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“There Was Death in the Powder and He Knew It”: Dis/ability and Tactics of Resistance in the Autobiography of Elizabeth Storie

« There was death in the powder and he knew it » : handicap, validité et stratégie de résistance dans l’autobiographie d’Elizabeth Storie
Dana Graham Lai et Holly Faith Nelson


Dans cet article, Graham Lai et Nelson examinent The Autobiography of Elizabeth Storie (1859), un texte trop peu étudié, qui fait découvrir aux lecteurs la vie d’une Écossaise handicapée de la classe ouvrière. Les auteurs défendent l’idée que l’autobiographie de Storie devrait être vue dans toute sa dimension épistémologique, dans la mesure où elle révèle des vérités quant à la nature intersectionnelle de l’identité et de l’oppression féminines dans l’Écosse victorienne. En outre, on y trouve une foule de stratégies extra-textuelles et textuelles que Storie déploie afin de résister aux discriminations fondées sur la classe, le genre, et le handicap. Graham Lai et Nelson démontrent que l’autobiographie de Storie rend compte de la façon dont les systèmes médicaux, légaux et ecclésiastiques du xixe siècle ont souvent trahi les membres de la société qui étaient vulnérables, et comment le projet épistémologique de Storie, ainsi que son activisme, sont informés non seulement par la notion de classe, mais également par sa conscience des identités de genre et de la relation entre handicap et validité.

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  • 1 Hutchinson provides examples of memoirs written by disabled men who chose “to play down or hide the (...)
  • 2 We use the term “dis/ability” rather than “disability” for three reasons: (1) to challenge the beli (...)
  • 3 Other than Boos, Bronstein appears to be the only scholar to analyse, if briefly, Storie’s autobiog (...)

1The remarkable autobiography of the Victorian Scot Elizabeth Storie was consigned to the dust heap of history until Florence Boos saw fit to dust it off for her foundational study, Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women: The Hard Way Up. In this monograph, Boos builds on the archival work of Jane Rendall and Barbara Kanner, among others, who demonstrated that working-class women in Victorian Britain wrote many more autobiographical texts than previously believed (Rendall, 1997; Kanner, 1987). While the disadvantages of gender and class are routinely foregrounded in these works, Iain Hutchinson explains that few of those published in Victorian Scotland thematized what we would now consider the dis/abilities of their author (Hutchinson, 2007, p. 126).1 In this respect, The Autobiography of Elizabeth Storie: A Native of Glasgow, Who Was Subjected to Much Injustice at the Hands of Some Members of the Medical, Legal, & Clerical Professions is rare because Storie’s dis/ability—a major facial disfigurement due to medical malpractice that caused enormous physical suffering—is placed front and centre in her narrative. The work is also uncharacteristic because there are few “uncertainties adhering to its purpose, implied readership, authenticity, and the public/private divide”, which Valerie Sanders identifies in much life writing by women of the period (2018, p. 212).2 Storie’s Autobiography is, in Jamie L. Bronstein’s terms, “an instrumental narrative”—as well as a “narrative of witness” as Boos defines it—intended “to create change”; as such, it has a clearly articulated objective and audience, and Storie renders its authenticity indisputable (Bronstein, 2023, p. 17; Boos, 2017, p. 64).3

  • 4 Some feminist standpoint theorists have been criticized for suggesting that there is “a single, mon (...)

2Despite the high rate of physical impairment in the working-class female population of Victorian Scotland, limited educational opportunities, leisure time, financial means, and societal interest, on top of major health concerns, meant that very few would compose or publish autobiographies. However, when such works do come to light, an intersectional approach that privileges the marginalized standpoint of the author, which is “inflected […] by traits such as gender, race, dis/ability, and class”, is invaluable in assessing the ways that a working-class, dis/abled woman experiences being and knowing in the world (Griffin). Sami Schalk has, therefore, argued that feminist standpoint theory is effectively applied to “disabled women’s life writing” because it emphasizes, as Tracy Bowell explains, “the historical and social locatedness of knowledge projects” from the perspective of those on the margins (Schalk, 2018, p. 177; Bowell, 2011).4

3We contend that Elizabeth Storie’s autobiography is a “knowledge project” that reveals truths about the intersectional nature of women’s identity and oppression in Victorian Scotland, since Storie transparently identifies and challenges the sources and levels of oppression she faces from her standpoint as a poor, dis/abled Glaswegian woman. She thereby “embod[ies] the question of how the individual relates to what is outside” the self, leading not only to self-knowledge but also to a “less distorted”, and thus more reliable, knowledge of the operation of power and resistance in society (Landow, 1979, p. xiii; Mayhew). Georg Lukács famously argued that it was “only the practical class consciousness of the proletariat” that had the “ability to transform things”, but we argue that Storie’s knowledge and drive for change is not only informed by class but also by her gendered and dis/abled consciousness (1971, p. 205). Storie’s autobiography is, therefore, an account of the ways in which nineteenth-century medical, legal, and ecclesiastical systems frequently failed vulnerable members of society, as well as a repository of the extra-textual and textual tactics necessary to resist discrimination based on class, gender, and dis/ability.

Elizabeth Storie: an overview of her life

4Elizabeth Storie was born in July 1818 in Tradeston, Glasgow to John Storie, cotton weaver, and Barbara Elliot Storie, cotton winder, whom she describes as “poor but respectable parents” (Storie, 1859, p. 2; our emphasis). Storie’s coded description of her parentage signifies that she is one of the deserving poor and thus worthy of support from benefactors despite the “hardening of attitudes towards people with disabilities” with the rise of “large-scale industrialisation” and growing urbanisation, among other historical shifts (Hutchinson, 2007, pp. 1, 20). Storie recalls that she was able-bodied in her first few years—“a stout, healthy child” as one neighbour recalled. She enjoyed a life of “health and happiness”, reinforcing, sadly, what we might now call an internalized ableist view that correlates health with emotional well-being (1859, p. 2). At nearly four and a half years of age, Storie suffered from a common skin rash called “nettle-rush” which her mother initially treated with traditional remedies. Storie explains that “nettle-rush” is a “complaint common to childhood […] which, when properly treated, is seldom known to be protracted over a period of more than a few days, and which is generally completely removed by the use of a little gentle medicine” (1859, p. 2). Unfortunately, Dr Robert Falconer, a surgeon, and the son of Storie’s neighbour, visited the Storie household at the time of her rash and insisted on treating her, which he did with an overdose of mercury-based calomel in addition to two doses of aquafortis, a highly caustic concentrated form of nitric acid. Storie’s condition soon worsened to the point that her “mouth and gums began to mortify” and parts of her face turned black (1859, p. 5). She recalls this treatment continuing for several weeks until her body smelt putrid, her head swelled, and saliva poured from her mouth (1859, p. 5).

5After a section of her tongue and every primary tooth fell out, and some of her “jaw-bone gave way”, she found herself in chronic agony. The Stories consulted another doctor, John Campbell, and he concluded that this was a case of medical “neglect”, which greatly angered Falconer (Storie, 1859, p. 6). Storie and her parents surmised that Falconer, realizing the harm he had caused, then attempted to euthanize Elizabeth with one more powder, which he called a “certain cure” (1859, p. 8). Fortunately, Storie’s suspicious parents did not give her this cure and instead had Dr Lorimer Corbett and Dr James Corkindale analyse it. Drs Corbett and Corkindale subsequently confirmed it “contained ‘a large quantity of arsenic’”, validating their belief “that the powder was intended to have put an end to […] [her] existence, and thus to have concealed from the world all trace of the bungling and unskilful treatment of a man who had to earn his livelihood by the practice of medicine” (1859, p. 10).

  • 5 Private Carleton Burgan, B Company, Purnell’s Maryland Legion, age 20. In August 1862, Burgan arriv (...)

6Storie does not include a photograph or portrait of herself in her autobiography even though it would have better conveyed the extent of her injuries and what these meant in terms of her ability to live, eat, and work. However, the effects of calomel treatment are evident in the severe facial deformity of U.S. soldier Carleton Burgan (1844–1915),5 whose injuries are reminiscent of Storie’s, based on the evidence given in her autobiography. Burgan was only 20 years old when he fell ill with pneumonia and doctors prescribed him calomel. As with Storie, he went on to receive repeated surgeries to repair the agonising damage inflicted upon him. Despite these surgeries, both Storie and Burgan would forever be dis/abled or incurables. Rosemary Garland-Thompson claims that “a severe, sudden impairment” of this nature “is almost always experienced as a greater loss than is a congenital or gradual disability, which does not demand adjustment so abruptly” (1997, p. 14).

Mercury poisoning deformity. – Severe facial deformity in the case of US soldier Carleton Burgan (1844–1915).

Mercury poisoning deformity. – Severe facial deformity in the case of US soldier Carleton Burgan (1844–1915).

Photo: Science Photo Library.

7Given the enormity of the life-long harm done to Storie, her father took legal action against Dr Falconer and the doctor was ordered by the court to pay £1000 in damages, but he absconded, founded a new practice in Paisley, and refused to pay. John Storie died six years later and there was little that could be done to recover the damages at that point. Storie thus grew up poor, disfigured, barely able to eat and drink, and unable to attend school. As an adult, she desperately needed funds to cover her living expenses when she fell ill or had to undergo more than twenty surgeries. However, she worked as much as possible as a seamstress, dressmaker, and milliner when well enough, as she learned the trade “during the intervals of comparative freedom from suffering” (Storie, 1859, p. 15). Storie underscores her industriousness in this regard, highlighting that she had “hitherto been able to provide” herself “with the necessaries of life, without the aid of charity”, as this sentiment also places her in the category of the deserving poor despite her medical status as an uncurable (1859, p. 23). In this respect, Storie shares with Florence Nightingale the apparently paradoxical reality of living as “an incurable invalid” while actively dedicating herself to advocating for the afflicted, substantiating Maria H. Frawley’s belief that Victorian “representations of the invalid body” were “a site where beliefs about productivity and consumption, capacity and incapacity, exertion and fatigue compete for ascendancy” (2004, p. 8).

8Storie also managed to avoid the “increased institutionalization of people with impairments” because of ongoing familial support and the ability to work for periods of time (Hutchinson et al., 2020, p. 10). This ability was exceedingly important in Victorian Scotland because, as Hutchison notes, “disablement” was “increasingly seen as a ‘problem’ by those in positions of power and authority”; after all, in Victorian industrial society, as Clare Walker Gore maintains, the performance of “economically productive labour” was often viewed as “a person’s primary function” (Hutchison, 2007, p. 90; Gore; 2019, p. 2). From the age of 18 onward, Storie periodically attempted to enforce the original court order to improve her circumstances. However, as Boos explains, “only one copy of the original decree remained on record” and it was missing (2017, p. 66). Sadly, despite her petitions and lawsuits against lawyers and the Town Clerks, Storie eventually realized that the document would never be recovered.

9A devout Presbyterian, Storie was further stymied and spiritually devastated when, after applying to St Matthew’s Kirk Session to be placed on the poor rolls in order to continue her lawsuit in the Court of Session, she discovered her name had been removed from the church’s communion roll (Storie, 1859, p. 77). Church leaders may have feared becoming financially and legally entangled in Storie’s lawsuits. She petitioned the Kirk Session for reinstatement but was denied. When she managed to force local Kirk leaders to release her records, they refused her request unless she paid an exorbitant amount they knew she could not afford (1859, p. 111). Eventually, Storie won her reinstatement but never again took communion at St Matthew’s. She ultimately lost her case against Falconer and was ordered to pay his costs to thwart her from continuing her legal battle.

10Unfortunately, during her struggle for justice, most of Storie’s family members died off: her sister Jane in April 1838, her unnamed eldest sister in 1839, and finally her mother on 19 August 1849. Jane’s death occasioned a family move from Tradeston to Anderston. After her mother’s death, Storie lived with her younger brother Robert, who worked as a pattern designer in Glasgow, according to the 1851 census. By 1871, she was living independently and working as a dressmaker in Edinburgh, as the census for that year shows. A decade later, the census reveals she was living in Edinburgh with the daughter of a Glaswegian doctor, but by 1891 she was living on her own in Edinburgh again before moving first to Cross Street and then to Young Street in Peebles, where she died of influenza and pneumonia in 1897. In her Last Will and Testament (or Settlement) of 20 November 1896, Storie left the residue of her small estate, which consisted of a little over £39, to the Royal Association of Incurables, Edinburgh (Inventory). Storie, therefore, survived into old age despite her incurability and remained committed to the dis/abled community of which she was a part.

Combat, collaboration, and commingling of genres in Storie’s autobiography

11Storie published her autobiography at the age of forty-one in a final attempt for redress. In it, she traces the first four decades of her life, accentuating the moment her destiny was forever changed by medical malpractice and methodically chronicling her relentless pursuit of justice across time, marking each act of resistance along the way. Her quest is often figured in military terms: she is engaged in “combat” or “warfare” in an “unequal war” with “powerful opponents” (Storie, 1859, pp. 88, 114, 112, 151). On the title page and first few pages of her autobiography, Storie identifies the nature of the warring parties, triangulating her identity and that of her adversaries to emphasize the complexity of her relationship with the powers that be. She portrays herself as a poor, dis/abled woman and her adversaries as “members of the medical, legal, & clerical professions” (1859, p. 147, title page). With respect to her self-fashioning, notably in relation to socio-economic ills, Storie begins,

Having a strong impression that injustice is often done to the poor, and more especially to the women of that class, who are more defenceless, both from their sex, and from the greater difficulty which poverty combined with it exposes them to, in obtaining the help of those who are their natural protectors, I have been induced to publish a statement of the wrongs and trials I have been subjected to […]. (1859, p. 1; our emphasis)

12Not long after, she explains that because of Dr Falconer’s treatment, she, “[a] child of misfortune”, “was made an object for life”, her dis/ability significantly aggravating the disadvantages of her poverty and gender (1859, pp. 29, 11). Patients were sometimes referred to as objects in medical discourse of the time, suggesting that rather than active agents, they were reduced to “something placed before or presented to the eyes or other senses” of medical professionals (OED). Although it was uncommon in this period to describe oneself as disabled, Storie employs this word, along with more familiar terms for the afflicted in the Victorian period, to highlight her disadvantages: “I was […] depressed by permanent bodily suffering—deprived of the power of speech—disfigured and disabled in appearance by medical experimental abuse. […] I am the victim, doomed to a life-time of suffering and misery” (pp. 146, 152). Her triune enemy—doctors, lawyers, and ministers of religion—are figured as unprincipled and deceitful: Dr Falconer is “all but [her] life-destroyer”, her own lawyer, Mr Kerr, is a turncoat or traitor, and Rev. Archibald Watson is a wolf in sheep’s clothing (pp. 16, 29). They are, as she sums up, “thoughtless, wanton, inconsiderate, and unfeeling” professional men, representatives of “[t]he three learned professions” that were “marshalled against” her (pp. 146, 88). The binary of a poor, upright, dis/abled woman—“a helpless female”—struggling against financially secure, immoral professional men re‑enforces her statement that “[t]he oppression of the weak by the powerful is a law of nature in unceasing operation”, a law Victorian social reformers sought to challenge (1859, pp. 147, 151).

13In her war against the powerful, Storie is required to use a series of tactics against her triune enemy because she cannot rely on a single overarching strategy. As Michel de Certeau explains, tactics are the “art of the weak” since they “can only use, manipulate, and divert” the spaces that those in power “produce, tabulate, and impose” via a top‑down strategy (1984, pp. 37, 30). The emphasis on the temporal in Storie’s autobiography, which presents the events of her life in chronological order, with dates carefully attended to, reinforces de Certeau’s theory that tactics are “a clever utilization of time, of the opportunities it presents and also of the play that it introduces into the foundations of power” (1984, pp. 38–9). This use of time allows Storie to take advantage of “the cracks” in the legal, medical, and ecclesiastical systems at opportune moments in her quest for compensation (Certeau, 1984, p. 37).

  • 6 It is interesting to note that collaboration in authorship as a writing method in the dis/abled com (...)

14However, in order to make the most of these opportune moments, Storie must first engage in a crucial extra-textual tactic: the garnering of social, moral, and financial support to avoid engaging in combat alone. This tactic is evidenced by the list of subscribers to her volume and the remarkable list of witnesses who testified on her behalf. She secures the public support not only of her working-class friends and neighbours, but also of a great many professional men working in medical, legal, and clerical systems. In this way, she diminishes the ostensible threat that she poses to these systems, as she intimates only that they must be reformed but not necessarily dismantled, since virtuous individuals operate successfully within them. As a case in point, Storie presents the testimony of Dr John Dougan, Glaswegian surgeon, who declared that the cause of Storie’s injury was “over-doses of mercury while in young years”, reducing her to “a complete object on that account, and almost totally unfit to do anything” (Storie, 1859, p. 52). This medical conclusion challenged claims by Dr Falconer’s lawyers, who argued that something else, such as scarlet fever, may well have caused her injuries. Likewise, Storie rallies ministers, such as the Rev. Alexander N. Somerville, minister of the Free Anderston Church, to testify to her “unblemished character” (1859, p. 23), whose reference is placed alongside those of measurers, manufacturers, merchants, corn factors, weavers, blacksmiths, and church elders. These men and women serve as her “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1 KJV), as it were, rendering her autobiography a “collaborative effort”, typical of working-class women’s memoirs published in the period (Bronstein, 2023, p. 13).6

15Boos persuasively argues that the production of working-class women’s autobiographies was almost always a collaborative act, as their authors “were […] much more acutely dependent on the good graces of editors, printers, and others who might help them launch a subscription for a projected volume or otherwise convey their work into print” (2017, p. 8). We must not, however, draw the conclusion that textual interventions, such as “editorial mediation”, mean that women like Storie were incapable of writing and revising their own work or representing their authentic selves and voices in their works (2017, p. 8). We should also recognize that Storie’s autobiography is far more collaborative than usual: there is a chorus of voices within her work as a result of the verbatim reproduction of many other texts and textual fragments. While memoirs by working- and middle-class women did sometimes incorporate documents, in Storie’s autobiography, excerpts from medical and legal documents take up more space than does original writing, resulting in a hyper-hybridity of genres, a highly effective textual tactic.

The tactical deployment of generic hybridity in Storie’s autobiography

16That Storie’s autobiography is composed of a hybrid of narrative forms and rhetorical formulas is not unique. In fact, it is the norm for both working- and middle-class women’s autobiographies of the period, as Reginia Gagnier, Linda Peterson, and Boos have demonstrated (Gagnier, 1991, p. 138; Peterson, 2001, p. x; Boos, 2017 p. 6), though each Victorian author integrates various genres in her distinct way. Nevertheless, as G. Thomas Couser has shown, patterns emerge in dis/ability memoirs leading to recurring forms and formulas that revolve around the triumph over, the horror of, spiritual recompense for, or emancipation from dis/ability, along with nostalgia for pre-dis/ability health (2001, p. 79). In the case of Storie’s autobiography, the many genres she selects work together to legitimize her as an authentic and authorized spokeswoman for the truth while at the same time destabilizing the narrative structures that merely reinforce traditional notions of the dis/abled.

17On the title page of Storie’s autobiography, she initially situates her work alongside and against the genre of fiction by including the following epigraph on the title page: “Truth stranger than Fiction.” In making this choice, she associates her life story with entertaining creative narratives, and perhaps with sensation novels, while simultaneously emphasizing its superiority to that genre in much the same way that true crime narratives in her own time would have done. The epigraph calls to mind stanza CI of Canto XIV of Byron’s Don Juan: “’Tis strange—but true; for Truth is always strange; / Stranger than Fiction: if it could be told” (1958, p. 403). Having drawn the reader in via paratextual allusion, Storie turns in the first few pages of the main text to the genres of autobiographical exposé and cautionary tale, integrating them with narratives of “spiritual compensation” and consolation, as she must expose those who have committed wrongs against her “in the hope of encouraging those who may be similarly afflicted to put their trust in God, as they too often will find that ‘vain is the help of man’” (Couser, 2001, p. 79; Storie, 1859, p. 1). She adds that “[t]he facts which will be brought to light may also serve to warn those in high power of the danger of doing injustice or injury to any, trusting that through the insignificance of their victims the world may never know how much they have made others to suffer” (1859, p. 1).

18Storie then shifts to the genre of horror when she features the grotesque nature of medical experimentation on her body, and in so doing focuses on the somatic dimension of her experience as a physical “body in pain”, as Elaine Scarry might categorize it, which she renders visible to her readers (1985, p. 22). In this way, she takes advantage of the Victorian interest in “the human body’s centrality to identity” during a period when “disability became increasingly medicalized” (Hingston, 2019, p. 194). For instance, it is difficult for the reader not to feel both an instinctual repulsion and curious fascination with Storie’s “body in pain” when we read of her 1839 surgery which involved “the extraction of all [… her] teeth, sawing a piece off [… her] gums, and removing a part of [… her] jaw, which had fallen under the chin and hardened there” (1859, p. 13). Storie shares that she felt “a shudder come over” her when she recalls her “narrow escape” from Dr Falconer, and readers are simultaneously forced to shudder as we envision the horrifying physiological and psychological consequences of his medical treatment of her (1859, p. 9).

19By page seventeen, however, Storie moves on to the genre of spiritual autobiography, summarizing her journey from sinner to devoted member of the “visible Church” (1859, pp. 18, 19). In this section, Storie undertakes “temporal self-analysis”, extolling not “the autonomous self but rather its transcendence through the discovery of Christ’s purpose for the penitent sinner” at key moments of time (Vincent, 2016, p. 171). She identifies, for example, the moment of her spiritual awakening after hearing the word “ransom” quoted from Job 33:43 in a sermon by the Rev. Mr Somerville in 1839, recognizing in that second that God had “drawn [… her] many a time back from the pit”, a feeling she compares to “an arrow to [… her] soul” (Storie, 1859, p. 17). She then identifies April 1840 as the month in which she developed a “strong desire to join” Clyde Street Church in Anderston, ultimately identifying October 1841 as the period in which she felt spiritually prepared to participate in Communion (1859, pp. 17, 19, 20).

20After explaining she is eschewing the traditional form of autobiography because her “life has not had much variety in it to induce” her “to detail its events too minutely”, Storie is free to finally turn to a collection of legal subgenres, including petitions, pleas, pursuer’s proof, depositions/witness statements (with interrogation and cross-interrogation), correspondence, and a Certificate of Intimation by Agent or Messenger (Storie, 1859, p. 23). In support of her legal action, Storie also makes use of the media, incorporating journalistic genres. For example, she reproduces an extract from an article and a notice she published about her case in the Glasgow Examiner on 21 May and 20 August 1853, and she refers to an article she submitted to the London Journal as well as to handbills she posted up in Glasgow (1859, pp. 73, 107‑8). As if these documents, with their various generic codes and conventions, were not enough, they are supplemented by an additional legal document, a Reclaiming Note, in the Appendix to the autobiography, and an index of her legal records that includes statements and pleas, etc. In between many of the reprinted documents (or extracts from them), Storie interjects her medical and legal commentary.

21In undertaking the complex art of genre fusion in her autobiography, Storie takes advantage of the codes and conventions of each discursive form, offering her far more linguistic ammunition than if she limited herself to a few genres or subgenres. In working across genres, she has access to a wider range of rhetorical tactics necessary for her illocutionary work. In drawing on multiple narrative forms, Storie also destabilizes those that tend to represent the dis/abled in a static way, such as those that feature the narrative trajectory of a heroic “triumph over adversity”, as Couser explains (2001, p. 79). Storie does adopt some conventions of this narrative pattern, writing, “Defeat never had the effect of daunting me—like George Stephenson, when striving to perfect his locomotive, his many defeats only stirred him up to renewed exertion, till he at last gloriously succeeded,—so every new defeat seemed to me just some new opportunity for exerting the little strength I had in the cause of right, hoping that I might succeed, and the cause of truth would triumph” (1859, pp. 98–9). However, she disrupts this narrative structure when she periodically assumes the role of the permanently afflicted victim and concludes on a note of the “bitterness” she feels at having been “doomed to a life-time of misery” and her inability to right the “flagrant wrongs” committed against her (1859, p. 151). And while she gives voice to the measure of comfort she finds in the “consolation of God’s Word in the present world and the hope of happiness in the world to come” in her conclusion, she also writes earlier in the work of suicidal ideation and the recognition that her experience at the hands of ministers might drive “some to a perfect hatred of religion” (1859, pp. 154, 83–4, 91). Her commingling of genres, therefore, results in a more authentic three-dimensional representation of a poor, dis/abled, woman in Victorian Scotland, one which does not limit her to extremes—the triumphant hero or the friendless passive victim. Instead, it allows her to exist at once as a struggling, suffering yet active agent who masters a cluster of specific rhetorical tactics at the sentence and paragraph level as she navigates the medical, legal, and clerical discourses necessary to fight the oppressive systems in which she finds herself.

The deployment of rhetorical tactics in Storie’s autobiography

22In Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun writes that “[p]ower is the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter” (1988, p. 18). Storie takes her place in the public sphere, employing medical, clerical, and legal modes of discourse so that she can competently advocate for her dis/abled self and the community of the oppressed and afflicted, ensuring that their voice matters. She thereby consistently asserts rhetorical power, despite her vulnerable condition. In turning our focus from Storie’s deployment of narrative genres or forms to her sophisticated use of rhetorical practices, it is evident that her content-based tactics are directed at persuading her readers that her narrative is credible, truthful, and convincing and that she, as a result, deserves sympathy at the very least, since she believes that sympathy can inspire societal change. Therefore, Storie, seeks the “fellow feeling” that Adam Smith believes is necessary for the “sufficient […] harmony of society”, even if one’s “compassion can never be exactly the same” as the “original sorrow” of the one who suffers (1969, p. 212). Storie is convinced that “the afflicted”, like herself, “will not withhold their sympathy” when reading her autobiography—since their “sympathetic sentiment arises” from equally painful, if not identical, afflictions (Storie, 1859, p. 152; Smith, 1969, p. 212). However, she hopes that she might also “interes[t] the sympathy of those who have the power to exert it in favour of the oppressed against their oppressors” (Storie, 1859, p. 153). The specific tactics of persuasion Storie deploys to inspire generative “cross-class sympathy”—and to expose abuse of power and advocate for the oppressed—are helpfully identified in relation to Aristotle’s critical modes of rhetorical appeal: ethos, logos, and pathos (Lawson, 2014, p. 169). These tactics establish her credibility and trustworthiness through: factual, faith-based personal testimony substantiated by myriad reliable witness statements (ethos), rational argumentation via logical modes of thought and discourse (logos), and the evocation of sympathy by recounting in detail the nature and sources of her bodily suffering (pathos) (Rapp, 2012, pp. 596–8).

23Storie initially generates authorial credibility by developing a sense of intimacy with readers, thereby convincing them that her story is genuine and reliable because it comes from a trustworthy source. Storie first achieves this objective by depicting herself on the title page as the persecuted “Native of Glasgow” who speaks on behalf of her fellow citizens. Her fight is represented not only as self-serving but as activist in nature since it is meant to give a voice and power to “victims” like herself who are treated as “insignifica[nt]” by those in authority (Storie, 1859, p. 1). That is, Storie presents herself as a representative of the afflicted, thereby acting as a servant of the public good. As Aristotle writes in Rhetoric, “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible, and opinions are divided” (1984, p. 2155 [bk. 1, ch. 2]). Storie provides ample evidence of her good character by figuring herself as the truthful adversary of those “in high power” who commit “injustice” against, or “injur[e]”, the powerless, declaring: “I can offer nothing attractive to the reader of this book except the truthfulness of the statements made therein” (1859, pp. 1, 2). This offer of unembellished truth, coupled with the goal of establishing justice for herself and others who are similarly oppressed, is central to Storie’s ethos.

24Truthfulness, however, must accompany Christian integrity if Storie is to establish credibility in nineteenth-century Presbyterian Scotland. Therefore, Storie presents herself as a member of the elect and of the visible church, introducing the testimony of religious leaders to verify her spiritual standing. For instance, she reproduces a certificate written by the Rev. M’Morland, minister at Inverkeithing, that states, “I consider her [Storie] a person of much intelligence and piety”, later adding a certificate signed by James Hannan, a church elder, in which he declares her “a member of St Matthew’s Church for some years” who “was very industrious” and “always well-behaved” (Storie, 1859, p. 22, 84).

25Such witness testimonies complement her own first-hand account of the dreadful events of her childhood. She sensibly defends the validity of her childhood memories, anticipating that readers may doubt their reliability because she was a child at the time the medical abuse occurred. She initially demonstrates the accuracy of her memory by sharing an account of her neighbourly interactions with the Falconer family before the doctor’s abhorrent actions: “Many things that happened to me during my early childhood are quite fresh in my memory; for instance, when about three years of age I recollect going with my mother and my eldest sister to see the corpse of Mrs Falconer, the mother of Dr Falconer” (1859, p. 3). Only after recounting her own childhood memories does she insert the testimony of other eye-witnesses or (if they have died) their relations, to fortify her personal credibility. For example, early on in his trial, Dr Falconer denies accountability for her medical condition: “He admits that medicines for the child were given to her mother, but averred that they were such as the nature of the case demanded […]. He does not admit, because he does not remember, causing aquafortis to be injected into [the] pursuer’s mouth; although it may not be improbable, the application stated was adapted” (1859, p. 26). Following Falconer’s testimony, Storie remarks that by “dint of great perseverance, I succeeded in finding out several whose evidence I think it best to give verbatim” (1859, p. 30). She thereafter accumulates and reproduces the texts of witness after witness, all of which support her first-person account of events, proving the legitimacy of her memory and thus rendering her far more credible.

26Storie’s appeal to reason is also critical in establishing not only her credibility but the accuracy of the conclusions she derives from her life experiences. Her reliance on logos is evident in her defence of her overarching claim that she has been unjustly treated by medical, legal, and clerical professionals, the central premise of her autobiography. In terms of medical mistreatment, Storie’s claims that Dr Falconer rendered her disfigured and di/sabled are based on two clearly stated premises: that she was healthy before Dr Falconer’s treatment (other than developing a minor rash) and that she was disfigured and dis/abled immediately after his treatment. Her routine use of logical arguments of this type complements the set of specific observations she reproduces of reliable witnesses. Storie’s attempts at a factual and logical, rather than romanticized or overly emotional, representation of her experience indicates that she does not want readers to associate her dis/ability only with what Athena Vrettos terms “affective excess” and Martha Stoddard Holmes labels “emotional excess”, the latter underscoring the frequent “connection between emotion and impairment” in Victorian literature (Vrettos, 1995, p. 30; Holmes, 2004, p. 3).

27Storie’s case is further bolstered by her mimicry of legal discourse in large sections of her autobiography. She would have heard and read a daunting number of oral and written legal texts to learn how to engage in the formal legal discourse she successfully adopts. Given that such discourse is associated with systematic reasoning, it lends credibility to her claims and conclusions and would likely alter the public’s perception of her intellectual aptitude. Of course, as noted above, Storie would have had assistance from a legal team in producing such documentation. However, at times, as she informs her reader, she was required to assume the role of her own law agent: “I was driven from one agent to another—from one expedient to another, till I at last resolved to become my own agent”, despite being in a “delicate state” of health (1859, p. 63). Soon after making this statement, Storie reproduces a petition she made on 7 January 1853 “to the Lord Provost and Magistrates, craving them to grant warrant against the Town Clerks of Glasgow for the production of [the] original [legal] process”, in which she competently writes, “In the event of the process not being forthcoming, grant warrant for incarceration against the said Town-Clerks, until production is made, or full reparation made of the Petitioner’s claims by them. And grant decree for the same, for the reasons and others set forth in the annexed condescendence” (1859, pp. 64, 65). Such prose demonstrates her facility in the logical language of the law.

28Even if we cannot be certain that Storie produced such expertly crafted documents alone, the legal commentary she inserts between them points toward, at the very least, a strong working knowledge of legal language. As a case in point, when her own lawyer, John Kerr, of the law firm Kerr and Malcolm, seems to be undermining her case, she successfully sues him, explaining, “As Mr John Kerr prevented the Barony Parish from taking proceedings against him, as my agent, after their agents took the additional precognitions, the Barony Parish committee found Kerr liable for my support, he having wilfully neglected to recover the [original] process against Falconer” (1859, p. 75). In passages of this ilk, Storie appears to have no difficulty inscribing the language of legal process, procedure, and precognition to support her financial interests.

29In choosing to mimic legal discourse in her autobiography to demonstrate the rational and lawful motive undergirding her cause, Storie inevitably writes in English rather than Scots. As she well knew, Scots dialect was seen by the elite and upper-middle-class public as the language of the working or lower-middle class in Victorian Scotland. As Jane McDermid explains in her study of working-class girls in Victorian Scotland, English was viewed as “the language of the upper classes and of the economy” (2005, p. 90). Formal English—especially in professional contexts—would be seen as more rational and enlightened. Therefore, in addition to using legal discourse, she also replaces her own Scots voice with an English one, which makes her appear more cogent to many of her readers, understanding that “in Scotland […] a mastery of the English language was essential for those who aspired to a secure and rewarding place within the […] elite”, and that “children educated within Scotland during the imperial period were forcefully encouraged during the educational process to reject Scots and Gaelic, the Indigenous languages of Scotland, in favour of ‘the King’s [or later Queen’s] English’” (Mack, 2006, p. 7). Though self-educated, like her predecessor James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd (1770–1830), Storie is comfortable writing in formal English, the perceived language of reason and logic, as needed. Sadly, in so doing, she camouflages aspects of her Scots identity.

30Storie does not limit herself, however, to logical rhetorical tactics in forging her autobiographical self and her cause in relation to individuals and systems. She frequently appeals for sympathy from her readers, even when claiming the contrary. In one case, she uses the rhetorical tactic of paralepsis—“emphasiz[ing] something by intentionally seeming to pass it over”—in order to encourage fellow feeling in the reader: “I shall not again harrow the feelings of my readers, by attempting to describe the state of my own feelings, or the pain and torture I have endured under surgical operations, to which for more than twenty times I have had to submit” (Stark, 1999, p. 270; Storie, 1859, pp. 15–6). Figuring her bodily experience as “pain and torture” and then detailing its nature and her response through harrowing descriptions of surgical operations inevitably inspires readerly sympathy. It would be difficult to remain unaffected by her account, for example, of the surgery to remove a piece of her jaw which “lodged in the glands” and restricted her breathing for ten days causing “indescribable” pain (1859, p. 115). Holmes might categorize this and other accounts of Storie’s body in pain, as “performance[s] of affliction, presented in the exact terms that will elicit sympathy without suspicion”, particularly as it is written by a truthful, industrious, pious woman intent on giving voice to the oppressed (2001, p. 41).

31In case this rhetorical tactic is insufficient to excite the emotions of the reader, Storie includes sympathetic exemplary figures that the reader should imitate. She copies, for example, the sympathetic response of George Hally, a writer in Glasgow, to her difficulties with the church, in which he advocates on her behalf (taking note of her gender, class, and dis/ability) in a letter to her now nemesis, the Rev. Watson:

It is painful to reflect retrospectively on the annoyance, contumely, abuse, and injury this poor girl had to contend with, for no known reason, except her innocent physical misfortunes and helpless poverty. She could neither prevent the one, nor control the other, and was therefore compelled for a long time to remain in your hands, a struggling victim for Christian privileges, till her rights, so barbarously withheld, were acknowledged, and restored. Little reflection will tell you how damaging church slander, and excommunication from church privileges, must be to a poor girl, with only her moral character, her needle, and public opinion to depend upon for her bread […]. (Storie, 1859, p. 102; our emphasis)

  • 7 Storie describes Hally as a “friend of the poor and oppressed” (1859, p. 102).

32Hally follows up this critique with a demand that Storie be financially reimbursed “as a solatium to her injured feelings” (1859, pp. 102–3).7 One of her doctor’s sympathy similarly inspires a call for action when he addresses her suit against the Town Clerks, testifying that “Miss Elizabeth Storie’s case is one of great hardship” and that “public opinion […] should be made to bear upon the necessity of immediately compelling the Clerks to return the said process to Elizabeth Storie accordingly” (Storie, 1859, p. 75). These are but two examples of the action-oriented “cross-class sympathy” modelled for readers, who are indirectly invited to behave accordingly. Boos suggests Storie’s cries for sympathy within the framework of “a protest and appeal for social redress” would have especially “attracted middle-class reformists who helped circulate” working class authors’ “life stories in the hope of publicizing an injustice and advocating systemic reform” (2017, p. 63).

33Storie is clearly as effective at deploying a variety of sophisticated rhetorical tactics as she is of adopting and adapting an expansive range of genres and securing an assortment of working- and middle-class supporters for her personal and political cause. Although she did not ultimately win the war for personal justice against Dr Falconer, she does win a number of battles along the way through the use of unrelenting tactics—textual and extra-textual—at every possible opportunity.


34In her autobiography, Storie is far less interested in self-analysis or self-actualization than she is in advocating for herself and others who are poor, dis/abled, and oppressed. The story of her life produces knowledge of the inner workings of the legal, medical, and ecclesiastical professions in Scotland, demonstrating how they jointly operate to deny her, and those like her, due process and justice. While her autobiography teaches her readers how the existing power structure reproduces and reinforces itself, it also underscores her belief that one poor, dis/abled, Glaswegian woman can reform such monumental institutions as the Kirk, as she asserts when explaining her decision to publicize her fight after her “excommunication”: “[I]f the Church is made to feel that its weak members are liable to be oppressed by the strong, she may be stirred up to greater vigilance to watch over their interests; and I am confident that good will accrue to many from the publication of the treatment I received from the Kirk-Session of St Matthew’s and the Presbytery of Glasgow” (1859, p. 89). Vincent recently reminds us of Gagnier’s assertion that nineteenth-century working-class autobiographers did not always have a strong sense of subjectivity or selfhood (Vincent, 2016, p. 175; Gagnier, 1991, p. 141). Nan Hackett goes so far as to claim that “even in this very personal, subjective, and supposedly egocentric genre, the ‘I’ is minimized and even depersonalized” in Victorian working-class autobiographies (1989, p. 210). However, in the case of Storie, her subjectivity and personal narrative is deeply rooted in and coheres around her experience as a working-class, dis/abled, woman, ensuring that her autobiography is at once about generating fellow feeling for the “I” and sparking “the reader’s pity and indignation at the lives of the majority” of her working-class contemporaries (Hackett, 1989, p. 224).

35Both working-class women’s writing and dis/abled women’s writing produced in Victorian Scotland remain nascent fields, though more research has been done on the former than the latter. At the forefront of both fields is Florence Boos who has already identified over “forty working-class Scottish Victorian women poets who each published a book, and several others whose poems appeared only in newspapers or anthologies”, including selections from some in her edited collection Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain: An Anthology (1998, p. 325). In addition to Storie, we know of at least two other Victorian women authors who were dis/abled Scotswomen: the memoirist Christian Watt (1833–1923), who experienced periods of mental illness and resided for much of her life “in the Aberdeen Royal Mental Asylum at Cornhill”, and Janet Hamilton (1795–1873) who continued to write and publish despite degenerative blindness during the last eighteen years of her life (Boos, 2005, p. 244; Boos, 2012, p. 64). Our analysis of Storie’s autobiography demonstrates the value of adopting an intersectional feminist approach in future studies of the cultural artefacts produced by such dis/abled women in nineteenth-century Scotland. Such an approach reveals not only the sophistication and accuracy of dis/abled women’s knowledge and understanding of the oppressive power of dominant institutions and organizations, but also the complexity and creativity of the tactics of resistance they deploy in the face of injustice and oppression.

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1 Hutchinson provides examples of memoirs written by disabled men who chose “to play down or hide the presence of their impairments” (2007, p. 126) and notes that authors who “published [autobiographical] narratives on the experience of disability” are “relatively sparse” in Victorian Scotland. However, he indicates that there were some “who gave prominence to an impairment in their writing” because of specific social or economic objectives (p. 129). This is the case for Storie.

2 We use the term “dis/ability” rather than “disability” for three reasons: (1) to challenge the belief that there is a simple binary relationship between those who are categorized as disabled and those who are categorized as abled; (2) to destabilize the notion that a person’s identity is only defined in terms of a dis/ability; and (3) to underscore that our conceptions and definitions of dis/ability are, in large part, socially constructed.

3 Other than Boos, Bronstein appears to be the only scholar to analyse, if briefly, Storie’s autobiography (2023, pp. 17, 149–51).

4 Some feminist standpoint theorists have been criticized for suggesting that there is “a single, monolithic feminist standpoint” (Bowell, 2011). However, we prefer the understanding that feminist standpoint theory views “knowledge as particular rather than universal” and subjects as “constructed in relational forces” (Hekman, 1997, p. 356).

5 Private Carleton Burgan, B Company, Purnell’s Maryland Legion, age 20. In August 1862, Burgan arrived at a hospital in Frederick, Maryland suffering from pneumonia. Unfortunately, his treatment consisted of the mercurial drug calomel, the result of which was ulceration of his mouth and tongue and eventually of his eye and cheek (“To Bind up the Nation’s Wounds”). The photograph shows Burgan before a series of operations to reconstruct his face (CP 1659). OHA 75 Contributed Photographs Collection, Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine.

6 It is interesting to note that collaboration in authorship as a writing method in the dis/abled community continues, as discussed in the recently published volume Crip Authorship: Disability as Method, in which the editors, Mara Mills and Rebecca Sanchez, note in their introduction, “Care collectives are familiar to the feminist disability community. They stretch what we know about collective authorship” (2023, p. 3). We are indebted to one of the article’s anonymous peer reviewers for this point.

7 Storie describes Hally as a “friend of the poor and oppressed” (1859, p. 102).

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Titre Mercury poisoning deformity. – Severe facial deformity in the case of US soldier Carleton Burgan (1844–1915).
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Dana Graham Lai et Holly Faith Nelson, « “There Was Death in the Powder and He Knew It”: Dis/ability and Tactics of Resistance in the Autobiography of Elizabeth Storie »Études écossaises [En ligne], 23 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Dana Graham Lai
Dana Graham Lai is a Ph.D. student in Simon Fraser University’s Department of English. She holds an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Humanities from Trinity Western University and an M.A. in English Literature from Carleton University. Her research is situated in theories of place, nationhood, gender, and ecocriticism in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century British literature. She has published an article in the Scottish Literary Review on Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen and is the Research Assistant for Shaping Jacobitism, 1688 to the Present: Memory, Culture, Networks, edited by Leith Davis and Kevin James (forthcoming Edinburgh University Press). Dana is the reviews editor for Studies in Hogg and His World and a research assistant for “The Lyon in Mourning” digital humanities project. Her research is partly supported by funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and SFU’s Mary and David MacAree Fellowship.
Dana Graham Lai est doctorante au département d’anglais de la Simon Fraser University. Elle détient un M.A. en Interdisciplinary Humanities de la Trinity Western University et un autre en littérature anglaise de Carleton University. Sa recherche a pour thématiques les théories du lieu, de la nation, du genre, et l’écocritique appliquées à la littérature de la fin du xviiie et du début du xixe siècle. Elle a publié un article dans The Scottish Literary Review sur Kirsteen de Margaret Oliphant et est assistante de recherches pour Shaping Jacobitism, 1688 to the Present: Memory, Culture, Networks, coordonné par Leith Davis et Kevin James (à paraître chez Edinburgh University Press). Dana est directrice de la section Recensions de Studies in Hogg and His World et est assistante de recherches pour le projet en humanités numérique, « The Lyon in Mourning ». Sa recherche reçoit l’appui financier du Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada et la bourse Mary and David MacAree Fellowship de la Simon Fraser University.

Holly Faith Nelson
Holly Faith Nelson, Ph.D., is Professor of English, Graduate Stream Coordinator of the M.A. in Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Co‑Director of the Gender Studies Institute at Trinity Western University. She has published widely on Scottish literature, gender and literature, war and literature, and dis/ability and literature. She is the co‑author, for example, of Besieged: Early Modern British Siege Literature, 1642–1722 (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2021), co‑editor of ten other volumes, including James Hogg and the Literary Marketplace (2009) and Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (2012), and author or co‑author of 45 articles and book chapters on literature from the late medieval period to the modern age.
La docteure Holly Faith Nelson, est Professor of English, Graduate Stream Coordinator du M.A. en Interdisciplinary Humanities, et co‑directrice du Gender Studies Institute à Trinity Western University. Elle a beaucoup publié sur la littérature écossaise, le genre dans la littérature, la guerre dans la littérature, et sur le handicap dans la littérature. Elle est par exemple co‑autrice de Besieged: Early Modern British Siege Literature, 1642–1722 (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2021), a codirigé dix autres volumes, dont James Hogg and the Literary Marketplace (2009) et Robert Burns and Transatlantic Culture (2012), et est l’autrice ou la co‑autrice de quarante-cinq articles et chapitres d’ouvrages sur la littérature s’étendant de la fin de la période médiévale jusqu’à l’ère moderne.

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