Friday, 1 July 2016

The Disabled Body During the Victorian Era



Three years ago I handed in my Masters dissertation on the 'Victorian freak show and the commodification of the disabled body'. I absolutely loved spending a year researching and writing my 20,000 word thesis, and I'm pretty sure I'll always be fascinated, or perhaps obsessed, with all things 19th century.


My Masters is in English, so I had to find literature from the Victorian era that featured a disabled character. This was pretty difficult, because there's hardly any disabled characters in fiction now, so there certainly wasn't many almost 200 years ago. The novels I worked with all contained disabled characters who were unnatural, monstrous, uncanny; and as a disabled person, I found this really interesting.


Luckily, I was able to include a lot of cultural history within my research, and that's why I delved into the freak show. Disabled people had to sell themselves to live; many tried various other avenues to make a wage but nothing was as easy as performing for an awe-stricken crowd. Society was (and still is, just look at the Kardashian's) fascinated by the other, and the Victorian's loved seeing things that nobody else had seen. During that era, it was fast-growing and ever-changing; they pushed boundaries and marvelled at the grotesque. Death was a spectacle, the lower-classes a curiosity for the bourgeoisie, and people were commodities.


I read many an account from those who performed at freak shows who enjoyed their time, were very looked after, and felt like they were part of a family. But I always read the opposite. People were disposable and if they weren't drawing crowds, they were no longer needed.


So, why am I writing about this? Basically, during my studies and even today, I often think what my life would be like had I lived back then. I always say that if I could go back in time, it would be to the late-Victorian era, but how would I cope? Would I have been in a freak show? Would I have had to show a paying crowd the extraordinary things my body could do just so I could eat for the rest of the week? I can't get through half a day out without needing a nap or curling up in agony, I somehow don't think I'd be able to handle it.


Although we've come so far from the extremes of the 19th century, there's still not enough disabled people in the media or in fiction. I want to help change this *she says with a Word document open writing her novel with a disabled protagonist* I want the next generation to know more about disability, I don't want it to be a spectacle, I don't want them to fear the unknown. Education is key, and as long as I have a voice (or fingers to type), I'll share my story.


And let's be quite honest, I ain't got time to entertain randomers at a freak show. This Prin is far too busy! Or is that sleeping? Same thing.


What era would you go back to?

14 comments:

  1. That is such a fascinating topic for your Masters! I studied English as my undergrad, and as a mental health blogger, how mental illness has been recorded throughout literature fascinates me. Would love to research it in depth some day.

    Zoe x

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    1. That's really interesting too. I'd love to continue researching also x

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  2. Wow. I love how you write. Defo a regular reader from now on! I love the history behind the freak shows etc. Although I can't imagine I would do very well . I have lupus and I am usually asleeee3nnnnnnnn... oops there I went again. .. sorry about that I fell on my keyboard :-p .... so unless they used to see people who were really good at been asleep. .. I don't think I would have had much of a extravagant life :-/ xxxx

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    1. Aww thank you, that means a lot. Lol bless you x

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  3. I always find your posts so interesting, Sarah. And what a fascinating topic to write a thesis about. I watched a documentary about freak shows a little while ago and it really opened my eyes to it, I just can't believe they ever happened but I guess people didn't understand the human body as well as they do now. Fear (and intrigue) of the unknown is an inherent human characteristic, I suppose.

    I think I'd probably swing back to the 60s / 70s if I had the chance, would absolute love to experience the hippie era. It's always fascinated me!

    Katie xx ¦ ♥ La Coco Noire

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    1. Aww thank you, Katie. It's extreme how we've changed so much x

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  4. That sounds like such an interesting topic to write your dissertation about! Great post lovely!

    Ella xx
    www.inellaselement.co.uk

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  5. what a unique concept for a dissertation - and what a brill post! It really makes people think about how the times have changed in so many different ways! I hope you get to write your novel :)xxxxxxx

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  6. Your Master's dissertation sounds so interesting! I'd love to read it :) I'm also lovin' that your novel as a disabled protagonist! The Victorian Era is one of my favourite periods in history. When I was younger, I was pretty obsessed with life in Upper class Victorian houses and the lives of their servants. I think it all started when I was around 7 or 8 years old and I read an episode of the Horrible Histories magazine that had an illustration showing the layout of a Victorian house, with the family quarters and servants quarters, and I was both shocked and intrigued about the differences in the lives of different classes x

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    1. You can totally read it, I'll send it over. Yay a fellow Victorianist <3

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  7. This is a way more interesting topic than my dissertation on antibiotic resistance in UTIs haha. My mum always tells me I should join a freak show when she catches me sitting weird. I somehow don't think I'd last though
    Beth x
    Mermaid in Disguise

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    1. Yeh, I don't think we could handle it tbf haha z

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