This isn't due till tomorrow, but my internet connection has been playing up
and I;m off to work early, so I'm going to post it now in the hope it will
arrive, or that I can keep trying if it doesn't - hope that's ok, I suppose
everyone can just not read it till tomorrow - assuming they can cope with
Disability in EBD: Living Saints or Heretical Sinners?
Physical appearance is extremely important in the world of the chalet
school; heroines are invariably 'trig', 'trim', 'fresh', with 'clear-cut
features' and 'fine skin', and many have even 'fairy-tale beauty'.
Attractiveness is clearly associated with goodness in Elinor Brent Dyer's
world (1), and healthy living ("routine, plenty of sleep, fresh milk and
exercise") is what causes this attractiveness. Thus Lavender Leigh's looks
as well as her temperament improve under the chalet school regime, and even
Joey outgrows her earlier delicacy, marked by 'sallowness' and becomes
attractive, with fine skin and clear eyes. The linkage between physical
perfection and inherent goodness is constantly emphasized; but what happens
when a character is not only not on this high level, but is even disabled
physically in some way? How does such a character fit into EBD's world
There are two main examples of such a situation, first the case of Phoebe
Wychcote (later Peters), and secondly that of Naomi Elton, both of which are
handled in very different ways. I will analyse each individually and then
try and make some general remarks about EBD's attitude to disability.
The portrayal of Phoebe Wychcote, is one of an almost saintly invalid
battling against great hardship, whose physical imperfection is balanced by
her spiritual beauty, a depiction which is highlighted and strengthened by
contrast with improbably named villainess of the book, Zephyr Burthill.
Phoebe Wychcote is first introduced in "Jo to the Rescue". In this book,
Jo, Marie, Frieda and Simone and their young families spend a summer in a
cottage opposite Phoebe's own in a village named Garnham. Phoebe herself is
an invalid, as a result of rheumatic fever when she was twelve years old.
This illness has left her confined to a wheelchair for the most part,
although on good days she can hobble around on crutches, and in severe pain
in her joints, particularly in her hands, when attacks recur. Despite this
difficulty, Phoebe works to supplement her meagre income by making and
selling beautiful embroidery.
The pathos of the depiction is deepened by the fact that she is alone in the
world, her father, a cellist, having died some eighteen months earlier, and
her mother when Phoebe was only a baby of six months. Phoebe is cared for
by her aged nurse, Debby, but has little other companionship at all, apart
from the friendship of Reg Entwhistle, a young village lad. Thus her
physical isolation is heightened by a spiritual and intellectual loneliness.
It is into this scene that Joey Maynard enters.
The first thing the reader learns about Phoebe is that she is frustrated by
her own helplessness; as the visitors are arriving at the cottage, she is
sitting knitting inside her own cottage and exclaims, "Oh, if only I could
get out to see them!" and finishes "with a sigh and an impatient glance
round". Despite this frustration, she is determined not to be 'selfish', a
resolution engendered as a result of seeing another disabled woman who was
extremely egocentric. She tells Reg in the first chapter:
"It's awfully easy to be selfish when you're a cripple, Reg. Ever since I
was at that hydro and saw that poor Miss Emery, I've tried so hard not to
get like her. She didn't mean it, but she was horribly selfish. She wanted
everything she could have for herself, and she never thought of anyone else.
I should hate to get like that. And father would have hated it for me".
This determination not to be self-centred, despite her dependency on others,
is a key factor in EBD's portrayal of Phoebe, whose selflessness is
portrayed almost as martyrdom in places. We are told that "there was real
heroism in the way she tried to overcome her difficulties", as she struggles
to work, "even when it was torture to hold her needle and the material".
Such behaviour is contrasted directly with Zephyr Burthill, who is
physically faultless, but whose character leaves much to be desired. Zephyr
's first arrival is described as follows:
"Out stepped a Vision. She was tall and very slim, clad in the latest freak
of fashion, a tiny hat perched on top of a head where the light flaxen hair
had been swept up in stiff curls".
The look is completed by clothes 'in the very latest mode' and heavy make-up
. This 'Vision' of physical perfection is also an extreme of
selfishness, however, thinks only of herself: "Her chief god was Zephyr
Burthill. Wealth came second. Nothing else mattered", and this egoism is
symbolized and exemplified in her desire to own Phoebe's father's cello,
which is Phoebe's most precious possession.
Over the course of the book, Phoebe's medical condition improves, after
admission to the San. We are told that in time she will be able to lead 'an
almost normal life', and even that romance is in the air between her and her
doctor, Dr. Peters . By the end of the book that romance has evolved
into an engagement to the doctor, and Phoebe is able to walk using only a
stick, has put on weight and is generally healthier. This good fortune is
the result of Jo's intervention, but it is clearly meant to be not only a
happy ending, but also a reward for Phoebe's strength of character.
Meanwhile Zephyr, as a result of Robin's friendship towards her begins to
alter her values and gives up her obsession.
It is repeatedly stressed throughout the book how fond the quartet are of
Phoebe, because of her lovely nature, and this remains unchanged despite her
physical improvement. Zephyr on the other hand progresses spiritually in
the book, and becomes a better (though still not entirely good) person, as a
result of being befriended by Robin, the first and only real friend she has
ever had. Like Phoebe, Zephyr's 'disability', is caused by a form of
isolation, but whereas Phoebe's disability and ensuing isolation are
physical, and are cured by physical means, Zephyr's is caused by her own
wrong-minded values, and must be cured spiritually. Both characters are
maimed in some way, and both achieve a partial, although not complete, cure
by the end of the book. In Phoebe's case this is marked by her restored
health, and in Zephyr's by her renunciation of her former selfish desire to
obtain Phoebe's cello.
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