Disabled History in 80 Objects: 3. Deformity An Essay by William Hay Esq.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

“When I have thus anatomised myself, I hope my heart will be found untainted, and my intentions honest and sincere.”(p.3)

Art by Thomas Secmezsoy-Urquhart

So expresses William Hay at the start of his Deformity: An Essay. A milestone in the history of disability, it was mostly absent in historiography until recently. It is now acknowledged as ground-breaking with Helen Deutsch commenting that he was the first writer in English literature to “conceptualise and articulate physical disability as a personal identity”, James Kavan saying he brings Enlightenment disability to light and David Turner remarking his work was a landmark publication. This work uses the contemporary terms that Hay and his time would have known.

Written in 1754, it is the first person personal account of the Seaford MP William Hay’s life as a man with a hunchback. The work engages with the history of ideas, as Hay mimics the style of Montaigne then refutes Enlightenment theories of beauty and deformity penned by those such as Francis Bacon. In a time when a person’s appearance was believed to be a window to their soul, and consequently, physical disabilities and deformities were seen as signals of immorality, Hay argued that he deserved to be treated as human. That he was not a“complete monster”,but instead a “rational creature” deserving of dignity.

Hay sheds light on the physical impact of his disability while setting it within a wholly 18th-century context. “The Human frame being warped and disproportioned is lessened in strength and activity and rendered less fit for its functions”, He concedes. He wished he could have a machine like Scarron’s which took off hats, except to help him buckle his shoes or take things off the ground. Something he “can scarce do without kneeling”. His impacted mobility meant he couldn’t play the Georgian gentleman that his upper-class status called for, and so if a lady dropped her fan or glove, he had to ignore it as he could not bend his body and could fall back due to the ill place of his “centre of gravity”. From being unable to reach things hanging within the reach of others to being “in danger of being trampled upon or stifled in a crowd”, Hay attests to the manner in which such “inconveniences” attend “a figure like mine”. Through sections like this, we get a sense of how alienating and difficult navigating Georgian London and Sussex as a disabled person must have been.

William Hay also alerts us to the ableism rampant in his time. As a man of the Enlightenment, Hay was, as Kathleen James-Cavan notes, alive during “a pivotal time in disability history when empiricism competed with superstition to account for human, physical differences”. Roger Lund even suggests that deformity challenged Enlightenment ideas about humanity. Old ideas from areas like religion thus melded with the New Science to define the bodies and minds of those like Hay. Additionally, Jest books, Simon Dickie notes, delighted in jokes about groups with physical differences like those with dwarfism and hunchbacks. There was a “sheer callousness” and “frank delight” in laughing at visible deformities and disabilities.

From the Renaissance onwards, books on human generation, and its variety, grew ever popular. One of the biggest examples was Ambroise Pare’s 1573 book Des Monstres et Prodiges/Of Monsters and Prodigies which discusses the traditional causes of “monsters”, really just children with physical disabilities or deformities, alongside quasi-science explanations. A deformed child could be caused by God or demons sending messages to humanity, like the monster of Ravenna, because a mother stared at something shocking and maternal impression stamped the experience on the child’s appearance, because of “the smallness of the womb”, “indecent posture of the mother” or “accidental illness”. A 1569 translation of Pierre Boaistuau’s Histoires Prodigieuses, said deformed people were monsters born “in contempt of nature as to the perpetual infamy and grief of their parents” and acted as the “scrouge of the ire of God”.

The Early Modern theorising about God’s design and of beauty was challenged by the bodies of those like Hay. Nicolas Andry’s Orthopaedia claimed ugly bodies contradicted “the intention of the creator” while Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690 defined humans by their shape, “the leading quality, that seems more to determine that species, than a faculty of reasoning”. Chambers Cyclopaedia in 1728 defined deformity as “a displeasing or painful idea excited in the mind on occasion of some object, which wants of the uniformity that constitutes beauty”. William Hogarth even created a formula for explaining beauty and ugliness via criteria like fitness, variety, uniformity, simplicity and quantity. Hay lived in a period that defined his body as monstrous, portentous, ugly and just plain wrong. The Enlightenment man was perfect and Hay was not.

Then there is Francis Bacon’s 1625 essay Of Deformity which Hay specifically highlights in his writing as a text he is trying to dispute. Bacon talks about the mind and body of deformed people, stating “where nature erreth in the one she ventureth in the other”. A deformed person must be evil and equally imperfect in mind. He claimed they were consequently “void of natural affection”, something Hay attacks, joking that if true, all deformed people must “complete monster[s]”

The impact of such ableist discourse on Hay’s own life comes through in his words on many occasions. Hay notes the uncomfortable visibility of his condition stating “deformity is visible to every eye”. His childhood was one where his parents tried “every art to correct the errors of nature” before giving up and attempting to conceal them. This left the MP “ashamed of my person”, instead of arming him with “true fortitude”, and was an attitude that took years to overcome. He describes how lone people ignored his condition, but as crowds grew so did “insolence”. Ridicule and vulgar contempt arose in such situations as people, even “the lower sort” he sniffs, saw the “less beautiful” in him and so their pride was gratified by such foils, and superiority prompted laughter from them. Lastly, William Hay asserts how truly lacking in privilege he and other deformed people are. They are “despised, ridiculed and ill-treated” if poor are cut off from “many professions and employments” and while having a “good person is a letter of recommendation, deformity must be an obstruction in the way to favour” meaning that deformed people “set out in the world to a disadvantage and they must first surmount the prejudices of mankind before they can be upon a par with others”. Though emphasising this extensive set of difficulties, Hay does not leave matters at that. He rips apart Bacon’s ideas in his case for the worth of disabled deformed people.

Firstly they are not against God. They are part of God’s plan. “All in me is Nature”, Hay asserts, and God will not allow men to “mend” “his Works”. Instead, he stands among the “range of human variety” from the lame to the blind, deaf to dumb.

Hay then suggests that deformity need not be seen as “prejudicial to health” for it can be “an advantage” as it results in a specific path for people like himself. A man with a deformed body has “the improvement of mind” as his “province” and his business only depends on “ingenuity”. If he can’t be a dancing master, he can be a schoolmaster, if not an actor then a playwright, if not a soldier on the campaign then someone advising operations behind the scenes. By coming at Georgian society from this angle, Hay suggests they can be “upon a par” with others.

In a lengthy section of the essay Hay shows how Bacon is wrong, and as he describes in the beginning, how his heart is “untainted” despite Of Deformity’s claims. The “universal benevolence” that Bacon says Hay and others lack, is something he exhibits in spades, discussing his sensations over many pages. Bacon’s claim that “deformed persons are extremely bold” when ridiculed or attacked is just him including the undignified reactions of poorer deformed people, the upper-class Hay suggests. Hay concludes that if deformed individuals assert a dignified attitude without “frailties” exhibited, they can prove Bacon wrong. “Ridicule and contempt” are consequences of deformity, and so deformed persons should just “bear it like a man; forgive it as a Christian and consider it as a philosopher”. In that way, the deformed like Hay can triumph over the ableist beliefs of their day. Hay as a white upper-class man exhibits privilege in his description of class, ignoring of women with such conditions and how he says deformed people should react. While today these statements might seem problematic to us, it was Hay’s particular way of finding a way to live as a disabled man in his time.

Hay describes the text as anatomising him and ends it saying his “contemptible carcass” shall be given to science, something not unbecoming “a rational creature”. While those like Charles Bryne, “The Irish Giant”, fought to stop their body from falling into the hands of “resurrection men” surgeons and anatomists for study then display, William Hay gave clear consent for his body to be used by science to explain and understand him.

In under a hundred pages, William Hay Esq does something critical for disabled history. He writes himself into history, literature and into being. Through him, we see how life as a physically disabled person in Georgian England felt. Hay says to us today, Here I am. Here I was. We should listen to him and read this vital object of disabled history.

William Hay and sons, The Life and Works of William Hay (London, 1794)


William Hay Esq, Deformity: An Essay, (London: For R & J Dodsley, Sold by M Cooper, [1774]1775 3rd edition), p. 2-1-4,6-7,9,13,18-19,21-22, 28-30,34,40-41,53,55,59,73,75

Anne- Noelle Pinnegar, “Pioneering ‘Polite’ Models of Disability in Eighteenth-Century London: Matthias Buchinger’s Self-Portrait (1724) and William Hay’s Deformity: An Essay (1754)”, pp. 141-154

David M Turner, Disability in Eighteenth Century England, (Routledge,2017),p.99

Helen Deutsch, “The Body’s Moments: Visible Disability, the Essay and the Limits of Sympathy”, Prose Studies, 27 (1.2) (2005), pp. 11-26, p. 11
Jason S. Farr, “Sharp Minds / Twisted Bodies: Intellect, Disability, and Female Education in Frances Burney’s “Camilla”, The Eighteenth Century, Vol. 55, No. 1 (SPRING 2014), pp. 1-17, p. 5

Kathleen James-Cavan (2005) “[A]ll in Me is Nature”, Prose Studies, 27:1-2, pp. 27-38

Roger Lund, “Laughing at Cripples: Ridicule, Deformity and the Argument from Design”, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Fall, 2005), pp. 91-114

Simon Dickie, “Hilarity and Pitilessness in the Mid-Eighteenth Century: English Jestbook Humor,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37.1 (2003), pp. 1-22

Wikisource contributors, ‘The Essays of Francis Bacon/XLIV Of Deformity’, Wikisource, 30 January 2016, 01:32 UTC, <https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php…&gt; [accessed 2 September 2018]

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