Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Conflicting Models of Care for People with Mental Disabilities in Charles Dickens's Fiction and Journalism

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Conflicting Models of Care for People with Mental Disabilities in Charles Dickens's Fiction and Journalism

Article excerpt

In contrast to the mid-Victorian medical discourse extolling the benefits of asylums and residential training schools for children with mental impairments, contemporary literary representations criticize the institutional provision of care, instead favouring a community solution, which indeed was the predominant model throughout the Victorian era. The article explores representations of caring in the novels and journalism of Charles Dickens in comparison to the models of care available for people with mental disabilities in England at the time. Dickens's support for the disadvantaged is legendary, but the subject of care for people with mental disabilities in his work is more nuanced than has hitherto been shown.


Charles Dickens's interest in disability is demonstrated by the many characters with impairments in his fiction, as well as several journal articles regarding the care of people with mental disabilities. Despite his support for reforms for the disadvantaged of all stripes, Dickens's fiction presents a very different approach to caring for people with mental impairments than that advocated in his nonfiction. Why he opposes asylums in his novels but supports them in his nonfiction has not been satisfactorily addressed. In this article, I explore models of caring in Dickens's fiction and nonfiction and suggest possible explanations for these discrepancies.

Disability in Victorian Literature

With his sharp eye for the outrageous and his love of the bizarre, Dickens included characters with mental impairments in several of his novels, including Pickwick Papers (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39), Barnaby Rudge (1841), David Copperfield (1849-50), and Little Dorrit (1855-57). With the exception of Little Dorrit, all were published before Dickens visited the Earlswood Asylum in 1853. His fascination for the anomalous mind and body has led many to ask, what did Dickens know about illness and impairment? How much he knew about mental disability in his early career is unclear. As a parliamentary reporter in the 1830s he would have been aware of the contemporary discussions about so-called lunatic asylum reforms, although there is no evidence that he wrote about them. The Lockean concept of lunacy1 as a temporary derangement of reason and idiocy as an untreatable malady from birth persisted until the 1840s, so this was the predominant medical and cultural viewpoint when Dickens began writing. A turning point in the treatment of people with mental impairments came in the 1850s, a change captured in several articles he published.

Dickens has been esteemed for his seemingly accurate portrayals of medical conditions that did not exist in the medical literature at the time he was writing. Neurologist Russell Brain has said of Dickens that he "looked on disease with the observing eye of the expert clinician" (124). Dickens's percipience in capturing physical and mental anomalies is indeed remarkable for someone with no medical training. This astute perception is possibly due to his early training as a journalist, but Dickens was foremost a novelist. He could describe conditions remarkably well, but he also changed symptoms to suit his plots, so his characters cannot be taken as accurate portrayals of disability. In his landmark book, Idiocy, Patrick McDonagh cautions that fictional portrayals of idiocy cannot necessarily reveal how people considered idiotic or imbecile were treated, but they do reveal prevailing stereotypes and cultural concerns, and can show the symbolic function of disability in society. Dickens's work is extremely useful in this respect.

Although Dickens was a prolific author, creating legions of characters with all kinds of impairments, he was certainly not the only Victorian to be intrigued by the atypical body. Disability is a recurrent theme in Victorian literature, reflecting the everyday reality of an era in which sanitation and nutrition were inadequate, effective anaesthesia, antibiotics, and many vaccines had yet to be discovered, and occupational safety measures did not exist. …

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