The Angel of the Workhouse: The Body, and the Body Politic, of Victorian Women with Disabilities

On September 12, 1846, a poet-prince married a “rather plain, thin, faded, hysterical woman [who] was loved for herself as perhaps none of all the world’s famous beauties has ever been.” Perhaps that rather dramatic description is not an entirely fair account of the elopement of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, but their readers’ continued fascination with their real-life love story is at least partially due to its fairytale qualities.

Even if he is not exactly a prince, Robert certainly seems princely: a handsome, robust man whose steadfast love charmed a recluse out of her seclusion. Yet the protagonist of this story — or at least the myth that the story has become — is neither Robert nor “E.B.B,” as Robert called her in one of his love letters. Instead, Love itself becomes the protagonist, proving its triumphant, transfiguring power to more than a century of skeptics. If this plain, sickly, woman with a lung ailment found an adoring partner, Love whispers to the lonely, then imagine the wonder I could conjure for YOU!

As a shy, disabled graduate student swooning over love poems, I thought of Robert and E.B.B.’s love story as the only one I could aspire to call my own. After all, it has a shy, disabled woman poet in it. As a nineteenth-century woman whose literary reputation eclipsed her poet husband’s during her lifetime, E.B.B. is unique. However, her situation is also unique for another reason. She had an audience of readers who cared about what she had to say, but she also always had someone to care for her in her personal life, first her father, Edward Barrett, and then her husband, Robert Browning.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning seated at a desk holding papers. Her hair is in intense ringlet curls.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Wikimedia Commons)

During roughly the same that Robert and E.B.B. were courting and eloping, many people with disabilities were being moved from private to public care. Before the Industrial Revolution, people with disabilities were primarily cared for by their families, as was E.B.B. until she eloped. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 redefined the body politic by making caring for the disabled a collective, social responsibility instead of a personal, familial one. Though it was a final iteration of a 1531 law passed during Henry VIII’s reign, the Poor Law of 1834 was increasingly enforced in post Industrial Revolution England. By 1900, 100,000 people deemed “idiots and lunatics” were housed in institutions. Another 10,000 people were in workhouses.

The Law of Coverture, in which a husband and a wife were declared one person — the husband — under the law, was debated until women won suffrage in England in 1921. Disabled or not, a Victorian woman was property. Her place on the spectrum of able-bodiedness, however, affected to whom the law determined she could potentially belong. An eligible Victorian woman might marry and claim a role as “The Angel in the House.” Taken from the titular line of an 1854 poem by Coventry Patmore, this succinct phrase endorses the idea that a woman’s authority should be exercised in, and confined to, her marital home. By 1901, however, 14.7% of the women in Victorian England were spinsters, unmarried women over thirty-five. Middle-class or working-class, these women had less financial stability than their married counterparts, and they advocated for their right to work and keep their earnings.

Women with disabilities who lived in institutions or workhouses had the security of neither families nor forums. Those deemed “idiots, cripples, and lunatics” had neither the desirability of the Victorian wife nor the agency of the Victorian spinster. The institutions and the workhouse had different purposes. The institution replaced the familial home as the place responsible for those perceived as too physically or mentally unfit to care for themselves. The workhouse served a social function more similar to that of a contemporary prison; one could be sentenced to time in the workhouse for inability to pay one’s debts. However, people with disabilities frequently had trouble finding steady employment, as shown in a portrait of disabled street musicians in 1860s Yorkshire, England who — as the sign they pose with makes clear — primarily make their livings as beggars. Those who could work, but who had difficulty finding reliable work, could be sent to the workhouses.

Hundreds of women seated closely together at narrow tables, wearing the same uniform of a pale colored rough-spun dress and white bonnet, eating.
Dinner time in St Pancras Workhouse, London. (Peter Higgimbothom/Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike the Angel in the House, who labored for her own household and received the protection of the male head of that household, those in institutions and workhouses who were well enough to work labored for the state, and they received neither assets nor autonomy in return. Caring for people with disabilities was now a collective, national responsibility in England. This meant that those with no familial ties, or with families whose members did not wish to acknowledge them — a choice that could formerly be manifested more subtly behind the closed doors of a familial home — had access to food and shelter.

However, as Charles Dickens expressed in his novels, society’s care for those with disabilities lacked gentleness and stripped its recipients of their dignity. Tiny Tim is a cherished member of the Crachitt household in A Christmas Carol who needs his father’s employer, Ebenezer Scrooge, to pay his father a liveable wage that enables him to obtain the necessary medical care for his son (1838). On the other hand, Smike’s life of menial labor at Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby (1838) is so grueling that he eventually dies.

Though Dickens’ characters come from various classes, his characters with disabilities come from the working class. These characters would fare best, according to Dickens’ novels, if they were allowed to remain in loving homes where the heads of household were paid wages high enough to allow them to care for all the members of their households. Dickens’ Smike shows that people with disabilities in public care systems might not have been angels in their own households, as they did not have homes of their own. Instead, like Biblical angels, they could only hope for a domain in heaven.

While Dickens certainly takes creative license, his depiction of the cruel hardships that shortened the lives of those with disabilities who were in public care is not unfounded. As late as 1948, a long stay hospital (institution) for women of color reported more deaths than discharges for that year, the only year for which statistics were available. To return to our heroine, then, E.B.B.’s elopement makes her life story romantic, but it is not what makes it singular.

Despite her physical weakness, she fulfilled the role of the ideal Victorian woman: wife. She was an Angel in the House, not the Workhouse. She was able to fulfill that role because she found the courage to pursue it, but she was able to pursue it because she had a middle-class social status, an established role in her familial household, and a literary reputation that made her voice socioculturally valuable. The voices of the Angels of the Workhouses are harder for a contemporary researcher to hear, but the question of which their stories are symbolic — What is the place of the disabled body in the body politic? — still lurks within our contemporary spaces, public and private.

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