Karen Bourrier, The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel

Karen Bourrier, The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 2015) 174pp. $35.00 Pb, $65.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-472-07248-4

Karen Bourrier makes a bold and somewhat unexpected argument in The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel. She reveals how the disabled man was far from marginalised in mid-nineteenth century texts but actually held a critically central position from which he directly influenced narrative form and contemporary masculine ideals (3). In an era that saw the emergence of Carlyle’s self-made man, it would be easy to assume that disabled characters would appear infrequently and in liminal positions. But Bourrier demonstrates how the weak, disabled man would be paired with the strong man to form a relationship which tempered the strong man, stopping them from growing ‘coarse and unfeeling’ while allowing the weak man to take on the narrative burden, exhibiting sympathy through a keen observation of others so that that strong man’s position wasn’t compromised (3).

Bourier’s argument is broad and yet convincing, backed up with readings drawn from a collection of prominent authors and presented in an accessible and engaging manner. She explains how the weak man was granted access to areas denied to women, such as the factory or public school, and yet he was critically placed to narrate effectively due to the association between strength of body and strength of mind. The disabled man, weak in body, was assumed to be mentally weak too, and so was endowed with a ‘feeling’ mind. Writing on the basis of the assumption that physical disability led to a different cognitive identity, one held with some conviction by mid-Victorians, Bourrier concludes that the disabled man is well placed to narrate on the strong man’s adventures. This is ldue to his confidence in dispensing sympathy to others and his ability to acquire sympathy, largely because he himself is the object of so much of it (3-4). The link between disability and narrative competence is strengthened by reference to Victorian medical discourses that support the contemporary belief that strength of body and strength of mind are associated.

Bourrier positions her work as a development from earlier studies focusing on disability in the nineteenth century, which identified the connection between a weak body, a mental capacity characterized in traditionally feminized terms and the use of disability as a mechanism from which to generate an emotional response (15-16). Her compelling argument suggests that representations of disability contributed to the development of narrative form in the period.

Bourrier begins building her case with readings of Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe (1857) and Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855) and Two Years Ago (1857). These readings act as a springboard for the rest of the book, allowing her to demonstrate the use of the strong man and weak man as a pairing that are mutually complementary. Bourrier makes use of muscular Christianity as a reference point, illustrating how the weak man gave the strong man an opportunity to display compassion whereas the weak man grew ever more able to ‘observe and articulate’ (30). Here Bourrier makes a clear case for the relationship between disability and authorship as the weak man becomes the lens through which the strong man is encountered.

In Chapter Two Bourrier turns to the self-made man with a reading of Dinah Mulock Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman (1856). Bourrier argues again for the complementary relationship between the weak and strong man and evidences this through John Halifax’s friendship with disabled Phineas Fletcher who holds a position within John’s household. Phineas’s friendship with John and his position in his household serve to better his observational capacities, allowing him to write John’s story. Simultaneously this provides Phineas with a vicarious other life. Phineas’s narration extends the depth of John’s character through moments of tenderness and reflection, which he would otherwise be incapable of articulating without the ‘feeling’ compassion of Phineas.

Chapter Three marks a departure for Bourrier as she reads George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) in comparison to Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), noting that Tom and Philip in Eliot's novel are able to show tenderness to each other only when Tom finds himself temporarily disabled. The enmity that grows between Tom and Philip stands in contrast to the friendship enjoyed by Tom Brown and Arthur George. The breakdown of the pairing fosters in Tom a sense of rigidity and inability to feel sympathy and likewise in Philip a peevishness and inability to demonstrate sympathy to others. Instead of complementing each other, the strong and weak men become more distant suggesting that although still mutually influential, their relationship cannot continue due to the fundamental difference between their two personalities.

In Bourrier’s final chapter, she argues that towards the end of the century the disabled man is no longer paired with the strong man through a reading of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) in which she identifies the dissolution of this mid-century pairing. Bourrier notes how for James, the self-made man and the ‘aesthete-invalid’ now become one and the same person, so valued is the disabled man’s sympathetic capacities (103-104). The new aesthete figure draws together the restraint of the self-made man, while maintaining a desire to recline and observe the lives of those around him. In James’s novel, the self-made man Caspar Goodwood, is not softened by Ralph Touchett, who likewise is no more successful without a strong man by his side.

Bourrier concludes with examples of strong-weak pairings as they exist in more contemporary literature and film. For example, Bourrier looks at E M Forster’s The Longest Journey (1907), and illustrates how Forster experiments with the device of pairing, allowing for a fuller development of the disabled character Rickie in comparison to the strong Gerald, who dies displaying his strength on the sports field. Alternatively, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), sees the weak Philip regress to the point that he is so introverted he cannot relate to either male or female adequately. Both texts suggest a pairing that positions the weak man both as author/narrator figure and as defined in relation only to the strong man. The schoolboy trope also continues with a brief look at John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) and Rodman Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty (1993). Bourrier concludes her compelling book by suggesting that although pairing weak and strong male characters is no longer fashionable, this pairing still exists in ‘alternative routes’ (136).

Ben Masters-Stevens, University of Hertfordshire