Literary Correlations of Invalidism in Victorian Britain

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Literary Correlations of Invalidism in Victorian Britain

Nineteenth-century Britain did not invent chronic illness; however the social structure in conjunction with the time period’s limited medical knowledge allowed numerous individuals to assume the identity of an invalid. Literature of the period documented the public culture and history of invalidism. This is especially evident in works such as Ellen Wood’s East Lynne and Willkie Collins’ The Woman in White. Collins’ and Wood’s use of invalidism in their characters richly documents the varied record of disability in Victorian Britain and demonstrates the cultural implications chronic illness. An invalid was one who suffered from illness, bona fide or psychosomatic, acute or chronic; the illness was deemed incurable and thus imprisoned the sufferer to the private dwellings of their bedroom, except for occasional excursion. Society and individuals both contributed to creating the necessary atmosphere for one to assume such a position and they were both capable of appropriating the term to serve a wide range of purposes. More recently, medical sociologists have used the term “the sick role” to describe what was previously known as invalidism (Frawley 24). Although this position was most common in woman, physically and or mentally inferior men also entertained the position. Invalidism was most prevalent in those who were socioeconomically middle class, although it was not exclusive in these regards. Invalidism was mostly a “rich person’s status symbol” that manifested itself as a “disorder of the leisured that provided further enforced leisure for reflection” (Porter 147). These notions are reiterated by character traits within East Lynne and The Woman in White. In East Lynne the notion of invalidism is first presented with the character of William Vane, the Lord of Mount Severn. Although the Earl’s illness is most likely a result old age, he occupies all of the character traits which emblemize an invalid. At the beginning of the story the Earl is forty nine years old which was just beyond the average life expectancy of forty five for the upper class (Mitchell 492). Despite his reputation, the old aristocrat is broke and hides from his creditors which are constantly trying to make collections. He is plagued by his foot which “everlasting gout [keeps him] in all day” (Wood, 50). The pain comes and goes. On better days the Earl is capable of going on outings with is daughter, the novels focal character, Isabel. At one point in the novel after the property of East Lynne has been transferred to Mr. Carlyle, who eventually ends up marrying Isabel, the Earl is visiting East Lynne and becomes stranded due to his gout. As his sickness worsens over a period of months the Earl is bedridden. After a short remission, the gout returns and he is overcome by paroxysms and inflammation. Despite the aid of several doctors the Earl eventually dies in result of the gout. The chronic nature of the Lord’s gout, in conjunction with his intermittent remissions followed by severe recurrences that marooned him to his bedroom, embodies invalidism of Victorian Britain. Another character of Mrs. Ellen Wood that defines invalidism is Mrs. Hare. Her illness is never fully explained to the reader however she is constantly afflicted by nerves and her fear for her son Richard Hare who is presumed a murder by the entire town. Mrs. Hare is delicate, weak, and her “ailments are fancies, half of them; if she would rouse herself she would be better” (Wood, 64). Her illness is described as both “mentally and bodily” and is most prevalent when she is reminded of Richard and when she dreams of his innocence (Wood, 67). Mrs. Hare is the obedient wife of Mr. Hare, a middle class judge. His convictions of his son’s guilt reinforce his wife’s obscurity which deepens her depression and isolation. The nature of Mrs. Hare’s illness presents both psychological and cultural implications. The illness appears to...
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