The Disabled Observer: An Analysis

As noted in the previous section on Victorian travel literature, the narrative of such literature works in such a way that the reader shares the experience of the author by either enacting the physical journey with the aid of the guide or participating within the imaginary space created by the narrative and making their journey a mental one. (Byrers 12) In her analysis of an earlier edition of Martineau’s text (yet one sharing the same information),  Alexis Easley agrees, stating that “the landscape is experienced physically as the tourist moves through space but also virtually though the mediating influence of the literary text” (302). Further, 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 a reading, a reading in which we are guided by both Easley’s assertion that Martineau has fused herself into the text, as well as Deborah Logan’s assertion that Martineau’s personal and professional realms define each other (Fratz 115), allow for elements of the travel guide to be interpreted through two significant themes in Martineau’s life: disability and gender. Further, these elements, in how they function alongside the power dynamic inherent in the shared journey of the author and author’s narrative, potentially upset the another power dynamic: social hierarchy of the Victorian era. For this, our focus will fall on two parts: one, the experience of the reader following the disabled guide; two, the experience of the literary narrative involving the stranger, which creates a situation in which male authority is usurped by a traditionally less powerful figure.

The first way in which A Description of the English Lakes may be read through such a lens is by examining how the text positions Martineau as the guiding force behind the narrative. Here, Martineau acts as something of a ‘disabled observer’, a figure who is conveying in the narrative her experiences, though these experiences might come into question given her disability status. That is to say, the disabled observer, lacking in full command of all her senses 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. Indeed, as noted in previous sections, Martineau had great faith in her abilities of observation (Fratz 114) and thus no doubt every confidence as a guide, though what of the reader’s own faith in Martineau in such roles? We, as readers, are required to have such faith in Martineau, and such faith is exercised by actively immersing ourselves in the imaginary space she provides. The depths into which we sink ourselves come to reflect our level of trust in her guidance, though full immersion — and thus, full trust — is the logical necessity if we hope to make the most of our experience. While subtle in its performance within the text, this relationship creates a very curious shift in the power dynamic that temporarily inverts social hierarchy: if one ‘abled’ is being led around by one who is ‘disabled’, the power belongs to the disabled observer by virtue of the narrative’s creation of an imaginary space from the disabled perspective. As participants who locate themselves within the ‘disabled’ perspective’s space, those traditionally in power naturally find themselves disempowered by necessity of being subordinate to the vast knowledge held by the disabled observer-as-guide.

Throughout the text, as Martineau remarks in detail on the surroundings of the Lake District with the kind of “precision” (Easley 296) one would hardly expect from one who is disabled. Rather, she seems to know everything there is to know about the area, from where to find the best char (Martineau 38) to the ideal path around Ambleside (51), and the “locations of various homes and the identities of their inhabitants” (Easley 296). With so much information heaped upon us, we are forced to wonder how our disabled guide — this deaf woman lacking in at least two other senses of the full six — can know so much fine detail of the land. Indeed, we even come to depend on the disabled observer 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. Too, 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 own physical disabilities merely become a matter of perspective. Indeed, as “the [reader] experiences geography through the lens provided by [Martineau], whose interpretation of the landscape is more authentic, and therefore more real” (Easley 302) than theirs, the very act of trusting Martineau becomes an act that carries with it an inherent validation of the disabled observer’s ableness.

Not only affecting how we interpret the guide as seekers of information, disability can also be observed as impacting the literary element of A Description of the English Lakes. In Victorian times, the highly genderized society rendered the matter of sexual identity one of great importance. To be a woman in a man’s world was, in many ways, a disability in and of itself, most especially in how life of a traditional Victorian woman was deprived of fully sharing in the experiences of her male counterparts and was thus forced into a station of observation. 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 […] to secretly introduce feminist thought into all kinds of discourse […] — thus covertly leading to a feminist awareness of the reader” (99). In A Description of the English Lakes, we may see such different voices inform, working together in how the the literary aspect of the work functions alongside the practical travel advice; looking deeper, we may observe how the literary narrative actually operates in a way that empowers the disabled (a term inclusive of gender in this context) by undermining the patriarchal authority inherent in traditional Victorian society. For example, such subversion within A Description of the English Lakes is most noticeable in the sex of the ‘stranger’, a character Martineau guides through the Lake District. Martineau’s matter-of-fact narrative, inherently masculine with its great wisdom and seemingly endless knowledge of facts of the land, is naturally the more dominant than the stranger despite his gender. Indeed, the stranger 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 third person and the pronoun ‘he’ to distinguish the sex of the stranger, continues to stress for us a power dynamic in which the disabled observer — Martineau, a female — has become an authority over the abled male, with the former acting as the bastion of wisdom in contrast to the latter’s witless ignorance. Indeed,  the stranger is never female; he is forever and always male; a stranger in the realm of Martineau and made to feel subordinate to her in how she repeatedly emphasizes his status as one who does not belong:

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. (Martineau 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 (sometimes clumsily) 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)

In our analysis, we have seen how the disabled observer, performed as both author of the work and as the ‘guide’ in the narrative of the text, asserts a sense of authority over both her readership and the character of the male ‘stranger’. Despite the weakness of the author’s position as one hindered by disability, the popularity of Martineau travel guide seems to suggest it transcended any bias against it. In the acceptance of A Description of the English Lakes as a legitimate source of information, we perhaps find validation to the perspective of the disabled. Indeed, in sharing and trusting such normally subordinated perspectives, a sense of equality may be measured between the abled and disabled and, thus, the text becomes a mediating force between the two. This is arguably what makes A Description of the English Lakes such a fascinating read: it operates as both a travel guide and a glowing reflection of Martineau’s every confidence as the disabled observer.

Works Cited

  1. Byerly, Alison. Are We There Yet?: Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2012. Print.
  2. Easley, Alexis. “The Woman of Letters at Home.” Victorian Literature and Culture 31.1 (2006): 291-310. JSTOR.Web. 3 Apr. 2014.
  3. Fratz, Deborah Mae. “Post of Observation: Harriet Martineau’s Disabled Subject as Sociological Observer.” Disabled Subjects: Disability, Gender and Ethical Agency in Victorian Realism. Ann Arbor, 2008. ProQuest. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
  4. Martineau, Harriet. A Description of the English Lakes. London: Marshall and Simpkin, 1858. Print.
  5. Wallraven, Miriam. A Writing Halfway Between Theory and Fiction: Mediating Feminism from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007. Print..

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