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23 Dec 2013 UK Disability History Month Blogs 2013: "You May Have Noticed I am Shy a Larboard Leg": Dr Dogbody and Disability History

 

“I’d not swap my larboard leg for a dozen of flesh and blood. Many’s the time I’ve considered amputation on the starboard side. Did ye never stop to consider the advantage of a jury-leg? On one side I’m spared corns, gout, rheumatism, swelling of the joints, scurvy, scrofula, and other griefs past counting.  No, b’gad! Never waste sympathy on a one-legged man’.

 

So announces Dr Feadle Dogbody, retired Navy surgeon and central character of Dr Dogbody’s Leg, a series of ten short stories written by the U.S. author James Norman Hall, set in around 1817 and first published in 1940 (but by an author with much historical knowledge).  As a character, Dogbody is somewhat akin to Baron Munchausen, in terms of his penchant for telling tall tales. In each story, Dogbody loses his ‘larboard’ (left) leg in a different and increasingly fantastic manner – whether it be to an African arrow received whilst galloping on an ostrich, or to a French guillotine. The doctor’s tales are encouraged and appreciated by his captive audience at The Cheerful Tortoise pub in Portsmouth.   

burdett_dogbody_rs.jpgReaders’ and critics’ reactions to Doctor Dogbody’s Leg have in many ways exemplified Lennard J. Davis’ remark that disability as a category is often ‘critically unnoticed’ in literature. However, in a recent blog post for the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, the disability historian Catherine J. Kudlick described how she had used three small plastic pirate figures (complete with hooks and eye patches) to introduce the idea that these ‘disability action figures’ represented disabled people who, contrary to stereotypes,  led lives that were full of adventure, excitement and danger. In a rather different way, the same could certainly be said for Dr Dogbody. Using recent research into disability history, particularly David M. Turner’s book Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment (Routledge: 2012) I want to use this post to show that the book could play an important role in introducing disability history to a wider audience.

Why does Dr Dogbody makes his unipedal state the focus of his stories? After all, in the eighteenth century, a Navy man who had lost a leg on active service would hardly have been unique. Nevertheless, the figure of the disabled serviceman is quite a potent one in eighteenth-century British culture.  Turner gives numerous examples – from jest-books to sentimental articles and engravings – of the fascination with which such ex-servicemen were often regarded by civilians. This could be because they were seen as examples of heroic self-sacrifice, or as figures of fun. The case of Dr Dogbody is in some ways reminiscent of Turner’s assessment of the problems inherent in eighteenth-century admiration of impaired persons’ witty ripostes to those who would mock them. Writes Turner,

 

… the representation of impairment in jests … was  double-edged. On the one hand, these jokes countered the rudeness of those who sought to mock or patronise the ‘afflicted’, and in doing so harnessed the subversive qualities of laughter. On the other hand, they also presented the view that that the stigma of impairment  …  could be made to disappear by a witty retort. Those who had a riposte handy could expect to gain respect, whereas others were ripe for the verbal abuse of non-disabled observers. Disability was presented largely as a problem of personal overcoming, where the burden of ‘acceptance’ rested firmly on the shoulders of the ‘afflicted’. (Turner, 72). 

 

This presentation of ‘acceptance’ as a hurdle over which a disabled person had to jump in order to join or re-join mainstream society is highly revealing. In the quotation I used at the beginning of this post, Dr Dogbody is outlining the advantages of his ‘jury-leg’ to his to his old friend and fellow seaman Captain ‘Inky’ Murgatroyd. The two men have not met for some considerable time and Murgatroyd was unaware of the fact that Dogbody had lost his leg. On seeing what has happened, Murgatroyd expresses shock and sympathy:

 

 ‘Aye, an active lad ye was, Doctor … It grieves me to see ye hampered as ye are, with but the one leg.’ (Doctor Dogbody’s Leg, 52)

 

Dogbody’s determined rejection of his old friend’s sympathy shows his eagerness to present his impairment in the most positive light. Whilst it could be argued that his use of it as the focus of his stories is merely another example of this, a reading of the stories which keeps in mind the fact that no impaired person lives in a societal vacuum, encourages the thought that the situation may be more complicated than that. As this is UK Disability History Month, however, it is important to ask whether such an approach might be interpreted as ahistorical? Not necessarily: Turner’s book mentions the disabled eighteenth-century MP William Hay (1695-1755), whose essay On Deformity is much admired by Disability Studies scholars as, supposedly, the first articulation of disabled identity. Turner argues that this fails to take into account the reception of Hay’s work by his contemporaries. For example, Turner tells us that in June 1796, the Critical Review praised Hay’s

 

good sense to make a jest

 

of his appearance and remarked that

 

for the world in general the Essay is little more than an entertaining jeu d’esprit [but] an excellent piece of moral advice for persons under a similar misfortune (Quoted in Turner, 122)

 

In other words, Hay’s job (and, by extension, Dr Dogbody’s) was to make himself agreeable and, if possible, entertaining to others. The contrast between this and the social model of disability is highly relevant and gives much food for thought.  

 

References

 

Emmeline Burdett is an independent scholar.


Guest post for Disability and Industiral Society's UK Disability History Month Blogs 2013.


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