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  • The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th-Century Fiction
  • Marlene Tromp (bio)
The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th-Century Fiction, by Lillian Craton; pp. xii + 244 . Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2009, $109.99, £65.99.

Lillian Craton's The Victorian Freak Show makes an important contribution to the growing study of physical difference in the nineteenth century, in part because it fleshes out aspects of difference to which we have been less attentive: those not typically considered medical or congenital disabilities, such as body size. One should not expect, therefore, a book that focuses solely on the types of physical difference by which freak performers earned their living; indeed, the subtitle more accurately describes the book's content. The most significant innovation of the project is the way in which Craton uncovers the often positively figured valence of such differences as they are depicted in literary texts. She argues that such representations apply pressure to the expectations for gender performance, crafting more flexible norms, and in this way she broadens the scope of our analysis.

Craton opens the book with a rich discussion of freak shows and bodily spectacle. In a Victorian social climate that laid the groundwork for eugenics and theories of human perfectibility, the representation of the nonnormative body was deeply significant. She also argues for the importance of fiction in offering ideals that both participate in and resist such a project. "The inclusion of grotesque bodies," she suggests, "expands and complicates the novels' implications for an increasingly proscriptive culture of physical normativity" (25). Craton divides the book into four broad themes: littleness, fatness, female masculinity, and bodily mutability.

With regard to size, she focuses on Charles Dickens's novels. Central, of course, are characters like Little Nell and Little Dorrit, but she also includes Quilp, Miss Mowcher, Jenny Wren, and Ninetta Crummles, emphasizing Dickens's use of little women and girls as idealized human miniatures. Situating her discussion against an analysis of hypopituitary and achondroplastic dwarfs (the former of whom were perceived to be more proportional and aesthetically pleasing), sympathy as a rhetorical strategy, and the exhibition of littleness by the artist or collector, Craton argues that Dickens uses the affection we have for attractive, child-like figures to make a case against exploitative viewing. Dickens remarks on his "own exploitation of bodily difference and the reader's consumption of bodily spectacle [in ways that] take us to task for moments of narrow-mindedness in our response to human variation" (85). Through this, readers might become more reflective about abuses of those who are different or the impoverished.

In the most compelling section of the book, Craton considers fatness as a model of nurturance. Situating her argument amid conversations about the pathologizing of fat and the idealization of self-starvation for women (groundwork laid by critics such as Gail Turley Houston, Anna K. Silver, and Joyce Huff), Craton sees an additional model: that of "fat mothering" as a valuable supplement to miserly and weak [End Page 727] parenting (96). Pointing to an array of characters from Clara Peggotty to Mrs. Jarley, Craton argues that we must broaden our discussion of Victorian fat. As she puts it, "to discuss fat only through anorexia is akin to discussing a photo only in terms of its negative. Let us add a consideration of Victorian fat at its best and consider whether the dynamic of exchange between gender and body norms might not work, every now and then, in favor of those who defy norms" (111). By locating the strength and resiliency of fat women in Victorian fiction and their key role in the nurturance and development of others, Craton makes an important contribution to the discussion of women's excess and restraint, but, more subtly, she also challenges us to reconsider how our own cultural obsessions blind us to important topoi in the period.

In the next section, Craton discusses female masculinity in sensation fiction, a richer and more intellectual womanhood. She turns to New Woman fiction of the 1890s, critiquing the often totalizing generic distinctions made between these novels and sensation fiction...


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