Lennard J. Davis is a leading name in cultural and literary disability studies whose work has been influenced by an upbringing by two parents who experienced deafness. In a personal essay titled “A Voyage Out (or Is It Back?),” published in his 2002 collection Bending Over Backwards, Davis notes how his parents’ lives made him attentive to the ties between disability and social mobility: “To me, my parents’ deafness will always be inseparable from our social class.”Footnote 1 Here, Davis reminds us that the constructed notion of the normal body is ideologically tied to the modern economic model. The link between high social status and the normal body is evidenced to Davis, in part, by personal experience. He explains that in the 1950s, when he was growing up, people with deafness were often factory workers, his father being one of many in such a role.Footnote 2 The link between disability, the factory (a technology that was conceptualized in the nineteenth century as a kind of the prosthesis), and lower social status is exemplified by the 1910 sketch “The Mill Boy and the Hook.” This piece exposes both the restrictions imposed by capitalist society on the disabled body and the extent to which the prosthesis, both conceptually and materially, has often been tied to commercial purposes.Footnote 3 The hook hand in this tale is a material solution to a physical problem implemented not so much for the “one-armed boy” as for the economic benefit of the factory owner; if “the hand” served—as in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854)—as synecdoche for the factory worker, whose labour is concentrated in a useful appendage, then here is an amplification of the worker-as-tool logic.Footnote 4 This chapter addresses literary sources that illuminate the trifold relationship between disability, technology, and social class.

The social model of disability has shown us how stigma, exclusion, and the ableist construction of our built environment have restricted opportunities for impaired people in social terms, but limited work has been done that explores the class trajectories of disabled figures in imaginative works. What are the imagined fates of impaired characters who try to improve their social position? Do prostheses enable social mobility, as real-life makers promised, or do they restrict the user socially? What do fictional representations tell us about the position of prosthesis users in class hierarchies?

At a time when prosthetic devices began to saturate the marketplace and occupy a greater place in the social consciousness than ever before, public opinion regarding the respectability of artificial body parts remained largely undecided. Stephen Mihm has shown us that limbs “which shall be presentable in polite society” were required for those in the upper classes who lost limbs and wished to maintain social distinction.Footnote 5 Similarly, Erin O’Connor suggests that artificial limbs functioned for workers as material solutions to the rupture in the physical economy supposedly occasioned by limb loss.Footnote 6 Still, cultural and literary representations, relatively overlooked aspects of the discursive history of prostheses, reveal that criticism was also levied towards artificial body parts—technologies that some saw as “emblem[s] of deceit.”Footnote 7 Certain primitive devices, such as peg legs, became regularly associated with beggary. Meanwhile, fictional works, including Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865), explore the extent to which a fusion with technology, as manifest by the wooden-leg user Silas Wegg, could enable one to become upwardly mobile.Footnote 8

By turning to Dickens’s novel as a case study alongside several related but now lesser-known contemporary writings, this chapter shows how nineteenth-century fiction complicates the emerging hegemony of physical wholeness by revealing certain paradoxes and imagining upwardly mobile characters who defied conventions associated with bodily normalcy. The privileging of physical completeness that produced a demand for lifelike prosthetics and linked the normal body to social success was problematized by fictional works that imagined conspicuously “crippled” wooden-leg-using characters as ironic exemplars of social mobility. Although many of the sources discussed come to conservative conclusions that reify normative bodily standards, the ideological necessity for such a rebuttal paradoxically reveals the conceptual fragility of physical completeness as the hallmark of the healthy body.

Mendicity Versus Mendacity

One critical context for the relationship between prosthesis use and class mobility is the nineteenth-century physical economy of work. As O’Connor explains:

Victorian ideals of health, particularly of male health, centered on the concept of physical wholeness: a strong, vigorous body was a primary signifier of manliness, at once testifying to the existence of a correspondingly strong spirit and providing that spirit with a vital means of material expression. Dismemberment disrupted this physical economy.Footnote 9

In a world in which not only normative bodily function but also an impression of physical wholeness was so heavily valued, those who were missing limbs often found work hard to come by. Cindy LaCom has shown how, among other factors, “public perceptions of and responses to people with disabilities and to the very concept of disability were shaped by … developing capitalist economic theories and an ideology of self-help,” and “the growth of industrialism.”Footnote 10 As she explains: “Those unable to meet industrial workplace standards because of a disability or deformity were increasingly exiled from the capitalist ‘norm’, which demanded ‘useful’ bodies, able to perform predictable and repeated movements.”Footnote 11 To borrow a quotation that LaCom uses, in 1846 a factory inspector noted that “sound limbs are a main part of the working man’s capital, and they should be exposed as little as possible to the risk of irrevocable diminution.”Footnote 12 In a world in which an individual’s productivity was seen as an index of character, convincing those around you that you could work hard was important. As Marta Russell observes: “disabled people who were perceived to be of no use to the competitive profit cycle would be excluded from work.”Footnote 13 For industrial labourers, such as railway or factory workers, it was important to continue to work after injury if possible. This point has been made by Jamie L. Bronstein: “For workers, injury lasted as long as it kept one from returning to the same or a similar job at the same pay rate.”Footnote 14

Nonetheless, many positions, especially higher-paid ones, were considered untenable for those who had lost arms or legs. For instance, railway owners tended to relegate disabled workers to lower-paying positions outside of public view to avoid offending public sensibilities.Footnote 15 Writing for the Miners’ Journal and Pottsville General Advertiser in 1846, one disabled railway worker wrote, “A man whose frame is shattered to such an extent as to render him a cripple for the remainder of his existence, is practically dead so far as active work is concerned.”Footnote 16 Likewise, as Mihm remarks, “[i]n an age of appearances, members of the middle-class necessarily hid their deformities and weaknesses, for fear that first impressions might deny them opportunities in marriage, employment, and social advancement.”Footnote 17 We learn from French mid-century artificial-eye maker Auguste Boissonneau that prejudices were not restricted to those who had lost limbs. According to him, the use of one of his devices “permit[ted] its wearer to look after his business and keep up his relations with society in general, without the fear of being looked upon as an object of repulsion or of pity.”Footnote 18

The social situation for those who lost body parts but could continue to work was restrictive, but for those who were completely excluded from the working environment by perceived bodily loss, the possibility of social improvement was often erased entirely. As Martha Stoddard Holmes explains, both state and charity relief for those deemed unemployable due to disability were jeopardized by anxieties surrounding who it was that deserved financial assistance.Footnote 19 The discourse of disability and financial provision was often infiltrated by fears of fraudulence. In 1834, the Poor Law Amendment Act introduced a centralized system to manage administering relief to the poor. The new system was brought about, at least in part, in response to concerns from social reformers that the parish-based system of poor relief implemented by the Elizabethan poor laws was inconsistent and, at times, misused. The new system sent able-bodied men seeking aid to the workhouse while providing limited out relief to those deemed deserving—those unable to work, including the young, the old, and the disabled. Despite this tightening of the law, as Holmes reveals, fears of abuse remained and much debate surrounding the deservingness of the unwaged disabled perpetuated as a result.Footnote 20 Even charitable discourse was pervaded by these questions. For instance, the Charity Organisation Society was set up in 1869, inspired by the belief that “the mass-misery of great cities arose mainly, if not entirely, from spasmodic, indiscriminate, and unconditional doles, whether in the form of alms or in that of Poor Law relief.”Footnote 21 This situation meant that many unwaged disabled people were not awarded relief for fears of malingering, thereby prohibiting their chances of bettering their social position. As Holmes comments: “even if a physical impairment looks valid, the argument goes, it may be supplemented by an invisible advantage: one more instance of the difficulty of distinguishing mendicity from mendacity.”Footnote 22

Fears that homeless people feigned disability to secure alms or cheat the poor relief system were buttressed by a culture that perpetuated images of fraudulent beggars. These representations remained visible throughout the century in England and elsewhere in the Western world. Susan M. Schweik notes, for instance, how the duplicitous mendicant was a common image in mid-to-late nineteenth-century American culture: “The distinction between false and true mattered enough to produce a tension between languages of care and languages of criminality, and conflict about authenticity, that played themselves out over and over in the telling of stories of the vagrant and the beggar.”Footnote 23 Meanwhile, in England Henry Mayhew’s expansive and popular exercise in social observation London Labour and the London Poor—a work that taxonomized London’s labourers, street workers, and non-workers—identified a class of mendicants as “Those that will not work.”Footnote 24 In categorizing and describing the kind of beggars that inhabit the streets of London, Mayhew discusses “Blown-up miners” as a group rife with impostors. He describes how some “rank impostors” expose “some part of their bodies—the leg or the arm—and show you what looks like a huge scald or burn.” Moreover, he labels the device of producing artificial sores “scaldrum dodge.”Footnote 25 Beggars feigning disability also appear in Victor Hugo’s grotesque masterpiece Notre-Dame de Paris (1831).Footnote 26 Drawing from this trope, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (1891) recounts the scandalous career of Neville St. Clair, a well-to-do gentleman who, with the aid of tape, which he uses to make his mouth look disfigured, turns secretly to begging: a pursuit that he finds easier and more profitable than other professions available to him.Footnote 27 While the image of the begging impostor was by no means new in the nineteenth century, the popular motif of the fraudulent mendicant in Victorian literature and culture paid testament to the prevalence of cultural misgivings about aberrant bodies in this period.Footnote 28

In addition to cultivating suspicions about the authenticity of the disabled poor, journalistic works, such as Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor, gave disabled individuals a chance to share their life experiences. A section of Mayhew’s first volume tells the story of a “crippled” seller of nutmeg graters, a man with deformed limbs who is unable to walk and perform other basic motor skills.Footnote 29 We learn through this example of the social limitations and difficulties imposed upon an individual whose body is unaccommodated for by society. In a lengthy personal testimony, the seller of nutmeg graters reveals how he ended up working as a street trader. We learn that various circumstances, many linked to disablism, led to his downfall: his “feeble-minded” mother was unable to look after him, entrusting a colleague (a fellow servant) to be his guardian. His extended family were repulsed by him and thus unwilling to provide financial assistance. His former lodgers exploited him by refusing to pay rent, leading to his financial collapse and stay in a workhouse. In the workhouse, he was unable to perform manual labour, resulting in his food allowance being restricted, thereby worsening his physical condition and prohibiting him from saving enough capital to buy sufficient stock for costermongering. The seller of nutmeg graters also explains how physically taxing his work is:

It’s very hard work indeed is street-selling for such as me. I can’t walk no distance. I suffer a great deal of pains in my back and knees. Sometimes I go in a barrow, when I’m travelling any great way. When I go only a short way I crawl along on my knees and toes. The most I’ve ever crawled is two miles. When I get home afterwards, I’m in great pain. My knees swell dreadfully, and they’re all covered with blisters, and my toes ache awful. I’ve corns all on top of them.Footnote 30

Due to the unprofitable nature of his work (“Some weeks [he] hardly clear[ed] [his] expenses”), lack of support network, unwillingness to beg for alms, and inability to secure other employment, it appears inevitable that this individual will spend the remainder of his days on or below the breadline.Footnote 31 Earlier “autobiographical” narratives by “factory cripples,” such as Robert Blincoe and William Dodd, add further insight regarding the social prospects of disabled men from the lower classes.Footnote 32 Blincoe’s and Dodd’s respective narratives describe how public perception of their impairments provided barriers to work. Blincoe reveals how he was paid less than nondisabled colleagues while Dodd notes how he was refused work as an errand boy to an ironmonger and later as a teacher due to prejudices attached to his physical difference. After the amputation of his lower arm, Dodd resigned himself to a life “unfit for … business.”Footnote 33 These accounts provide insights into the potential social plight facing those who experienced impairment in the nineteenth century.

Despite the heart-rending nature of these stories and Mayhew’s apparent admiration for the resilience and industriousness of the seller of nutmeg graters, as in many representations of disabled street dwellers from this era, fears of malingering remained on the surface. Mayhew notes that he made “all due inquiries” to satisfy himself of the seller of nutmeg grater’s “worthiness.”Footnote 34 Moreover, Mayhew provides several testimonies after the street seller’s personal account to convince himself and the reader of the man’s honesty. This latter measure exposes the lack of trust that Mayhew placed in those who display physical difference in Victorian London, revealing how questions of authenticity often pervade Victorian discussions of the disabled adult male body.Footnote 35

Intriguingly, the very notion that one could better their social position by imitating disability, discloses how nineteenth-century discourses of disability and prosthesis use brought into doubt the dominance of the nondisabled, physically complete body. Here, the so-called able-bodied are concerned with and resistant to a method of self-representation that privilege physical loss over completeness for monetary ends. Thus, while physical wholeness is so often privileged in Victorian discourse, it emerges as an unstable conceptual category, in part because so many deviated from it in reality—hence its need for repeated cultural reinforcement.

Both questions of authenticity and the social trajectories of people with disabilities were topics central to nineteenth-century discourses of prosthetics. Relating to the latter, prosthetic limbs were often marketed as devices that could enable users to avoid the social plight that the seller of nutmeg graters describes. Still, not all devices were affordable for those who needed them the most. The next section explores the distinction between peg legs and artificial legs, lower-limb prostheses available, for the most part, to consumers of distinct socio-economic groups.

The Peg Versus the Artificial Leg

The promise of social security was used as part of a commercial advertising rhetoric employed by contemporary prosthetists. As O’ Connor contends: “The discourse of prosthesis is … infused with class consciousness, suggesting that man cannot occupy a meaningful social position unless he is physically complete.”Footnote 36 Prosthesis makers often cited the social disadvantages of physical difference in contrast to the mimetic capacities of their devices, which they claimed could mask the appearance of impairment (thus alleviating stigma and social degradation) and allow the user to occupy a social position usually reserved for the normate. French ocular prosthesis maker Boissonneau states in a treatise on artificial eyes that his prosthesis design, “whilst concealing a deformity of, to say the least, a disagreeable aspect, permits its wearer to look after his business and keep up his relations with society in general, without the fear of being looked upon as an object of repulsion or of pity.”Footnote 37 Elsewhere, the maker goes even further, suggesting that the use of one of his prosthetic eyes could enable its wearer to make a more favourable impression upon those whom s/he encountered: “The use of an artificial eye is highly appreciated by those who know how much the facial defects are in the way of one’s progress in the world, and how painful is the contention between the unpleasant impression caused by an unbecoming face, and the wish of pleasing which every one experiences.”Footnote 38 Along similar lines, in Automatic Mechanism, the limb prosthetist Frederick Gray refers to the fitting of an artificial limb as “the facility of progression,” once again implying that those missing body parts needed prostheses to move forward in life—in terms of both physical locomotion and social mobility.Footnote 39 In his treatise, Gray also includes a great number of testimonial letters, which in many cases emphasized how his artificial limbs enabled users to maintain their social position. Captain W. W. A. from the Bengal Army, for instance, states: “To one in my situation, the benefit I have derived from your skill is incalculable, as it enables me to return to an efficient performance of my military duties.”Footnote 40

Making life for the amputee even more problematic, the type of prosthesis employed by an individual was seen as a measure of social standing. Vanessa Warne helpfully explains the distinction between peg legs and their more sophisticated counterparts:

The term “artificial leg” was reserved for prostheses that imitated both the appearance and movement of a natural leg; it did not apply to simple wooden pegs or to rudimentary leg-shaped prostheses. Marketed as more attractive, comfortable, and safe than crutches or pegs, artificial legs had patented features such as rubberized feet and articulated joints. They were usually made to order and were consequently costly.Footnote 41

For prosthetists, such as Gray, it was the specialist skill of artificial-limb makers that differentiated their devices from rudimentary pegs: “the science of artificial limb-making is neither a very simple nor easy acquirement; it cannot be attained without great attention, great experience, and a habit of induction applied to facts.”Footnote 42 American poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes suggests it is the devices made by these skilled professions that are deemed acceptable “in polite society.”Footnote 43 Holmes famously writes in “The Human Wheel, Its Spokes and Felloes” (1864) that while “[a] plain working-man, who has outlived his courting-days and need not sacrifice much, to personal appearance, may find an honest, old fashioned wooden leg, cheap, lasting, requiring no repairs, the best thing for his purpose,” in “higher social positions at … an age when appearances are realities … it becomes important to provide the cripple with a limb which shall be presentable in polite society, where misfortunes of a certain obtrusiveness may be pitied, but are never tolerated under the chandeliers.”Footnote 44 As Holmes observes, while the old-fashioned peg served as an acceptable device for lower-class users to wear, its crude construction meant that it was utterly unsuitable for the respectable amputee for whom it was a social requirement to display good health—a condition that relied upon an impression of physical wholeness. What Holmes fails to acknowledge is that though peg legs might have been aesthetically acceptable within a working-class environment, their lack of functionality rendered them extremely limited devices. Peg-leg users were often excluded from manual jobs because of assumptions made about their limited physical abilities. Furthermore, the general unaccommodating design risked further impairing amputees.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that peg legs were the cheapest and most basic devices available to those who had lost legs. Having been in circulation for several centuries, these devices consisted commonly of hollow wooden buckets or cups into which the stump of the user was placed. The support was fixed to a wooden peg that would reach the ground instead of a foot. As an article published in All the Year Round in 1875 comments: “In order to make it look a little more shapely than a mere stick of firewood, the peg is contoured somewhat in rolling-pin fashion, with a knob at the lower end.”Footnote 45 For slightly more money, other adaptations could also be made to better fit the amputee’s stump: a leather sheath could be attached for improved comfort or a knee joint could be incorporated so that the peg could be bent whilst sitting-down. Despite these possible modifications, however, the peg-leg was considered a low-end product: “what are wooden-pegs compared with artificial legs? No more than penny dolls compared with Mr Cremer’s walking and talking young ladies.”Footnote 46 Since these devices were most often used by working-class or pauper amputees, they became synonymous with low status and small income. As if to suggest that the beggar with wooden leg was a ubiquitous figure, one All the Year Round contributor writes: “You, London reader, have seen wonderful things in your time; the sham sailor in the New-road, with a painting of a storm in the Bay of Biscay rolled out between his wooden legs, which rest as sentinels on either side of it.”Footnote 47 As we will see later in this chapter, this reporter’s apparent enthusiasm for potentially fraudulent wooden-leg users of the streets extended from Dickens’s journalism to the pages of his novels.

With regard to the class-related bifurcation of lower-limb prostheses, a detail that has thus far been overlooked by scholars of Victorian prosthesis is that, while great advances were made in artificial limbs over the course of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of cultural and fictional representations of lower-limb prostheses describe peg legs rather than the costly, new-fangled devices made by emerging prosthetists.Footnote 48 In this sense, then, cultural and literary representations of leg prostheses convey the real-life paradox in nineteenth-century prosthesis circulation. In a society that demanded working men to look productive and thus whole, the consumer group that required the use of effective functional prostheses the most was the labouring class, who were often injured by industrial machinery or who lost limbs to disease or infection. In a study of the dangers of industrial work to the labourer’s body, Jamie L. Bronstein reveals: “Construction work on a single stretch of railway line over a six-year period resulted in 32 deaths, 23 compound fractures, 74 simple fractures, and 140 ‘severe cases’, including blast burns, severe bruises, cuts, and dislocations. Many of those injured suffered from multiple injuries.” These injuries were “in addition to 400 cases of minor accidents: trapped and broken fingers, seven of which had to be amputated; injuries to the feet, lacerations of the scalp, bruises and broken shins.”Footnote 49 Furthermore, by providing an indication of the high percentage of amputations performed on those from working-class positions, E. J. Chaloner, H. S. Flora, and R. J. Ham show us that of the eighty-four amputations performed at the London Hospital between 1852 and 1857 as a consequence of trauma, “72 were necessitated by injuries sustained at work—for instance, ‘being run over by a railway car’, being ‘crushed between two ships’ or being ‘injured by machinery.’” These authors note that “[t]he distribution of injury is reflected in the occupations of the male patients, most of whom were labourers, railwaymen, sailors or factory workers.”Footnote 50 Providing a personal and geographical perspective, in 1841 the self-named “factory cripple” Dodd recalled that “[a]ccidents by machinery in the North are of a week, nay, almost daily occurrence.”Footnote 51 As I have already noted, it was a financial imperative for injured labouring-class individuals to return to manual work as soon as possible. Despite their apparent need to appear able-bodied in order to convince supervisors of their ability to perform, these amputees simply could not afford the kinds of devices that would provide them with the best chance of passing as normal.

Prosthetists were fully aware of the large consumer group that injured workers presented, and some commentators, such as Gray, were frustrated that labourers’ limited means excluded them from the artificial-limb market. Gray , for instance, laments that unless they were sponsored by a particularly generous employer, “from the expense entailed by their elaborate construction, [artificial limbs] are not within the reach of the poorer class of sufferers.” It is with regret that Gray makes this declaration since, as he observes, “in the case of the affluent the loss of a limb does not reduce the sufferer to a state in which his relative position in life is rendered worse, whereas, when a poor man becomes crippled, he is reduced to a state of almost perfect destitution and misery.”Footnote 52 For Gray, then, amputation is more debilitating for a labourer than for a member of the aristocracy or middle class, primarily because persons belonging to these groups did not need to rely so heavily on their physical capacities to earn an income. Despite Gray’s encouragement for employers to fit their injured workers with more suitable prostheses—no doubt at least in part inspired by commercial interests—in the majority of cases, working-class amputees were forced to make-do with peg legs.Footnote 53 Underlining the way in which some prosthetists prioritized profit-making over care for working-class clients, in their 1888 catalogue, the internationally successful American firm A. A. Marks renounced the use of peg legs before a few sentences later stating that they could produce peg legs upon request.Footnote 54 We learn from statements including this that working-class amputees were a prevalent but not primary consumer group for the burgeoning prosthesis market due to their financial limitations.

Unlike the artificial leg, which was designed so that its non-human composition could be easily concealed, the peg leg was obviously wooden.Footnote 55 It is therefore worth taking a moment to consider the contemporary connotations of this material, since woodenness was often so lucidly displayed by peg-leg users. While we may be inclined to assume that the industrial revolution rendered wood archaic, as Harvey Green reveals, even by the mid-nineteenth century, timber remained prominent:

we should remember that the Industrial Revolution in the West began with wood as its major material. Before 1850 most machines—spinning wheels, looms, plows, rakes, shovels, hoes, churns—were made almost entirely of wood. Even at the outset of the age of steel, machines for home and factory production were made mostly of wood, with iron or steel fittings attached at areas of greatest friction or where cutting took place. But iron and steel require fuel (wood, charcoal, coal, coke) to smelt the ores and melt the metals. Wood requires no further transformation of its substance in the wild. Metals and plastics may be the materials of industrialism today, but wood made the revolution possible.Footnote 56

An article published in the London Journal in 1862 pays testament to the enduring uses of wood, not the least as a means of fuel and as a durable building material.Footnote 57 Thus, while today wood “endures because it is now thought of as a traditional, even (ironically) preindustrial material,” in mid-Victorian times it was contiguous with industrial practice.Footnote 58 Chiming with David Edgerton’s innovative research on “old” technology in use, wood was far more entwined with industrial modernity than often accredited.Footnote 59 To many Victorians, the wooden-leg user therefore appeared not only as someone who was not fully human in composition, but also as a person whose body part was representative of industrial manufacture—made by and appearing a part of an increasingly autonomous mechanical system. As we will see in the following sections, links with industry complicated representations of wooden-leg users, who were sometimes imagined as transgressive social climbers.

Prosthesis Users in Dickens’s Journals

It can be confidently asserted that Dickens was well-accustomed to editing and imaginatively creating works including prosthesis-using characters well before the first instalment of Our Mutual Friend was published in May 1864. As Adrienne E. Gavin asserts: “while his novels are not filled ‘entirely by wooden legs,’ the number of wooden legs within them reveal his fascination with these limbs.”Footnote 60 Discussing Dickens’s deployment of effigy and his interest in the boundary between human and thing, John Carey remarks that “Dickens’ most popular lifeless bit is the wooden leg, about which he has a positive obsession.”Footnote 61 Furthermore, in Dombey and Son (1846–1848) the author presents to the reader the hook-hand user Captain Cuttle, a character who, according to Herbert Sussman and Gerhard Joseph, “literalizes Dickens’s sense of the emerging prosthetic man.”Footnote 62 Wooden legs are also referred to or appear in The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1837–1838), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841), Barnaby Rudge (1841), Martin Chuzzlewit (1842–1844), and David Copperfield (1849–1850).Footnote 63

In Nicholas Nickleby , Miss Knag tells Madame Mantalini about her uncle, who “had such small feet, that they were no bigger than those which are usually joined to wooden legs.”Footnote 64 The Pickwick Papers depicts an amputee who is a reformed alcoholic. He is reported to have found “a wooden leg expensive going over the stones,” so for a while wears second-hand legs and drinks “a hot glass of gin and water every night—sometimes two.” After finding that “second-hand wooden legs split and rot very quickly,” he is “firmly persuaded that their constitution was undermined by the gin and water.” He quits drinking and buys new wooden legs, which he finds “last twice as long.”Footnote 65 In The Old Curiosity Shop, freak-show proprietor Mr. Vuffin asserts, “Look at wooden legs. If there was only one man with a wooden leg what a property he’d be! … Instead of which … if you was to advertise Shakespeare played entirely by wooden legs, it’s my belief you wouldn’t draw a sixpence.”Footnote 66 Simon Tappertit, from Barnaby Rudge , is crushed in a riot thus leaving him with two wooden legs.Footnote 67 Mrs. Gamp, from Martin Chuzzlewit, describes how her husband would send his son on an “errand to sell his wooden leg for any money it would fetch as matches in the rough, and bring it home in liquor.”Footnote 68 David Copperfield also features a wooden-leg user: Mr. Tungay, the “obstinate barbarian” henchman of the violent schoolmaster Mr. Creakle.Footnote 69 The tale also includes the miser Mr. Barkis, who is found to own “a silver tobacco-stopper, in the form of a leg,” perhaps drawing from Thomas Hood’s popular poem Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg (1840–1841).Footnote 70

Dickens goes a step further in his interrogation of human-machine boundaries in a section entitled “Display of Models and Mechanical Science” of The Mudfog Papers , which was published in Bentley’s Miscellany from 1837 to 1838. Here, in a satirical dig at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the ironically named Mr. Coppernose, a member of the “Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything,” proposes creating an automaton police force for the relief of carousing young noblemen who were inclined to “pummelling each other.”Footnote 71 Jay Clayton draws attention to the author’s bizarre obsession with man-made bodies and body parts with his assertion that “Dickens seems to find something grotesque in the very idea of automata.”Footnote 72 Dickens’s interest in prostheses is corroborated by his correspondence. In a letter to John Leech from 23 October 1848, Dickens writes of his enthusiasm to see “a gentleman with a wooden leg … dance the Highland Fling” as advertised in a Britannia Saloon Bill.Footnote 73

Several prosthesis-using characters also appeared in Household Words (1850–1859), a weekly magazine established and edited by the author. These representations include the dust scavenger with wooden leg, Peg Dotting, from Richard H. Horne’s “Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed” (1850); a wooden-leg user described in Dickens’s article “New Year’s Day” (1859); and the respectable amputee milliner’s daughter Mary Wigley from Sarah Smith’s short story “The Lucky Leg” (1859)—to mention but a few.Footnote 74 William Blanchard Jerrold’s famous article on the Victorian penchant for prostheses “Eyes Made to Order” also appeared in Household Words in 1851. What these examples demonstrate is not only that Dickens was familiar with cultural and fictional representations of lower-limb amputees but that he was also preoccupied with issues relating to prosthesis use.Footnote 75 These imaginaries explored the increasingly intimate relationship between people and things, which Dickens was keen to scrutinize. As I show, various works that Dickens wrote or was closely associated with complicated the cultural dominance of the physically whole body by portraying socially mobile prosthesis users.

Horne’s “Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed” is a tale that is interesting not the least because it is thematically and narratively similar to Our Mutual Friend. Like Dickens’s later work, Horne’s narrator associates a wooden-leg user with dust—the detritus of Victorian London that Dickens used to explore man’s bizarre yet increasingly intimate relationship with the material world. In “Dust,” three physically non-typical members of the underclass, with the help of a supposedly enchanted dust heap, work together to rescue and revive a social superior who has fallen into a nearby canal. The first of this story’s unconventional heroes is the ninety-seven-year-old Gaffer Doubleyear, who wears an oyster shell over a missing eye and whose name is partially recycled for the like-minded, though more sinister, scavenger Gaffer Hexam in Our Mutual Friend . Doubleyear is accompanied by the aptly named Peg Dotting, an eighty-three-year-old wooden-leg user, and Jem, a “poor deformed lad whose back had been broken as a child.”Footnote 76 In a stroke of good fortune, after being revived, the rescued gentleman notices that a piece of parchment wrapped around a treasure recovered by Jem is in fact a missing part of a title-deed. Anticipating the significance of the dust heap in Our Mutual Friend , this discovery provides a timely lift to the gentleman, who we learn has been through a period of hardship up to this point. Because of this discovery, he is able to recover socially and regain his former position. In gratitude to Doubleyear and Dotting, the gentleman purchases them a cottage. As we will see, like Wegg, these prosthesis-using characters experience an elevation in status thanks to their intimate relationship with the material world (for which they are marked physically by their use of prostheses).

In complicating the hegemony of natural physical wholeness, the idea that class mobility could be enabled as result of a close human-material relationship is explored and interrogated by Dickens’s rewriting of the dust-heap story in Our Mutual Friend. However, unlike the prosthesis-using duo of “Dust”—who receive a moderate elevation in status as a result of their dust-heap knowledge and tender human generosity (though they become home owners, they continue to work as “scavengers” on the dust heap)—Dickens’s novel inverts this narrative: Our Mutual Friend suggests that those who become too closely enmeshed with material objects ultimately fall because their human qualities decline. Our Mutual Friend brings into question the primacy of organic wholeness by imaginatively exploring class mobility enabled by prosthesis use while manifesting a distrust towards too close an intimacy with technology. In ways that remind us of Karl Marx’s conceptualization of the human “organs” within the factory system, Wegg’s humanity is compromised by the hardening influence of a technological device.Footnote 77

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend, first published in serial form from 1864 to 1865, is a novel that literalizes George Henry Lewes’s claim that Dickens’s characters are wooden puppets brought to life by incident.Footnote 78 The claim is that Dickens uses Silas Wegg, a man who is both a peg-leg user and depicted as wooden in appearance, character, and action, to explore the greed-provoking influence of material culture and to examine the privileging of organic physical normalcy.Footnote 79 Dorothy Van Ghent observes that Dickens’s writing responded to a culture in which “[p]eople were being de-animated, robbed of their souls, and things were usurping the prerogatives of animate creatures.”Footnote 80 Our Mutual Friend is clearly a novel that fits this description, since it displays an explicit engagement with topics relating to human/object relationships. Significantly, the novel imaginatively engages with prostheses, their materiality, and how they might impact social mobility.

Dickens’s portrayal of Wegg complicates the normative physical models presented by contemporary influential figures such as Samuel Smiles, John Ruskin, and Charles Kingsley. These figures believed that displaying good physical health was a signifier of mental vigour, whereas Dickens imagined a conspicuous amputee who, for a time, is enabled class mobility thanks to his use of a wooden leg. In his highly successful Self Help (1859), Smiles asserts that the male body, alongside masculine morality and intellect, must be cherished and refined: “Each must be developed, and yet each must yield something to satisfy the claims of the others …. It is only by wisely training all three together that the complete man can be formed” (emphasis added).Footnote 81 For Smiles, physical cultivation is a vital yet overlooked aspect of complete and thus ideal masculinity. Smiles later asserts that “[i]t is in the physical man that the moral as well as the intellectual man lies hid; and it is through the bodily organs that the soul itself works.”Footnote 82 Moreover, Smiles claims that the success of professional men “depends in no slight degree on their original stamina and cultivated physical strength.”Footnote 83 Smiles’s vision was reaffirmed by Ruskin, who in 1860 asserted that a gentleman’s status derives from his physical vigour: “A gentleman’s first characteristic is that fineness of structure in the body, which renders it capable of the most delicate sensation.”Footnote 84

Around the same time that Smiles and Ruskin promulgated their ableist masculine ideals, Kingsley re-envisioned masculinity infamously with his concept of “muscular Christianity.” “Perhaps more than any other middle-class writer,” James Eli Adams has suggested, “Kingsley placed the male body into widespread circulation as an object of celebration and desire.”Footnote 85 Donald E. Hall claims that the defining characteristics of “muscular Christianity” included “an association between physical strength, religious certainty, and the ability to shape and control the world around oneself.”Footnote 86 By emphasizing the importance of physical cultivation in his essay “The Science of Health” (1872), Kingsley proclaims: “We must … have the CORPUS SANEM if we want the MENTEM SANEM; and healthy bodies are the only trustworthy organs for healthy minds.”Footnote 87

Wegg would not be considered physically fit by Victorian standards and thus neither vigorous nor resolute. Scenes featuring Wegg such as the convulsive-stump episode, which I have explored in Chap. 2, place the amputee far from the mid-century physical ideal. However, in an entirely atypical manner Wegg’s hardiness and desire for upward mobility are affected by stubbornness and inhumanity, qualities that are shown to stem not from the character’s physical robustness, but instead from his use of a wooden leg. Wegg’s initial rise is apparently enabled by his prosthesis and the supposed influence that the materiality of the device asserts.

Engaging with contemporary debates surrounding the relationship between man and machine in this period, while harnessing the oft-exploited potentially of physical difference for metaphorical power, Dickens presents Wegg as someone who, in almost every respect, resembles the wood that forms his prosthetic limb. It is, in part, the very fact that Wegg wears a wooden leg that convinces Mr. Boffin to employ him, thus enabling the amputee to improve his social status. However, though the author allows the wooden Wegg a great deal of social mobility prior to the novel’s denouement, Dickens eventually privileges the organic over the artificial: Wegg’s plan to usurp Mr. Boffin from his elevated position eventually fails—in part due to the inability of the amputee’s peg leg to successfully negotiate the terrain of his master’s dust mounds. Echoing the contemporary instructions that encouraged amputees to utilize sophisticated prosthetic devices to avoid the stigma surrounding bodily loss, Wegg’s leg ultimately stands, metonymically, for stasis, reflecting the real-life social limitations imposed on wooden-leg users. Since Wegg’s wooden prosthesis has such a profound impact on its wearer, Dickens’s portrayal suggests both an uneasiness regarding the meshing of the human with the non-human and a lack of sympathy towards pauper amputees, who were so often depicted as figures of fraudulence and imposture in contemporary culture.

Prior to the uptake of disability theory within Victorian studies, several critics commented upon the symbolic significance of Wegg as a character who embodies dispersal and fragmentation, two major themes of Our Mutual Friend as a whole. Albert D. Hutter, for instance, identifies that a “problem” for several of the characters in Dickens’s novel is “disarticulation”: “characters are cut off from their work and from each other or like Wegg (at another extreme) from parts of themselves.”Footnote 88 Elsewhere, Lawrence Frank suggests that “Silas Wegg’s comic embodiment of the danger of dispersal, of fragmentation, is matched by his equally comic inclination to paralysis, to petrifaction … Inevitably, in the art of analogy Dickens so skilfully employs, Wegg’s comic predicament comments upon the serious plights of other characters.”Footnote 89 More recently, Alex Woloch argues that “Wegg’s emblematic wooden leg doesn’t only stand for both petrifaction and fragmentation but also stands as a product of the clash between embodiment and disembodiment that is produced by a character’s standing for such abstractions in the first place.”Footnote 90 Goldie Morgentaler, meanwhile, uses Wegg and his woodenness as an example through which to explore the theme of “mistaken and disembodied identity.” Our Mutual Friend, Morgentaler writes, “is vitally concerned with issues of identity and with the difficulties of separating the genuine essence of an individual from its outer manifestation.”Footnote 91 Unlike these critics, however, who are primarily concerned with the symbolic value of Wegg’s wooden leg, Gavin “examines Wegg against the historical background of Dickens’s interest in wooden legs, Victorian surgery and prosthetics, and nineteenth-century commodification of body parts.”Footnote 92 I have continued Gavin’s line of inquiry with specific regard to social class and the literary function of the prosthesis user in my blog post for the Dickens Our Mutual Friend Reading Project, where I argue that Dickens’s representations of Wegg and the aptronymic Greenwich pensioner Gruff and Glum (who appears at the wedding of John Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer) draw our attention to “the link between physical and social mobility in the nineteenth century.”Footnote 93 Below, I address the issue of class, a topic linked to both the materiality of the Wegg’s prosthesis and his status as a physically reassembled Victorian male.

Readers first encounter Wegg as a character who is very much defined by his prosthesis. Before we become acquainted with Wegg’s name, Dickens describes him as “a man with a wooden leg,” suggesting that his most distinguishing feature is the prosthesis that he uses.Footnote 94 At this point, Wegg operates at the lower end of the Victorian class system: he owns a stall that sells various miscellaneous items, including sweets, fruits, ballads, and gingerbread. Furthermore, Wegg claims to run errands for a nearby house, although, as the narrator notes, “he received such commissions not half-a-dozen times in a year, and then only as some servant’s deputy.”Footnote 95 Wegg’s inability to attain a position as a servant emphasizes the privileging of physical wholeness that abounded in nineteenth-century society. Since Wegg has one leg, it is assumed that he is unable to perform household duties as well as a nondisabled employee. Wegg’s false leg therefore stands for his inability to secure employment. He is rendered useless by social attitudes directed towards his amputation and use of a wooden leg. The leg stands for low income while metonymically it fits a stereotyped view of paupers who had for many years been represented as impaired or disfigured in one way or another. David Copperfield’s sweetheart, Dora, for instance, associates such beggary with “a yellow face and a nightcap, or a pair of crutches, or a wooden leg, or a dog with a decanter-stand in his mouth, or something of that kind.”Footnote 96 Artwork from the early modern period onwards supports this association of primitive prosthesis use with mendicancy and street work, as we can see in Figs. 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3.

Fig. 4.1
figure 1

Seventeenth-century etching of a beggar with two crutches and a wooden leg. Jacques Callot, Beggar with a Wooden Leg, c. 1622, etching with engraving, 13.8 × 0.8 cm, Wellcome Collection, London. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/bssun4bb. CC BY 4.0

Fig. 4.2
figure 2

Eighteenth-century etching illustrating an encounter between a peg-leg-using retired soldier and a pluralist. John Collier, The Pluralist and Old Soldier, 1770, etching with engraving, 22.4 × 23.2 cm, Wellcome Collection, London. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ztss4ux8. CC BY 4.0

Fig. 4.3
figure 3

Early nineteenth-century etching of a hook-hand-using street hawker selling haddock. J.T. Smith, Live Haddock, 1815, etching, 18.8 × 11.3 cm, Wellcome Collection, London. Image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection. https://wellcomecollection.org/works/jeq6wsj2. CC BY 4.0

Despite the symbolic status of his prosthesis, Wegg’s wooden leg provides its user with certain advantages. In his line of work, which involves (for the most part) sitting and waiting for customers to arrive, Wegg’s artificial leg is less of a hindrance than his healthy one. To keep his organic leg warm, he places it in a basket—an unusual choice of leg-warmer that in form closely resembles the “bucket” of a peg leg into which the user’s stump would be inserted. Later, when he is asked if he likes his wooden leg, Wegg humorously responds, “Well! I haven’t got to keep it warm,” as though he’s ready to be rid of the “good” leg too.Footnote 97 In this instance, Dickens light-heartedly echoes the words of journalist and fiction writer Charles Manby Smith, who, in his experimental literary essay “An Essay on Wooden Legs,” mockingly proposed that limb-prosthesis wearers might possess advantages over bipeds: “look at the double risks of the double-footed, even in calamities that come unsought. The gout, that horrible visitant, has but half a victim in a one-legged man; of corns too he has but half a crop; his bunions never mar his quiet pilgrimage; and, come what may, he cannot by any possibility suffer from damp feet.”Footnote 98 Considering the way that Wegg is described throughout the novel (as we will see, he is as wooden in character as his prosthetic leg is in form), it is perhaps unsurprising that he chooses another wooden object to keep his real leg warm. Wegg’s use of the basket suggests that he is comfortable using wooden objects as supplements to his physical form. The basket is not much different from the “bucket” part of his prosthesis that his stump goes into. Wegg’s aptitude for prosthesis use is also implied by the way he uses his wooden leg in non-typical ways. Elsewhere, Wegg prods Venus with his wooden leg to discreetly gain his attention. In another instance, he is said to “take his wooden leg naturally.”Footnote 99

Ironically, Wegg’s wooden leg helps him to secure a position as a literary man for Mr. Boffin, the recent inheritor of a considerable fortune. Boffin goes so far as to boast that his literary fellow is a prosthesis user. When John Rokesmith first approaches Boffin looking for employment, the Golden Dustman warns the young man that he has already made a recent appointment: “I have in my employment a literary man—with a wooden leg—as I have no thoughts of parting from” (emphasis original).Footnote 100 In the light of Victorian notions of health and the corollary discourses of work and masculinity, it is odd to boast of employing someone with a physical impairment. Yet here the emphasis is on the prosthetic device rather than the missing limb. In this sense, Boffin’s respect for Wegg appears to be expounded by the amputee’s use of a prosthetic limb. The fact that Wegg sells ballads and is physically impaired implies to Boffin that the amputee is well-read. Boffin employs Wegg to fulfil new social expectations that follow his newfound wealth, and Boffin feels it necessary to be learned and cultured in order to successfully perform his heightened social role. Since it was considered more respectable for amputees to use prostheses, Boffin judges Wegg in a favourable manner. To Boffin, Wegg’s use of a wooden leg therefore signifies that he is genteel. A culturally aware Victorian reader would pick up on Boffin’s assumptions, which are not only unusual but misinformed. As we have seen, the peg leg that Wegg wears associates him with maimed industrial workers, beggars, and naval veterans rather than members of the literati—though this latter group was not entirely without real-life associates with lower-limb difference (e.g. Lord Byron and, later, William Ernest Henley).

Despite Boffin’s best intentions, comic attention is centred on his foolishness early in the novel. Not only is Boffin uninformed and completely taken in by Wegg’s clumsy use of verse and false literary prowess (epitomized by Wegg’s “wooden conceit and craft,” which “kept exact pace with the delighted expectation of his victim”), but he also shows an ignorance towards popular contemporary connotations of peg legs, which were more commonly associated with beggary than respectability.Footnote 101 As Mihm suggests, in a time where the “tendency to equate external, bodily appearance with internal character” became popular and legitimized by scientific and medical doctrines, prosthesis type became an index for social value: “Prostheses from [the nineteenth century], far from being mere markers of technological progress, remain emblems, largely forgotten, of the demands posed by an ‘age of appearances’ in whose shadows we continue to live today.”Footnote 102 An 1885 American etiquette manual suggested that “A man’s walk” is “an index of his character and of the grade of his culture.”Footnote 103 “The sight of a man, however respectably dressed,” Mihm suggests, “hobbling down the street on an ‘odious peg’ would inevitably lead strangers to judge him in a negative light, as a ‘cripple.’”Footnote 104 Thus, Dickens establishes Boffin as a man ignorant of this social code, since the Golden Dustman values Wegg more for having a wooden leg. Boffin’s lack of awareness towards the social connotations of an unnatural-looking prosthetic device could be symptomatic of his own rapid social rise. In working-class social spaces, such as the factory, farm, or gin palace, there was much less impetus on the appearance and lifelike movement of a prosthetic limb.Footnote 105 Instead, the merit of an artificial body part was judged by utility: if a wooden leg allowed an amputee to return to work, it was deemed successful. Justified by his quick rise from the lower end of the class spectrum, Dickens depicts Boffin as unaware of polite society’s demands for more lifelike prostheses. For Wegg, however, Boffin’s naivety is beneficial: it enables him to ascend through the social hierarchy.

Wegg also benefits from his apparent woodenness. By providing a contrast to the hegemonic norm of organic wholeness, the materiality of Wegg’s prosthesis is reflected in the mannerisms, movements, and character of the wooden-leg user.Footnote 106 As the narrator observes:

Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of a very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle. When he laughed, certain jerks occurred in it, and the rattle sprung. Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected—if his development received no untimely check—to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months.Footnote 107

Later, Wegg has a “hard-grained face,” “stiff knotty figure,” and is compared in looks to “a German wooden toy.”Footnote 108 In another instance, he has “wooden countenance,” and elsewhere a “wooden head.”Footnote 109 Correspondingly, Wegg’s name is an elision of “wooden” and “legg”—a splicing of language that signifies the merging of man and thing. As Carey suggests, Wegg is one of the most lucid representatives of Dickens’s interest in “the border country between people and things”:

In a sense the wooden-legged men are at an intermediate stage of turning into wood, and with Silas Wegg the process has gone further. He is described as “knotty” and “close-grained,” altogether so wooden that he seems to have grown his wooden leg naturally, and may be expected to develop a second one, Dickens conjectures, in about six months.Footnote 110

In a manner not always consistent in Dickens’s fiction, the characterization of Wegg is determined by his physical features.Footnote 111 In this case, Wegg’s prosthesis is (in material if nothing else) the most visible signifier of the character’s behaviour and inner qualities. To an almost comical degree, the narrator attributes the amputee with attributes akin to timber. That Wegg is “knotty” sets out that he is fixed and awkward, much like his wooden leg; that he is “close-grained” suggests that he is hard, obstinate, and narrow-minded. Stern-faced, with a mechanical laugh, Silas Wegg is in nearly all capacities presented as wooden by the narrator. Even the character’s movements are described in terms of woodenness, since he prone to “stump” rather than walk. Unlike “the Oaken Lady” of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Drowne’s Wooden Image” (1844) (a wooden figurehead for a boat that is so mesmerizingly mimetic an effigy that she is thought to have come to life when her original comes to town), the aesthetic effect of Wegg’s wooden artificial part is not only blatant, but all-consuming.Footnote 112 In appearance he is more wooden than the oak figure skilfully carved by the craftsman Drowne in Hawthorne’s tale. As we learn, Wegg’s prostheticized woodenness serves him well, for a time providing an imaginative alternative to organic physical wholeness.

The splicing of man and thing in Wegg also recalls the static, mechanized “hands” of the Victorian factory system. The human-machine dynamic of the factory was analysed in depth by Karl Marx in his contemporaneous critique of political economy, Capital (1867). As Tamara Ketabgian explains in her book The Lives of Machines, Marx’s writing articulated how humans and machines jockeyed for dominance and subject status in the factory system: “the humans and machines of Capital shift restlessly between the role of host and prosthesis.”Footnote 113 According to Marx, the factory arranged its workers as “parts of a living mechanism.” The division of labour, Marx suggested, “mutilates the worker,” transforming him into the “life-long organ of [a] partial function.” Reversing the prosthetic function that technology is usually held to serve, Marx intimated that the worker, fragmented by monotonous routine, became a “living appendage of the machine.”Footnote 114 Dickens’s portrayal of a character in Silas Wegg, who one could argue is mechanized by his use of a prosthetic device, has parallels with the “human organs” of Marx’s factory. In both Marx’s and Dickens’s respective writings, the dominance of the mechanical is brought to the fore. Whereas for Marx the human subject takes on the supposed passivity of the object/thing, Dickens gives thought to a more beneficial human-object relationship.

In Our Mutual Friend, Wegg’s woodenness is simultaneously a help and hindrance to the amputee’s social rise. Early on, when running a street stall, Wegg’s hardness (which is transposed to the fruit that he sells) is somewhat off-putting for potential customers:

Assuredly, this stall of Silas Wegg’s was the hardest little stall of all the sterile little stalls in London. It gave you the face-ache to look at his oranges, the tooth-ache to look at his nuts. Of the latter commodity he had always a grim little heap, on which lay a little wooden measure which had no discernible inside, and was considered to represent the penn’orth appointed by Magna Charta.Footnote 115

Here, stiffness is reflected not only in Wegg’s character, but also in the produce that he attempts to sell. Moreover, his measures are fixed and rigid. Elsewhere, the very language with which the narrator describes Wegg’s shrewdness draws from a lexical set connected with wood: “‘Boffin will get all the eagerer for waiting a bit,’ says Silas, screwing up, as he stumps along, first his right eye, and then his left. Which is something superfluous in him, for Nature has already screwed both pretty tight” (emphasis added).Footnote 116 Here both Wegg’s facial expression and figurative composition—being “screwed” tight together—reinforce the view that the material properties of his prosthesis are reflected in his character. This transposition of qualities hardly seems negative in this instance, though, as Wegg is clearly someone who has his wits about him. The noisy and inarticulate way in which he is described to move, which again draws on his bodily state and use of prosthesis, similarly reflects his slow, methodical, and calculating nature.

These characteristics allow Wegg to infiltrate the Boffin family home and scheme the plan that almost collapses the world of the Golden Dustman. Wegg’s wooden mannerisms are represented as directly responsible for his upward mobility when, after “stumping leisurely to the Roman Empire,” Boffin offers his literary man with wooden leg a permanent position at the Bower, meaning that he can give up his street stall for a better living.Footnote 117 Revealing the advantages of a human-machine splice, Dickens brings into question the preference for organic physical completeness by presenting a temporarily successful, prostheticized, and conspicuously wooden alternative. Furthermore, Dickens collapses the social mandate for prostheses that allow users to pass. It is after all the recognition that he is a wooden-leg user that gains him employment in the first place.

However, Dickens’s novel later reveals some unpleasant corollaries of Wegg’s prosthesis use in the form of social marginalization and physical impairment. An incident that reveals the vulnerability of the amputee to unwanted attention occurs when Mr. Boffin callously asks Wegg how he acquired his wooden leg. Here, it is interesting that the Golden Dustman asks not how Wegg sustained his injury but rather how he obtained his prosthesis. Boffin’s question can be read as both an attempt at subtlety and revelatory of his preoccupation with Wegg’s false leg, which for him is both an object of fascination and a physical manifestation of literary knowledge and worldliness. The fact that Boffin makes this rather personal enquiry during his first meeting with Wegg once again emphasizes the former’s ignorance towards the social protocols of bourgeois life. The inappropriateness of questions like this was mocked a few years earlier in Household Words . In a serialized chapter of George A. Sala’s “The Great Hotel Question” (1856), the anonymous author ridicules Americans for their supposedly shameless inquisitiveness:

There is but one instance on record, I believe, of a Yankee being worsted, in the query line of conversation; and this was the questioning Yankee who persisted in asking the dyspeptic man with a wooden leg how he had lost his missing leg, and after much pressing was told, on a solemn promise that he would ask no more questions, and under a penalty of dollars uncountable, that it had been bit off; whereupon, in an agony of uncertainty as to who or what had bitten it off, and how—whether it had fallen a victim to the jaws of deadly alligator, or catawampous panther, or fiercely-riled rattlesnake; and, fearing to break his word, or lose his dollars, he was crestfallen and confounded, and, ignominiously sloping, was seen no more in that territory.Footnote 118

This passage reveals that even to the Victorians, who often displayed unsympathetic or suspicious attitudes towards disabled adults, enquiries like these were deemed inappropriate. What is particularly fascinating about this excerpt is that the American assumes that “bitten off” means that an animal inflicted the amputee’s injury, entirely ruling out the very real possibility that the man may have lost his leg to the metallic jaws of the cotton-mill, paper-press, or another piece of dangerous machinery.Footnote 119

Indelicate and invasive, Boffin’s enquiry is symptomatic of his fast rise up the social scale. He asks a question that reflects ignorance of the feelings of others, which a Victorian reader might associate with an unrefined, working-class temperament, one standing at odds with his new social position. However, his enquiry also indicates the inconsiderate way that disabled people are often burdened by forthright, personal, and highly emotive questions in modern society.Footnote 120 Wegg’s response to this enquiry implies that he is understandably offended: “Mr Wegg replied (tartly to this personal inquiry), ‘In an accident.’”Footnote 121 This sharp retort suggests distress: Wegg neither enjoys being subjected to these enquiries nor is willing to go into detail about how he sustained his injury. As O’Connor has noted, lower-limb amputation was feared to have an emasculating effect on male patients: “It unmanned amputees, producing neurological disorders that gave the fragmented male body—or parts of it, anyway—a distinctly feminine side. Thrashing, twitching, and suffering from phantom pains, stumps showed a deep-rooted propensity for theatrical malingering that rivalled that of the hysterical herself.”Footnote 122 In this case, the reproof that Wegg seems to suffer in response to Boffin’s question intimates that the amputee feels that his masculinity is placed under scrutiny. The “tart” retort is a warranted defensive response and is discursively reinforced by the answer that he lost his leg in an accident. This reaction is intriguing since Boffin asked how Wegg got his wooden leg, not how he sustained his injury. It is therefore possible that Wegg asserts the cause to be an “accident” as a hasty defence of his masculinity: like the amputee who claims that his leg was bitten off, accident transforms the limb loss from a feminizing defect or troubling congenital deformity into a war wound or badge of honour—an emblem of masculine endeavour and national pride in the most extreme degree.Footnote 123

Complicating Wegg’s personal-injury narrative, Wegg’s leg, as we later discover, was surgically amputated. It is also implied that the operation may have been carried out because of a congenital impairment since Mr. Venus, an experienced articulator of bones, reveals to Wegg that his amputated leg is abnormal: “You have got a twist in that bone, to the best of my belief. I never saw the likes of you.” Venus goes on to remark that Wegg’s amputated leg could be made use of as a “Monstrosity,” further emphasizing its unusual form.Footnote 124 Assuming, then, that Wegg’s leg was surgically removed because of complications arising from severe deformity rather than injury, his retort to Boffin’s question provides evidence for the notion that it was less socially acceptable to be congenitally deformed than it was to lose a body part because of accident. Our Mutual Friend thus further complicates our understanding of physical wholeness and loss, since it suggests that the social position of the physically disabled could be contingent on how the subject lost her/his body part.

Dickens draws our attention to the ludicrous ends that a privileging of physical integrity can bring about when Wegg decides that to advance himself socially he must reunite with his lost leg. Going to Mr. Venus’s shop with the intention of purchasing the remains of his amputated leg, Wegg explains: “I shouldn’t like—I tell you openly I should not like—under such circumstances, to be what I may call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person.”Footnote 125 Wegg takes the contemporary privileging of physical wholeness to its logical extreme. The perceived link between social mobility and physical completeness here is key: Wegg believes that one must be fully intact to make progress in the world. To match his new, elevated social position, he must be whole. But in an absurd and cruelly humorous manner Dickens shows that a wooden leg is not enough to make a man feel whole again after losing a leg. The narrator also draws the reader’s attention to the conflicting cultural messages regarding physical integrity: one should strive to maintain an appearance of completeness but to artificially cultivate one is fraudulent. Through Wegg, Dickens show us that conflicting demands can bring a man to a state of confusion.

Elsewhere, Wegg accentuates the flaws in his prosthesis. In these instances, Dickens can be read to actively engage with contemporary debates surrounding what constituted “a limb which shall be presentable in polite society.”Footnote 126 Most luridly, Wegg describes to Venus how he would like to see wooden legs adapted: “Mr Wegg next modestly remarks on the want of adaption in a wooden leg to ladders and such-like airy perches, and also hints at the inherent tendency in that timber fiction, when called into action for the purposes of a promenade on an ashy slope, to stick itself into yielding foothold, and peg its owner to one spot.”Footnote 127 Here, Wegg reveals the practical limitations of his prosthesis in terms of manual work outdoors. By drawing attention to the wooden leg’s unsuitability for climbing ladders and its tendency to get stuck in soft ground, Wegg outlines the inhuman and unwieldy nature of wooden prostheses, seemingly reinforcing the contemporary preference for organic wholeness, which as we have seen was not a consistent position throughout the novel. Wegg’s difficulty ascending ladders suggests that the wooden prosthesis is unable to mimic the full range of movement and stability provided by a natural leg. It also implies that, unlike an organic leg, a wooden one is difficult to manoeuvre, meaning that it is in some ways independent of, rather than integrated within, the body. The wooden prosthesis’s propensity for getting stuck underlines how these devices in no way successfully mimicked the size and shape of a human foot. Since timber is often heavy and inflexible, prosthesis makers tended not shape their prosthesis to the form and dimensions of a real leg. Instead, as we have seen, peg legs were thin and rolling-pin shaped. In Our Mutual Friend, Wegg promulgates the flaws in limb prosthesis that primarily stem from their inorganic nature. While Wegg is represented as a man who is as wooden as his prosthesis, his device is depicted as flawed, just as he is as a character. On the one hand, then, the depiction of Wegg seems to support the hegemony of organic wholeness as its alternative, prosthetic woodenness, is debunked. But, on the other hand, this process brings into question the impulse to prostheticize, a desire encouraged by a cultural privileging of physical integrity.

The faults that Wegg identifies in his prosthesis become most problematic to the amputee while he sneakily scours Mr. Boffin’s dust mounds to find evidence that could lead to his master’s downfall. In several ways, Wegg’s prosthesis and its material influence can be read as the primary causes of his own fall from grace. It is, after all, because Wegg is unable to find Mr. Harmon’s most recent will before Boffin that the amputee ultimately fails. Likewise, it is Wegg’s wooden obstinacy and general “knotty” demeanour that stimulate his greed in the first place. Boffin identifies earlier in the novel that “a literary man—with a wooden leg—is liable to jealousy,” yet little is he aware that it is him and his fortune that Wegg is most jealous of.Footnote 128

In several senses, Wegg can be understood in connection with the “disabled male dichotomy” that Holmes identifies in Fictions of Affliction. Holmes suggests that there is a “representational gap” between the portrayal of disabled men and that of boys in Victorian literature in which the latter evoke “emotional excess as the intensity of pure pathos,” while the former represent “the excess of bilked emotion, imposture, and inauthenticity.”Footnote 129 Wegg is depicted as a fraud—to a rather comical extent. Boffin’s assumption that the amputee is a literary man is shown as well wide of the mark. Though the Golden Dustman knows no better (Wegg’s “wooden conceit and craft” are said to keep “exact pace with the delighted expectation of his victim”), the amputee’s knowledge is proven to be farcical very early on. A clear indicator of Wegg’s façade becomes apparent when Boffin asks his literary man what the difference is between the “Rooshan” and Roman Empire. Here, Wegg retorts: “The difference, sir? … The difference, sir? There you place me in a difficulty, Mr Boffin. Suffice it to observe, that the difference is best postponed to some other occasion when Mrs Boffin does not honour us with her company. In Mrs Boffin’s presence, sir, we had better drop it.”Footnote 130 Earlier, after having been offered employment by Boffin, Wegg is described in the following way:

His gravity was unusual, portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt of himself, but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt of himself in others. And herein he ranged with that very numerous class of impostors, who are quite as determined to keep up appearances to themselves, as to their neighbours.Footnote 131

Wegg is thus singled out as a fraud and associated with the swindling beggars described in Mayhew’s London Labour and London Poor, even before the amputee attempts to extort Boffin of his riches. Like beggars that use an impression of disability for profit-making purposes, the depiction of Wegg troublingly elides the physically incomplete body with duplicitous schemes.

Related to the theme of fraudulence, Dickens brings the falsity of Wegg’s wooden leg to the fore late in the novel, where we see that prostheses are a kind of sham. The discrepancy between flesh and artificial body part is depicted when Wegg is described as worn and haggard by his endeavours to grow rich at Boffin’s expense. As the narrator notes: “So gaunt and haggard had he grown at last, that his wooden leg showed disproportionate, and presented a thriving appearance in contrast with the rest of the plagued body, which might almost have been termed chubby.”Footnote 132 In this instance, the fact that Wegg’s prosthesis remains unaltered by the stress occasioned by the wearer’s pursuit of wealth provides a contrast with the body of the amputee, which is described as vulnerable to the symptoms of stress. Despite the earlier descriptions of Wegg’s complete woodenness, the sharp divide between hard, unchanging substance and soft, vulnerable human tissue becomes apparent. Like the “hands” of the Victorian factory, whose physical discrepancy to the unrelenting force of industrial machinery routinely resulted in the kinds of accidents reported and lamented by commentators such as Henry Morley, Wegg’s organic body pales in comparison to his artificial wooden leg.Footnote 133 Unfortunately for Wegg, the apparent strength and social mobility occasioned by his woodenness proves a façade: not only does his health suffer because of his designs, but the designs themselves also fail, since it turns out he failed in obtaining the final will written by Harmon senior. Though Wegg remains wooden-looking, obstinate, and greedy until the end of the novel, his woodenness no longer appears an advantage. Wegg’s use of prosthesis is one of the very flaws that has led to his plan failing: the nondisabled Boffin navigated the dust heap better than the physically impeded amputee. Fluctuating between a position that either mocks the hegemony of organic physical wholeness or reaffirms it, Wegg’s fall from grace sides with the latter.

In addition to Wegg, Dickens presents the reader with a second prosthesis-wearing amputee in Our Mutual Friend, one whose social mobility, like the wooden villain, is linked to his use of prosthesis: the navy veteran Gruff and Glum, who appears in Book 4, Chap. 4.Footnote 134 Unlike Wegg, Gruff and Glum is a double amputee. The representation of this character more straightforwardly equates physical mobility to social mobility. Here, the double-leg amputee is represented as a character whose lower-limb prostheses restrict him to the social space of retirement: Greenwich hospital—Britain’s home from the seventeenth century for its disabled navy veterans. The very name Gruff and Glum indicates the character of the man (a hardened navy veteran) and hints towards the psychological impact of limb amputation. Prior to Bella’s arrival in town (for her wedding with John Rokesmith), Gruff and Glum is said to have “no other object in life but tobacco” and is described as “[s]tranded … in a harbour of everlasting mud.”Footnote 135 The description is both literal and metonymic: harbours, such as Greenwich’s were often muddy, meaning that his physical mobility was restricted by the limitations placed upon him by his prostheses, which were not well-suited for walking on soft ground. Still, he is also trapped by his retired status and the symbolic meaning attached to his wooden legs. Oddly, the veteran’s body is reawakened by his contact with Bella: “For years, the wings of his mind had gone to look after the legs of his body; but Bella had brought them back for him per steamer, and they were spread again.”Footnote 136 Here, the presence of Bella liberates Gruff and Glum’s thoughts from his injuries, underscoring the importance of human contact within the rehabilitation process of an amputee. In this regard, Gruff and Glum’s portrayal is a comment on the social segregation experienced by patients of institutions such as Greenwich Hospital.Footnote 137 Like Wegg, the woodenness of Gruff and Glum’s prostheses is also reflected in his character. His artificial legs stand as visual signifiers for his former profession that remain a strong influence upon him. In response to a compliment from Bella, using a naval idiom, “Gruff and Glum … wished her ji and the fairest of fair wind and weather; further, in a general way requesting to know what cheer? And scrambling up on his two wooden legs to salute, hat in hand, ship-shape, with the gallantry of a man-of-warsman and a heart of oak.”Footnote 138 As the narrator’s description suggests, he has become a half-wooden masthead, like the wooden midshipman in Dombey and Son. Here, Gruff and Glum’s choice of language directly draws from his former days at sea, while the description that he has “a heart of oak” suggests that he is akin both in character and in substance to a naval vessel. Like a retired ship, he is worn, wooden and moored to a dock, where it is destined to remain until his eventual demise. Like Wegg, Gruff and Glum is pegged to a low social standing by prosthesis.Footnote 139

Wegg’s Legacy

In 1877, seven years after Dickens’s death, an article appeared in All the Year Round (at this time commissioned by Charles Dickens Jr.) that reaffirmed some of the associations with inauthenticity, dishonesty, and imposture that Wegg embodies in Our Mutual Friend. In “Mr. Wegg and his Class,” the author unsympathetically discussed the imprudence of street beggars who were “engaged in the crossing-sweeping line of business,” and were the real-life equivalents of Dickens’s fictional amputee.Footnote 140 Of the supposedly deplorable figures that the author describes, one in particular is said to be uncannily similar to Wegg: “Like his great prototype, he had a wooden leg; like him he was literary; and, finally, like him, under cover of affecting to follow his profession, he assiduously cultivated another, namely that of Humbug.”Footnote 141 Here, then, not only is this real-life figure also an amputee peg-leg wearer, but he is also considered a literary man and depicted as unscrupulous. Like Wegg and the disabled street workers described by Mayhew, the beggar deployed a number of duplicitous strategies for financial gain. He used his wooden leg to inspire the idea that he was a war veteran. He drew upon the sympathy of others, claiming to be in constant pain. After his wooden leg broke, he used this as an excuse to demand extra money from passers-by. And he claimed to have found Salvation and read Christian verses aloud to encourage charitable donations.

What the article fails to consider, and what Our Mutual Friend investigates with much more nuance and complexity, however, are the limited options available to lower-class amputees. It was no doubt easy enough to be annoyed at wooden-leg users, such as Wegg’s real-life progeny, for their duplicitous strategies. But with inflexible and widely held views that restricted working opportunities for impaired individuals, trickery provided rare (albeit limited) opportunities for financial success. It was not as if the apparently wondrous enabling devices of the contemporary prosthesis market were available to street amputees. The devices that they could afford, wooden pegs, often failed to provide their users with the ability to perform even basic physical feats. Sometimes these devices even made the physical situation of their users worse, leaving street work or begging as some of the only viable options. It was thus a vicious cycle for lower-class amputees. While those who could afford “artificial legs” might facilitate social mobility once more—including devices promised to enable them to pass as normal—those who could not were often rendered both physically and socially immobile. These inevitabilities, brought about by a culture that privileged wholeness at the expense of those missing body parts, were challenged by narratives including Our Mutual Friend, which experimented with the idea that amputees could be social climbers. It is telling, though, that Dickens’s successors saw Wegg as the archetypal “peg-legged beggar” rather than a transgressive social climber. What Our Mutual Friend and “Mr Wegg and His Class” share is a vision that those who are oppressed by a society unwilling to employ or respect them might cultivate a ruthless streak, which could manifest in behaviour akin to Wegg’s. This attitude has clear ableist and disablist underpinnings. It deflects blame away from society by criminalizing the marginalized subject. But both sources, like the other fictional works discussed in this chapter, bring into question the premium placed on physical completeness, since they draw attention to the counterintuitive results that normative bodily preferences might give rise to.

This chapter has shown how writers such as Dickens experimented with the social trajectories of their fictional prosthesis users in ways that challenged but did not ultimately refute the contemporary privileging of physical wholeness. By analysing these writings through a disability-studies lens, self-contradictions in the philosophy of prosthetically supplementing the human body come to the fore. If the body is sacrosanct, its imitation, a process forced upon those whose bodies are perceived to be incomplete, becomes stigmatized as counterfeit. Thus, the very desire to replicate the body brings about its own critique, since, if a prosthetic part made is a poor replica (as in the case of peg legs), its purpose is defunct. Then again, if it made perfect (as supposedly was the case with high-end artificial limbs), it becomes an emblem of deceit. But also, critical to the social element of this paradox, the more superior devices made to hide physical losses come at too high a price for those who arguably need them the most—those from the lower end of the class system, whose jobs require physical mobility. The inevitable result is that social mobility becomes impossible for amputees at the lower end of the class spectrum. Ironically, owing to the very hegemony of physical wholeness, feigning a physical difference becomes profitable for those at the bottom as this condition evokes pity, and thereby increases potential for charitable gain. By transgressively imagining prosthesis users who because of their integration with a primitive prosthesis can elevate their social position, the representations discussed upend cultural preferences. Even though works such as Our Mutual Friend end conservatively, reifying the premium placed on wholeness, this act of self-assurance reveals the fragility of a concept that invited interrogation and required so much cultural buttressing.