Bleak House

The first character with a disability we meet in the BBC’s adaptation of Bleak House is little person Harriet, employed as a domestic servant to John Jarndyce. It’s hard to get a handle on Harriet’s personality as she has very few lines, but Jarndyce is portrayed as a kind and perhaps gullible master, just the sort to hire the physically different during an age when the upper crust sometimes focused on hiring for conventional attractiveness and even for matching height. The shifting camera angles that Harriet is usually filmed in indicate that her character is being used to introduce an element of weirdness into the atmosphere at Bleak House, as if the name and general gloom wasn’t enough.

The most visible disabled character, however, is Mr. Smallweed. In the original novel, the Smallweed family is affected by progeria, but in the movie adaptation Mr. Smallweed seems to have (at the very least) a very bad back. Though dressed in rags and with yellowed teeth, he still has the means to employ men to carry him about in an open sedan chair, flailing at them with a leather strap and hurling invectives all the while. Sedan chairs in England were generally used by women of the elite classes, so having Smallweed use one everywhere (even in the interiors of houses and buildings) must have seemed to emasculate him to contemporary readers. (Dickens was also fond of using names to indicate character traits, so perhaps the name “Smallweed” only furthered that impression.)

It’s hard to tell which makes people more nervous: Mr. Smallweed’s appearance, abusive nature, or his status as debt collector. Certainly the respectable lawyers are discomfited when asked to perform a pressure relief for him:

Generally it’s his daughter Judy who bears the brunt of his personal care, every time he commands “Shake me up, Judy!”

Such negative, stereotypical portrayals of people with disabilities were rife in the Victorian era, as they equated physical perfection with moral superiority and physical impairment with falls from grace.


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