Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mrs Smith from Persuasion -- Physical Disability and Illness as the great Equalizer

Excerpt from Persuasion, by Jane Austen -- first published 1818:

Chapter 17

While Sir Walter and Elizabeth were assiduously pushing their good fortune in Laura Place, Anne was renewing an acquaintance of a very different description.

She had called on her former governess, and had heard from her of there being an old school-fellow in Bath, who had the two strong claims on her attention of past kindness and present suffering. Miss Hamilton, now Mrs Smith, had shewn her kindness in one of those periods of her life when it had been most valuable. Anne had gone unhappy to school, grieving for the loss of a mother whom she had dearly loved, feeling her separation from home, and suffering as a girl of fourteen, of strong sensibility and not high spirits, must suffer at such a time;
and Miss Hamilton, three years older than herself, but still from the want of near relations and a settled home, remaining another year at school, had been useful and good to her in a way which had considerably lessened her misery, and could never be remembered with indifference.

Miss Hamilton had left school, had married not long afterwards, was said to have married a man of fortune, and this was all that Anne had known of her, till now that their governess's account brought her situation forward in a more decided but very different form.

She was a widow and poor. Her husband had been extravagant; and at his death, about two years before, had left his affairs dreadfully involved. She had had difficulties of every sort to contend with, and in addition to these distresses had been afflicted with a severe rheumatic fever, which, finally settling in her legs, had made her for the present a cripple. She had come to Bath on that account, and was now in lodgings near the hot baths, living in a very humble way, unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant, and of course almost excluded from society.

Their mutual friend answered for the satisfaction which a visit from Miss Elliot would give Mrs Smith, and Anne therefore lost no time in going. She mentioned nothing of what she had heard, or what she intended, at home. It would excite no proper interest there. She only consulted Lady Russell, who entered thoroughly into her sentiments, and was most happy to convey her as near to Mrs Smith's lodgings in Westgate Buildings, as Anne chose to be taken.

The visit was paid, their acquaintance re-established, their interest in each other more than re-kindled. The first ten minutes had its awkwardness and its emotion. Twelve years were gone since they had parted, and each presented a somewhat different person from what the other had imagined. Twelve years had changed Anne from the blooming, silent, unformed girl of fifteen, to the elegant
little woman of seven-and-twenty, with every beauty except bloom, and with manners as consciously right as they were invariably gentle; and twelve years had transformed the fine-looking, well-grown Miss Hamilton, in all the glow of health and confidence of superiority, into a poor, infirm, helpless widow, receiving the visit of her former protegee as a favour; but all that was uncomfortable in the meeting had soon passed away, and left only the interesting charm of remembering former partialities and talking over old times.

Anne found in Mrs Smith the good sense and agreeable manners which she had almost ventured to depend on, and a disposition to converse and be cheerful beyond her expectation. Neither the dissipations of the past--and she had lived very much in the world--nor the restrictions of the present, neither sickness nor sorrow seemed to have closed her heart or ruined her spirits.

In the course of a second visit she talked with great openness, and Anne's astonishment increased. She could scarcely imagine a more cheerless situation in itself than Mrs Smith's. She had been very fond of her husband: she had buried him. She had been used to affluence: it was gone. She had no child to connect her with life and happiness again, no relations to assist in the arrangement of perplexed affairs, no health to make all the rest supportable. Her accommodations were limited to a noisy parlour, and a dark bedroom behind, with no possibility of moving from one to the other without assistance, which there was only one servant in the house to afford, and she never quitted the house but to be conveyed into the warm bath. Yet, in spite of all this, Anne had reason to believe that she had moments only of languor and depression, to hours of occupation and enjoyment. How could it be? She watched, observed, reflected, and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude
or of resignation only. A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

There had been a time, Mrs Smith told her, when her spirits had nearly failed. She could not call herself an invalid now, compared with her state on first reaching Bath. Then she had, indeed, been a pitiable object; for she had caught cold on the journey, and had hardly taken possession of her lodgings before she was again confined to her bed and suffering under severe and constant pain;
and all this among strangers, with the absolute necessity of having a regular nurse, and finances at that moment particularly unfit to meet any extraordinary expense. She had weathered it, however, and could truly say that it had done her good. It had increased her comforts by making her feel herself to be in good hands. She had seen too much of the world, to expect sudden or disinterested
attachment anywhere, but her illness had proved to her that her landlady
had a character to preserve, and would not use her ill; and she had been
particularly fortunate in her nurse, as a sister of her landlady, a nurse by profession, and who had always a home in that house when unemployed, chanced to be at liberty just in time to attend her. "And she," said Mrs Smith, "besides nursing me most admirably, has really proved an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pin-cushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good
to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood. She had a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandise. She always takes the right time for applying. Everybody's heart is open, you know, when they have recently escaped from severe pain, or are recovering the blessing of health, and Nurse Rooke thoroughly understands when to speak. She is a shrewd, intelligent, sensible woman. Hers is a line for seeing human nature; and she has a fund of good sense and observation, which, as a companion, make her infinitely superior to thousands of those who having only received `the best education in the world,' know nothing worth attending to. Call it gossip, if you will, but when Nurse Rooke has half an hour's leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable: something that makes one
know one's species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who live so much alone, her conversation, I assure you, is a treat."

Anne, far from wishing to cavil at the pleasure, replied, "I can easily believe it. Women of that class have great opportunities, and if they are intelligent may be well worth listening to. Such varieties of human nature as they are in the habit of witnessing! And it is not merely in its follies, that they are well read; for they see it occasionally under every circumstance that can be most interesting or affecting. What instances must pass before them of ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, of heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation: of all the conflicts and all the sacrifices that ennoble us most. A sick chamber may often furnish the worth of volumes."

"Yes," said Mrs Smith more doubtingly, "sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often in the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial; but generally speaking, it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber: it is selfishness and impatience rather than generosity and fortitude, that one hears of. There is so little real friendship in the world! and unfortunately" (speaking low and tremulously) "there are so many who forget to think seriously till it is almost too late."

Anne saw the misery of such feelings. The husband had not been what he ought, and the wife had been led among that part of mankind which made her think worse of the world than she hoped it deserved. It was but a passing emotion however with Mrs Smith; she shook it off, and soon added in a different tone--

"I do not suppose the situation my friend Mrs Rooke is in at present, will furnish much either to interest or edify me. She is only nursing Mrs Wallis of Marlborough Buildings; a mere pretty, silly, expensive, fashionable woman, I believe; and of course will have nothing to report but of lace and finery. I mean to make my profit of Mrs Wallis, however. She has plenty of money, and I intend she shall buy all the high-priced things I have in hand now."

I first read Persuasion several years ago, and had almost forgotten about the character of Mrs. Smith, and the role her disability plays as a turning point in the plot, until I was just finishing up my last entry on The Squirrel and the Fox, and contemplating how Jack's blindness gave him access to crucial information that he would not have otherwise.

By virtue of his blindness, Jack has the opportunity to eavesdrop on an entire year of news from a wealthy town, from the suffering of ordinary citizens to that of the Lord Mayor and even the royal family. Mrs. Smith, by virtue of her arthritic legs, is likewise given an opportunity to meet and befriend Nurse Rooke -- a woman who, if Mrs. Smith still had money, health. and social privilege, would have been beneath her notice. And it is through the gossip of Nurse Rooke that Mrs. Smith is able to pass on crucial information to Anne which ultimately informs her decisions about the future course of her life.

Jane Austen's overarching theme in Persuasion is the contrast between being a member of the 'correct' social class, and having a correct, and strong, inner character. And she uses Mrs. Smith's rhumatism to highlight just how arbitrary and fleeting social status and privilege can be. The rich and poor alike fall ill, regardless of their "proper" breeding, and thus will enventually need the services of someone like Nurse Rooke. Though Austen is also quick to point out, through the voice of Mrs. Smith, that illness, itself, does not make one noble or patient, but only highlights a person's true character, for better or worse.

As was often said by activists lobbying for the cause, as the Americans with Disabilities Act was being crafted, and making its way through Congress:

"'Disability' is the one minority group everyone will join -- if they're lucky."

*This was excerpted from the Project Gutenberg etext edition:

Title: Persuasion
Author: Jane Austen
February, 1994 [Etext #105]
[Date last updated: April 15, 2005]
Edition: 11
Language: English

The full text is available for download, in a variety of formats, here: Persuasion by Jane Austen

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Squirrel and the Fox -- Awe and fear in the face of Disability

Before I share this story, a few comments on my "process."

I've known most of the stories here for many years. And, for the folktales, at least, I've read several different translations and versions. They fit my mind the way old fuzzy slippers fit my feet. As such, I feel as comfortable claiming them as "mine," and retelling them in my own words, as I would telling a remembered event in my own childhood.

This story is new to me. It was recommended to me for this blog by a friend, this spring, and I only got a chance to read it last month, in 1984 paperback reprint of a volume originally published in 1933.* The story was originally collected and translated by the linquist John Sampson at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

Folktales, at that time, were presented to the reading public unadulterated, ancient, and authentic And the role of the good folklorist was seen to be a mute and faithful recorder. I'm highly dubious of this claim, especially since the portrayals of the gypsy heroes in these tales conform to the privileged biases of the dominant culture, and show them to be simultaneously exotic, heroic, unsophisticated and slightly untrustworthy.

However, I have an even greater distrust of my own biases. And so, to ensure that I do not twist the tale, and give it meanings it was never intended to have, I present it here word-for-word from the book at hand; the only changes I've made are to substitute line breaks for pilcrows and the word "and" for ampersands.

(A Welsh-Romany folktale, collected and translated by John Sampson)

There was a little village down in England, and two brothers living there. They were poor as poor could be: they knew not what to do.

They went seek for work, but no work could they find. Said one to the other: "There is a little old woman who lives down yonder in a small cave. Let us go thither. The old woman will tell us whether there is good fortune before us." "Yes, let us go," replied the other.

They came to the little dwelling, and hallooed to the old woman. The old woman knew they were coming and what they wanted. There was a great stone before the door. The old woman bade them drag away the stone. They dragged away the stone. "Carry me outside and set me on the stone, and I will tell you everything." The old woman had neither arms nor legs: thus she had been born.

"Hearken both of you to what I am going to tell you." Then quoth the armless one to Jack: "Here is a little stone for thee." (It was no bigger than a halfpenny.) "Keep this, and do not take it out of the handkerchief until thou comest to three roads."

The two brothers journeyed on. They reached these three cross-roads. They halted and Jack pulled the stone out of the handkerchief. He looked at it. One side was yellow as gold and the other side was back as coal.

"What are we to do with this stone?" he asked of his brother. No sooner was the word utteredthan he heard something whisper in his ear: "Spit upon it and toss it high in the air. If the stone fall at thy feet with the golden side uppermost, take the road on thy right hand; and if it fall with the black side uppermost, take the road on thy left hand."

He tossed the stone high into the air, and it fell at his feet with the golden side uppermost. Jack said to his brother: "Thou art to take the road on the left, and I will take the road on the right."

Now the two sat down and had a little talk together. "I go whither I go," quoth Jack. "Do thou remember to here to these three cross-roads in a year and a day; and if thou arrive before me wait here for me, and if I arrive before thee I will wait for thee, if I am still alive."

They set off. It was a hot summer's day. Jack tramped mile after mile. He could see no house, and night set in. He walked all night until morning broke. Now he hears dogs barking: he stood still to listen again.

He went on a little farther. He beheld a giant beside a tree, and heard a young woman weeping. She was crying out: "Stop, father! Leave me alone! do not treat me thus!" She was the giant's daughter. The giant was about to put a rope around her neck; he meant to hang her. The giant wished her to marry a certain man, but the young woman did not love him.

What did Jack do? Jack took the stone and threw it, and it struck the giant on the head and killed him.

What said the young woman to Jack? "If thou bury my father somewhere in a secret place where none may find him, I will give thee as much gold as you can carry away with thee." "Good!" quoth Jack, "I will lay him where none may find him.

He was about to bury him, when he found the little stone in the giant's head. He heard something whisper in his ear: "Leave him where he is, and place the stone at his left foot, and he will never be seen again."

Now they both went to the giant's house. The young woman opened a cupboard: in it were the giant's bags of gold. She gave one of them to Jack, who put it on his shoulder and departed.

Lo! he travels now over lofty mountains until he reaches the sea. He was weary, and the bag that he carried was heavy. He sat down and slept for three or four hours. He awoke and saw a man coming towards him with a great sack on his back.

The man came up to him. He recognized him. He stated to him: "Good God, thou art my brother!" "Yes, I am thy brother, and I am weary." He sat down and opened his great sack. "I am hungry. See, I am going to eat!" "And I am hungry, too," replied Jack. "Why dost thou not eat, then?" quoth the other. "I have naught to eat." "What is in thy sack?" "I have no food," said Jack, "I have nothing but gold." "Then if thou hast gold, buy thy food." "Gladly," quoth Jack, "give me my bellyful." "I will give thee thy bellyful if thou give me a hatful of gold."Jack opened his sack and filled his brother's hat with sovereigns. His brother gave him a little bread and meat.

The two tramped for miles and miles. They met no one; they grew hungry again. They sat down to eat. Jack was obliged to give his brother another hatful of gold before he would give him anything to eat.

And thus they went on until they rested again. They had not much food left. The brother would not give Jack anything to eat. "Thou hast all my money," quoth poor Jack, "I have no more; and if thou wilt not give me a morsel of food, I shall die of hunger." "No, I have told thee, I will give thee nothing except for thou pay for it." "I have nothing left to give thee." "I will tell thee what I will do will do with thee," quoth his brother. "Give me one of thine eyes and I will give thee a little food."

Jack plucked out one of his eyes and gave it to him. His brother gave him a litttle food. They finished their meal, and went on their way again.

Another day passed; Jack grew hungry once more. He was afraid to ask his brother to give him something to eat. Jack grew hungrier and hungrier. He asked his brother to give him a morsel of food. "Not I," quoth the brother, "I have not much left. If thou wantest any more, pluck out thine other eye and give it to me." He plucked out the other eye and gave it to his brother. His brother gave him a tiny morsel of food.

Poor Jack was blind now. The other brother took all the gold and left Jack alone. Jack knew not what to do. He crawled along on his hands and knees. He knew not whether it was day or whether it was night. He crept under a big tree. He did not care whether he lived or died. "If I am to die, I will die here."

Presently, he heard creatures talking in the tree above his head. And who were they? A Squirrel and a Fox talking together. These two were in the habit of meeting here once a twelvemonth to tell each other the chief discoveries they had made during the year.

Said the Fox to the Squirrel: "There is a great city four miles on the other side of the mountain, and all the people are dying of thirst. The water is dried up. And if they only knew it," continued the Fox, "were they to dig a well near the great clock they would find enough water to serve for three towns."

"And hast though heard, thou old Goose-stealer, that the mayor of that place lost his sight last week?" "Not I," quoth the Fox, "I have heard naught of it." The fox plucked a leaf. "Dost thou see this leaf, White-tail?" "Yes," quoth the squirrel. "What fools the people of those parts are! If they were just to rub his eyes with this leaf, he would recover his sight."

"Wait a minute, Sir Fox, I will tell you something." "Let me hear it," quoth the Fox. "In the same town there is a princess with two horns growing out of her forehead." "Well," quoth the Fox. "If they were to give her oranges, the horns would dwindle away. There is a reward offered by the queen to whomsoever rids her of them."

And the poor blind fellow beneath the three was listening to everything they said. Then the Fox leaped down and the Squirrel scampered after him.

Poor Jack arose and took a few of the leaves, and rubbed his eyes with them. As soon as he rubbed them, lo! he recovered his sight. He was astonished. "Well, I will be off to the city now."

He crossed the mountain and came to the hall where the blind lord dwelt. He knocked on the door and was invited inside. "I am a doctor come to restore the lord's eyesight."

He went upstairs. There was the lord seated in his easy-chair. Jack drew near to examine the lord's eyes. He boiled the leaves and bottled them, dipped a feather in the bottle, and passed it twice across the mayor's eyes. The lord regained his sight. His spirits rose, he did not know how to reward the doctor sufficiently. "What is thy fee, doctor?" quoth the mayor. He gave Jack what he asked.

"Wait a minute," quoth Jack, there is one other thing I should like to do before I leave the hall. I understand, my lord, that the water in your town is dried up." "In truth, it is dried up." "Come with me, and I will show you where there is plenty of water." As soon as the mayor heard this, he ran up to Jack and clasped him to his breast. "If thou find water for us, I will give thee three bags of gold pieces."

They went forth, and Jack led him toward the town clock. "Seest thou this spot? Bring thy men hither." "I will bring them at once." He brought them. "Now then," quoth Jack, "dig down here." The men stripped for the job. They dug down a little way. They found enough water for three towns. The mayor paid Jack, and Jack departed with the reward. He shrugged his shoulders. "I am doing well in this town, and I have still the king's daughter to deal with."

Then he bought a basketful of apples and a basketful of oranges, and set them down close by the gate of the palace. He waited there for three days. On the third day the old king and queen and their daughter came forth in their chariot. And the girl had two horns growing out of her head.

The young lady cast her eye on the apples. "Stay, mother, look at those beautiful apples over yonder!" "Would you like a few of them, daughter? "Yes," quoth the young lady. They bought a few. The young lady ate two or three that day. She arose in the morning. She looked in her mirror. The horns had grown bigger. The king's daughter was horrified.

Jack disguised himself again as a doctor, and went to visit her a day or two afterwards. "Welcome, doctor, I am rejoiced to see thee," quoth the princess. "Thou seest these horns on my forehead; dost thou know of aught that will reduce them?" "Yes." quoth Jack, "but though must give me such and such a sum of money." "Thou shalt have it," quoth the young lady.

Jack pulled an orange out of his pocket, cut a slice from it with his knife, and went up to the princess. "Open thy mouth, my lady, put out thy tongue." He placed the slice on the lady's tongue. "Swallow that. I will return to-morrow morning." The doctor took his leave.

Now it was morn. The young lady arose and looked in the mirror. Both horns seemed smaller. The doctor paid her another visit. The lady sprang up and gave him her hand. "The horns have shrunk a little, doctor." He gave her a slice of orange. "I shall come for my fee, your highness, in the morning."

She awoke in the morning and looked in her mirror. The horns had disappeared. The king and queen heard how the horns had been removed by the doctor. They gave him as much money as he could carry.

Jack took his money and went back to the three roads, where he was to meet his brother. It was midnight: he fell asleep under the hedge. In the morning he saw his brother approaching. "Who comes there?" "It is I," quoth his brother; "so thou art here before me, eh?" "What sort of luck hast thou had, my boy?" "I have gained naught, I am destitute, I have lost all my money. And how didst thou reach here, being blind?" "I have had better luck than thou," quoth Jack, "I have got new eyes, and a bag of money twice as big as the one though didst take when thou madest me blind."

So now the two brothers set off together to the cave to visit the old woman, the armless and legless one. They found her and rewarded her with a few gold pieces. And the thwo brothers went to their own little village and built a new house there. And there they live together with a little maid-servant, and now, they never fall out with one another.

That is all I know of about these two brothers. Find out more for yourselves if ye would.

There are two primary instances of disability in this tale: the old woman, who was born with neither arms nor legs, and the hero Jack, who is compelled to inflict blindness on himself. The princess with horns is a third instance, but the consequences of her affliction are not explored, outside the reward bestowed on Jack for the cure.

The old woman takes the ancient Roman idea of monstrum -- a creature born with missing or extra limbs, and seen as a bad omen -- one step further. She is more than a "sign" to be interpreted by seers; she is the seer. And while she is presented in the context of good luck, rather than bad, she is still kept away from human society, sealed away in the cave. In many ways, she is the personification of the Earth, itself, rather than a human -- like the stone on which she sits when first giving her prophecy to the brothers, and like the gold and black pebble through which she advises Jack.

Jack's trial with blindness is more a reflection of sighted society's fears than actual, lived, experience -- such as not knowing whether it is day or night without his eyes, and how being left alone and blind is equated with being left for dead. And the cure Jack learns of -- rubbing an herb over his eyes, when he no longer had eyes -- belies the sighted society's attitude that sight is more a spiritual than physical sense, thus making it easier to attribute moral and/or spiritual meaning to the state of blindness, itself.

However, I can't help but recognize one truth of life with a disability that's reflected in Jack's adventure: the fact that having a disability seems to cast a "Cloak of Invisability" over your shoulders, so those around you (like the Squirrel and Fox of the title) speak as freely as if you weren't there at all.

Since this is such a new story in my personal collection, I don't have deeper thoughts than that, at the moment. But I welcome your insights.

*Published in the United States by Salem House, 1984. A member of the Merrimack Publishers' Circle, 47 Pelham Road, Salem, N.H. 03079