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Benbow, Silver and Wegg

“Admiral Benow courageously commanding his Men to fight after his Leg was shattered to Pieces”

Sounds like a law firm. It’s actually a trio of one-legged characters, real and fictional, concerning whom I would like to say a little something, by way of approaching the spirit of Dickens’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend.

Start with Admiral John Benbow, who lost his leg in a particular sea-battle that goes by the rather utilitarian name ‘Action of August 1702’. As you can see from the print at the head of this post, he didn’t allow his one-leggedness to get in the way of prosecuting the fight. His small fleet of seven ships of the line engaged a larger French fleet off the coast of what is today Columbia and mostly prevailed, although the inaction of a number of Benbow’s captains — several of whom were hanged afterwards for cowardice — allowed the French admiral, Jean-Baptiste du Casse, to escape (du Casse actually wrote a letter to Benbow after the event, encouraging him to hang his cowardly captains: even he was outraged by how easily he had been able to slip away). Anyway: during the battle chain-shot destroyed Benbow’s right leg. It was amputated, but he carried on admiralling.

John Benbow was something of a folk hero, the Nelson of his day, though he was pretty evidently rather more hotheaded and indeed piratical than Nelson ever was (item: ‘It was claimed afterwards that he cut off and salted the heads of thirteen Moors who were slain aboard his ship, and then took them into Cadiz to claim a reward from the magistrates’). There were many popular songs and broadsheets singing his praises, and several pubs were named after him. The most famous of these latter, of course, is the fictional Admiral Benbow in Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883).

Penzance’s “Admiral Benbow” pub: supposedly the inspiration for Stevenson’s inn.

Not uncoincidentally, Stevenson’s peerless novel contains what is surely the most famous one-legged man in all literature: Long John Silver.

I’ve always particularly loved this passage, Jim’s speculation about Long John Silver, before he’s even met him:

How that personage haunted my dreams, I need scarcely tell you. On stormy nights, when the wind shook the four corners of the house and the surf roared along the cove and up the cliffs, I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. Now the leg would be cut off at the knee, now at the hip; now he was a monstrous kind of a creature who had never had but the one leg, and that in the middle of his body. To see him leap and run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares. [Treasure Island, 1]

That last version of the one-legged man puts me in mind of the sorts of monster-men illustrated in Renaissance books: the kind of thing Othello boasts about having seen. This sort of thing:

That’s the Ravenna Monster from The Doome, warning all men to the Judgement (1581). Or this pleasant-looking fellow:

It makes me ponder what the semiology of the monocrus is, in popular culture and more broadly.

As with all the best novels, Treasure Island directs its resonance in at least two directions. On the one hand is the odour of verisimilitude. War is cruel to body-parts; but eighteenth-century sailors had a higher chance of surviving amputation (in a salty environment, wounds washed with antiseptic brine and so on) than eighteenth-century land-soldiers, a vastly higher proportion of whom died of sepsis. Therefore you’d much more likely encounter a naval amputee than a land-army one, which in turn feeds a popular perception of sailors and pirates having hooks for hands, pegs for legs and the like.

But there’s another, symbolic resonance at play here, I think. One of the things Treasure Island does is work subtly against the grain. It is the disabled characters in this novel who are the most menacing, the strongest, the most dangerous: Blind Pew, Long John Silver. This is a novel that says, in effect, that possessing only one leg makes a man not less but counter-intuitively more to be feared.

I’m not immediately sure why this should be. I wonder if it has some buried psychological potency. Freud has little to say on the subject of amputation (unless we regard castration and its attendant anxiety as a form of amputation in which case he has a whole lot to say about amputation). But for any psychoanalytic theory that links subjectivity to a sense of strictly genital identity, the notion of a naturally-occurring ‘one-legged human’, of the kind Jim Hawkins frets about in his nightmares, is bound to be peculiarly fascinating. An amputee is a person with two legs who has had one leg removed, and whose genitals exist between the real and the phantom limb. But the Renaissance beasts above are somatically determined by their one-leggedness. This in turn leads, consciously or subconsciously, to the anxiety-productive speculation: where are their genitals? Where can they possibly be located? Our natural experience leads us to position the genitals between the legs. The question is whether this involves a tacit inversion, along the lines of when there is no ‘between’ there can be no genitals. Is that the type of uncanny, unnerving creature that lurks, in the symbolism of this novel, behind the one-legged man? Is that why Long John Silver is so deep-down terrifying? Because of course he is uncannily aphallic and hyperphallic (long john)? Monstrous.

That’s a little fanciful, so I’ll come at the question from a different angle. Silver, as Stevenson writes him, is a splendid character, sly and energetic, playing upon the pity evoked by his disability but, when push comes to treasure-island shove, revealing himself to be extraordinarily vigorous, physically strong, able to move rapidly and altogether dangerous. I’ve always loved this 1911 illustration by N. C. Wyeth because it captures the leglessness of Long John whilst, somehow, adding legs to him, making him both a one-legged man and also some energetic and terrifying mansized spider, like Anthony Sher’s celebrated 1984 performance of Richard III, bustling around the stage on his crutches, explosively energetic:

But the real point of this post is Silas Wegg, the one-legged villain of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1864–65).

At the start of the novel Wegg is eking a living selling assortments out of a tray on the street, in a dusty corner of London. But his luck turns: Noddy Boffin, the ‘Golden Dustman’ (a humble man who happens, in late life, to have inherited a fortune: you can read about the premise for Our Mutual Friend here) takes a liking to him, and hires him as a reader: Boffin, illiterate, wants to improve his literary knowledge and so hires Wegg to come round to his small home, in the grounds of his former employer’s grounds, ‘the Bower’, and read him Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. What starts in comedy (Wegg’s various ineptitudes, the comical obviousness of his sly self-serving nature, Boffin’s excitement at hiring ‘a literary gentleman — with a wooden leg!’) morphs darker. When Boffin and his wife move into a mansion, more fitted to their new wealth, Wegg is invited to move into the Bower, their former home. But rather than being grateful he grows more and more bitter and resentful. He plots against Boffin, concocting reasons to hate him and plotting his ruin. Here’s Wegg, scheming to undo the Boffins, outside their new home:

Wegg believes Boffin has hidden in the dust heaps a later will that would disinherit him, and plans to discover the document and blackmail the old man with it. His plans come to nothing, and at the end of the story not only is his villainy revealed, but the novel’s hero Rokesmith/John Harmon has him literally thrown into a rubbish cart. In his The Violent Effigy: a Study of Dickens’s Imagination (a great book, by the way) John Carey feigns shock that Dickens could end his novel with an able-bodied man assaulting a cripple in this manner, but the scene really doesn’t read that way, in part because Wegg doesn’t come over as crippled. Despite his age and his disability, and rather like Silver (though less physically energetic and combative), he is never weak or pitiable. Rather the reverse.

But there’s another twist in the story of Wegg that interests me very much. He lost his leg, we are told, in ‘an accident’. We’re not told what, but can guess. If we set aside military and naval injury, the most common reasons for amputation of limbs in the 19th-century were either industrial accidents — this paper, discussing the 84 amputations performed as a consequence of trauma at the London Hospital 1852–57, records that 72 were necessitated by workplace injuries, including ‘being run over by a railway car’, ‘crushed between two ships’ or ‘injured by machinery’ — or roadway accidents. We go to some pains today to separate cars and pedestrians on our roads, but for much of the 19th-century the two mingled and a careless pedestrian having a limb run-over by a carriage or cart might very well require amputation (see here). Given Wegg’s general indolence, the second of these seems to me more likely than the first.

Now: Wegg’s amputated limb was sold by the hospital to one of the novel’s other characters, Mr Venus, a taxidermist and articulator of bones, who stuffs dead animals, or else strips and cleans bones for resale as medical skeletons, or for art schools. Venus was based on a real person, John Willis, who ran a shop in Seven Dials — Marcus Stone, the novel’s illustrator, had previously purchased a stuffed dog from Willis to serve as an artistic model (drily, he explained this need: ‘the ordinary live dog is not at present sufficiently highly educated as a model’). When Dickens mentioned that he needed a character who followed ‘a peculiar avocation’ for the third monthly installment of Our Mutual Friend, Stone suggested Willis, and took him to his shop. You can see the process by which Dickens morphed the actual person’s name: pronounce Venus with an initial cockney ‘w’ and you’re one labialised ’n’ away from the original. Stone’s illustration of Venus’s shop, like Dickens’s verbal description, is based on Willis’s establishment.

You can see Silas Wegg there, sitting by the fire drinking tea, as Venus attends to another customer. Wegg has called to inquire into buying back his own leg. In the early portions of the novel he doesn’t have the money for this, but he checks-in on Venus from time to time to see if ‘he’ has been sold to someone else. He hasn’t.

‘And how have I been going on, this long time, Mr Venus?’

‘Very bad,’ says Mr Venus, uncompromisingly.

‘What? Am I still at home?’ asks Wegg, with an air of surprise.

‘Always at home.’

This would seem to be secretly agreeable to Wegg, but he veils his feelings, and observes, ‘Strange. To what do you attribute it?’

‘I don’t know,’ replies Venus, who is a haggard melancholy man, speaking in a weak voice of querulous complaint, ‘to what to attribute it, Mr Wegg. I can’t work you into a miscellaneous one, no how. Do what I will, you can’t be got to fit. Anybody with a passable knowledge would pick you out at a look, and say, — “No go! Don’t match!”’

‘Well, but hang it, Mr Venus,’ Wegg expostulates with some little irritation, ‘that can’t be personal and peculiar in me. It must often happen with miscellaneous ones.’

‘With ribs (I grant you) always. But not else. When I prepare a miscellaneous one, I know beforehand that I can’t keep to nature, and be miscellaneous with ribs, because every man has his own ribs, and no other man’s will go with them; but elseways I can be miscellaneous. I have just sent home a Beauty — a perfect Beauty — to a school of art. One leg Belgian, one leg English, and the pickings of eight other people in it. Talk of not being qualified to be miscellaneous! By rights you ought to be, Mr Wegg.’ [1:7]

After Boffin’s patronage, and his move to The Bower, Wegg finally has enough cash to make the purchase, which he does.

This illustration is by Sol Eytinge (1870)

By this stage in the story Wegg has, he thinks, recruited Venus to his nefarious plan to blackmail Boffin (in fact he hasn’t: Venus is a sort of double-agent). But what I’m interested in here is the absent leg, or more precisely the complicated absence-presence it figures.

Wegg, his leglessness notwithstanding, is not an uncanny character. He is, in his sleazy immoral way, a practical figure. Before meeting Boffin, he’d been selling his grubby wares outside a fancy London house, for which he had invented a whole Downton-Abbey-esqu efictional family, pretending that he is attached to them. When the Boffins buy that same house, he pretends this family has been evicted by the new money, and works up his anti-Boffin animus on their behalf. This spectral non-family are a pretext, not a haunting body. And though it is clear that Wegg is, as it were, haunted by his own leg, this is only true in a particular sense.

For example, I’m not talking about ‘phantom limb syndrome’, a condition well-known to the Victorians. Here’s the Victorian doctor who coined the phrase:

Nearly every man who loses a limb carries about with him a constant or inconstant phantom of the missing member, a sensory ghost of that much of himself, faintly felt at times, but ready to be called up to his perception by a touch or a change of wind. … Very many have a constant sense of the limb. ‘If,’ says one, ‘I should say I am more sure of the leg which ain’t than the one which air, I guess I should be about correct.’ The sufferer gets up in the night to walk with or to scratch his absent leg. One of my cases attempted when riding to pick up his bridle with the lost hand while he struck the horse with the other. Another tried at every meal, for nearly a year, to pick up his fork, and was so disturbed emotionally at the result as frequently to be nauseated or even to vomit. [Dr Weir Mitchell, Injuries of Nerves (1872), 348]

But Wegg never expresses anything along these lines. His anxiety over his missing limb is social rather than somatic. This is how he puts it to Venus, asking him to hold the leg back from sale until Boffin’s salary has put him in a position to purchase it:

‘I have a prospect of getting on in life and elevating myself by my own independent exertions,’ says Wegg, feelingly, ‘and 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.’

I should not like to be dispersed. This gets at something of the unsettling nature of the limbless: the idea of the detachable man (or woman). It unnerves the sense of bodily integrity that undergirds our sense of self as such to imagine a person who can remove and replace parts of his/her body — like robots, or amoeba. For Wegg, what irks him about his leglessness is not the physical inconvenience but that being detachable is, in some sense, déclassé. Social status becomes a matter of integrity, and integrity therefore an index of social standing. When Mr Venus finally brings Wegg’s leg round to the Bower, wrapped up in brown-paper as a parcel, Wegg (‘descrying a sort of brown paper truncheon under Mr Venus’s arm’) remarks drily: ‘Oh! I thought perhaps you might have come in a cab.’ The two men then argue over whether Venus selling Wegg back his own leg is legal or not, with Wegg insisting that slavery (the selling of human flesh) is illegal, and Venus demurring:

‘You can’t buy human flesh and blood in this country, sir; not alive, you can’t,’ says Wegg, shaking his head. ‘Then query, bone?’ [2:7]

This is a rare (in this novel) contemporary allusion, of course: as these pages are issued in mid-1864, the question as to whether Americans would reserve the right to sell the human flesh and blood of other Americans was still a live one.

But the social-justice cast of Wegg’s interest here has a larger relevance. That his limblessness has a societal valence is, inter alia, Dickens’s talking about the larger disfigurement of 1860s Britain: the dust heaps and polluted rivers, the deceptions and ugliness. Wegg is balanced in the symbolic dynamic of the novel by ‘Jenny Wren’ the doll’s dressmaker, who has spina bifida: ‘my back’s so bad, and my legs are so queer.’ But where she is sharp-witted and kindly, and finds it hard to walk (her reliance on friends to help her gestures towards a larger interconnectiveness and socially holistic ethos) Wegg walks just fine, stumping along. Also he is far from kindly and isn’t nearly so clever as he thinks he is.

One of the key things Our Mutual Friend is saying is that Britain is deformed, crippled, broken. It is saying, among other things, that the poor are cut away from the body politic and left to rot, as the children for whom Betty Higden’s cares, and eventually Betty herself, rot and die and skeletize. Dickens had long worked to a model of human society as organic, familial, interconnected. In this novel he confronts the dissociated nature of modern society through the trope of limblessness.

So, yes: something is missing, in the Britain of Our Mutual Friend: some animating and holistic principle. It’s not just that society is skeletal —though it is skeletal: dessicated, dead, with Dickens tacitly and passim posing the question can these dry bones live? — it’s that the skeleton is not even a unified skeleton. As Mr Venus puts together anatomical racks for medical colleges and schools of art out of variegated bones, a leg from a Frenchman, an arm from a German and so on, so society is assembled from disaparate and ill-suited elements. This is true of society in the round, but it is particularly true of ‘society’, which is to say high society: the Veneerings dinner parties, with their various and variously grotesque guests, observed with puzzlement by Twemlow, is the social equivalent of one of Mr Venus’s skeletons. Twemlow himself is introduced into the novel as ‘an innocent piece of dinner-furniture that went upon easy castors and was kept over a livery stable-yard in Duke Street, Saint James’s, when not in use’ [ch.2]. A designedly comical description of course (he has no occupation but his breeding — he’s first cousin to Lord Snigsworth’s — and good manners, which means that people like the Veneerings, who wish to dignify their dinner parties with high-class guests, and can’t attract actually high-class guests, invite him as a next-best) but also writing that reifies Twemlow, dehumanises him, makes him into a piece of wood, like Wegg’s leg. A Pinocchio puppet yearning for what it lacks, life spirit — like Jenny Wren’s dolls.

‘Phantom limb’ syndrome as experienced by amputees is more than just a sense of pain or discomfort in a limb that the individual no longer possesses (though that is its most famous symptom). It is a feeling of non-holism, a terrible sense that one’s unified integrity has been violated, broken, or is altogether missing. That apprehension of one’s holism, that unified bodily integrity, is a sense not encompassed by the traditional five of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, although it has something in common with that last of them. Daniel Heller-Roazen calls it ‘the inner touch’ [The Inner Touch: Archaeology of a Sensation (Zone Books/Princeton Univ Press 2007)]

Here’s Brian Dillon, summarising the case in his review of Heller-Roazen’s book:

Over and above the five senses, we can discern, says Aristotle — in whose writings Heller-Roazen first discovers the notion — a kind of governing master sense. Actually, ‘over and above’ is not quite right: we might as easily say that this ‘common sense’ subtends or grounds the others; but this is in fact just one of the physical and metaphorical confusions that are the subject of The Inner Touch. Aristotle is already ambiguous on this theme; he seems unsure whether the sixth, master sense is a higher or a lower power: a synthesising faculty or crude animal awareness. In his wake, a philosophical tradition develops according to which the sensation at issue constitutes both the founding condition of the five senses and the faculty that governs their action. It also gives rise to a stranger, discrete phenomenon: the feeling of being a feeling being.

The names by which this sensation has been known — the sunaesthesis of the Greeks, for example — appear philosophically familiar; but their precision has been traduced by later scholars. Time and again they have been taken by modern commentators to denote consciousness, thought or reason: the categories by which modernity encompasses self-awareness. This is understandable: the terminology hovers between mind and body, thought and feeling. But even later concepts such as Lockean ‘uneasiness’ and Leibnizian Unruhe (‘unrest’) are not the same as the doubt of Descartes: they name instead the ‘incessant and infinitely minute perceptions’ by which a body feels itself to be alive and which, nonetheless, cannot be attributed to the five senses alone.

It is part of Heller-Roazen’s argument that ‘phantom limb’ sufferers experience a painful sense of dislocation from this very sense.

In July 1866, for example, in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly, one George Dedlow told how he had lost all his limbs in the Civil War and been consigned to Stump Hospital, Philadelphia. He was in consequence ‘not a happy fraction of a man’: reduced, he said, to a sort of larval state, but tormented by phantom pains at all four former extremities. Worse, in a way, was the less localised sensation of no longer being all there. Dedlow was ‘haunted and perplexed’ by this ‘strange want’: by the partial loss, precisely, of his common or master sense ... There follows, in Heller-Roazen’s account, a sorry parade of souls, aghast at their own lack of feeling and the emptiness inside them. Indeed, a sudden or stealthy diminution of the master sense seems to have become increasingly common as the 19th century progressed — though the disorder is perhaps harder to reconstruct, historically, than adjacent conditions such as hysteria, melancholia and neurasthenia. For a start, those afflicted tend to deny their own existence altogether. In the ‘negation delirium’ adduced by Jules Cotard in 1882, the individual believes that his or her limbs have gone, organs vanished, genitals absconded. Asked if they suffer any physical pain, such patients will reply that they have no bodies with which to do the suffering. ‘Cotard’s syndrome’ presents in this sense the mirror image of the amputee’s phantom limb: a body that is actually there, but which remains unfelt.

This strikes me as a potent way of thinking about the larger logic of representation of Our Mutual Friend: a portrait of a society not only dismembered in various ways, but suffering from a giant collective negation delirium. OMF is a novel about what is missing, about what is not there: the leg of Wegg, the fellowship of society, the vanished Harmon heir, reality present only in some phantom form. Sufferers of Cottard’s Syndrome ‘tend to deny their own existence’. John Harmon literally denies his own existence: only Rokesmith (forged from roke, that is mist, fog, spectral emanations) exists, Harmon must stay drowned. What Rokesmith looks for — the love of his affianced betrothed — is, he sees, not there. Even money, that radix malorum, is presented in this novel more by its absence than its presence: as the money is always missing from the pockets of the drowned men Gaffer Hexam retrieves from the Thames (because he steals it); or as Boffin claiming the wealth inherent in the dust heaps involves those heaps melting away: ‘The train of carts and horses came and went all day from dawn to nightfall, making little or no daily impression on the heap of ashes, though, as the days passed on, the heap was seen to be slowly melting.’

In many ways, Heller-Roazen’s ‘inner touch’, hypostatized into a collective, social and familial quantity, seems to me a better way of talking about the spirit Dickens was writing about, whose absence he was lamenting; better than Hegelian Geist or a Christian spiritus. We are limbs of the social whole, but phantom limbs: wooden legs rather than living flesh.

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Various jottings and thoughts.

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Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts

Writer and academic. London-adjacent.

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