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  • Chronic and Invisible:The Future of Romantic Disability Studies
  • Travis Chi Wing Lau (bio)

The publication of Disabling Romanticism: Body, Mind, and Text (2016), a collection of essays modeling disability approaches to Romantic literature and culture, was crucial in occasioning Romanticism's turn to disability studies. For the collection's authors, explicitly attending to disability represented in texts like George Byron's The Deformed Transformed or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and in the lived experiences of authors like Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Mary Robinson disrupts conventional readings of Romantic writers and their works. Together, these essays disable, or to use Robert McRuer's term, crip the normative ways Romantic texts have been read that "support able-bodied and able-minded privilege."1 This method of "unreading" explores the undertheorized ways in which Romantic writers imagined bodily difference beyond individual impairment, moral failure, or human lack. To "disable" Romanticism is thus an ethical project that recovers disabled writers within and beyond the [End Page 136] canon and refuses ableist critical tendencies toward romanticizing fragmented forms and fragmented bodies within texts as emblematic of the "transcendent" or "symbolic." The collection crystallizes a series of key research questions for this growing field: What would it mean to consider disability on its own terms in the Romantic period? What is Romantic about disability or disabled about Romanticism?

While critical interest in Romantic disability continues to develop, scholars in this interdisciplinary subfield must grapple with an ongoing problem in disability studies since its emergence in the 1980s: the marginalization of invisible disabilities and chronic illness. In my Spring 2019 survey of Romanticism this semester, my students remarked that most of their encounters with disability, if at all, focused on physical disabilities like lameness or blindness. The legibility of these physical conditions made them easier to locate and discuss in literature, especially in more historically distant sources. But representations of cognitive disabilities and conditions like chronic pain tend to escape critical and pedagogical attention precisely because they cannot be directly read on the body or in language. They "pass" as able-bodied and thus remain invisible.

Yet what resonated most with my students, many of whom were reading Romantic writings for the first time, was the powerful selfconsciousness of the speakers in works about mental illness. John Clare's entries in "Journey out of Essex," paired with his "I Am" poems, provided a Romantic vocabulary for the stigma experienced by those who live with invisible disabilities. His awareness of how his cognitive difference reads to the able-bodied public reveals the extent to which scrutiny, doubt, and discrimination underpin every encounter with ablebodied and able-minded people. Similarly, William Cowper's "Lines Written During a Period of Insanity" inhabits mental illness as cognitive difference with affective qualities akin to melancholy and depression. The shifting, fleeting states that characterize "insanity," some epiphanic and even pleasurable, trouble how disability is presumed to be narrated and accessed by readers. Both Clare and William Cowper raise ethical questions about the means by which we locate and recognize disability in the archive and what gets to count as disability in history. [End Page 137]

Travis Chi Wing Lau

Travis Chi Wing Lau is Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College and specializes in eighteenthand nineteenth-century British literature, health humanities, and disability studies.


1. Michael Bradshaw, ed., Disabling Romanticism: Body, Mind, and Text (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 1.



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