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  • "The Spirit of a Man and the Limbs of a Cripple":Sentimentality, Disability, and Masculinity in Charlotte Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe
  • Karen Bourrier (bio)

When Charlotte Yonge's best-selling novel The Heir of Redclyffe was first published in 1853, it drew some criticism and more praise, but most of all, it drew tears. The critic for the North American Review proclaimed that Yonge's novel had found a large and tearful audience in America: "The soldier, the divine, the seamstress, the lawyer, the grocer-boy, the belle, and the hair-dresser peeping over her shoulder," he wrote, "joined in full cry, according to their different modes of lacrymation" (443). In Household Words, Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins described the sad case of one young woman who refused to read any other novel: "She reads for five minutes, and goes up-stairs to fetch a dry pocket handkerchief; comes down again, and reads for another five minutes; goes up-stairs again, and fetches another dry pocket handkerchief " (622). Dickens's and Collins's lampoon and the North American reviewer's more earnest criticism both provide evidence of the sentimental culture around masculine self-sacrifice and suffering, two main themes of Yonge's novel. This outpouring of emotion stems from the relationships among sentimentality, masculinity, and disability as they shape the novel's form. In this essay, I argue that Yonge uses the spectacle of male suffering to train the reader emotionally. Charles, the Edmonstone family's invalid brother, conjoins an effusive sentimentality with a demand for self-discipline in a sometimes unstable equilibrium. The boredom of the sickroom causes him to long for action; there is a restless energy in his ennui that resembles the narrative energy necessary to set the plot in motion. But as the novel draws to a close, Charles, like the other characters in the novel, must learn to restrain his feelings. The novel's emotional trajectory, from the opening's ennui through to the climax's angry intensity of the climax and the ending's calm, thus follows Charles's affective development.

As Talia Schaffer argues, Yonge's novelistic project aims to raise dissidence only to tame it (247). This pattern of emotional arousal and restraint takes on a physical component: invalidism provides both an occasion for emotion and a physical restraint that calls for adherence to duty and contentment with one's lot. Yet invalidism can also loosen the restraints of everyday life. As an invalid, [End Page 117] Charles is allowed a wider range of affective responses than the able-bodied members of the Edmonstone household. He dissipates his time in novel reading and sets out the conventions of romance novels, thus priming the reader's expectations in the novel's first chapters. Charles's knowledge of novelistic conventions, along with his keen wit and emotional involvement, make him a sharp observer of the family's goings-on, and he often plays commentator on the narrative. Prone to peevishness, Charles tries to break up the ennui of his existence by provoking his cousins and sisters. In fact, he is responsible for moving the plot forward by first recognizing Philip's jealousy of Guy and then working to inflame it. Ultimately, however, Charles is not exempt from the self-discipline required of the rest of the family; he too must learn to submit to his duty. While illness allows a freedom of expression and emotion from which the novel derives much of its narrative energy, this affective outpouring is curtailed as the narrative closes.

The role of the nineteenth-century novel in self-policing has become a central theme in Victorian criticism. D. A. Miller writes that "the story of the Novel is essentially the story of an active regulation" that depends on a double system of delinquency and disciplinary institutions (10). Self-regulation is also integral to the concept of the Victorian gentleman. Especially important have been Herbert Sussman's and James Eli Adams's formulations of a prescribed masculine restraint in the nineteenth century. Sussman sees monasticism as emblematizing the relationship between masculine sexuality and artistic potency: "As celibate male, the monk becomes the extreme or limit case of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 117-131
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-07
Open Access
No
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