Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies, by Lynne Vallone

From dwarfs at court to obese children, a study examines why size matters, says Louisa Yates

December 7, 2017
Women with chihuahuas
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A richly dressed woman glares regally out of her portrait. She is the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia. Her right hand pinches a miniature of her father, Philip II of Spain, while the left rests on the head of a woman whose small stature, advanced age and simple clothes place her in absolute opposition to her taller mistress. The smaller woman stands slightly behind the larger figure, her hands full with two tiny, wriggling monkeys. She is Isabella’s dwarf, Magdalena Ruiz.

In Lynne Vallone’s persuasive reading, the dwarf serves as a foil to all her royal owner must be if Habsburg rule is to continue: noble, privileged, mature, reproductive. The women literally embody complex codes of similarity and difference; their bodies carefully styled to visually communicate ownership and power. Even the monkeys have a part to play, advertising Spanish possession of vast Amazonian territories. Like the monkeys, Magdalena is Isabella’s pet and must work for her owner. When extrapolated across Western cultural history, the painting’s power relations encapsulate the message of Big and Small – that extraordinary bodies are created, configured and controlled by the “ordinary” figures who outnumber them.

Big and Small is a compelling and innovative account of why size matters. It is one of the very first books – perhaps even the very first – to examine size as variously a sign of personhood, a marker of difference and a channel for social anxieties. Often, size is all three simultaneously. Thoughtful depictions of “people big and people small” reveal that bodily dimension is deeply, ineradicably engrained in Western society’s self-perception. They make for a significant achievement and a remarkable read.

Vallone roves through art, literature and science to offer striking images of bodies under the microscope, near the spotlight or accompanied by the fairground organ. Magdalena was far from the only court dwarf, while the “dwarf marriage” between Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren delighted fashionable Manhattan in 1863. Tales of extraordinary creation demonstrate how society regularly uses size to mould anxiety into human form. Alchemists conjure thumblings with heretical recipes; at the other end of the scale, giant robots are pieced together with the guide of an atomic blueprint.

However, what sets this apart from other considerations of folklore or the freak is both the comprehensive research and a commitment to exploring bodily significance both then and now. The imperialist capture and ruthless exploitation of the “pygmy” Ota Benga, for example, is shown to be both the result of certain Victorian race myths, and the source of others. Placing each extraordinary individual at the centre of a complex social web shows sensitivity to the injustices perpetrated on bodies deemed either insufficient or excessive. The case of Anamarie Martinez-Regino, removed from her family due to concerns over her weight, is a breathtaking demonstration of society’s entitled attitude to bodies that do not fit.

No book can cover everything: both the chapters on “big” bodies focus tightly on contemporary examples, leaving me curious for historical accounts. The phrase multum in parvo (“much in little”) expresses not only the power of the miniature but the scale of Vallone’s achievement. Big and Small brings much-needed height and breadth to a neglected field.

Louisa Yates is director of collections and research at Gladstone’s Library and a visiting lecturer in English at the University of Chester.

Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies
By Lynne Vallone
Yale University Press, 360pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780300228861
Published 7 November 2017


Print headline: Different dimensions

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