Lady Letitia's Lilliput Hand

Office cards are always tricky. What should you write in the ‘Goodbye’ card of someone you barely know? When everyone else has already written all possible variations of ‘good luck in your next job’, what can you really say? Of all the leaving cards I’ve ever received, the most peculiar has got to be the one in which a colleague wrote, “I only just noticed how small your hands are. They’re tiny. You should put them in a show!” To be fair, the one thing that Donald Trump, David Starkey, and I all have in common, is that we all have very tiny hands. This week, my hands once again proved amusing to my friends when I attended a talk at St Anne's College, Oxford, by Dr Ryan Sweet about prosthetic hands in 19th Century. The talk explored ideas of physical ‘normalcy’ that developed in the 19th C, and the stigma surrounding bodies that society did not consider ‘whole’. He talked about the ways in which the use of prosthetics both confirmed and confused society’s ideas of what a body ought to be.  As part of the talk, Dr Sweet told the tale of Lady Letitia’s Lilliput Hand, a sensation short story by Robert William Buchanan, written in 1862. Lady Letitia is a beautiful, mysterious woman, who everyone wants to marry because she has such perfectly tiny hands. The friend sitting next to me giggled and gestured to my hands and as Dr Sweet explained that the modest women’s fashions of the period led to the eroticization of women’s hands, as the only visible flesh, and that small hands represented a dainty femininity that was considered desirable in the 19th Century. At this point I let out a rather appalling snort laugh and had to cover my face with a ‘dainty’ hand.

Unsurprisingly, given the topic of the talk, after several twists and turns in the plot, it turns out that one of Lady Letitia’s perfect hands is prosthetic. In keeping with prejudices surrounding disability in that period, the heroine’s physical ‘imperfection’ also represents a moral imperfection, and a scandalous secret in her past. She lost her hand fighting with her first husband, who had discovered her flirtation with another man. Her husband then committed suicide, framing her for the murder. The prosthetic in the story functioned to allow Letitia to pass for ‘normal’, and concealed not only her disability, but her secret. In this way, the story confirmed 19th C ideas of bodily normalcy, and the idea that a normal body – according to contemporary standards – represented good, while a failure to conform to such standards, was perceived as something that ought to be concealed, and might also indicate some kind of moral lack. However, the story doesn’t end with the revelation that one of Lady Letitia’s perfect hands is prosthetic. After the heroine reveals her disability and her secret past to her suitor, they get married. The story ends after Letitia dies in childbirth, and her husband keeps her prosthetic hand as a memento. The happy – well happy for Victorians – ending of the story ran counter to popular ideas that disabled women were undesirable and unmarriageable. The prosthetic hand becomes a symbol of Letitia and her husband’s love for her. This is a complicated literary image, with all sorts of problems of its own, but it is certainly a far cry from the prosthetic as a symbol of moral transgression.

'Artificial hand in a leather glove, Europe, 1880-1920' by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, LondonCC BY

Obsessed with taxonomy, Victorians wanted to quantify and measure what constituted the perfect body. A body that did not – literally – measure up was considered lacking rather than different. Though intensified by Victorian empiricism, this idea of lack, and the idea that bodies which society deemed ugly, or imperfect should go hand in glove with an evil or immoral soul was by no means new in that period. Hundreds of years earlier, Shakespeare’s Richard III is an iconic character whose evil is directly linked with his physicality at the very opening of the play. Richard describes the pursuits of peace time, and his role therein:
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain (Richard III, Act I, Scene 1)
Describing himself as “deformed”, Richard claims he has no place in peace time, and is therefore forced to be a “villain”. Not only does the character claim that his villainy is derived from his “deformity”, he also characterises his physical difference specifically in terms of lack. He implies that he is deformed because he was born too soon, “scarce half made up” and “unfinished”. This is especially interesting because the word ‘perfect’ means complete or finished, so when we talk about imperfections, we are also talking about lack. Even before the Victorians tried to come up with metrics for the perfect human, we were already measuring each other in terms of lack.

Dr Sweet’s talk considered how prosthetics were depicted in the 19th Century, but I couldn’t help but worry that the negative attitudes towards non-normative bodies and users of prosthetics he described, and the outmoded ideas of deformity at work in Richard III, still pop up today. I was struck by the appearance of strikingly similar themes in the 2017 Wonder Woman film. Simply put, the film pits a beautiful goddess whose physical perfection is matched only by her goodness, against a female villain, Dr Poison, who is physically weak, one dimensionally evil, and wears a facial prosthetic. During the course of the film, we learn little about Dr Poison (or Isabel Maru), apart from that she is determined to produce a deadly poison gas that can infiltrate gas masks, she kills her own minions without compunction, her face was injured in the course of her own chemical experimentation, and that she craves affection. The film’s superficial depiction of Dr Poison seemed to imply that her need for a facial prosthetic was both a product and evidence of her evil nature, and the idea that this woman with facial prosthetics craves but can’t find love seems ludicrously Victorian, as if the rest wasn’t bad enough. The chicken and egg dynamic of evil and falling short of physical norms clings to this character as it did to Shakespeare’s Richard III. The contrast between Diana (Wonder Woman) and Isabel (Dr Poison) – the only female characters in the film that really come close to being characters – that measures the beloved physical and moral perfection of one against the lonely disfigurement and evil of the other, seems lazy, reductive, and offensive. Even the Victorian short story that Dr Sweet told us had more subtlety, and from what I’ve heard, sensation fiction isn’t famed for that!

We’re not Victorians, but measuring each other, and ourselves, against the myth of the perfect human, and applying moral judgements to the results is something we still haven’t given up.  As a society we’re constantly being asked to measure whether we have the right face, the right percentage body fat, the right proportions, the right genitals, the right limbs, the right everything. Representations of disability have changed since the 19th Century, but our pop culture shorthand reveals us to be, by and large, an ableist culture with a very narrow definition of physical beauty. Lady Letitia’s tiny hand as symbol for dainty, womanly perfection garnered giggles from Dr Sweet’s audience. How do we get to a place where any idea of a physically perfect human is just as hilarious?


Popular Posts