In our “Rethinking Romanticism” series, we ask leading scholars to propose new directions toward building inclusive and anti-racist fields of study. In today’s post, Professor Essaka Joshua explains how and why to talk about disability in the eighteenth-century and Romantic periods. See more entries from this series here. To write for this series, contact us.
Re-thinking Romanticism with Disability Studies
Re-thinking Romanticism with Disability Studies means adjusting our terminology and our concepts of disability. The term “disability” has for some time been widely dismissed in disability-studies scholarship as anachronistic to the Romantic period. The eighteenth-century dictionary definitions of “disability” – what we might call the lexical archive – are, nevertheless, of interest for what they reveal about how different the use of the term was. Dictionaries’ definitions leave us with no doubt that the dominant way to define “disability” in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century was in terms of an inability to do something. There is no group term for disabled people; and there is little awareness that a disability may result from the relationship between a person’s body/mind and their context. The latter is what we now term the social model of disability. Today, we would usually use the word “disability” to allude to both the causes of an inability as well as its effects. “Disabled,” in the Romantic era, indicates an inability to do a particular activity, and therefore encompasses only effect. Although we may think of a disability as a biological reality, the term “disability,” insofar as it is applicable to a range of different people, is a modern concept. Studying disability in this period is, then, less about studying an aggregated group and more about studying a society’s concepts of bodily and mental norms and differences. Furthermore, describing what people can do is different from describing how they look; and so the aesthetic evaluations of disability are usually separate from discussions of function. Though writers sometimes invoke a connection between function and aesthetics, the separateness of these spheres is such that what is said of the one is not necessarily implied of the other. In eighteenth and early nineteenth-century literary usage, the word “disabled” is close to our modern use of “incapacitated”; “disability” is closest to our modern use of “inability.” Both words are used grammatically in ways are no longer extant. For example, Lord Grondale responds mockingly to his daughter’s refusal to expand on her political views, in Robert Bage’s novel Hermsprong (1796), by saying, “I have infinite loss in the disability. It would have edified me much to have heard the rights of daughters, and the duties of fathers, descanted upon by so fine an understanding.” Godwin’s Caleb Williams uses “disabled” as “incapacitated” when he describes his second attempt at breaking out of prison: “I was not however disabled as then; I was capable of exertion, to what precise extent I could not ascertain.”
Disability studies encourages us to uncover the lost concepts and language surrounding function and aesthetics in literary texts, and invites us to examine the functional and aesthetic dimensions of exclusionary and prejudicial social structures and actions. It also requires us to think of ability as a politicized concept. Given that civil rights debates were central to the era, it is important that we examine these egalitarian movements through a lens that supposes the possibility of disability rights. When we do this, we see that the egalitarian thinking of the period begins with the able-bodied and able-minded citizen. Godwin’s philosophy and fiction, for instance, makes individual and social liberty contingent upon capacity. Mary Wollstonecraft promotes a curative feminism that associates real or imagined incapacity (in the form of “weak” women) with misogynistic cultures. Wollstonecraft makes a connection between function and aesthetics, arguing that women’s inutility is a detrimental aesthetic that restricts social progress. In his poem “The Discharged Soldier,” William Wordsworth likewise explores the interplay between capacity and aesthetics. He remakes the sympathy-dependent genre of the disabled serviceman narrative – a genre that ties charitable gifts to the soldier’s appearance and story. Wordsworth questions the nature of justice claims that rely on what is visibly determinable and on the performance of narrative, and develops a theory of desert that is predicated on neither.
A man with a cane at Tintern Abbey
The Romantic era inherited a sophisticated philosophical range of ideas on deformity that enabled the writers of this period to conceptualize both visual difference and the social roles of people regarded as deformed. The picturesque theorists, for example, were on safe ground when they discussed nature, but became antagonistic when they exchanged ideas on the viability of their aesthetic in the case of people. While Percy Shelley suggests in “A Defence of Poetry” that poetry makes deformity beautiful, the picturesque theorists take a range of complex positions in order to account for aesthetic responses to deformed or picturesque people. Exploring the social dimensions of aesthetics, Frances Burney suggests in Camilla that deformity’s negative associations are merely cultural. Perhaps the most complex account of deformity’s social implications is in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Here, Shelley is less interested in providing a detailed aesthetic delineation of what emerges as a combined deformity-monstrosity hybrid concept, and more interested in presenting ways in which people can change the way they look at others. Shelley not only blends the categories of deformity and monstrosity; she also blurs the distinction between moral and physical deformity- monstrosity. The central tragedy of Frankenstein is that there are many instances in the novel when characters change the way they view people and things, and when language is persuasive in changing the way people view. The creature, however, fails to transform adverse ways of looking. Nevertheless, the novel succeeds in inviting the reader to engage with deformity-monstrosity in transformative ways.
Essaka Joshua is Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Physical Disability in British Romantic Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
 Robert Bage, Hermsprong; Or Man As He Is Not. 3 vols (London: Minerva, 1796), 3:69.
 William Godwin, Things As They Are or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, ed. by Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin, 1988), 213.