Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

The Woman's Body as Compensation for the Disabled First World War Soldier

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

The Woman's Body as Compensation for the Disabled First World War Soldier

Article excerpt

Introduction

The First World War period is crucial for twentieth-century disability studies, since the dramatic change in the worldwide demographic of impaired men occurs at this time. It is also notable for women's changing social roles, and their increasing involvement as nurses and carers for soldiers with physical impairments. These experiences are preserved in what Nicholas Saunders calls the "background noise" that generates memory, in books and magazine fiction (16). Joseph McAleer notes that "the First World War accelerated the existing trend towards lower-priced 'inferior' fiction which was dominated by 'low-brow' genre fiction and story magazines" (54). An observation in The Times Literary Supplement from 1915 supports this, noting that "people are turning with relief from the war news to fiction, especially to the more popular novelists" (qtd in Potter, "For Country," 12). Jane Potter theorizes that the scale and duration of the war, and the effect it had on close friends and family, were routinely mediated by popular fiction, because it responded "both to the public need for reassurance and the political agenda" of the government, in distracting the people from the war's progress, as well as sedating their anxieties (Boys, 7).

This article contends that fiction about wounded soldiers published during the First World War challenges our ideas about the wounded male body on multiple levels. The stories reassure the reader by reintegrating the wounded soldier back into society, by affirming his masculinity as the hero of a romance, and mask the reality of the contemporary response to physical impairment by making hospitalized and discharged soldiers "whole" again through marriage. Arthur Frank notes that such stories "give voice to the body, so that the changed body can become once again familiar" (2). If we use Jeffrey Reznick's formulation we can see that the so-called damaged soldiers at the centre of a romantic short story or novel are "re-membered" by betrothal, gaining their limbs again metaphorically, and also "remembered," brought back from the limbo of being neither dead nor properly alive ("Material Culture," 99). In his study of the writing of John Galsworthy, Reznick notes that in stories where impaired characters have agency and go through emotional growth, they do not beg for support or pity, in contrast with the literature disseminated by charitable institutions and the government (John Galsworthy). In the fiction that I examine in this article, the impaired soldiers ask for and receive love, affirmation, and reintegration in their own voices.

The war-impaired soldier is well known in fiction of this period. David Trotter notes that, "according to Samuel Hynes, the figure of 'the damaged man' began to receive sympathetic attention during the middle years of the war" (36). Yet Hynes was drawing on a limited set of critically approved war literature, in which the soldier's experience was interpreted through disillusionment as a confrontation with reality. The research supporting the present article shows that the "damaged" soldier appears in British magazine fiction very early in the war (Heron-Maxwell; Dallas, "Spoiling"; Hargrave; Giesy), so Hynes's corpus is restricted in theme and date. Additionally, Trotter states that "there is no escaping disgust, in First World War narratives" (37), when it is clear, as Arthur Frank points out, and from the magazine fiction under discussion here, that romance fiction purposely avoided disgusting its readers in preference for romanticized and sanitized restitution narratives (2).

The canonical literature of the First World War was produced by male authors, usually combatants, who did not necessarily have a large contemporary readership. In contrast, the critically invisible category of wartime magazine fiction written by women and men had a vast contemporary readership, reflecting public taste during wartime. Its range and impact are as important as investigative routes, as are its aesthetic qualities, yet magazine fiction has been ignored by the academy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.