- The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel by Karen Bourrier
“The idea of the gentleman,” Karen Bourrier writes, depends “on the existence of a physically or morally weaker person on whom he can lavish his gentleness” (66). The exciting contribution Bourrier’s The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel makes to the study of midcentury masculinity is that this “weaker person” is [End Page 179] not necessarily the distressed damsel or impoverished waif we might expect to find at the receiving end of gentlemanly beneficence. Rather, she argues, the mid-Victorian novel frequently paired its strong, active heroes with disabled male friends. In their physical weakness and sympathetic sensitivity, these disabled men and boys could encourage the development of their stronger companions’ best selves. And in addition to serving as a moral prosthesis for the robust hero, the disabled companion carried the power to speak for his friend. As a focalized character or even stand-in for the narrator, the physically weaker member of these masculine dyads, even when confined to the margins of a story’s plot, moved to the center of the reader’s experience of masculine heroism. In these ways, Bourrier argues, “weakness and disability served a necessary function in shaping narrative form, and in forming ideals of Victorian manhood” (24).
Drawing from disability studies the insight that shifting constructions of disability are always relational, Bourrier contends that normative representations of manliness in midcentury fiction relied on figures of illness, invalidism, and disability in ways that manifested in recurring constellations of character types. The pairing of strong and weak men can thus be understood as a consequence of the growing emphasis in discourses of manliness on ideals of vigorous activity and physical health. In Thomas Carlyle’s stirring gospel of work, Samuel Smiles’s ethos of tireless self-help, and the muscular Christians’ injunction to strive for moral justice on this side of the grave, midcentury men were repeatedly reminded that a capable body was a necessary vessel to reach their virtuous goals. Yet as Bourrier shows, novelists who responded to the new prominence accorded to manly health did not simply surround their heroes with enervated or maimed foils who could set off more starkly the protagonists’ robustness. Instead, the intense, often erotically charged friendships Bourrier finds in midcentury fiction operated through a logic of complementarity. These dyads staged and tried to resolve deep tensions in emerging masculine norms, such as tensions between physical strength and moral purpose, labor and domesticity, restrained taciturnity and emotional volubility, and instinctive rectitude and thoughtful self-scrutiny.
Bourrier’s first two chapters lay out her case for the pairing of strong and weak men in the novels of the 1850s. Chapter 1 reads Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe (1853) alongside Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! (1855) and Two Years Ago (1857) to argue that these writers’ ideals of Christian chivalry are realized by strong heroes who care for disabled friends, and who may suffer physically themselves on their path of moral development. The second chapter is dedicated to Dinah Mulock Craik’s John Halifax, Gentleman (1856), which Bourrier regards as “perhaps the paradigmatic example of the friendship of the strong and weak man”; certainly it is the novel that most fully integrates the whole array of elements—thematic, narrative, and cultural—that structure Bourrier’s claims (52). Here we turn from ideals of Christian chivalry to the valorization of the self-made man, and the novel’s titular hero, strong and silent, embodies all the familiar middle-class virtues of rigid self-discipline and indefatigable industry. Yet it is only through John’s tender relationship with the invalid Phineas, Bourrier argues, that Craik can allay concerns about the self-made man’s ascent to wealth. Phineas, moreover, provides a necessary supplement to his friend’s demanding code of manliness; as the novel’s narrator and “affective center,” Phineas is permitted by his invalidism an...