- Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature by Jason S. Farr
In recent years, a growing number of British and American literary scholars have sought to extend disability studies, often centered in analysis of contemporary societies, into the eighteenth century. Jason Farr's monograph Novel Bodies participates in this trend by exploring the mutually constitutive construction of disability and queer sexualities in eighteenth-century novelistic discourse. As such, it should be of particular interest to scholars both in and outside of British studies specializing in either disability or queer studies. Novel Bodies' central argument—the imbrication of the construction of disability and queer sexualities—is the richer for its further claim that this intersectional relationship is older than has been recognized. Farr argues that eighteenth-century British authors self-consciously employed the entwined categories of disability and queerness "to critique and rework the social fabric—to imagine 'novel' social orders that rearrange widespread assumptions, principles, and social practices" (3). His perceptive analysis of eight eighteenth-century novels and related prose highlights their ambivalent representations of queer and disabled characters, an ambivalence that in some texts suggests preferable alternative realities that could be achieved through social reform and in others, presents queer and disabled characters as complicit agents of oppressive ideological systems. Considering both the wishful, reformist strand and the regressive, conservative strand of these "novel bodies," Farr seeks understanding of the varied ways that eighteenth-century authors attended to the lived physical [End Page 515] and the social realities of people with variable bodies and sexualities, a perspective the value of which extends well beyond eighteenth-century studies.
The introduction provides a reading of the ableism inherent to John Locke's philosophy, followed by a historicization of the connection between queerness and disability in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). Farr suggests that this text places queerness and deformity at sites of unresolvable tensions stemming from Enlightenment formations of heteronormativity and able-bodiedness. He locates The Castle of Otranto in relation to three historically-specific linkages of disability and queerness: male-primogeniture, medical and philosophical theories of degeneracy, and practices and assumptions associated with libertinism. Walpole's narrative is a crip text, Farr argues, "for the way that it depicts impairment as the critical, resilient center of narrative that haunts healthy, able bodies" (14). This case study is one of the most interesting close readings in Novel Bodies, providing an illuminating and new perspective on this canonical gothic text that is rooted in attention to understudied aspects of the cultural context in which the novel was written and published.
Chapter one focuses on a range of visual and fictional representations of Duncan Campbell, a deaf Scottish soothsayer (1680?–1730), arguing that their wide variability reflects early eighteenth-century authors' and artists' understanding of deafness as a flexible category of embodiment. In one work, for example, Campbell appears as "cosmically queer" or angelic and temporally transcendent, appearing as a prophet of deaf education long before such educational institutions appeared in Britain (39); in another, he appears as a figure of traditional masculine authority. This chapter stands out for its fascinating employment of visual analysis, more of which would have benefited other chapters of Novel Bodies.
Chapter two explores narratives of disability and sapphism in the works of Samuel Richardson and Sarah Scott. Farr's reading of Scott's Millenium Hall (1762) in this chapter provides the most convincing evidence for the Novel Bodies' argument for the mutual constitution of bodily disability and queerness in eighteenth-century novels that imagine and promote social reform. This chapter also both attends to the relationship between disability and race in Scott's The History of Sir George Ellison (1766), a reading that should be of interest to scholars of race in the eighteenth century, and discusses different linguistic constructions of disability. While disability is often understood in relation to the concept of the "norm," which didn't appear until the mid-nineteenth century, Farr argues that the language of the...