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  • Intellectual Disability
  • Martha Stoddard Holmes (bio)

In one moment, every drop of blood in my body was brought to a stop by the touch of a hand laid lightly and suddenly on my shoulder from behind me. I turned on the instant, with my fingers tightening round the handle of my stick.

There, in the middle of the broad bright high-road … stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments, her face bent in grave inquiry on mine, her hand pointing to the dark cloud over London, as I faced her.

—Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1860)

Readers and critics have always been struck, by the passage in which Anne Catherick, private lunatic asylum escapee, lays her hand on the body of painter Walter Hartright. Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White—serialized in 1859–60—here establishes its future identity as a sensation novel. The scene has been amply addressed by literary scholarship for several decades as an exemplar of the novel’s pervasive fabric of mental disturbance.1 The character who gives The Woman in White its name, however, has slipped out of the critical conversation as silently as she slips out of the plot of the novel, as has the fact that the landscape of mental differences includes, through Anne, not just nervousness, paranoia, monomania, and hypochondria, but also intellectual disability.

Contextualizing Anne—and a host of other intellectually disabled characters in the works of Collins, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell, to name the most prominent examples—has been difficult until quite recently. The question of how people with intellectual disabilities were “othered”—scientifically, linguistically, environmentally/spatially, socially, educationally, and sexually—through texts—including the scientific, the clinical, the educational, and the literary—has been underexamined and underhistoricized.

We might assume that in the nineteenth century, people with intellectual disabilities were even more drastically marginalized than they are now: treated as less than human, bypassed in the imagination of community or of citizenship, seen as metaphors for lack and loss or as figures for entire groups, or considered tragically inferior or curiously/terrifyingly alien. There is much truth in such assumptions, but the uneven discursive landscape in which such othering took place is as complex as the fictional representations of mental disability that Collins, Dickens, and others contributed to the ongoing construction of intellectual disability.2 [End Page 9]

First, intellectual disability is both embedded in language and, concurrently, a form of linguistic othering that relies upon language as the agent of its social enactment. The Victorian period represents a fascinating segment in the dynamic linguistic timeline of the naming of intellectual difference, in which the term idiot was disaggregated into various taxonomies and, eventually, hierarchies that included incurable versus educable idiocy, imbecility, and mental deficiency. The complexity and variability of these discursive threads, and the purposefulness of their existence, is a rich focus far beyond the scope of this essay, but a few basics allow us to consider Anne with greater nuance. In (roughly) the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, a notable slipperiness of terminology meant that any number of words or phrases, all of them painful to read or use but necessary in this essay, might be applied to people we would now consider intellectually disabled: idiot, imbecile, mental defective, simpleton, mindless person, natural. A key distinction, however, operates between the lunatic and the idiot. As David Wright notes in his foundational work on the history of mental disability, the category of insanity included both the mad and the intellectually disabled:

The nineteenth-century term of “idiot” referred to persons who were considered as suffering from mental disability from birth or an early age. … [I]diocy reflected a permanence of mental disability. … “Lunatics,” by contrast, referred to all those who, though previously “sane,” suffered from a temporary or permanent impairment of mental ability. By its very definition “lunacy” was not considered congenital, and in many cases held the promise of either cure or remission.


Over the course of the century, understandings of the malleability of intellectual disability changed. The Victorian era is known for its fervour for institutions, including those that removed disabled...


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pp. 9-14
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