“The Imbecile Lady”

VictorianshoeOver the last fortnight I’ve felt so much respect for all the disciplined Victorianists currently making their way through Wilkie Collins’ No Name (1862) in week-by-week instalments as part of the No Name Reading Project. I have to confess that, though I came across the Project mid-way through reading the novel, rather than slow my pace to something a little more ‘authentic’, I raced through it with all the impatient greed of someone watching a back-to-back soap omnibus on a Sunday afternoon.

Since finishing the novel, I’ve installed Collins’ gutsy but melancholic protagonist Magdalen Vanstone high up on my list of top Victorian heroines. But I was equally struck by one of the supporting cast: Mrs. Wragge. Matilda Wragge is the wife of the ambivalently roguish Captain Wragge, a gentle giantess (towering over her husband at six foot two or three) with a predilection for shopping.

One of the most marked aspects of her character, however, is what the Victorians would’ve branded ‘idiocy’ or ‘imbecility’. The modern reader, with a (hopefully) much more enlightened view of learning disabilities, can’t help but flinch as Mrs Wragge is branded “constitutionally torpid” by her ever-critical husband.

She is described as having a “vacant” look and is constantly berated by the Captain for having her cap and shoes askew. Mrs Wragge herself repeatedly complains of an on-and-off “buzzing” in her head, one which has plagued her ever since she worked as a waitress, struggling to keep all the orders separate in her mind.

Treated mostly with contempt by her husband, and mostly with kindness (though sometimes frustration) by Magdalen, Mrs Wragge seems for much of the early part of the novel a curious secondary character. As with all finely structured novels, she is – of course – pivotal to the whole piece.

As the brilliant-but-nefarious Mrs Lecount finds herself increasingly thwarted by the ‘Bygrave’ family (i.e. Magdalen and the Wragges, doing their best to lure Noel Vanstone into departing with his(/her) fortune), she suddenly happens upon the information (via the Bygraves’ servant) that Mrs Wragge is “little better than an idiot”. The cunning Mrs Lecount decides to force the family’s hand by “deluding the imbecile lady” into sharing some very important information.

Mrs Wragge’s innocent betrayal of the Captain and of Magdalen is, of course, partly because they haven’t considered it worthwhile to bring her into the fold. Captain Wragge does little to involve her in the plan other than bark her false name at her repeatedly and with such cruelty that Magdalen suggests he leave it alone.

Mrs Wragge’s innocent unravelling of the Bygrave charade is, also, without a doubt, a testament to her unfailing innocence and honesty. Unlike Captain Wragge, who revels in his role as a “moral agriculturist”, and Magdalen, who appropriates a new persona for a particular end, she has no capacity for deception and is, thus, a perfect foil to Collins’ deliciously sensational plot (as Patrick McDonagh gestures towards in his, Idiocy: A Cultural History).

Collins’ ambiguous portrait of Mrs Wragge has also set me thinking more widely about the portrayal of people with learning disabilities in Victorian Britain. Until recently, when I picked up Sarah Wise’s brilliant Inconvenient People (which I’m still midway through, but hope to review on these pages soon!), I hadn’t encountered much about the (albeit fairly limited) understanding of learning difficulties in Victorian England.

Wise has already taught me that this was an age in which supposed ‘imbecility’ or ‘idiocy’ could be used to judge a person unfit to manage their own affairs and as a pretext to have them placed in an asylum. (As an aside, keen (neo)Victorianists may remember the recent Suspicions of Mr Whicher on ITV, which showed a man with Down’s syndrome in a grisly Victorian asylum.)

Coincidentally, the other day I also picked up a leaflet on medical museums in London (and the surrounding area) which introduced me to the Langdon Down Museum in Middlesex. Dr Down (the focus of the museum) seems to have been something of a pioneer in the understanding of learning difficulties – indeed, Down’s syndrome is named after him. I’m hoping that a visit to Langdon Down in the coming weeks might inspire me to take forward some new research in the area – all thanks to the oft-overlooked Matilda Wragge!

Photo taken from Flickr. Flickr handle: ~K~ (Kathy).

Select Bibliography

Collins, William Wilkie, No Name Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

McDonagh, Patrick, Idiocy: A Cultural History Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008.

Wise, Sarah, Inconvenient People London: The Bodley Head, 2012.

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