“The Fair to Middling: A Mystery” (1959)

(Grammarist.com:”Fair to middling describes something that is average or only slightly above average. The term is an American phrase, used as early as the 1820s. The term fair to middling originally referred to gradations of quality in cotton, sheep and other farm goods. Such goods may be designated into categories such as fine, good, fair, middling and poor. By the 1860s the phrase fair to middlingevolved into common speech to mean something average or slightly above average.”)

Jane Stemp wrote in Disability Studies Quarterly Winter 2004, Volume 24, No. 1:

Jane Stemp has published two novels for teenagers, both featuring characters with disabilities and short listed for the NASEN Children’s Book Award. The second, Secret Songs, was short-listed for the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Within the last few years she has spoken and written on disability matters for a variety of conferences and journals. Under her married name, Jane Wickenden, she is a special collections librarian for the Royal Navy, and has recently written short pieces for the Journal of the Royal Naval Medical Service. She lives with cerebral palsy, and has been partially hearing since the age of five.

Abstract: Characters with disabilities have a surprisingly long history in science and fantasy fiction, but the date of a book’s publication is no guide to the manner in which the characters with disabilities are portrayed. This paper studies, from a personal rather than an academic viewpoint, fantasy and science fiction books in the writer’s own collection, and discusses some recurrent themes and motifs, with possible reasons for their use.


“Outside of hospital, where life seemed almost entirely unrelated to the “real world”, I did not meet anyone else with a disability until I was 17. But as a voracious and, at times, undiscriminating reader (my parents’ bookshelves were filled with anything from Elizabeth Goudge to Dennis Wheatley, taking in historical and science fiction on the way) I had a circle of disabled characters to whom I returned again and again: not necessarily because of their disabilities per se, but because, as I eventually realised, through their experiences I filtered my own. The period in which I remember my reading habits most clearly coincides, perhaps inevitably, with adolescence, which itself coincided with an intense period of “non-ill” hospitalisation (until the age of nine I was constantly in hospital with bronchitis, pneumonia and so forth) which gave me time to read and be aware of what I was reading…

…To me Stuck in Neutral rings false: an external construction, by an able-bodied person, of what someone with disabilities might feel. It does not take much authorial skill, or indeed social skill, to make a genuine effort to identify with someone else: the skill is in making the reader identify with a condition, which he, she, or the author has never experienced. In their own ways all the authors I have studied in this paper are attempting to do that thing. The difficulty comes when the books are read by someone who has the experience. The difference can be intangible, but a book by someone who “knows” rings quite differently from a book by someone who is playing on the possibilities of a situation.

And yet even an author who seems to be working solely on the latter basis may produce an interesting and stimulating book: for example, Arthur Calder-Marshall‘s odd, surreal allegory The Fair to Middling: a mystery, originally published in 1963. It is hard to tell from 2004 exactly how satirical Calder-Marshall intended some of his vocabulary (Alderman Winterbottome’s School for Incapacitated Orphans, for example) to be, but to the alert reader it quickly becomes clear that Middling Fair is an equivalent to Bunyan’s Vanity Fair, where the children on a Bank Holiday visit may have anything their hearts desire. At times the disability aspect of the book is almost overwhelmed by satire, allegory and word play; but in fact all of the main characters find themselves in a “chance to choose” situation. Emma chooses not to be colour-blind; Lawrie rejects the chance to change from being albino; Peter finds that being able to see robs him of the gift of music, and chooses to stay with what he knows. In the end the main theme is summed up by Rose Oxley, one of the school’s teachers who has rejected the chance to have her scarred face changed. She defines as a “sort of miracle” the ability “To choose to be what you are …. Accept that. Choose it for what it gives you” (Calder-Marshall, 1973). This brief discussion does not give a proper sense of the book’s complexity and playfulness, and I would welcome a chance to study it in more detail at a future time…”

From: The Changing Scene (1937), by Arthur Calder-Marshall:

“…And here is the change in our attitude, the attitude, that is, of such of us as have grown up and written under the influence of different ideas. Formerly I, and I think many others, honestly believed in ‘self-expression.’ We believed that the integrity of the artist consisted in saying what we wanted to say and damning the eyes of the world. There was a certain virtue in being obscure. It shewed that you weren’t pandering to the public. But now we have changed. And the reason for the change is simple. What we have to say is urgent. We cannot afford to shrug our shoulders and smile if people do not understand. There is something which we must communicate. We no longer want to “express ourselves.” We want to warn. We want to advise. What we have to say is urgent.”

From phrases.org.uk:

“damn-my-eyes. adj. Naut. flashy; ostentatious. 1849 Melville ‘White Jacket’ 293 (ref. to 1843): You may put that man down for what man-of-war’s men call a ‘damn-my-eyes tar,’ that is a humbug. And many damn-my-eyes humbugs there are. 1899 Boyd ‘Shellback 16 (ref. to 1860’s): A tall complexioned hat and a ‘d–n my eyes’ necktie.”

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