Non-Fiction Book Review: Woeful Afflictions, by Mary Klages

In one sentence: Woeful Afflictions discusses representations of blind women in Victorian American literature, both fiction and non-fiction, and by both blind and sighted people.

I had some difficulties with this book which may colour my review. Its primary audience is, of course, literary scholars and (presumably) people who read Victorian literature. I am, sadly, neither of these things, but even so I did manage to get a great deal out of the book.

Klages analyses a variety of textual sources, varying from Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop” to Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker”, from Cumming’s “The Lamp Lighter” to Annual Reports from the Perkins Institute for the Blind and various autobiographical works by blind women. I especially enjoyed the latter, as there are very few examples of writing of actual blind women from this time period, and Klages’ discussion of these (few) works made me want to seek them out to read for myself. It’s frustrating how rare such treasures are.

Klages makes two points which I think are most important. The first, evident throughout the whole book, is that representations of people with disabilities haven’t really changed all that much since Dickens. There are certainly shining lights, some of which we’ve talked about here on FWD, but mostly, people with disabilities in media and pop culture are still presented as tragedies, as poster children, or as lessons for the non-disabled. It grows rather tiring to read descriptions of books I’ve never read and realise that they’re basically describing books I have – because the tropes just haven’t changed that drastically.

The other thing that I think is important is in this paragraph:

To become a self… twentieth century disabled people have had to deny, forget, or erase the bodies that mark them as physically different. They have had to accede to forms of self-hood available through sentimental value systems, which construct them as both objects and agents of feeling and empathy, but not necessarily as capable of independent rational thought and economic autonomy. And they have had to renounce virtually all forms of physical sexuality, accepting the disabled body only as a site for feeling, rather than for production, reproduction, or pleasure. These factors, the result of more than one hundred and fifty years of sentimental representations of disability have over-determined the relegation of disabled people to the position of perpetual ‘poster children’, and prevented them from becoming recognized as adults, operating on the same terms, and with the same concerns and rights, as non-disabled adults. [1. Klages, Mary. Woeful Afflictions: Disability and Sentimentality in Victorian America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999, 196.]

In essence, these representations are things we either attempt to fit ourselves into, or struggle to remove ourselves from, but they still impact us, no matter what choices we make.

For the most part, I enjoyed Klages work, although I think getting the full value of the read would require a bit more background than Klages puts in. That said, one could check this book out, review the chapter titles, and sort out which bits most interest you, as it reads more as a series of inter-connected articles than one ‘whole’ argument. The writing style felt very jargon-heavy to me, but I’m not a literary scholar and thus I’m not positive I was her target audience to begin with; I’m certain others would have no problems. I give it 3/5 stars.

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