- The Wordsworth-Coleridge Circle and the Aesthetics of Disability by Emily B. Stanback
Disability studies scholars have for decades challenged the stability and efficacy of normalcy as a cultural and biological category. Now, the first full monograph with specific critical focus on Romanticism and disability, [End Page 116] Emily B. Stanback's The Wordsworth-Coleridge Circle and the Aesthetics of Disability, makes its remarkable debut. Her study locates disability as a crucial conceptual framework for subjective experience through Romantic writers' meditations on their own disabilities and those of others. The book centers on the Wordsworth-Coleridge coterie: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb, but also John Thelwall, Thomas Beddoes, Humphry Davy, and Thomas Wedgewood with attention given to Robert Southey, Dorothy Wordsworth, Mary Lamb, Thomas Poole, William Godwin, Erasmus Darwin, and Sara Coleridge. The study embraces a valuable interdisciplinary approach by ranging across genre and form to engage short fiction, letters, journals, poetry, medical treatises, print satire, and memoir. Stanback convincingly demonstrates how aesthetic concerns related to and shaped by disability make their way into a wide range of cultural productions both public and private. Ultimately the book shows how works by writers like Wordsworth and Coleridge revealed a consciousness of disability that was culturally constructed during an era of rapid social change.
The book's introduction operates in part as a cultural history of Romantic medicine, tracing its professionalization between 1790 and 1810 alongside the simultaneous growth of Romantic writing. Throughout, Stanback's delineation of disability demonstrates how norms related to health and illness had yet to be established at the turn of the nineteenth century. Deeply interested in the conditions of literary production, Stanback shows us how encounters with non-normative embodiment demanded, generated, and shaped new forms of expression, thus revealing the essential aesthetic value of disability within Romantic discourse. "The story I wish to tell," she explains, "is one of the productively diverse field of Romantic medicine and its relation to a correspondingly broad range of cultural attitudes towards those thought to be under the purview of medical authority—those who, by virtue of their non-normative bodies and minds, we might now call 'disabled'" (2).
Stanback takes "disability" to be a sociocultural category with a foundation in medical structures, but one grounded in subjective experience. Aesthetic questions take center stage here and put Stanback's work in dialogue with important disability theorists such as Ato Quayson and Tobin Siebers. Moreover, she convincingly demonstrates how "Romantic disability aesthetics" is an essentially interdisciplinary mode, a claim borne out by an impressively detailed and rigorous textual analysis that testifies to the porousness and multimodality of Romantic discourse (3).
Moving from humoral theory to Enlightenment conceptions of deformity through the early years of Georgian medicine, Stanback shows how the practice "for naming, describing, and studying diseases … [participated] in the cultural project of establishing embodied norms, and specifically to help [End Page 117] construct ideals of 'health'" (14–15). She ably negotiates a variety of social and political categories here, from gender construction to race theory to ethnography, from colonialism and empire to pathology and physiognomy. One of the great strengths of Stanback's approach is her emphasis on mental and psychological difference alongside the physical and the sensual. Such attention to the mind and brain allow her to explore senses of wonder, the sublime, and even disgust as Romantic writers encounter and experience the non-normative. Yet even while foregrounding "affective response," Stanback does so in order to "emphasize the role of corporeality in Romantic aesthetics" (45).
The second chapter begins with the poet and elocutionist John Thelwall, whose background in medicine shaped his exposition on vocal disability, the Letter to Henry Cline (1810). Stanback identifies Thelwall's elocutionary practice as deeply democratic, and in her reading of his self-help ethos, she connects him to the physician Thomas Beddoes, whose novella, The History of Isaac Jenkins (1792), delineates principles of preventative care and frames the legacy of popular medicine, amateurism, and the rise of the medical professional. Here...