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Reviewed by:
  • Idiocy: A Cultural History
  • Pamela K. Gilbert (bio)
Patrick McDonagh . Idiocy: A Cultural History. Liverpool University Press. 2008. 256. $39.95

Patrick McDonagh has done a signal service to scholars of both Victorian culture and disability with this wide-ranging, intelligent study. His brief is the study of idiocy, a term encompassing fatui, naturals, simpletons, imbeciles, idiots, fools holy and otherwise, freaks, cretins, insensates, deficients, degenerates, the feeble-minded, and, sometimes, feral children. What this laundry list should indicate to the reader is that each word was at one time precise and necessary, a historically specific term of [End Page 251] medical or legal art designating a person as having and lacking certain rights or needs, as well as a broader cultural term embodying beliefs and fears about those perceived as different or disabled. McDonagh's book carefully recovers that particularity.

McDonagh reaches back as far as the fourteenth century for the origins of these representations and luxuriates a bit in the Renaissance, a period rich in medical and dramatic literature, and one in which the fool plays a large part. However, these discussions are mostly literary. His acknowledged focus is the latter half of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the period in which modern medicine emerges and busily taxonomizes. The mid-nineteenth century saw a large production of medical material on idiocy, such as John Langdon Down's famous 1866 classification of idiots into racial types, including the 'Mongoloid type' now known as Down's syndrome. McDonagh ends with the infamous 1913 Mental Deficiency Act, which was informed by eugenic thought about degeneration that developed from mid-century evolutionary theory.

When McDonagh's study begins, idiots were tolerated, pitied, abused, and admired as their circumstances dictated. Well into the nineteenth century, the state of idiocy was not well-defined, and people might slide from one category into another over the course of their lives, or be defined differently according to region and class. Most lived at home, and any community was likely to have some members who were thus perceived. Idiocy, especially if unaccompanied by disturbing behaviour or physical deformity, was often romanticized, as is in Wordsworth's famous poem, 'The Idiot Boy.' Like the Romantic child, the (usually male) idiot was thought to be innocent and unusually responsive to nature. The negative qualities of the male idiot throughout the period of the study were often defined in terms of his ability to manage money, and thus an upper-class man can be declared an idiot for behaviour that would not be so defined when performed by a man in the lower ranks of life with less to manage and lose. By contrast, the woman idiot is sexualized: either she is inappropriately desirous (as in the early modern period and in the fin de siècle), or is in danger of being victimized.

Thus, the male idiot cannot manage his wealth and the female cannot manage her sexuality - a familiar gendered divide of duties. Still, at the beginning of McDonagh's study, idiocy is an individual affliction. By the end of the century, the story turns darker. Idiocy moves from country to city and becomes a social problem and danger: the Romantics' sensitive holy fool becomes the fin de sìcle's insensate criminal degenerate, still improvident but now also violent and sexually voracious. Even the gentle idiot is liable eto be perverted and used for violent, even terrorist purposes, as in Conrad's The Secret Agent. By the end of the century, idiocy was identified not with pastoral innocence but with urban [End Page 252] poverty and crime; slums bred idiocy, and idiot women slum-dwellers were the source of a rising tide of degenerate births. Idiocy became a sign of danger to the state and social body.

McDonagh reads awide variety of literary authors in historical context, and any disability or Victorian scholar will find this fully packed book useful and richly detailed. In covering so much historical territory, some of the literary themes fall away from the analysis. With world enough and time, I would have liked to have seen McDonagh do more with the persistent theme of the woman caregiver that...


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