Wednesday 30 August 2017

Miss Mowcher

'They are all surprised, these inconsiderate young people, fairly and full grown, to see any natural feeling in a little thing like me! They make a plaything of me, use me for their amusement, throw me away when they are tired, and wonder that I feel more than a toy horse or a wooden soldier! Yes, yes, that's the way. The old way!'
'It may be with others,' I returned, 'but I do assure you it is not with me.'
David Copperfield, ch. 32

One of the fascinating things about Victorian fiction is the way some authors stray into areas that have since become hot topics. Terrorism, for example. One reads James's The Princess Casamassima or Conrad's The Secret Agent differently now, from a twenty-first century perspective. Or feminism: James's The Bostonians, or the likes of Baroness Banmann in Trollope's Is He Popenjoy?, take on new dimensions. Or attitudes towards Jewish people. What do we bring to a reading of Daniel Deronda, knowing what we know?

Phiz, I make the acquaintance of
Miss Mowcher
(David Copperfield

Here I want to think about authors' treatment of disability and difference. In David Copperfield Miss Mowcher is at first a mere grotesque, but in chapter 32, on her second appearance, she takes on greater complexity (and later still, near the end, she's given a surprise heroic role). One thinks of other differently abled characters in Dickens: my favourite is Jenny Wren, the dolls' dressmaker, in the late novel Our Mutual Friend. In essence, Dickens's attitudes soften and broaden as his career progresses: think of Quilp in the early work The Old Curiosity Shop, who is simply a monster - a splendid monster, but a monster all the same. In the same way Dickens's portrayal of Jewish characters improves in later novels.

Mahoney, She shook that emphatic little
forefinger of hers at parting
(Our Mutual Friend illustration)

But Dickens's younger pal and comrade Wilkie Collins is probably the Victorian novelist most interested in and sympathetic to disability and difference. Blindness, deformity and mental instability all feature in his novels, and not always sensationally.

In Anita Brookner's Look at Me Frances's friend Olivia is disabled, and Frances, compensating for others' prejudice, is at pains to emphasise Olivia's saintliness and inoffensiveness. Of course the Frasers' highly contrasting attitude towards Olivia, especially Alix's attitude, gives fresh insight into their cruel carelessness:
'Sounds delirious,' Alix broke in. 'What exactly is the matter with that girl?' (Ch. 5)

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