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.