What Causes Writers to Make Disabled Characters

Martha Stoddard Holmes mentions John Ruskin’s 1880 “Fiction Fair and Foul,” in which he attributes the existence of disabled characters to diseased authors. Here is part of the Ruskin passage in question. It’s kind of entertaining.

The reader who cares to seek it may easily find medical evidence of the physical effects of certain states of brain disease in producing especially images of truncated and Hermes-like deformity, complicated with grossness. Horace, in the Epodes, scoffs at it, but not without horror. Luca Signorelli and Raphael in their arabesques are deeply struck by it: Durer, defying and playing with it alternately, is almost beaten down again and again in the distorted faces, hewing halberts, and suspended satyrs of his arabesques round the polyglot Lord’s Prayer; it takes entire possession of Balzac in the Contes Drolatiques; it struck Scott in the earliest days of his childish ‘visions’ intensified by the axe-stroke murder of his grand aunt; L. i. 142, and see close of this note. It chose for him the subject of the Heart of Midlothian, and produced afterwards all the recurrent ideas of executions, tainting Nigel, almost spoiling Quentin Durward–utterly the Fair Maid of Perth: and culminating in Bizarro, L. x. 149. It suggested all the deaths by falling, or sinking, as in delirious sleep–Kennedy, Eveline Neville (nearly repeated in Clara Mowbray), Amy Robsart, the Master of Ravenswood in the quicksand, Morris, and Corporal Grace-be-here–compare the dream of Gride, in Nicholas Nickleby, and Dickens’s own last words, on the ground, (so also, in my own inflammation of the brain, two years ago, I dreamed that I fell through the earth and came out on the other side). In its grotesque and distorting power, it produced all the figures of the Lay Goblin, Pacolet, Flibbertigibbet, Cockledemoy, Geoffrey Hudson, Fenella, and Nectabanus; in Dickens it in like manner gives Quilp, Krook, Smike, Smallweed, Miss Mowcher, and the dwarfs and wax-work of Nell’s caravan; and runs entirely wild in Barnaby Rudge, where, with a corps de drame composed of one idiot, two madmen, a gentleman fool who is also a villain, a shop-boy fool who is also a blackguard, a hangman, a shrivelled virago, and a doll in ribands–carrying this company through riot and fire, till he hangs the hangman, one of the madmen, his mother, and the idiot, runs the gentleman-fool through in a bloody duel, and burns and crushes the shop-boy fool into shapelessness, he cannot yet be content without shooting the spare lover’s leg off, and marrying him to the doll in a wooden one; the shapeless shop-boy being finally also married in two wooden ones. It is this mutilation, observe, which is the very sign manual of the plague; joined, in the artistic forms of it, with a love of thorniness–(in their mystic root, the truncation of the limbless serpent and the spines of the dragon’s wing. Compare Modern Painters, vol. iv., ‘Chapter on the Mountain Gloom,’ s. 19); and in all forms of it, with petrifaction or loss of power by cold in the blood, whence the last Darwinian process of the witches’ charm–‘cool it with a baboon’s blood, then the charm is firm and good.’ The two frescoes in the colossal handbills which have lately decorated the streets of London (the baboon with the mirror, and the Maskelyne and Cooke decapitation) are the final English forms of Raphael’s arabesque under this influence; and it is well worth while to get the number for the week ending April 3, 1880, of Young Folks–‘A magazine of instructive and entertaining literature for boys and girls of all ages,’ containing ‘A Sequel to Desdichado’ (the modern development of Ivanhoe), in which a quite monumental example of the kind of art in question will be found as a leading illustration of this characteristic sentence, “See, good Cerberus,” said Sir Rupert, “my hand has been struck off. You must make me a hand of iron, one with springs in it, so that I can make it grasp a dagger.” The text is also, as it professes to be, instructive; being the ultimate degeneration of what I have above called the ‘folly’ of Ivanhoe; for folly begets folly down, and down; and whatever Scott and Turner did wrong has thousands of imitators–their wisdom none will so much as hear, how much less follow!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s