Thackeray's decorated initial I

n 1835, the Belgian mathematician Lambert Adolphe Quetelet condensed more than a decade's worth of statistical research into his famous construct of l'homme moyen, the "average man," an ideal developed from measurable physical attributes such as body size. From this research, Quetelet hoped give social scientists a tool to measure and eventually predict any person's likelihood of engaging in behaviors that could affect the social order, such as whether a person might develop a penchant for courageous or criminal acts (Porter 48-50). In The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th-Century Fiction, Lillian Craton uses Quetelet's homme moyen as a point of departure for her analysis of the meanings of physical difference in Victorian fiction. By considering representations of grotesque, deviant, or otherwise "odd" bodies in mid- and late-nineteenth century fiction, Craton aims to present Victorian responses to "images of physical difference" (2) in all their complexity.

Although Craton's tour of the Victorian grotesque ranges from Dickens' caricatures to freak show celebrities, her analytical framework focuses on four specific kinds of bodily deviance -- smallness, fatness, female masculinity, and the "mutable" or growing/shrinking body. In Craton's view, the presence of these figures in Victorian fiction had not only familiar repressive but also surprisingly liberatory effects. In particular, they allowed writers and others to disrupt middle class expectations about people who displayed different physical types, and to confound the ignorant or prejudicial in efforts "to conflate the normal with the ideal." (38) Drawing on Bakhtinian ideas about the "spectacle of difference," Craton suggests that rather than enforcing images of normality, Quetelet's homme moyen gave Victorian writers a reason to ask readers to continue to engage with bodily difference, albeit in a sensationalized way:

The 'average man' made cameos in popular writing: Dickens' All the Year Round cites Quetelet in an 1865 article entitled 'Fat People,' although the article demonstrates a way in which social science and popular literature diverge. 'Fat People' shifts its focus away from the average to more sensational images of difference. After referencing the 'average man' as a baseline for normal weight, the article explores our fascination with physical extremes and discusses well-known spectacles of grotesque bodies like the celebrated performing fat man Daniel Lambert. In favor of the age-old appeal of spectacles of difference, 'Fat People' ignores Quetelet's point about the refinement of artistic representation. If the average man offers a convenient symbol, so too does All the Year Round's application of Quetelet's ideas to a discussion of human extremes rather than a description of human norms. No matter how strong the pull towards the cultural center, odd bodies retain the interest and power inherent to the grotesque aesthetic. [34-35]

The enduring appeal of the marginal, Craton suggests, may have even imbued Quetelet's statistical research with an ambiguous allure. No matter how hard he tried, Quetelet could not "account for the indefinable space outside his own limits, a space 'beyond the natural' where 'things preternatural, or monstrosities' continue to exist in spite of their lack of adherence to the rational constructs that govern nineteenth-century society. Indeed, this dark margin shapes many of Quetelet's inquiries and inspires his most poetic writing." (35)

Craton devotes the first of the book's four chapters to smallness or, in her words, "littleness," particularly of women and girls. Although the chapter is focused on the sentimentalized portrait of childhood offered in Dickens' novels, Craton's analysis touches on other popular variations on the theme of smallness, linking her ideas about the "authority of small size" in Dickens to the presence of collectible waxwork miniatures in museums and the display of "dwarves" and "midgets" in Victorian popular entertainments. Craton suggests that the "blend" of "sentimental and grotesque imagery" characteristic of Dickens' representations of smallness made unusual and perhaps even extraordinary claims on an audience's capacity for moral response: "The grotesque unsettles audiences [...] Like the audience at a freak show, consumers of sentimental art receive a dramatic sensory experience rather than a message. [...] The grotesque elevates the collective experience of performance and spectacle above the image's intended moral impact." (46)

After exploring the ramifications of feminine smallness, Craton turns her attention to feminine girth. In this chapter, Craton aims to show the multiplicity of meanings that attached to fatness in Victorian society through the lens of its fiction. Many of these meanings had to do with nurture and sustenance. According to Craton, "[n]urturing fat ladies supplement various forms of thinness" (97) in several of Dickens' novels. Here, again, Craton's focus is on body shape in its departure from the "normal" of Quetelet's homme moyen. But as Craton's examples suggest, this deviation from the normal had more than one meaning. A large body was not merely freakish but also a sign of abundance. This ambiguity, Craton says, allowed writers trace paths between high and low culture, popular and aristocratic concerns and pursuits. Stout Queen Victoria, who Craton reads as a variant of the freak-show "fat lady" , provided just this kind of cultural switch-point:

The transition from freak to monarch no doubt seems abrupt. Yet both freak and monarch serve as bodily spectacles: like displays of difference, the Queen's public identity and appearances were designed for visual consumption. Both figures occupy extreme positions within nineteenth-century culture, yet also help to define the core of middle-class normalcy. Both offer an individual face that carries much wider significance in social and cultural discourse, as the Queen represents nation in the way that freak represents difference or deviance. In short, both are icons. And, of course, the mature Victoria's stoutness resembles that of the fat lady, a common figure of the freak show. Together these rotund figures flank the culturally dominant middle class, with the aristocratic matron mirroring the folk performer whose carnival venue grew from plebeian culture. [88]

Like the other "odd bodies" in Craton's account, the large body functioned as an invitation to imagine a society ordered according to different and less rigid ideals than any given by a statistical norm. Even "[t]he idea of the Queen centers on magnitude," Craton writes, and this value included a kind of queenly magnanimity that spread outward from the kitchen and the hearth. Using Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies, Craton shows how this feminine ideal of amplitude competed with and at times bested the better-known ideal of self-effacing Victorian femininity. (89) Starting with the Queen herself, this ideal of femininity caused "acts of domestic kindness to resonate on a grand level." (90) In this way, "[p]hysical excess" could "fuel nurturance within stories of poverty and social vulnerability" (91), as in the character of Clara Peggotty, David Copperfield's "most affectionate mother figure [...] whose robust body is an inexhaustible source of nurturance" (97-99). Contrasting Clara Peggotty with the "fasting girls" of All the Year Round who "have publicly claimed to exist without sustenance," Craton shows how their anorexia was consistent with a restrictive middle-class attitude toward the body. The corset, for instance, "demonstrated self-control" and advertised "the moral continence of the wearer," as well as membership in the middle-class. (115)

A third chapter, devoted to "masculine women," explores representations of yet another Victorian feminine freak. Here, Craton turns for examples to Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, and particularly to Collins' presentation of Marian Halcombe as a masculine woman, as seen through the eyes of the novel's "drawing-master hero" Walter Hartright:

The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays ... She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. [quoted p. 126]

Before Hartright stands a typical Victorian ideal woman -- graceful, unaffected, even uncorseted. So far, so good. But, as Collins has already telegraphed from the passage's breathless tone, Hartright is in for a surprise:

She left the window -- and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps -- and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer -- and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail to express), The lady is ugly! [She had] a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. [quoted p. 126]

Her moustache only adds to Hartright's confusion. In Craton's view, these ambiguous figures tended to carry readers' projections not only of transgression or wickedness but also, and more importantly, of power. They permitted audiences to imagine a more aggressive femininity, a possibility that helped to define sensational fiction as a genre and provided one key to its appeal (131). Craton's subsidiary themes in this chapter include cross-dressing, racialized femininity, reprisals of Amazon-related themes, and late-century anxieties about the New Woman. In Victorian sensational fiction, these striking female characters "are not who they are despite their bodies, but because of them." (137)

Craton's fourth and final "odd body" is one that grows, shrinks, or is otherwise "mutable." This changeable body is epitomized by Lewis Carroll's Alice as she makes her way through the mirror-world of Wonderland where "the disproportion and hybridity of the freak show dominate" (170). As a physically normal girl who undergoes disturbing changes in bodily proportion as well as adventures with others who are similarly "odd-bodied," Alice becomes "as much an object of curiosity and visual scrutiny as any of the unusual creatures she meets" (170). These experiences of difference, Craton suggests, "define how the act of looking at difference can encourage meaningful questions about the coherence of socially constructed ideals" (171). Glossing the looking-glass world as a textual freak show, Craton suggests that "Alice tries on the subject positions of the various types of freak performers" and in so doing, "she finds that her assumptions about the world crumble when examined from different points of view. If a housecat can mean different things to different creatures, then a little girl must surely also be something more than the crystallized sweetness of the Victorian ideal." (204)

Craton's position on the function of Victorian representations of bodily difference is certainly a hopeful one. In the large and varied cast of Victorian "odd bodies" Craton finds many reasons to see Victorian society as more inclusive and accommodating of difference than we are accustomed to imagine. At times, however, this appealing view is undermined by patchy analysis and shallow reading, especially of secondary material. The book consists of close readings of familiar texts interspersed with summaries of secondary writings that ought to have been condensed and relegated to footnotes in order to free space for more intensive work with a broader set of primary sources. While Craton's focus on female figures is sensible, at least insofar as every real and fictional Victorian woman represented at least some departure from Quetelet's "average man," it is difficult to say whether the "spectacle of human oddity" (35) that is Craton's focus is necessarily feminine or if the preponderance of female "odd bodies" here is an artifact of the research. Craton's use of Maupassant as a supplemental example raises a different but related concern about the boundaries of her analysis. Maupassant's national and literary context differed in important ways from Dickens', and the fact that both writers use stoutness to represent nurturing capacity adds little to our understanding of this familiar trope. Smaller missteps also grate: readers of Michel Foucault, for instance, will be surprised to discover that he was a New Historicist (9) and, more distressingly, that his analysis of power relations rested on his recognition that Bentham's panopticon produced a "judgmental gaze" (11) rather than a juridical one. I'm aware that I'm picking a nit, but my point is not altogether trivial. Although Craton's exploration of "odd bodies" tells a great deal about Victorian judgmental attitudes toward physical differences, it should not be confused with a structural analysis of the power relations that produced and sustained injustices toward real Victorian "odd bodies."


Craton, Lillian. The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th-Century Fiction. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2009.

Porter, Theodore. The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Last modified 2 December 2014