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103 Misappropriations: Hugh Stuart Boyd and the Blindness of Elizabeth Barrett Browning J u lia Miele Rodas • In the spring of 1826, shortly after the publication of Elizabeth Barrett’s first major poem, An Essay on Mind, a scholarly neighbour wrote to the young poet to express his admiration and, since they were near neighbours, to suggest the possibility of a visit.This neighbour was Hugh Stuart Boyd, a gentleman of independent means, a husband and a father, an accomplished classical scholar, and a poet gifted with a prodigious memory for verse.Thus began one of the most important and troubling relationships of EBB’s life, one that would play a significant role in the development of her identity as both poet and person. In addition to becoming her Greek tutor and valued intellectual companion, the older, married Boyd was soon established as the object of EBB’s growing infatuation. Boyd’s failure to reciprocate EBB’s intense feelings, his refusal to accommodate her rather complicated desires, became a kind of touchstone experience for the poet, an experience she would continue to revisit and revise in writing for years to come.1 From the spring of 1831, when she was twenty-five, until the spring of the following year, EBB, thwarted in her desire for greater intimacy, wrote obsessively about Boyd in her deeply intimate diary. Again and again, she worries over Boyd’s every word and action, constantly seeking a clue to his true feelings .“Oh,” she exclaims,“I would give anything if I could know—not think, not guess—but know, what the feeling is there, with respect to me” (Diary 130).While this obsession was probably fuelled in part by the absence of“Bro” (EBB’s beloved older brother) as well as by her passionate feelings for her authoritarian father, beside these potential interpretations lies a more difficult possibility: that the young EBB’s ardour for Boyd was due in large part to his blindness.That such was the case seems apparent from the particulars of her diary, where her expressions of attachment are dominated by a longing to serve and her feelings for Boyd mimic the popular perception of a Miltonic daughter. EBB longs to be Boyd’s constant companion, his reader and guide, his amanuensis. Dorothea-like,2 she comments, “If he knew how much it gratifies me to assist him in any way (I wish … I cd. do so in every way) all his‘drudgeries’ wd. . . . devolve upon me” (98). Moreover, EBB’s wish to serve was at the same time exclusive and jealous.At one point, after a“rival” reader has given Boyd a book, her annoyance is palpable:“I wish she had not done victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 104 so,” EBB remarks,“I had intended to do it,” commenting in addition,“I am of an intolerably exclusive disposition” (202). Such a jealous sacrificial desire ought to be read critically. Though she wanted to be his helper, EBB seems also to have wanted to be Boyd’s only helper, the only mediator between him and the sighted world, an obsessive yearning perhaps indicating more of a controlling than a helpful impulse.Thus, while Boyd’s blindness might seem at first a strange stimulus for erotic interest, it becomes easier to parse when we consider this early relationship in terms of power, control, and agency— issues that may be contextualized by considering scholarly and theoretical work within the arena of disability studies. Beginning as a field of inquiry as early as the 1960s with the publication of Erving Goffman’s seminal Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity and strongly influenced by the writing and thinking of Michel Foucault in the 70s,3 disability studies (DS) began as the work of social scientists and activists in the disability rights movement. Reading disability as a social construction and grounded in urgent political concerns, DS initially focused on the need for imminent change. However, with social and political advances such as the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, DS has grown to encompass the humanities, where it has become established over the last ten years as “a major field of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 103-118
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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