Ryan Sweet

Department: English
Discipline: English
Research Centre/Unit: Centre for Victorian Studies/Centre for Medical History

Project Summary

My PhD thesis explores the cultural and literary history of human prosthesis in the Victorian age, specifically the period from 1838 to 1914. By using an interdisciplinary approach which reads novels, poems and non-fiction narratives (such as the memoirs of factory workers) alongside the burgeoning professional literature of prosthesis (which includes medical journals, surgical manuals, trade publications, and advertisements), I hope to gain an insight into contemporary attitudes towards the use of both bespoke and mass-produced mechanisms and devices as replacements for missing body parts or as cosmetic adornments. Especially from the mid-century, we can see a rise in the range of new prosthetic devices, whilst existing implements (e.g., wigs and dentures) become more widely (and cheaply) available, as well as more technically sophisticated. Popular brands, such as Selpho legs and Smale Brothers artificial teeth, capitalised on new materials and advances in technologies of manufacturing to reach new markets. At the same time, we see a proliferation of prosthesis-related literature. This increase in both the commercial and more general discursive circulation of prosthesis was reflected in many narratives of the period. Texts such as _A Narrative of the Experiences and Sufferings of William Dodd, a Factory Cripple_ (1841) detailed the physical dangers of the expanding factory system, and around the same time "crippled" characters began to take on more prominent roles in popular fiction, with prostheses becoming more visible. The hook-handed Captain Cuttle, for example, from Charles Dickens's 1848 novel _Dombey and Son_, reflects a growing anxiety about the body shocks of life in a country dominated by the industrial technologies, the railway in particular. From the 1860s, with sensation fiction's foregrounding of shocks to the body, we see prosthesis (and a wider range of prosthetic devices) appearing more and more frequently. The novels of Wilkie Collins often incorporate examples of physical disability and prosthetic devices;not just for comic relief but for plot construction and, more significantly, for nuanced explorations of marginalised subjectivities. As I will show, Collins's novels display an interest in prosthesis, which goes beyond the more usual focus on artificial limbs. The growing preoccupation with prosthesis, which the fiction of writers such as Collins exhibit, provides a starting point for some of the questions which my project will ask. What insights does Victorian prosthesis give us into an increasing cultural reliance on technology as an adjunct or complement to the human body? How do we compare or contrast the representation of prosthesis in fictional and non-fictional sources? What specific anxieties about the machine age and its ability to supplement or replace the body do texts of the period expose? Did human prosthesis, as used in the nineteenth century, render the subject more human? As Erin O'Connor has asked, does "[m]echanizing the amputee" paradoxically further naturalize him, or does it effectively transform the individual into an automaton?

Supervisory Team

Dr Jason Hall (English) and Dr Richard Noakes (History).

Wider Research Interests

I am interested in the history of disability as well as topics relating to surgery and medicine more generally. I also have a strong interest in Victorian sensation fiction, industrial novels, and literature (fiction and non-fiction) relating to the factory system.