Mark Mossman

Summer 2003

Reading Mary Lamb’s Madness: Disability as Textual Space



     A friend of mine once had a disabled roommate in college. My friend is a more conservative person, a high school history teacher who, like many in his profession, tends to see the world in black and white, good and bad terms. My friend had a strong, unabated dislike for his disabled roommate; this feeling was caused primarily by the fact that my friend thought his roommate took advantage of his disability. He claimed that the roommate used people, got help when he did not need it, even got more dates than normal because he knew how to get women to feel sorry for him. He told me all of this one day in an undergraduate seminar we had together in Chaucer. He was amazed, and angry, and wanted me to know about it, how awful it was that someone would do that, would “take advantage of a disability. ”

     As I sat and listened to my friend before class began, a whole complex of responses went through my mind. I did not know how, exactly, to respond. I was and am visibly disabled, an amputee and a kidney transplant patient, but I now realize that my friend either did not see me as such or, and this is more likely the case, he thought of me in the “hero” mode, as someone who, unlike his roommate, would simply not take advantage of a disability. I was a person who “overcame” his disability and could do anything. I was normal; I could “pass”: Mark Mossman’s disabilities did not matter, were forgettable, were never, at least for him, present and truly visible in our interaction. During this conversation, I remember I felt, primarily, very uncomfortable, and guilty, as if I had been caught. And so, to avoid conflict and to escape detection as disabled, as physically abnormal and different, I simply agreed with him, put on the mask that was available to me and appropriate for the conversation, and told him that, yes, using a disability in such a way was, indeed, terrible, awful, just awful.

     At that moment, I knew in reality though that my friend did not know me very well, that he was unaware of the subtle manipulation I practiced, often unintentionally, in every conversation I had probably ever had with him, and that he was likewise unaware of the fact that I was at the time having my own college education paid for by the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services, a government program designed to “rehabilitate” disabled persons by, among other things, paying for higher education or other kinds of job training. I claimed normalcy from him, even though I had a visibly abnormal, government-funded body; unlike his roommate, my claim, my manipulation, worked, went undetected; it worked to such a degree that the guy forgot in a very basic sense that I was, in fact, a physically disabled person, a strange and, to most, deviant body.

The Fantasies of an Undercover Alien

     I dream that some night, late at night when I am driving home to my farm way back in the country, an alien spaceship will swoop down from the sky, capture me, and take me up to the stars. There, in the comfortable, exotic confines of the great alien other, I will be re-made, healed, given new kidneys, a new urology, a new, normal, fully-functioning body. Then the aliens will set me back down on the road; the stars will shine in great whirling clusters above my head and I will breathe in the crisp clean air; I will feel strong and good again; I will drive home, and it will be like nothing happened, except that I will be totally healthy and totally normal, with a long life expectancy and a “good life” to go with it.

     Now I know that this will never happen, because I know that I am the alien in the real world, and that if those aliens picked me up it would not be strange or exotic; it would be like going home, and “home” would definitely not entail anything more than what I already have. By being visibly disabled, and sick with renal disease, I am the alien, the colonized other, on my home planet earth and in my home country of the United States; I am the strange and unusual being, seemingly from another world, the figure who does not fit in with the great mass of human beings in this nation who are already, or are striving to become, beautifully normal, healthy, and physically attractive. I am deviant, my body unable to claim a real normalcy, or a legitimate beauty; I am alien, and unable to claim normalcy without deception, cloaking my true body in the fabric of an assumed normalcy; I am nakedly different, the ugly other in the increasingly global matrix of normalized United States culture.

     Most of the time, though, I am undercover; people rarely see me for what I am. I glide through my job at the university, through my quiet life on a small farm in the Midwest, unnoticed, under the radar, only becoming “sick,” or “alien,” when I visit the doctor’s office once a month, or when I am in the safe privacy of my kitchen where I take the numerous drugs that keep my body functioning, that keep this game going. For the most part, I am covert, camouflaged, a secret. And what does this mean? It means that I am especially dangerous to you, the norms; I am powerful, somehow superior to you, because I am you in one way, and yet in another way I am not—and most of the time, my normative reader, you never know. I have a secret power, a secreted agency.

     My body’s performance in culture is complicated, perverse, and subversive. My body is excessive in its plasticity, its mutability. I am often able to claim a kind of normalcy with it; I am, at the same time, physically deviant, and behave so, doing things that “normal” people never do. For example, my disability experience requires me to be a “legal” drug user; again, my body demands an influx of powerful, semi-addictive drugs and other treatments in order to obtain something close to a normal functioning. Right now, indeed, as I write these words, I am sleepy; even though it is a bright, sunny, mid-summer morning, my eyes are heavy and the world seems slow and drooping, foggy and dim, and this is because I am on the drug Flomax, which, in addition to opening up the neck of the bladder and allowing one to urinate more freely and easily, causes tiredness and fatigue, drowsiness and spells of dizziness. These conditions are, however, often only temporary, for me usually experienced only in the morning when I first take the drug, for they are countered by another powerful, increasingly popular chemical called procrit or epotein. This drug is a hormone that stimulates the body’s production of red blood cells. In the period of about a week, many of my blood cells are destroyed more quickly than normal because the environment of my body is so toxic; simultaneously my body is unable to replenish those cells at a normal rate because the kidney (and I only have one) is unable to secrete the hormone that tells the bone marrow to generate cells—put simply, the kidney is bad, and is both unable to filter the blood and reduce toxicity and also unable to produce the mechanism that triggers red blood cell production. But Procrit, in a steady, weekly injection, gets my body back in gear, gets thousands upon thousands of new red blood cells up and running through the complex, pulsating matrix of veins and arteries. According to my doctor, this drug also often gives patients “a sense of well-being. ”It gives me strength, a basic activity, a touch of insomnia—so I am always drowsy, sleepy, given to heavy yawns, light naps, and long day-dreams, but I never sleep for a very long time; I am tired, fatigued, but I am able to log long hours at the office and at my writing desk. It is within the scope of these hours that I have my fantasies, my brilliant fantasies constructed around the desires of freedom and inclusion, health, ability, and sameness.

     Let us be straight here: I am not free, or healthy, or tremendously able; I am a maintained person; I have to take certain medications at a certain time every day in order to protect my ailing body from infection, total renal failure, and general collapse; I have to have weekly injections in order to maintain a normal blood count; I have to have blood drawn every week to make sure that my blood count and other chemistry is stable; I am on a strict diet that excludes potassium (i. e. potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, oranges, etc), sodium, and large amounts of protein and phosphorous (or meat and cheese); I am about to have a surgical procedure performed on my left arm, where the surgeon will sew together an artery and a vein so that an “access port” will be ready and waiting when or if I need to go on dialysis in the coming months; I have to wear a pager whenever I leave my home just in case the transplant center needs to contact me about an available organ; for this same reason, I cannot go overseas, or anywhere outside my immediate living area without calling the transplant center and giving them a detailed itinerary of where I will be and when I will be there. I am trapped, completely hemmed in by a medical discourse; my body has lost its individual biological integrity, for it will be and to a large extent has already been re-made, re-constructed by that same medical discourse and industry.

     I am an imprisoned alien in the practice of culture, and when I am alone, sitting at my desk or driving my car or watering the yellow day-lilies that blanket the edges of my home, I have my fantasies, my moments of release, moments where I re-structure the world and my place in it. I reside in the powerful, healthy, wealthy and wise United States of (Normal) America. I see how you all live. I understand those classical national fantasies. Right now, in fact, I want to go out to my garage and get into my big new American car (a Chevy nonetheless), and just drive away. I want to resist, to blow this illness narrative all apart, to get in the car and drive, drive down to Mexico, throwing my beeper and my drugs and my weekly injections and blood tests and doctor visits out the window. I drive fast, and straight, into the high southwestern plains, and then I keep going, through the dry dusty mountains around El Paso and sprawling Juarez, going down, down, far into the wasted desert, far into the sexy language and timeless rhythms of old romantic Mexico. Then I sleep and eat and piss and shit and live naturally in the sun, free and beautiful, vividly alive, the hot dirty clay burning my feet, the heat all around me, the glare blinding me, all of it burning the illness and the alien out of me. In this hot, dry place, this ahistorical “spot of time,” this zone that is free of the controlling master medical discourse, I re-define myself, construct a new, solidly utopian and perfect me for me.

     This is, of course, just an easy escapist dream. In strange moments of clarity, though, quiet, still moments of unfortunate reality, I understand that my delusions are often much more powerful than this, and much more deeply penetrating than this. I know that at other times, maybe most of the time, I enact an elaborate, deep fantasy of general health. I pretend that I am, in fact, healthy, normal (and, I contemplate, in one way this is my greatest weapon, my most dangerous quality, because it is this that allows me to continue to function as I do, to move, in other words, to go undercover). In this fantasy, my body itself becomes that utopian space, a place where I can make it be what I want it to be. And so I become normal: I get up in the morning, put on my clothes, and go to work like everyone else; I drive to the university, and I think of the future, of having children with my spouse, of getting tenure, and promotion, of a growing retirement plan, even of eventual retirement, grandchildren, and a goddamn winter home in Florida. I make long-term investments, long-term decisions and career-plans; I see myself in a certain way, in a rosy, healthy, can’t-wait-for-the-future glow. I do what I did today: I get up early and work very hard at my research, my critical reading, my preparation for the teaching of my classes in the fall; and then I play very hard, taking in, today, eighteen holes of golf with my nephew, then working around the house on various landscaping projects, and then finally going to a film in the evening with my spouse Genevieve—all of this done with my sicko-alien status way back in the back of my head, so far back that it is not even there, but just gone, gone completely.

     But I guess I never go too far into the fantasy. No, never too far. Health is a delusion. I know that. Again, the game is already decided; I am trapped, and my body is in some profound way not my own. A subtle and far-reaching medical discourse controls and manipulates my body, occupies it like a colonizing empire, exploiting its resources in terms of the dollars generated by the numerous conditions it articulates. I have fantasies, sure, but the irony is tremendous when I contemplate myself now, both weak and dependent and the source of a consistent stream of revenue for the drug companies and the doctors and the rest of the medical industry, and at the exact same time, to many of my loose social acquaintances at least, young, healthy, energetic, an image of the future of the department within which I work, as well as the profession at large, a young scholar working on a research project (the large project of disability studies) that “resists” the medical industry itself.

     I need to stress that the philosophical irony is, again, tremendous, functioning on several levels: I am alien and I am, seemingly, the embodiment of human normalcy; and further, you, the norms, the medical industry, postmodern America, are actually the real aliens invading my previously isolated, normalized human, still sometimes utopian body; and even further, this work, this document, this project of resistance is, in a sense, being written from deep inside the very thing that it is attempting to dismantle and destroy.

     But no, no, I realize that that is just how it works and I am sorry that I keep forgetting; I am the excessive alien here; I am made strange and deviant and wrong in my own body, in my own home; home is not safe; work is not safe; the industry is everywhere!I may at times be a kind of double-agent, playing both sides of the game at once, being both alien and the normative young white professional male—but always, in the end, I am truly alien, and different, and weird, alien to the messy, conflicted core.

The New Disability Studies

     Now that I am half-way through this paper, I want to shift the focus slightly and make the larger goals of it perfectly clear. The specific purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how the developing field of the New Disability Studies provides the critical insight necessary to re-evaluate the way Mary Lamb’s manic depression was constructed both in the critical/literary discourses of nineteenth-century Britain as well as within the more recent theoretical paradigms of twentieth- and twenty-first-century literary and historical studies. Simultaneously, the paper is also an attempt to push back the postmodern concept of disability itself, and thus re-define the notion and its representation in a historically marginalized context. The larger significance of the essay, then, is that it is an attempt to describe in new terms the historicity of disability experience and, therefore, participate in the current movement of re-shaping “disability” practice in the postmodern cultures of the West.

     The critical approach or method of inquiry I intend to use here in this paper is one that I would define as, again, “The New Disability Studies. ”I will use Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s recent definition of the New Disability Studies in the European Romantic Review as a basis for my analysis. Thomson writes:

Just as what we now think of as the social construction of race and gender was either invisible or imagined as narrow and marginal in the academic world prior to the 1970s, disability until recently was seen in academic discourse as a medical issue or specialized training area peripheral to literary studies or even to ‘mainstream’ consideration in the humanities. The New Disability Studies … seeks to overturn what we will call this medical model of disability and to replace it with a social model of understanding disability. This view defines ‘disability’ not as a physical defect inherent in bodies … but rather as a way of interpreting human differences. Within such a frame, disability becomes a representational system more than a medical problem, a social construction rather than a personal misfortune or a bodily flaw, and a subject appropriate for wide-ranging intellectual inquiry. (321)

What drives this critical approach is the viability of a new perspective on culture, in terms of theory, political activism, and of course criticism, or the reading of cultural production. Disability, like gender and race, is understood to be a social construction; further, and at this juncture this seems to be the crucial point of the New Disability Studies, as a construction that often leads to negative stereotypes and discrimination, it is our obligation as scholars, theorists, and teachers to rigorously investigate disability and its meanings for literary criticism.

     In this light, the New Disability Studies can be understood in two ways, as accomplishing two primary goals: (1) it provides yet another critical perspective of culture, history, literature, etc. , and allows us as professional scholars and critics to re-write such large notions as literature or history or Romanticism through the perspective of disability, a perspective that often requires autobiographical narrative, the establishment of an authentic “disabled perspective” of culture (Mitchell and Snyder, “Exploring,” 242); and (2) it is, as I just suggested, a simultaneously academic and political activity—like the explosive feminist scholarship of the 1970s and early 1980s—and the emerging scholarly agenda here is, in part, to open up new fields, to bring to light figures and concepts previously ignored by “ableist” criticism and cultural practice and, in doing so, ultimately re-structure the world and the way one understands such social circumstances as disability or physical disfigurement.

     Theoretically, the work of the New Disability Studies (and I’m thinking specifically of Lennard Davis now) has often led to the investigation of the cultural structures of normalcy and abnormalcy. In his earlier work, in an article that concerns nineteenth century eugenics, Davis argues, “When we think of bodies, in a society where the concept of the norm is operative, then people with disabilities will be thought of as deviants” (“Normalcy” 13). The real force of this observation is that it locates disability experience on the margins of cultural practice. Not surprisingly, and as in the research concerning minority experience and discourse, in the research on disability it has been demonstrated that when one finds oneself on the margins, as structurally “different,” or physically abnormal, a primary strategic behavior is to constantly attempt to claim normalcy or sameness or inclusion. Such behaviors often emerge through some kind of autobiographical speech act—in other words, in the form of what Arthur Kleinmann has called “illness narratives. ”Time and time again it has been demonstrated that these types of personalized claims, these autobiographical speech acts in the classroom, in writing, and in everyday conversation and practice, that these are the rhetorical tools used by postmodern PWDs (persons with disabilities) to legitimize their experience and normalize their selves.

     This development, and the detection of it by the New Disability Studies, has a larger cultural significance and real relevance for us working in criticism and feminist cultural studies. For example, Thomas Couser argues,

With the current turning away from the most cerebral of literary theories, such as deconstruction, to approaches more attentive to social and historical contexts, from a sense of language as an impersonal and autonomous system to a sense of writing as a concretely situated personal appropriation of a public instrument, narratives acknowledging and exploring the embodiment of the self have much to say to us today. (13)

Couser later asserts that,

Because print, unlike photography, effectively masks the body, autobiography serves to deflect the gaze from a body that might otherwise trigger stereotypical responses. … Writing autobiography, preferably without assistance, may enable individuals with disabilities to cross back over the border into the mainstream or, better yet, to cross out—or at least blur—that border. (182)

In postmodernity, writing is a space of empowerment. It is a space of critical evaluation and assertion. It is a space where we can see disability articulated and resisted, constructed, embodied, and claimed. An active postmodernism engages such structural spaces, describes and defines them in criticism and in cultural practice at large. Further, postmodernism demonstrates that claiming disability, claiming physical difference, in writing is a strategic act of resistance, a postmodern effort to undermine an oppressive discursive system, in this case ability or the structure of physical normalcy. Thus, in postmodernity, autobiography and disability are an articulation of the same thing; both could be seen as rhetorical appeals to the body that excavate previously marginalized experiences.

     I have been arguing that understanding disability as a social construction is key both in the larger postmodern consideration of physical difference and ultimately in the emerging field of the New Disability Studies. Indeed, in his most recent book, it is in these kinds of terms that Lennard Davis writes, commenting on the “British model” of disability studies: “Impairment is the physical fact of lacking an arm or a leg. Disability is the social process that turns an impairment into a negative by creating barriers to access” (12). This distinction, this recognition that there is a difference between the “physical fact” of impairment and the “social process” of disability is, again, the groundwork upon which we can build both a detection and critique of disability in the past as well as a re-structuring of disability in the postmodern present for the future.

     With this in mind, in our scholarship, we can and should trace this notion of disability back into our cultural and critical histories, and indeed recent work has already done so by placing the emergence of “disability” in the context of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century Britain and the new organizations of labor and work. We can and should involve our criticism, our work in the profession, with such larger concerns as the rights of PWDs as we have involved our criticism and our work in the profession with the larger circumstances and civil liberties attached to gender, sexuality, and race in our culture. One way to accomplish this goal is to unmask discrimination, and indeed discover the structure of disability in the past, in our literatures and in our histories.

     I will now do so, in the following critical terms: I believe Mary Lamb, an obscure, neglected, disturbing Romantic poet, articulates in her work the social process of disability I have outlined above; indeed, I assert that “disability” is the textual space that Mary Lamb, like the “Mark Mossman” at the start of this essay, has come to embody.

Mary Lamb’s Madness

     When one thinks of Mary Lamb, one thinks of the great, tantalizing stories of madness, mayhem, and matricide: there is, for example, the infamous date of 22 September 1796, when Mary Lamb murdered her mother with a carving knife; there is also the frightening sketch by Henry Fuseli that portrays a woman swinging a large knife while, in the background, a dismayed male face looks on, and which is entitled “Mary Anne Lamb”; and finally there are the few strange, disturbing moments in Mary and Charles Lamb’s letters, moments where the grim reality of Mary Lamb’s “madness” escapes, breaks free into the discourse and disrupts the seemingly concrete façade of normalcy. Unfortunately, one still does not think of Mary Lamb in the terms now often used to read other female poets and writers working along side her in the last years of the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century (the period now of course often described as British Romanticism). The reading of Mary Lamb is still encoded in a very particular way. Indeed, as Adriana Craciun recently observed, “Mary Lamb’s rebellion and rage cannot safely be assimilated in the literary humanist feminism of Gilbert and Gubar, nor in subsequent gender-complimentary scholarship, precisely because her violence, her lack of provocation, and her female object render the feminist use value of her violence low and destabilizing potential high” (48).

     Mary Lamb’s history, both her personal history as well as her critical history, is one of repression and negotiation: her life consisted of bursts of rage, followed by quiet, “serene” periods of productivity, followed then by more bursts of rage and periods of institutionalization; over the last century her critical construction in English studies has been one of deep exclusion, mild interest, and ultimately a formulated, stereotyped interpretation and explanation. It is now clear that, despite the last thirty years of feminist theory and scholarship, Mary Anne Lamb still does not fit into a feminist paradigm of inclusion: she is too aggressive, too violent, too insane; her figure is too much of an uncomfortable one, one that indeed resists any kind of inclusive strategy of real, practical explanation. Unlike the other now “rediscovered” female writers working in her time—like Felicia Hemans, Anne Seward, Anna Barbauld, and Dorothy Wordsworth—Mary Lamb is often still excluded from the great tradition, still held out of course syllabi on nineteenth century British literatures, still understood, ultimately, as the femme fatale figure, the madwoman with a knife. In a survey of the handful of recent articles on her, it appears that Mary Lamb truly is mad, then, forever locked in the attic of literary studies, because, as it apparently seems to many, she really does belong there. Serious, academic discussion of her work, when it does happen, often equates a disrupted moment of negotiated strangeness; in other words, Mary Lamb’s mental or cognitive illness, her resulting violence, usually quiets the talk about her actual work so much so that, in the end, focusing exclusively on Mary Lamb’s poetry or her fiction becomes critically and historically inappropriate: she cannot claim anything but disruption, strangeness, and extreme violence, anything but a rationale for exclusion.

     Here, in this essay, I am attempting to understand Mary Lamb through the perspective of disability. Approaching Mary Lamb through this perspective, with this awareness, allows one to translate her behavior and her critical and historical reception into a different kind of critical formulation or significance. In order to run Mary Lamb through this field, and locate disability within her work, I feel that I must again establish my own reading practice, however, and explain my own relation to the methodology—again a methodology often grounded in autobiography—I am using.

     In their recent book David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder situate disability in the public discourses of marginalization and negative cultural difference:

One might think of disability as the master trope of human disqualification. … Most basic to the identification of character through disability is the way in which physical and cognitive differences have been narrated as alien to the normal course of human affairs. To represent disability is to engage oneself in an encounter with that which is believed to be off the map of ‘recognizable’ human experiences. (3-5)

Claiming disability in a public circumstance is different from claiming normalcy, then, for when one claims disability in public, in academic discourse for example—in everyday practice at the university and in the classroom, as well as in the scholarly publications of the academy—one freaks herself, makes herself different in both social and political terms, and aligns herself with a particular kind of “alien” identity structure: “To remark upon one’s disability in academia is to unduly ‘mark’ oneself. And openly remarking upon oneself as disabled cannot wholly mitigate against the perception of the category introducing a ‘freak show’-like atmosphere across the range of U. S. identity landscapes” (Mitchell and Snyder xii).

     The purpose of this rhetorical side-step should be clear, simple, obvious even: as the author of this argument I think that I need to point out that my own disability has led me to the New Disability Studies, a field of inquiry which in turn can, I think, lead us as a profession to a new mode of understanding both disability and PWDs, like the historical Mary Lamb. In other words, to use my own, deeply postmodern body as an example, for me, an English professor often read as “normal” by my colleagues and my students, when I say I am disabled, when I talk about my body and its differences, as I did earlier in this essay, I “come out” in a very politically-oriented and identity-based way. In these moments, I take off my “normal mask,” come out from under cover, display for my audience my identity as physically different and, in our still-ableist culture, marginalized alien. Often, such revelations are socially inappropriate, for they always invoke a basic structure of deviance: my explanations of my body’s anomalies and conditions cause anxiety in others, or discomfort and embarrassment, or at the very least a simple recognition of difference and otherness. Often, my experience is one of contradiction—I find myself represented and I find myself representing myself as both normal and abnormal, both included and excluded. This contradiction, to me, then, defines what disability is in postmodernity.

     The connection I am establishing here is that Mary Lamb’s body has operated within the framework of our profession in a very similar if not the exact same way: she is understood as both quiet and docile, as “normal,” or, as Barry Cornwall observed, a “rather shapeless bundle of an old lady, in a bonnet and mob-cap” (Qtd. in Anthony, 146), while at the same time she is the legendary murderess of her mother, again the haunting female figure swinging a knife as she is portrayed in the sketch by Henry Fuseli, the strange alien given to extreme violence and rage who wrote stories and poems “filled with metaphors of desertion and instability, as they depict marginalized, deserted, hungry children, dead nannies, and children who take care of each other in their motherless world” (Woodberry 666). Those poems and stories, more than anything else, indirectly enact the process of coming out for Mary Lamb, a process of both claiming normalcy and admitting abnormalcy, a process that she struggled to negotiate her entire life, as at the same time the criticism and commentary on them (the stories and poems) demonstrate in specific terms the process of exclusion practiced as a response to the basic difference the works subtly articulate.

     Such contradiction, such articulation and repression, leads, of course, to discursive negotiation, manipulation, and the complex play of marginalization. An awareness of such processes amounts to a measure of control of them, an empowerment of some sort, a particular kind of language production. A moment ago, for example, rather than playing the game, and allowing myself to be included, allowing myself to “pass,” I purposefully demonstrated my difference, purposefully embraced that deviance, purposefully used my difference as a rhetorical tool in the development of my argument; I understand this to be, again, a forceful political move, a moment of real agency. It was only for a moment, though. My point here is that when I take off the mask, when I knowingly play with my own physical difference in a scholarly essay, I become, to a lesser degree of course, the complicated Mary Lamb: I place myself in a space defined by contradiction and irony; I place myself in the space of public disability. Though I am absolutely different from Mary Lamb—in terms of history, gender, individual subjectivity, and indeed even the degree and type of disability—the processes of public difference, the rhetorical characteristics of negotiation, repression, manipulation, and contradiction are all the same.

     To demonstrate this point I would now like to focus on Mary and Charles Lamb’s book for children, Mrs. Leicester’s School. In the context of my argument here, what is fascinating about Mrs. Leicester’s School is the structure of interruption that occurs in each of the first three tales of the collection, all of which we can definitely say were written by Mary Lamb and not her brother Charles. I believe that this pattern of interruption speaks both to the issues of negotiation and exclusion that Mary Lamb felt socially as well as to the guilt and anger and illness that she felt individually and emotionally through an awareness of her critical audience, her nineteenth-century English readers. At the end of the first tale, “The Sailor Uncle,” by “Elizabeth Villiers,” there is an intrusion by an outside voice (presumably Mrs. Leicester), which speaks directly to Miss Villiers: “At this point, my dear miss Villiers, you thought fit to break off your story, and the wet eyes of your young auditors, seemed to confess that you had succeeded in moving their feelings with your pretty narrative” (“Works” 283). The voice then continues, explaining that she will not mention “any of the interruptions which occurred,” and that the rest of the collection will “leave out the apologies” of the young girls (“Works” 283). Of course, the very next tale, “The Farm House” by “Louisa Manners,” is eventually interrupted again by the same outside voice, a voice that complains that the tale must stop because the audience is “weary” of the narrator’s, Louisa’s, “prattle” (“Works” 288). And then in the very next tale, “The Changeling” by “Ann Withers,” there is an interruption immediately at its start, this time not by the omniscient outside voice that has intruded several times before, but rather by the characters of “Miss ---” and “Miss Villiers. ”

     What you have in these tales are confessions structured around interruptions. All of these tales concern some kind of loss, victimization, or marginalization; all of the tales are serious and “tearful” in tone; all of them are memories told by narrators in now marginalized circumstances. Indeed, the second tale, a young girl’s story of a farm she visited as a small child, is quickly and immediately cut off, and called “prattle” by the interrupting narrator, because it seems to lack the seriousness and, really, the clear victimization that the other two tales possess (although I would argue that such victimization is there, buried in the very circumstances of the tale). In the context of this argument, one can read the numerous interruptions of these tales of excessive loss as the re-assertion or strategic claim of normalcy, as, in other words, a rhetorical device that represses the articulation of such deviant, “mad” emotions as loss, anger, rage, and guilt.

     Bonnie Woodberry has described Mary Lamb’s illness in these terms: “Lamb’s attacks often combined excessive speech with violent excitement, a violence that might well have been handled by her superintendents with threats and shocks to the system such as surprise baths of ice water where the patient was dragged from bed, blindfolded, and then ducked in a tub of ice water” (661). This pattern of articulation and then managed repression, of “excessive speech” then punished with “ice water,” which would eventually become for Mary Lamb a required, internalized response to the pressures of repeated moments of psychosis, is replicated in the first three tales of the collection: in them, Mary Lamb comes out, to a point, in the voice of the marginalized, victimized girl, and then, as quickly as possible, in an act of self-management or self-punishment, she goes back into cover, under the layers of several different narrating voices, including perhaps even her brother’s (again, there is a profound uncertainty as to who wrote what), but most often under the cover of Mrs. Leicester, the interrupting narrator. When she is the marginalized girl, her voice articulates the suffering and anger of exclusion: there is, for example, the character of Elizabeth Villiers—Mary Lamb’s mother was named Elizabeth—who sometimes finds herself in “perverse ill-humoured fit[s]” (“Works” 279), who learns to read by visiting her mother’s tombstone, which is her “primmer and … spelling-book” (“Works” 276), who ultimately wishes she was “sleeping in the grave with … papa and mamma” (“Works” 277), and who at one point admits to having a “troubled conscience” (“Works” 282). And then there is the figure and story of the changeling Ann Withers—Mary Lamb’s full name is Mary Anne Lamb—who, through the writing and the staging of a play, unwittingly betrays the “secret” of her lack of legitimacy and is, as a result, displaced from her home and sent away to “pass a year or two at school” (“Works” 302). This mirrors the behavior of the mentally disturbed author: by writing, expression, speech acts, her secrets are articulated and she is punished as a result.

     The point here is to recognize that these secreted emotions are only brief, explosive moments in a text that is then immediately cooled down and quickly controlled. In the end, the whole text is designed in this manner so that the great range of emotions in the tales—the anger, rage, guilt, and sorrow—are articulated, but also managed, negotiated, limited, repressed.

     This is the strategy of a double agent. Mary Lamb is working with an undercover status here. She knows she is different, strange, alien; but she has figured out how to exist, to produce in and move through culture despite her danger to normative culture. She has become an undercover alien, and in this text we see flashes of her very different, alien face; momentarily, she will take off the mask, articulate deviance (a kind of resistance to the tyranny of normalcy), only to then quickly stop, stop the talk, the flow of discourse that will lead to excess and to trouble; it is in those moments that the interruptions occur, the confessional discourse stops, and the reality of a troubled interior is driven back to its appropriate place far away from the practice of normalized nineteenth-century British culture; it is here, in these moments, that Mrs. Leicester steps into the tale and quiets the environment, gains control of the circumstances, returns the text to normalcy.

My Own Conclusions

     I will conclude this essay with the following narrative. I recently presented a version of this argument at the annual conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR). The irony of my presentation was, in my mind, tremendous. I read the paper to a small but engaged audience, in a tiny, tightly constructed room. The room was on the second floor of an almost completely inaccessible building. I know there was probably an elevator somewhere in the building, but it was not apparent; and where I delivered the essay was certainly inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair—two staircases blocked the room from anyone not able-bodied, and the room itself was definitely too small for more than one wheelchair.

     I delivered my paper. I did not say anything to anyone about the basic discrimination against PWDs in the conference, even though one of the conference organizers was the chair of my panel. I just delivered the paper, attended the rest of the conference, and debated the whole issue with myself alone, in my hotel room, while I sat listening to other presenters, as I ate my meals and toured the city hosting the conference. I then came home, and re-drafted this essay.

     And I think the intended political relevance of this paper should now be clear. Our profession, a profession that takes “difference” as one of its subjects, needs to be more vigilant in its scope; we need to connect the theory in our work with the discrimination in our profession. I do not want to go to a conference to present work on disability and find that the conference is, basically, inaccessible to disabled people. Nor do I want to participate in a profession that traditionally excludes troubling figures like Mary Lamb. In other words, I do not want to participate in a profession that perpetuates the kinds of notions that lead to inaccessible conferences and meetings and excluded disabled figures. I have decided that the way to avoid such obvious discrimination is to turn our profession into something that works overtly against discrimination. I hope I have begun to do so with this essay.


Works Cited

Anthony, Katherine. The Lambs. London: Hammond, Hammond, and Co, 1948.

Couser, G. Thomas. Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1997.

Craciun, Andriana, “The Subject of Violence: Mary Lamb, Femme Fatale. ” Romanticism and Women Poets. Eds Harriet Kramer Linkin and Stephen C. Behrendt.

Lexington, KY: The UP of Kentucky, 1999. 46-70.

Davis, Lennard J. Bending Over Backwards: Disability, Dismodernism & Other Difficult Positions. New York: New York UP, 2002.

---. “Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, The Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century. ” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 1997. 9-28.

Lucas, E. V. The Works of Charles and Mary Lamb. Vol 3. New York: AMS Press, 1903.

Mitchell, David and Sharon Snyder. “Exploring Foundations: Languages of Disability, Identity, and Culture. ”Disability Studies Quarterly 17:4 (1997): 241-247.

---. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and theDependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. “Byron and the New Disability Studies: A Response. ” European Romantic Review 12 (Fall 2001): 321-27.

Woodberry, Bonnie. “The Mad Body as the Text of Culture in the Writings of Mary Lamb. ”Studies in English Literature 39 (Autumn 1999): 659-74.

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