one point described as “the new Centaur, half man, half chair”[1] – Miserrimus might be seen as embodying every negative stereotype about disabled people from the period. But as I hope to demonstrate, Miserrimus does something much more interesting than embody stereotypes: he plays with them, performs them, and twists them to his own ends. He is a performer and a storyteller, a character trying to plot against the novel’s detective, attempting to draw her off the trail of the mystery and to usurp the detective role. As a minor character in revolt, and a villain who ends up garnering far more of our sympathy than the ostensible hero, Miserrimus is a troubling figure with a truly sensational story to tell about what it means to be disabled.

In his first meeting with Valeria, he demonstrates that, for one thing, disability does not straightforwardly entail incapacity. He handles his wheelchair with a strength that terrifies her, almost crushing the uninvited “intruders” into his home with “his furious wheels” (207). His expression is described as “impish”, and he goes on to tease Valeria by jumping around the room on his hands, in what he “cheerfully” calls “Dexter’s leap-frog!” (259).

Miserrimus’s performance of terrifying physical strength and ostentatious hostility takes on a more self-conscious aspect when we consider the setting with which he has deliberately provided himself. By purchasing, rather than inheriting, an “ancient” manor house marooned in a half-built semi-urban wasteland, and filling with gothic props, including “plaster casts […] of the heads of famous murderers”, a skeleton, and the tanned skin of a French marquis (247), Miserrimus has provided himself with a quintessentially sensational setting. He seems deliberately to cast himself as a kind of gothic throwback, determinedly anachronistic and self-dramatising. In the private performance on which Valeria spies, Miserrimus whizzes up and down the room in his wheelchair imagining himself to be historical and fictional heroes, appearing as a “fantastic and frightful apparition, man and machinery blended in one – the new Centaur, half man, half chair” (206). Collins draws here on a Gothic tradition which represents the disabled body as aberrant, indicative of inner perversity, of either super- or sub-human capacities, in order to create a sensational spectacle.

But Valeria’s thrilled, shuddering enjoyment of her privileged viewing position soon turns to discomfort as Miserrimus engages in a very different kind of performance at their next meeting. This time, he represents himself not as monstrous, but as pathetic, drawing on sentimental rather than gothic tropes. Insisting upon the very vulnerability and incapacity that he had apparently repudiated before, he performs abjection for Valeria:

Illustration from the serialisation of The Law and the Lady

Illustration from the serialisation of The Law and the Lady

‘Just think of what I am! A poor solitary creature, cursed with a frightful deformity. How pitiable! how dreadful! My affectionate heart – wasted. My extraordinary talents – useless or misapplied. Sad! sad! sad! Please pity me.’ His eyes positively filled with tears – tears of compassion for himself […] I was quite at a loss what to do […] I was never more embarrassed in my life. (232)

Given the common currency of sentimental stereotypes of disabled people, we might ask why Valeria is so very “embarrassed” by Miserrimus’s self-pitying tears. The answer lies in the self-assertiveness of Miserrimus’s appeal: rather than allowing his disabled body to elicit pity silently – as a sentimental object should – he insists upon his right to it, presuming to tell Valeria how to react to the spectacle with which he presents her. What Martha Stoddard-Holmes has called the “silent, modest speech of the impaired body” in sentimental representation has given way to speech that is anything but modest.[2]

Valeria is equally discomfited by his performance of femininity. Not only does he shock her with his feminine costume – wearing pink silk and bracelets to receive her –but he proceeds to make an exhibition of his gender-bending, taking up his embroidery in her presence, and treating her to a display of gourmet cooking (245). Although these displays take place in the context of Miserrimus’s extraordinary house, what is really troubling about them is the light they cast on the ‘normal’ content of the novel. After all, as Miserrimus points out, Valeria’s ideas about the right relationship between gender and personal adornment are wholly circumstantial: “A hundred years ago, a man in pink silk was a gentleman, properly dressed!” (232) The ideas Miserrimus expresses about women’s intellectual inferiority to men are conventional enough, but he applies them to prove that cookery is a naturally male preserve:

‘Properly pursued, the Art of Cookery allows of no divided attention,’ he continued gravely. ‘In that observation you will find the reason why no woman ever has reached, or ever will reach, the highest distinction as a cook. As a rule, women are incapable of absolutely concentrating their attention on any one occupation … What does it matter? Women are infinitely superior to men in the moral qualities which are the true adornments of humanity. Be content – oh, my mistaken sisters, be content with that!’ (247)

Miserrimus sounds uncommonly like the Ruskin of Sesame and Lilies here, ratcheted up a notch in order to become inescapably ridiculous. Valeria is already uncomfortably aware of her own transgression of gender codes in acting against her husband’s instructions and actively pursuing the detective inquiries he is too feeble to undertake himself. It is perhaps no wonder that she is uncomfortable in the presence of a man who both enacts the femininity in which she herself could be considered wanting, and yet also mirrors back her own exuberance and energy, for example when he leaps around the room on his hands, teasingly telling her, “‘I’m pretty active, Mrs Valeria, considering I’m a cripple!’” (259)

At such times, Miserrimus self-consciously fails to act the ‘cripple’ – most disconcertingly of all, when he presumes to kiss the heroine herself, in a scene so shocking that the editor of the Graphic magazine attempted to censor it from the novel’s serialisation.[3] In an action which utterly violates the sentimental contract she presumes exists between them, Miserrimus reacts to Valeria’s assurance that she “pities him from the bottom of her heart” by catching her sympathetically extended hand in his “and devour[ing] it with kisses. His lips burnt me like fire. He twisted himself suddenly in his chair, and wound his arm round my waist.” (299) Valeria is utterly unprepared for such behaviour from a man she has been viewing as an object of charity. That he might act, not as an innocent child, but as a sexual predator, both outrages and terrifies her.

Yet another response is surely called forth from the reader, when we see Miserrimus carried out of the house in disgrace:

The rough man lifted his master with a gentleness that surprised me. ‘Hide my face,’ I heard Dexter say to him, in broken tones. He opened his coarse pilot jacket, and hid his master’s head under it, and so went silently out – with the deformed creature held to his bosom, like a woman sheltering her child. (300)

At this moment, Miserrimus truly does appear pitiable, humiliated by Valeria’s insistence that he be treated as “a cripple” rather than a man (299), and apparently “broken”, not so much by her rejection of his advances, as by the memories that prompted him to make them. Miserrimus’s attempt to kiss Valeria can be understood as a hopeless attempt to resurrect a lost love, following as it does his outburst of grief as he remembers the day of Sara’s Macallan’s death; before kissing Valeria, he moans: “I loved her; I adored her; I have never been the same man since her death. […] I would have married her, before she met with Eustace, if she would have taken me.” (298) Perhaps what really horrifies Valeria is not so much Miserrimus’s touch in itself, but her unspoken understanding that she is not the true object of his desire, and has been made a stand-in for a woman to whom she considers herself superior. It is the ugly woman, the spurned first wife, whom Miserrimus adores, not the beautiful, admired replacement. Perhaps, as well, she is outraged that a man whom she considers to be beyond the pale of sexual desirability should presume to desire at all.

That was certainly Sara Macallan’s view of the case, as we soon learn. Miserrimus’s recollection of his stealing into her room to kiss her corpse leads to the unravelling of the whole mystery, as it is discovered that he threw away Sara’s diary (which is then recovered), because it would have revealed that she killed herself, and that he was indirectly responsible. He showed her Eustace’s diary, in which, as we already know from the trial report, Eustace had written of his indifference and even aversion to his adoring wife, and his passion for the beautiful Mrs Beauly. Miserrimus had hoped that this would finally persuade his beloved Sara to abandon her unhappy marriage and come away with him. In fact, she was disgusted by his desire – just as her husband was disgusted by hers. In her diary, Sara makes this link between herself and Miserrimus explicit, writing that she had “almost a fellow-feeling” for “deformed persons”, “being that next worst thing myself to a deformity – a plain woman.” (388)

The categories of ‘disabled’ and ‘normal’ break down here, with a lack of conventional beauty being seen to disable a woman in a romantic plot-line. Disability begins to seem grounded, not in physical difference itself, but in being treated as less than human. Dismissed as a “thing” and a “monster”, Miserrimus must “hide his face”, while Sara Macallan killed herself because her husband would not look at her: “I thought to myself, ‘If he looks at me kindly, I will confess what I have done, and let him save my life.’ You never looked at me at all. You only looked at the medicine. I let you go, without saying a word.” (393) What Sara longs for here is human recognition, which Eustace refuses her: he cares for her, by offering her medicine, but he does so mechanically, refusing to meet her eye, and to recognise her suffering, her loneliness – essentially, her subjectivity. With that recognition, goes the recognition of desire, and it is that which both Sara and Miserrimus are denied. The housekeeper’s identification of Miserrimus as a “thing” (292) and Benjamin’s repeated description of him as an animal – at one point, “a maundering mad monster who ought to be kept in a cage” (324) – makes explicit the refusal of full personhood which is implied in the construction of anyone as an object in an exhibition, or a cipher for the feelings of others.

In claiming greater narrative space for Miserrimus, and then foreclosing it, allowing us to imagine him as an actor in a romantic plotline, only to thwart him, Collins forces us to question both the role Miserrimus has been allotted as a ‘minor’ character, by virtue of his unusual embodiment, and his identity as a ‘cripple’. By investing this peripheral character with so much narrative power, and drawing our attention and interest out to the margins of the story, Collins up-ends the narrative order of the novel, encouraging us to give a structurally disproportionate amount of attention to Miserrimus. Interestingly, the novel’s first illustrator picked up on this: the last image is not of the reunited couple, Eustace and Valeria, whose marriage plot is now neatly concluded, but of Miserrimus Dexter’s grave.

Illustration from the final instalment of The Law and the Lady

Illustration from the final instalment of The Law and the Lady

Ultimately, Miserrimus’s desire to thwart Valeria’s detective enquiries, and to resist the logic of the marriage plot, is itself thwarted. Despite his success in planting red herrings and leading Valeria astray, he becomes unable to sustain his own fictions, and succumbs to madness while spinning a web of lies, trying to throw her off the scent of his guilt. Yet if Miserrimus the plotter is ultimately defeated, as he loses his mind while trying to tell a false story, he does succeed in disrupting the novel’s plot, and in making us regret the narrative settlement which necessitates his silence. Miserrimus has been so vivid for us, in his eccentricity and abnormality, that he is by far the most sensational character in the novel: a real ‘character’ in the sense of being an oddity. If we consider the humanity of a character in terms of their liveliness, or the extent to which they ‘live’ for us, then surely Miserrimus is the character most animated by our emotional and intellectual investment in him. Miserrimus humanises the novel’s sensationalism, because in him, Collins puts sensationalism to affective work. In making us question the basis for the novel’s economy of space and sympathy, Collins claims a greater share of both for Miserrimus Dexter: not that which might be allotted to ‘half a man’, but a fully human share.


 

[1] Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.206. Further references are to this edition and are given in brackets in the text.

[2] Martha Stoddard Holmes, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), p. 114.

[3] The editor of the Graphic, in which the novel was initially serialised, not only tried to censor this scene, but actually published an apology to his readership at the end of the novel’s run, prompting Collins to publish an angry letter of protest in The World. This is reproduced in an Appendix to the OUP edition quoted here.

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