- Home Work:The Ambiguous Valorization of "Affliction" in Charlotte Yonge's The Pillars of the House (1873)
The ability to work and the question of what constitutes appropriate work not only form a central theme of Victorian domestic fiction, but also structure its often extensive cast of characters. As the self-help ideologies that came to inform many life narratives of the period appeared to clash with the valorization of social interdependence, domestic novelists increasingly resisted the typecasting of dependence as a weakness or "affliction." Instead, they proposed networks of care that centred on familial and pseudo-familial relationships, radiating out from the immediate family to enclose a domesticated society in an idealizing image of caretaking. At the same time, they critically engaged with prevalent identifications of the moral and aesthetic as well as the economic meaning of labour. This rendered the disabled female artist a particularly intriguing embodiment of conflicting issues revolving around work. Charlotte Yonge's The Pillars of the House (1873) features a disabled artist who is also a working woman. The uniqueness of Geraldine Underwood's characterization rests in a self-reflexive reworking of stereotypes, a reworking in which prejudices against women artists are counterpoised with a reconstruction of the working female invalid. A close analysis of Yonge's novels shows why it is vital that the problems caused by impairment within the family are not sentimentalized. This exploration also brings to the fore the significance of female invalids for popular fiction's often critical approach to typecasting along class or gender lines. Among the most intriguing components of Pillars, in fact, is the reordering of gender paradigms through the pairing of a bookseller's maternal qualities and his lame sister's career as an artist.
A disability studies approach provides a new perspective on the disconcerting ambiguities with which Victorian concepts of affliction have become associated, while a close reading of specific texts brings into question some of its premises as well. Pillars, a multi-plot novel by a religious, didactic domestic woman writer, seems at once amorphous in form and, in its realization of a religious agenda, homogeneous in its ideals. Read as a narrative that is centrally about affliction, however, it achieves a decisive coherence. The eldest Underwood son, Felix, puts domestic cares before a career and forfeits his class status. He enters trade, and the tediousness of daily labour in the shop affects [End Page 101] his health and ultimately causes his death. While Felix doubles as motherly caretaker and main breadwinner of the family, his sister Geraldine is a lame female artist who opts for amputation to achieve greater mobility and rejects marriage as financially unnecessary. This brother-sister pair forms a central point of convergence in the novel's investigation of confining roles and their reconfiguration. Set within the novel's exploration of contrasting reactions to difficulties, their juxtaposition becomes triangulated with the more conventional representation of an "innocent": the youngest Underwood brother, Theodore, is characterized by multiple physical and mental impairments. Opposed to this sentimentalized child's typecast passivity, Felix's and Geraldine's contested choices foreground the challenges generated by an increasingly mobile society driven by economic forces.
Its focus on disability in relation to work singles out Pillars as a complex narrativization of physical impairment. Role adjustments within the community as well as in the workplace become central issues, prompting us to apply these seemingly anachronistic terms to an outwardly stable provincial society in Victorian Britain. Sudden poverty propels the young Underwoods into an uncompromising world of work. They enter it orphaned, cut off from the traditional structures of the gentry, while the community in which they need to negotiate their position becomes a confining network of social pressures. The novel is intensely modern in detailing the effects of downward social mobility: daily struggles at the workplace, the dullness of chores, the need for scholarships to continue the education traditionally accorded to a gentleman's children, and the impact of money worries not simply on the treatment of illness but also on the daily discomforts caused by long-term disabilities, including the difficulties of hiring a wheelchair for a lame sister, or of...