Austen, Expectations, and Crips in the World

Pasquale S. Toscano //

I’ve been reading a great deal of Jane Austen lately, which is odd, because I’ve never considered myself a fan of the grande dame of English letters. All of her plots are so damned predictable, and well—how shall we put this—quaint. And then there are those maddeningly handsome gentlemen and far-too-fetching ladies—a surfeit of able bodies walking about the fields and grounds and estates that unfold throughout her works. The more mature literary critic would look past these ostensible deficits to Austen’s development of free-indirect discourse, her representations of fully-fleshed out characters—especially, women butting up against misogyny—the way she captures the rapid movement of characters’ thoughts, as Rachel Cohen beautifully emphasizes, the polyphony of so great a novel as Pride and Prejudice, to borrow from Afar Nafisi. The list continues. But for a long while, this mature I was not.

And then I started reading her—actually, reading her. (Not just experiencing Austen through Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, which we watched in high school, or the Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley.) First for a course on eighteenth-century fiction: Persuasion (1817), Austen’s famously autumnal novel. And then I slowly wended my way through four of the books that preceded this one on Audible. They became my release at the end of the day, after hours of burying my head in scholarship I needed to know for my Ph.D. coursework. And then something strange happened: everywhere, I started noticing characters like me—not always with a cane or brace (like the ones I use because of my spinal cord injury) but so-called “invalids,” “cripples,” and those who are dubbed vexatious malingerers, but who anyone who’s ever struggled with chronic illness knows are just doing the best they can with relentlessly unstable, mercurial bodies.[1]

Let’s look at only three examples. In Persuasion, we meet the protagonist’s—Anne Elliot’s—sister Mary, who is always complaining of ill-health, and yet who bristles when she is excluded from family walks. She is just as much a lover of a good stroll as anyone else. We also encounter Mrs. Smith, who’s rheumatism has laid her low, but who–to Anne’s astonishment–has found immense contentment with her nurse and, more importantly, companion Mrs. Rooke, and who plays a pivotal, if debatable, role in the plot, proving to be more of a mother to Anne than her more obvious maternal figure Lady Russell.

And then there’s Sanditon (1817), an incomplete novel about two characters, Mr. Parker and Lady Denham, who try to make their small town into a famous seaside health center without giving so much as a damn about the people who migrate to Sanditon for help. It’s difficult to tell how good this novel would have been since only about 100 pages of it were written before Austen died (after a long struggle with Addison’s disease). Even so, my favorite lines in all of Austen come from this book, when young Charlotte, as close to a headliner as its ensemble cast has, encounters Mr. Parker’s sister Diana for the first time with a crass excuse for her shock: “I dare say I do look surprised [to see you] … because these are very great exertions, and I know what Invalids both you and your Sister are” (52). “Invalids, indeed,” Miss Parker confirms. “I trust there are not three People in England who have so sad a right to that appellation!—But my dear Miss Heywood, we are sent into this World to be as extensively useful as possible, and where some degree of Strength of Mind is given, it is not a feeble body which will excuse us—or incline us to excuse ourselves.”[2]

Charlotte obviously has preconceived expectations about what an invalid is capable of. Very clearly, they are wrong.

***

I am reading Sanditon at the height of the storm, after the snow has cast itself onto the streets and sidewalks of Princeton, New Jersey, for the past eighteen hours, from Saturday evening to Sunday afternoon. By the looks of it, I won’t be heaving myself anywhere except the kitchen or bathroom until at least Thursday, when the National Weather Service predicts there will finally be a lull in the action. Deciding when to step out again after some wintry turbulence is no mean feat for anyone, really, but the stakes are higher for those of us who identify as crips, who wheel or hobble or limp our way from place to place. While my peers have been sending giggly texts to each other the entire weekend about what time they should meet up to play in the snow, I am left wondering: how will I forge ahead, how will I manage with my cane and brace without falling, how will I keep my balance. Yet again, fun seems to be an ablebodied person’s game.

But this isn’t a story about that. Not primarily, anyway. This is a story about misguided expectations, the assumption that disability can only exist in the most circumscribed of areas: the hospital, for instance, or nursing home. Certainly not at an elite university—where you rarely see wheelchair users, for instance—or in the pages of Jane Austen.

***

By Thursday, the weather has indeed subsided, and the fact that I have gone nowhere for the previous 96 hours is starting to wear me down; there is also a COVID sample to be submitted. So I don my boots, mutter a silent half-prayer that I wouldn’t slip on the ice which lurks beneath the snow, and venture into a gelid parking lot where one false pace could mean an accident. Something pulls at my line of sight, a tug, then a yank. Pittering, pattering, by my car, not walking so much as baby-stepping, I force myself to glance over at the white slip of paper that has fallen into the mound of powdery crystals below, occluded, concealed, consumed in a heap of hoary albescence. A ticket. $250. This is a great deal of money. No note, explanation. Never, in a year-and-a-half of parking in this lot, has this happened. And then I see the sign, the reserved-for-disabled-drivers sign, and not so much the sign as the penalty, in bold, black letters, first offense and a pecuniary denomination. $250. Here, we have a culprit. I have become Dupin, Holmes, Marple, Marlowe, at last investigating myself.

But this makes even less sense: I have a placard. The placard. It’s in the car! But on the dashboard, and the windshield, of course, has been occluded just like the ticket itself, iced, frosted, covered over. The public safety officer hasn’t seen it. Why would he have? He hasn’t seen it, but he was so sure that I couldn’t possibly be disabled—that disability is out of place in this kind of rarefied, active, vigorous space, where so many people jog and exercise and stay fit—that he had decided to give me a ticket anyway.

I’ve thought about this every which way, and it’s the only conclusion I can possibly come to. Because let’s assume for a moment that the officer in charge had wanted to make sure that these spots were saved for those who truly needed them, I’m all for that—truly. Bravo. Still, he might have considered the fact that had there been a placard, he wouldn’t have been able to obtain visual proof of its existence—or that the same car is always parked in the same place, never arousing suspicion before.

It was unnecessary to afford me this benefit of the doubt, however, because the default is to assume the presence of ability over disability. Always. In this case, the car could not be one that’s owned by someone with a disability—or driven by one for that matter. (“You can drive?”—with the concomitant gasp—is a reaction I get enough to know that most people assume disabled folks can’t operate a vehicle to begin with, except with the most extreme accommodations, which, in any case, would be obvious to someone peering inside.) I trust that this officer, when actually presented with the all-important placard, can accept the presence of disability, but without obvious, explicit, incontrovertible proof, his instinct—society’s instinct—is to doubt our interpolation into spaces not specifically marked for us, despite disability being the most fluid identity category of them all.

My eyes sting, and not just from the cold; a spiky, sparkly feeling emanates from my deficient spine toward my head, threatening to expand, expound, explode. I’ll deal with this, I think, let me just finish work. And then class, something else, and something else after that. Pains and aches and occasionally spasms—doctor’s appointments to confirm, scooter logistics to work out. We’re also approaching midterms, and I’ve got enough on my mind. Plus, I don’t want to explain myself, sort through the quagmire of misunderstandings. This too is a pain. There’s no better way to put it, no need to adorn such a basic truth with the accoutrements of grandiose style.

When I finally do reach out, I’m told it’s been too long, that I could have had my placard on file, that the deputy director might not void the ticket. But a year hasn’t transpired. Not even a fortnight. Just five days since I found it, a ticket that, save for the weather, I wouldn’t have gotten in the first place—or would have discovered right away even if I had. My first inclination is to rage, to meet the tone in kind, to let go from my email account something I know I’ll wish could be retracted. I almost don’t care. And then I think about what I can do in the interim, what might ameliorate the bubbling, boiling frustration I feel with every new example of ableism I encounter.

Read more—disabled authors, disability history, authors we might not expect to be engaging with disability. Read more Austen. Write about her characters. Write about how their experiences are ones that remain relevant to our own time. And why this matters. Oh, Mary, Mrs. Smith, Miss Diana Parker, how I wish I could meet you. How I wish they could meet you, for I feel I already have. That’s Austen’s magic, after all, the sense of vivacity she imparts through the written word, the prescience for which she’s still not given enough credit.

Four days later, the public safety liaison gets back to me with good news. The deputy director has decided, at last, to downgrade the ticket to a warning. For what, I don’t ask, because I already know. Not making my disabled presence as legible as would have been appreciated. There is the clear expectation—in the tone of her words, in the way she mentions what has needed to happen so that I would not be charged $250, how irresponsible I have been—that I should be thankful for this bureaucrat’s immense largesse. I am not.

Life is always full of surprises, or so they say. I keep reading Austen, now, because she reminds me that I am one of them—but that there’s a power in this reality too, in being a character who upsets commonplace—boring, facile, intellectually bereft—expectations. My only hope is that I can start doing so with her signature wit and disregard for convention.

Works Cited

Rachel Cohen, Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels (New York: FSG, 2020).

Diane Driedger, “Jane Austen and Me: Tales from the Couch,” The Routledge History of Disability, ed. Roy Hanes, Ivan Brown, Nancy E. Hansen (New York: Routledge, 2017), 48-55.

Jason S. Farr, “Sharp Minds / Twisted Bodies: Intellect, Disability, and Female Education in Frances Burney’s Camilla,” The Eighteenth Century 55.1 (2014): 1-17.

Maria H. Frawley, Invalidism and Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

Lynda A. Hall, “A View from Confinement: Persuasion’s Resourceful Mrs. Smith,” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies 7.3 (Winter 2011): n.p.

James Kinsley, ed., Jane Austen, Persuasion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Ula Lukszo Klein, “Fanny Price as Disabled Heroine in Mansfield Park,” SEL 60.3 (2020): 577-95.

Afar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (New York: Random House, 2003).

Kathryn Sutherland, ed., Jane Austen, Sanditon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).


[1] On the nineteenth-century “invalid,” see Frawley and Driedger.

[2] For further discussion of disability in Austen, see Farr, Hall, and Klein.

Image: Angelsharum, used per the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s