By Clare Walker Gore. Clare has recently completed her PhD, which explored disability in the Victorian novel, at Selwyn. She is taking up a junior research fellowship at Trinity this summer. Her project examines disability and life-writing in the nineteenth century.
One of many fascinating moments in Sarah Steele’s 1891 biography of her cousin, Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, takes place when he is having dinner with a Kurdish Prince on his journey from Moscow to Baghdad. Steele quotes Arthur’s diary entry for February 6th, 1850, in which he recounts how:
‘After sunset, dinner was brought in on three trays, which were placed on the floor, one before our host, a second before Tom and Wood, and a third before me. We accordingly set to work, Tom and Wood slobbering away with their hands. I had fortunately a camp-knife and fork in my pocket and got on passably, first attacking a very rich-looking mess; but having swallowed one mouthful was obliged to desist, feeling very much the worse. The dish consisted of rotten cabbage, stewed in vinegar and oil, flavoured with a very nasty sort of spice. I next attacked the greasy pilau. Knowing that it always contained something in the shape of meat inside, I set to work to burrow, and at length succeeded in hauling out the back of a lamb, which I began to eat – but, the Governor having finished, etiquette obliged me to come to also. In vain I waited for another tray to make its appearance. The washing of hands followed, and I had to consider myself as having dined.’
(The Right Honourable Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, pp.60-61)
Reading this account of a young Irish aristocrat smugly eating with a knife and fork while his brother and tutor are forced to adopt foreign table manners, a modern reader is likely to make all sorts of deductions about his tastes, his experiences, his attitudes, and his sense of identity. What no reader could deduce from this account is that Arthur Kavanagh had no hands.
Knowing this cannot help but change how you read the passage. It isn’t just that you want to know how he was able to manage cutlery, but that you notice the displacement of difference which takes place when he depicts the eating habits of his foreign hosts. It is the use of hands which appears aberrant in this account; not only is Arthur’s lack of hands obscured, but his superiority to those who are ‘slobbering away with their hands’ is firmly established. Through his use of cutlery, he is able to get on ‘passably’, with the test he is passing presumably being the maintenance of British standards when abroad. He falls in with his hosts as far as ‘etiquette obliged’, but clearly marks his difference from them in his written account, disparaging not only the way they eat but what they eat: the food is ‘nasty’, ‘greasy’, its unfamiliarity rendering it almost unrecognisable as food at all, ‘something in the shape of meat’ rather than meat itself.
This passage is typical of Arthur’s diaries, in which cutlery and cookery keep on cropping up. As the trio make their astonishingly dangerous journey from Moscow to Baghdad, and the months of his exile from Ireland stretch into years, the one thing Arthur seems to feel he can complain about is foreign food, and the uncivilized means and places in which it is consumed. He describes cold, hunger, danger and illness, but rarely acknowledges any adverse reaction to them. He is more than willing to record the moments when his servants complain about the terrible conditions, frequently noting that they do, but he seldom allows himself to record negative emotional reactions to anything – apart from the food.
Of course, this may be a reflection of the priorities of a nineteen-year-old with a healthy appetite, but it also enables Arthur to mark his difference from those he meets on his travels, to establish his own identity as a British gentleman in contrast to their identity as foreigners. His recorded reactions to foreign food enable him to demonstrate that while he is stoical in the face of privation, his tastes are constant, and alien cookery and the absence of cutlery offend them. He may eat with foreigners, but he will not be reduced to ‘slobbering away with [his] hands’.
Steele’s approach to recording Arthur’s life strongly recalls the diaries in which he records his travels, which she quotes at length during this part of the biography. Just as Arthur makes no mention of his physical difference from others, so Steele erases his disability as far as possible. Anyone reading The Right Honourable Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh to learn about the practicalities of living with physical impairment in the nineteenth century would be sorely disappointed: we are not told how he wrote with a pen, how he used cutlery, how he fired a gun, or whether he had a wheelchair. We very rarely see Arthur grappling with an environment that is poorly adapted to his needs, and we never see others registering the physical difference that would, usually, give rise to a person being labelled as ‘afflicted’ or ‘deformed’ or ‘crippled’, to use the terms of the day. As a result, this social identity is held at bay: Steele does not use a single word from the contemporary lexicon of disability to describe Arthur, and in a real sense, he is not disabled in her biography. The subject she constructs simply does not inhabit this identity category. Instead, his identity as an Irish gentleman – and a particular kind of Irishman at that, a landowning Protestant loyalist – is established through depicting him in situations which mark his difference from those who do not embody this identity. On his travels, the foreigners he encounter play this role, and so do his servants and sometimes even his brother and tutor; back on his estate, his Catholic tenants occupy this position, necessary foils to Arthur’s identity as ‘the Father Confessor’ of Borris (The Right Honourable Arthur Macmurrough Kavanagh, p.135).
As a literary critic, I’m intrigued by the posthumous collaboration between Arthur and his biographer, the ways in which the chapters of the biography which are lifted straight from his diaries continue and complement Steele’s narrative approach. More than this, I want to understand why, in order to construct Arthur as the gentleman-hero of his own life story, both Arthur as diarist and Steele as biographer felt that they needed to write out his physical difference. Was disability simply incompatible with masculinity? Or with authority? Or with Britishness? Or was something else entirely going on? Over the course of my research fellowship, I hope to uncover the answers to these questions – and to come closer to understanding what is at stake in this striking vignette about a dinner in a Kurdish palace, eaten well over a century ago.