Gender and Disability in “A Description of the Lakes”

Harriet Martineau’s “Description of the Lakes” was published in 1858 by London’s Simpkin, Marshall, though earlier editions bearing the name “A Complete Guide to the English Lakes” were previously published by John Garnett in Windermere and Whittaker and Co. in London. Regardless of the edition, Martineau’s goal as both writer and guide was to bring into this work a sense of completeness that would allow even those who had not yet visited the Lakes, and perhaps even those who had no desire to, a glimpse into the life and beauty that so stirred the passions of so many thinkers, artists and writers like Martineau. Naturally, the book was also intended to be of service to those who actually would visit the lakes, and so is filled with the kind of detail you hope from a travel guide, such as memorable spots for sight-seeing and glimpses into local lore. The work itself is not unusual, though it is perhaps the production of the work by Martineau that is most interesting. Martineau, though a brilliant writer, was deaf, and was without smell and taste, leaving her without full use of all her senses; arguably, this would make her a less adequate guide than another. Too, she was female and thus, in the genderized Victorian era, a figure that was lacking in authority. Yet, despite these hinderances, the authority as a guide was hers to assume, and the work itself, despite being a travel guide, comes to reflect the perspectives on disability and gender that empowered Martineau’s ascension from a shy young girl in great turmoil to a widely-recognized and prolific female writer that gained much respect and admiration throughout her life.


In her analysis of Martineau’s “A Complete Guide to the English Lakes” — an earlier edition of “A Description of the Lakes” and featuring much of the same writing — Alexis Easley notes that while the travel guide contains a great deal of practical information to better inform the reader in their travels through the Lake District, there is also a significant literary element to the work as well, with passages “requiring a closer, more sensitive reading” (301) to fully understand the depth of experience Martineau is conveying. I would argue that such closer readings, readings in which we act on Deborah Logan’s assertion that “personal and professional realms define each other” for Martineau (qtd Fratz 115), we may locate elements of gender and disability informing the “A Description of the Lakes”.


Indeed, one way in which Martineau’s “Description of the Lakes” is informed by gender and disability — and from here, for the sake of simplicity, we may refer to both gender and disability as simply disability within the context of the genderized Victorian era  — is in how it positions the disabled observer, or Martineau, as the guide. That is to say, the disabled observer, lacking in full command of her ensues through which to better observe the physical world is the guide for one who potentially has a better capacity to take the same world in. While subtle in its performance within the text, this is still a very curious shift in the power dynamic, as the disabled are often seen as defective in relation to society at large. Throughout the guide, as Martineau remarks in detail on the surroundings of the Lake District with the kind of confidence and authority one would hardly expect from one who is ‘defective’. (31, 121, 133) Over time, we come to depend on her more and more as she leads us deeper into the District’s lands and lore. We, as readers and explorers of these lands, must trust her if we hope to make it back home, and such a gift of trust carries with it an inherent validation of the disabled’s perspective. As Martineau guides us, her assertion of authority emphasizes our own weaknesses as strangers in a strange land: in this context, we are the disabled, and Martineau’s physical disabilities merely become a matter of perspective. Indeed, by accepting Martineau in this role via the act of reading, “the [reader] experiences geography through the lens provided by [Martineau], whose interpretation of the landscape is more authentic, and therefore more real” than theirs, and the very act of trusting Martineau becomes an act of submission in which the reader finds themselves validating the perspective of the disabled observer.


In “A Writing Halfway Between Theory and Fiction: Mediating Feminism from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century”, Miriam Wallraven suggests that Martineau “strategically uses different kinds of voices in order to convince her readers to side with her” and, by eschewing “overtly feminist emphasis, she manages to secretly introduce feminist thought into all kinds of discourse — particularly ‘new’ and largely engendered ones’ — thus covertly leading to a feminist awareness of the reader” (99). In “A Description of the Lakes”, we may see such different voices working together in how the the literary aspect of the work functions alongside the practical travel advice; looking deeper, we may see how the literary narrative operates in a way that empowers the disabled by undermining the patriarchal authority inherent in traditional Victorian society. Martineau’s act of subversion within “A Description of the Lakes” is most noticeable in the sex of the ‘stranger’, a character she guides through the Lake District. The stranger is always male and always reliant on the narrative for guidance, creating a situation in which the man is made the weaker — more ‘disabled’ — of the two by way of his own state of ignorance of and trespass into the lands . Further, the insistent use of the pronoun ‘he’ to distinguish the stranger continues to stress for us a power dynamic in which the disabled observer — Martineau, a female — has become an authority over male, the former acting as the bastion of wisdom in contrast to the latter’s ignorance. ‘He’ is a stranger in Martineau’s realm and is repeatedly referred to as one:


Instead of returning to Windermere the way he came, the stranger may make a moderate and pleasant walk by leaving Bowness hy the lower or Amhleside road, and proceeding round hy Cook’s House. (21)


If his time in Ambleside is precious, the stranger may use the sunset or twilight hour for seeing Stockghyll Lorce, while his supper is preparing. (48)


Building upon this assumption of authority, the power inherent in the disabled observer’s narrative seems to also extends beyond observation and suggestion and sometimes even acts directly to move the stranger according to her whims:


Where the abbot and his train swept past in religious procession, over inscribed pavements echoing to the tread, the stranger now wades among tall ferns and knotted grasses, stumbling over stones fallen from the place of honour. (32)


Too, the voice can command the stranger, further emphasizing his status as subordinate to the disabled observer’s travel narrative:


When the stranger sees the churchyard-gate, he must alight, and walk up to the church. (57)


At some little distance heyond it, the stranger must diverge from his road to visit High Close, and see the view which is reputed the finest in Westmorland. (58)



Indeed, as we can see, he language of the narrative asserts a sense of gentle dominance over the stranger, assuring he is ever aware of his status as a lesser in Martineau’s realm yet never overwhelming his personal experience so completely that he must suffocate beneath the authority of the disabled observer. Directions are balanced with suggestions, always allowing the stranger at least some free will in deciding his fate, though the completeness of Martineau’s narrative perhaps suggests against straying too far from her path.