Marlene Tromp. Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Britain. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. xiii + 328 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1086-4.
Reviewed by Christopher Kent
Published on H-Albion (September, 2008)
Commissioned by Mark Hampton
Disciplining Victorian Freaks
Since most of the history of Victorian Britain is now taught and written by historicizing literary scholars rather than guild historians, it is worth pondering the differences in how they do it. Though history may be, as Gareth Stedman Jones once put it, “an entirely intellectual operation that takes place in the present and in the head,” historians generally subscribe to an ethos that resists the tempting corollary that the past should therefore serve present needs alone. With little overt theorizing we have developed methodologies and rules based on the belief that the past is significantly accessible “on its own terms” to scrupulous research, and that presentism can and should be contained. No other discipline, I believe, shares this ethos. Literary scholars may have converted en masse in the last few decades to what they call historicism and have renounced their traditional disciplinary commitment to canonical masterpieces, but they still adhere to the idea that traditionally justified the canon, that the masterpiece is by definition a work that transcends time and space and can speak directly to us in our own here and now. The timeless masterpiece will always endure presentism’s critical ingenuities and preoccupations. That is its purpose. But what about the past’s non-canonical texts?
Victorian Freaks is an interesting collection of essays, two by historians, eight by literature scholars, and two by interdisciplinary, or undisciplined, scholars. The difference between the historians and the literature scholars is not particularly striking. The chief qualitative difference is between these ten and the other two, whose pieces want disciplinary rigor. As the collection’s subtitle suggests, the literary majority (which includes the editor) are making what for them is a significant effort to keep their subject “in context”--that is, either to resist presentism, a particular temptation where the subject is Victorian freaks, or explicitly to justify it. For a number of literary scholars studying freaks in the past is historical groundwork for a distinctly contemporary preoccupation, that of disability studies. The freak offers one of the earliest and most striking examples of identity construction and its complications. Aided by the dialectic of Michel Foucault and other scholars the freak, once a statistical (and uncanonical)dust-speck beneath the wheels of History, has become a vital parameter in creating the statistically enormous and hugely un-Real concept of normality. As the theology of cultural constructivism expands and the territory of the body left under the sign of the physical and natural shrinks, the freak becomes--to adapt Claude Levi-Strauss--“good to think with.”
To the credit of this book’s contributors they largely avoid the practice of beating up the Victorians for being who they were--that is, not our politically correct selves--a propensity to which devotees of postcolonialism are often prone. The book’s editor, Marlene Tromp, subscribing to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s claim that “we must read every Victorian text as a commentary on imperial relations,” (p. 157) discusses the thirty-seven-inch-tall Mohammed Baux and Laloo, an East Indian boy with a parasitic twin embedded in and partially protruding from his abdomen. Ingeniously if somewhat unconvincingly she reads the latter as a metaphor for the relationship between India and Great Britain (and manages also to work in a reference to 9/11).Undeniably many exhibited freaks were of non-Western origin, such as “Krao, the Missing Link,” the subject of the historian Nadja Durbach’s essay. The publicists for this southeast Asian girl covered in hair who was exhibited as “Living Proof of Darwin’s Theory of the Descent of Man” emphasized that she was not a freak at all, but “a regular production in the regular order of nature” and a valuable living lesson in ethnology (p. 139). Heather McHold, the collection’s other historian, also situates her discussion within the context of Victorian fears that the exhibition of freaks threatened public morals, a concern that she argues led showmen to increasingly emphasize the “humanity of freaks” (p. 31). Although the Chinese laborer Hoo Loo, the subject of Meegan Kennedy’s contribution, was not exhibited publicly as a freak, the spectacle of an operation to remove an enormous fifty-six pound tumor from his scrotum drew an unprecedented crowd to the Guy’s Hospital operating theater, where he died from massive blood loss under the knife of a leading surgeon. Kennedy suggests that he was the victim of the surgeon’s misplaced sympathy in pausing during the operation to give him relief from the pain while he continued to bleed. Sympathy is also a central theme in Rebecca Stern’s discussion of Julia Pastrana, the hirsute “Bear Woman,” a freak so ambiguously attractive, and profitable, that her corpse was embalmed by her manager-husband after her death in 1860 and continued to be exhibited, clothed and upright, for over a century. Stern discusses Arthur Munby’s fascinating poem “Pastrana” (1909), a touching meditation by a man whose unconventional sympathies for unconventional women were carefully concealed beneath a conventional exterior.
A more fortunate recipient than Hoo Loo of medical sympathy was Joseph Merrick, the celebrated “Elephant Man.” Christine Ferguson recruits him to challenge the assumption of current disability studies that the marginalized can be liberated by giving them “voice.” She suggests that the voice Merrick, Englishman though he was, received through his “discoverer” Dr. Frederick Treves, was akin to the less than empowering voice British colonial educational policy deigned to confer on its Indian subjects. Another English freak, the 739- pound Daniel Lambert, was not a Victorian at all, but in her essay Joyce Huff discusses the persistence of his memory among Victorians for whom he became a focal point for “fears about the ability to manage consumer desires in a developing commodity culture” (p. 39). We are reminded of the iconography of John Bull and an earlier equation of corpulence with national wealth and power (and such are the temptations of presentism that I am reminded of current concern about the obesity of the “average Englishman”--and woman).
Although Stern suggests convincingly that Wilkie Collins was indebted to Julia Pastrana for The Woman in White’s Marian Halcombe, whose flawlessly feminine figure belied her alarming face, only three of the contributors to this collection focus on the treatment of freaks in Victorian fiction, and Wilkie Collins figures largely in two of them. In her aggressively presentist discussion of Collins’s The Law and the Lady (1875), Martha Stoddard Holmes claims that a “socially responsible reading” of Miserrimus Dexter, on whom Nature bestowed a handsome epicene face, a fine manly torso, and no legs, “dictates the anachronism” of calling him “queer” (p. 241). Melissa Free also draws upon queer theory in her discussion of Ezra Jennings in Collins’s The Moonstone (1868)and Jenny Wren in Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1865). Both of these essays make the argument that Collins and Dickens employ “queer” characters to facilitate the hetero-normative plot resolution of marriage. Both essays make a good case for their resolute anachronism. While Holmes and Free thus stretch the ideas of “freakishness” and “enfreakment” to embrace the queer, Kelly Hurley’s contribution brings the Victorian fascination with mummies under the sign of the freak. “The Victorian Mummy-Fetish: H. Rider Haggard, Frank Aubrey, and the White Mummy” attends to two novelists whose works owe their attractiveness for contemporary literary scholars to their vulnerability to postcolonialism, post-Freudianism, and (if there is such an ism) post-Gothicism. And it must be said that after exposure to discussions like Hurley’s it is hard to read such novels any other way, whatever Victorian readers might have made of them.
. Gareth Stedman Jones, "From Historical Sociology to Theoretical History," British Journal of Sociology 27, no. 3 (1976): 296.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-albion.
Christopher Kent. Review of Tromp, Marlene, Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Britain.
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