This guest post was contributed by Ryan Sweet, a PhD student at the University of Exeter whose research explores nineteenth-century representations of artificial body parts. He has written several introductions to Victorian and Edwardian texts that feature prosthesis users, including Our Mutual Friend, Anthony Trollope’s The Bertrams (1859), and H. G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904), for the online resource Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts.
From intellectual disability, as represented by Sloppy, through “crippled” characters, such as Jenny Wren, to amputees, such as Silas Wegg, Our Mutual Friend, and indeed Dickens’s oeuvre as a whole, is full of representations of the physically and cognitively non-normative. Disability studies expert Martha Stoddard Holmes, whose book-length study on nineteenth-century disability, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian (2004), is a must-read for those interested in the topic, writes that Dickens “was one of the two most prolific producers of disabled characters in Victorian literature” alongside his friend, colleague, collaborator, and competitor Wilkie Collins.[i] As I hope to show in this post, Dickens was interested in not only the disabled body but also the prosthetic technologies used by those with physical impairments. Part 16 provides more than ample material for such a discussion.
Wooden legs abound in Part 16 of Our Mutual Friend. Not only do we see the wooden-legged Silas Wegg at his most obstinate and villainous as he attempts to blackmail Boffin (living up to nineteenth-century stereotypes about disabled lower-class men, who were often feared to be frauds), but we are also introduced to the curious figure of Gruff and Glum, a character who uses not one but two peg legs. In this blog post I’ll explore how Dickens draws from and complicates nineteenth-century prejudices towards wooden leg users through his depiction of these two characters.
Beginning with Wegg, a comical yet villainous wooden-legged character whom we are all very familiar with by this point in the narrative, the “literary man” shows his true colours (mahogany? oak?) in Chapter 3 as he puts into action his plan to extort Boffin of his inheritance. Intriguingly, there seems to be a link in Dickens’s representation between Wegg’s increasing woodenness and his rising meanness as a character. Indeed, by Chapter 3 we learn that Wegg’s very head is “wooden” (p. 180)—he later bestows a wooden wink upon Boffin (p. 184)!—a progression from the woodenness that he exhibits earlier in the novel , where he is described as having a “wooden countenance” (Part 13, Chapter 14). Here, it would seem, the woodenness of Wegg’s leg has almost entirely taken over his appearance and character. This bodily takeover coincides with both Wegg’s success and growing callousness. One may wish to take a moment here to reflect on what this non-human influence might say about Dickens’s position on the human-technology relationship. Some critics, such as Herbert Sussman and Gerhard Joseph, have suggested that Dickens sat on the fence regarding the possibility of human-machine splicing,[ii] but here Dickens’s representation seems to suggest that too close an intimacy with technology can harden one’s character for the worse.
Aligning with contemporary prejudices about the peg-legged being a rather violent bunch — as exhibited in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas (1864), Robert Michael Ballantyne’s Why I Did Not Become a Sailor (1864), and, most famously, in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) — Wegg and/or his prosthesis (since it is sometimes hard to tell which is in control) respond in an ecstatic yet violent way to the Golden Dustman’s apparent downfall:
‘Yes or no, and no half measures!’ was the motto which that obdurate person many times repeated; shaking his fist at Mr Boffin, and pegging his motto into the floor with his wooden leg, in a threatening and alarming manner (p. 182).
While remaining a dubiously comical aspect of Wegg’s characterisation, the violent leg appears, if not the driving force behind Wegg’s devious scheme, a threateningly complicit appendage.
In contrast to the increasingly objectionable Wegg, we meet a somewhat kinder, more likeable wooden leg user in Chapter 4, further complicating how we might position Dickens in relation to prosthetics and prosthesis users. A typically Dickensian minor character, Gruff and Glum is kind-spirited and remarkably devoted to Bella Wilfer, who it would seem has turned his life around — prior to her arrival in Greenwich, a conspicuous place to find an amputee veteran like Gruff and Glum due to its famous hospital that provided care for old and disabled navy veterans, the former sailor’s only care in life was tobacco! But despite his virtues, this salty navy veteran shares with Wegg a woodenness that we might trace to his use of prostheses. His peg legs stand as reminders of his former profession, which we can see retains a strong influence over him. In response to a compliment from Bella, Gruff and Glum “wished her ji and the fairest of fair wind and weather; further, in a general way requesting to know what cheer? And scrambling up on his two wooden legs to salute, hat in hand, ship-shape, with the gallantry of a man-of-wars-man and a heart of oak” (p. 189). As the narrator’s description would suggest, he has become a half-wooden masthead, like the wooden midshipman in Dickens’s earlier novel Dombey and Son (1846–48). Here, Gruff and Glum’s choice of language draws directly from his former days at sea, while the description that he has “a heart of oak” suggests that he is akin both in character and substance to a naval vessel. Like a retired ship, he is worn, wooden, and moored to a dock, where he is destined to remain for the foreseeable future. Gruff and Glum’s social position, “Stranded . . . in a harbour of everlasting mud” (p. 187), encourages us to reflect on the social restrictions imposed upon those with physical impairments in this period. It also draws our attention to the link between physical and social mobility in the nineteenth century. This link is also explored through Dickens’s depiction of Wegg, but we’ll have to wait and see whether or not the ambitious amputee manages to successfully trick his way up the social ladder. Will Silas manage to “stump” his way to the top or will he be pegged to a low social standing like his fellow amputee Gruff and Glum?
A final curious question that I’d like to address in this post is why wooden leg users, such as Gruff and Glum, occasionally pop up in Dickensian wedding scenes: in addition to Gruff and Glum’s appearance in OMF, in Dombey and Son a wooden-legged man randomly appears in the background when Florence and Walter eventually marry. It seems a curious coincidence that two wooden leg users would appear seemingly out of the blue at two distinct wedding scenes, from two different novels, separated by over fifteen years. I wonder whether this bizarre mini-trend points, rather than to a particular historical precedent or cultural trend, to Dickens’s cruel bodily sense of humour and his willingness to evoke a chuckle or two at what is often in Victorian literature the most prescribed and common of scenes — the protagonist’s wedding. We learn in Dickens’s correspondence that he had an odd fascination with wooden legs and a tendency to laugh at bodily deformities in the most stuffy of formal settings: in a letter to John Leech dated 23 October 1848, Dickens wrote of his enthusiasm to see “a gentleman with a wooden leg . . . dance the Highland Fling” as advertised in a Britannia Saloon Bill;[iii] earlier, in an 1839 letter to W. C. Macready, Dickens wrote, “With the same perverse and unaccountable feeling which causes a heart-broken man at a dear friend’s funeral to see something irresistibly comical in a red-nosed or one-eyed undertaker, I receive your communication with ghostly facetiousness”.[iv] Humour and entertainment value, purposes for including disabled figures in literature that are certainly dubious from a modern perspective, are unquestionable aspects of Dickens’s portrayal of wooden legs that we cannot overlook. It seems that, for Dickens, the wooden leg offered a cheap laugh or source of intrigue through which he could jazz up the usual Victorian marriage scene.
Though it is easy to challenge Dickens’s text from an ethical standpoint for its representation of prosthesis users, Our Mutual Friend offers much for us to think about in regard to the human-technology relationship, the social mobility of disabled people, and the function of disability in literary texts.
[i] Martha Stoddard Holmes, Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2004), p. 74.
[ii] See Herbert Sussman and Gerhard Joseph, “Prefiguring the Posthuman: Dickens and Prosthesis”, Victorian Literature and Culture 32.2 (2004): pp. 617–28.
[iv] See Charles Dickens, Letter to W. C. Macready, 1839, The Letters of Charles Dickens, vol. 1 of 3, eds Mamie Dickens and Georgina Hogarth (London: Chapman and Hill, 1880), Project Gutenberg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25852/25852-h/25852-h.htm.