Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture

Wilkie Collins’s fiction has featured prominently in the burgeoning field of Victorian Disability Studies, and has frequently been singled out for praise by scholars impressed (or relieved) by the sheer range of disabled characters he created and the unconventional, even radical roles he enabled them to play as detectives, suspects, romantic agents, and even heroes and heroines. For those studying representations of sensory impairment in nineteenth-century fiction, his work provides particularly rich pickings. In Lucilla Finch, protagonist of his 1875 novel Poor Miss Finch, Collins created a blind heroine who not only has a pair of suitors vying for her hand in marriage, but actually achieves a happy marriage and motherhood, an exceptional fate for a disabled character in novels of the period. Moreover, she chooses to remain blind at the end of the novel, asserting the pleasures as well as the frustrations of blindness and refusing to allow her doctor to interfere with her unconventional happy ending. Collins’s earlier depiction of the deaf Madonna Blyth in Hide and Seek (1854) may be less satisfying for those in search of radically affirmative portrayals of disability – she lacks Lucilla’s vitality, as an altogether meeker and more timorous character who is, alas, unsuccessful in her marriage plot – but it too has a claim to distinction. Alongside Sophy Marigold in Dickens’s 1866 short story “Doctor Marigold”, Madonna is one of only two deaf heroines yet discovered in the field of Victorian fiction. Unsurprisingly, she plays a starring role in Jennifer Esmail’s new study of deafness in Victorian literature and culture, providing the focus for a chapter on representations of sign language in fiction.

Esmail’s study is not, however, primarily focused on fiction, but rather on re-constructing the experience of deaf people in nineteenth-century Britain and America in the context of the oralist-manualist debate that raged throughout the century. The struggle was between those who defended the use of sign language in deaf life and education (the manualists), and the oralists who sought to eradicate it by teaching deaf children to lip read and to speak. As Esmail shows, more was at stake in this debate than simply modes of teaching, as the oralist agenda became aligned with the eugenics movement, seeking to prevent deaf people from marrying one another or from forming friendships and communities which would, in the eugenicists’ view, ‘promote’ deafness and sign language. Perhaps inevitably, Esmail’s narrative is sharply binary, with deaf signers and their advocates on the right side of history, ranged against their hearing oppressors, who wanted to suppress their language and force their assimilation into hearing culture. However, while the study is animated by Esmail’s indignation at the misery inflicted upon deaf people by oralists, it is far from being a history of victimhood. Rather, it is a compelling account of ultimately successful resistance, for the victory of the oralists and eugenicists was only temporary. The deaf writers, campaigners and teachers who defied them and who continued to communicate, create and teach through sign not only kept their language and culture alive, but laid the groundwork for the Deaf Pride movement of the twentieth century. As Esmail convincingly argues, the social model of disability was anticipated by well over a century by those deaf people who argued that being unable to hear was no disadvantage in a community of signers, and actually worked to create such communities.

Such overtly political organisation was not the only site of resistance to oralist paradigms of deafness, however, as Esmail demonstrates in her first chapter, which explores poetry by deaf writers. Many of these authors doubted their own ability as poets, and expressed their doubts in their poems, with some, like John Kitto, “vacillat[ing] between proclaiming the impossibility of a deaf poet and publishing his own poetry”, his contradictory position capturing the struggle of a deaf poet “facing a cultural definition of poetry that was inextricably linked to orality” (22-23). Yet, as Esmail argues, even those poems which apologise for their own shortcomings, or express anxiety about whether deaf people can or should write poetry, are in themselves resisting texts, for such poetry implicitly challenges the idea that deaf people who did not speak could not understand abstract concepts, and could not, by definition, create art. As such, poetry was used as a weapon in the fight against oralism, featuring prominently in periodicals by and for deaf readers, while signed performances of poetry – by both deaf and hearing authors – became a regular feature of graduations at deaf schools and colleges. Quite apart from their significance in deaf history, the poems Esmail quotes and discusses here also open up interesting questions about Victorian poetry more generally, particularly about “the conventionality of poetic language” (39) when it comes to sensory images. A fascinating test case is provided by the poetry of the most famous deaf-blind woman of her era, Laura Bridgman, whose poetry, condescendingly treated by her teachers, is given serious literary critical treatment here. Bridgman probes the connection between poetry and sensory experience, drawing on gustatory metaphors for the visual, and reversing the tenor and vehicle of metaphor in order to write about visual phenomenon through abstract concepts. The respectful and sensitive treatment of the poetry under discussion finely instantiates what Esmail is arguing for: the relevance of deaf literature to wider culture, and the rewards to be gained from undoing oralist assumptions about art.

In her second chapter, Esmail moves on to representations of deafness in literature by hearing authors, focusing her attention on Hide and Seek and “Doctor Marigold”. She treats these texts as anti-oralist in their positive representation of sign language as part of family life, but also as examples of how “a deaf character’s relation to language […] disqualifies him or her from conventional representation in Victorian fiction” (70). While Esmail is convincing in her criticism of the practice of “using voice as a generalized metaphor for agency” (86), pointing out the limitations of readings which cast Madonna as unsatisfactorily passive because she does not speak, the argument becomes slightly strained when it comes to Madonna’s thwarted marriage plot. Esmail suggests that the revelation of the blood relationship between Madonna and her beloved Zack, which scotches any possibility of romance between them, asserts the likeness between able and disabled characters, rather than revealing Collins’s fundamental unwillingness to portray a deaf woman as a wife and mother. Here, I think Esmail’s desire to uphold Collins as a writer “most committed to resisting the pathologization of disabled people” (74) overwhelms her critical acumen. Similarly, her attempt to argue that Collins “relies on dialogue for characterization”, and is therefore unable to individualise Madonna more sharply than he does (92), is surely belied by the fact that Collins frequently uses characters’ written testimony to establish their personalities and to give them a distinctive voice; in novels such as The Woman in White and The Moonstone, written testimony is given priority over spoken dialogue. The fact that Madonna is not allowed to write her own story at any point, and we are not given access to letters or diaries which would allow us to experience the world from her point of view, seems to me less a matter of necessity than a deliberate choice on the part of the author to keep her at arm’s length from the reader. That said, Esmail does a valuable service in reconstructing the context in which the representation of Madonna was radical, rather than reactionary, and her reading of “Doctor Marigold” is an exciting one, as she draws out the irony of its status as one of Dickens’s most popular readings. As she explains, a text which ostensibly testifies to the impossibility of translating speech into writing or sign (Doctor Marigold mourns the fact that Sophy will never hear his famous patter, and it cannot be reproduced in writing or sign) in fact depends upon the reproduction of Doctor Marigold’s speech into writing, back into speech through performance, and finally into pictures and text as these readings are recorded by adoring listeners.

Having introduced the reader to a selection of writings by and about deaf Victorians, in the second half of the book Esmail goes on to explain what was at stake in these representations. In her third chapter, she explores the crucial role played by Darwinists and their opponents in the oralist movement: those wishing to refute Darwin’s theories (particularly F. Max Müller and his disciples) cast speech as the ability which definitively separated humans from animals, characterising deaf people as less than human in their use of sign language, while so-called Linguistic Darwinists argued that language, like species, evolved, so that speech was the most developed form of language, and sign a more ‘primitive’ form. Both sides denigrated sign language; while Müller’s opponent William White Whitney argued that Müller’s characterisation of deaf people as inhuman proved that his entire theory of language was untenable (117), Darwinists’ “belief in a scale of language extending from gesture to speech” (123) was hugely damaging to the efforts of deaf people and their advocates to have sign language recognised as a valid language in its own right. The horrible effects of Darwinists’ argument on the lives of deaf people is chillingly illustrated by an anecdote about the Yorkshire Residential School, in which deaf children who could not speak were sent to “the monkey class”, where signs were used (122). The racist aspects of the same argument can be seen in the description of deaf people in America as “our home savages”, allied to the Native Americans whose use of sign language was also taken as a sign of inferiority (129).

The interconnection of oralism and eugenics is the theme of the next chapter, in which Alexander Graham Bell emerges as arch villain in his twin pursuit of oralist and eugenic agendas. The need to eradicate deaf culture and community so that deaf people did not intermarry (it being – largely mistakenly – believed that deafness was hereditary) was urged by eugenicists like Bell, who argued that deafness was not merely a personal misfortune, but a threat to the entire human race. Bell’s attempt to force oralist education upon deaf schools and to discourage intermarriage between the deaf – even to the point of prohibiting it by law, a proposition from which he drew back only on the grounds of impracticality – made him an implacable opponent of what he called ‘deaf clannishness’. His opposition to Jane Elizabeth Groom’s scheme to set up a self-supporting deaf community in Canada, where sign language would be used and deafness would therefore be no bar to social or cultural participation, seems paradigmatic of his relentlessly negative approach: as Esmail suggests, with advocates like these, deaf people really had no need of enemies.

Bell is also the figure who neatly links Esmail’s final chapter on technology and prosthetics to the previous discussion of eugenics. Bell not only invented the telephone – a piece of technology which, as Esmail points out, “ushered in a new age of human communication that largely excluded deaf people for almost a century” (164) – and used the profits from his invention to fund his oralist programmes, but this invention arose from earlier experimentation with the “phonautograph”, a machine that was intended to enable deaf children to see the shapes of sound on paper, and therefore learn to control their voices and aid their ability to speak (184). Esmail’s question about how to draw “the boundary between serving the needs and desires of people with disabilities and serving the needs and desires of a majority ableist culture that wishes to assimilate difference” (165) is pressingly relevant, given recent developments in prosthetic technology and cochlear implants. In the case of the phonautograph, at least, the answer is pretty clear: few deaf children appear to have found the massive expense of time and effort worth the result, when sign language offered a far more effective and intuitive way for them to communicate. As Esmail notes with some satisfaction, the cause to which Bell put the profits of his inventions did not succeed as well as the inventions themselves, for “while oralism’s dominance in deaf education did not end until the second half of the twentieth century, it never eliminated sign language from deaf life” (191).

Fittingly, Esmail concludes her study with a celebration of the strong state in which sign language finds itself today, and the possibilities opened up by the latest developments in technology for sign language users to communicate: the Digital Journal of Deaf Studies, for example, is now produced entirely in sign language, thanks to the technology that enables viewers to watch articles online. The difficulty of “us[ing] print to access information about a group of people who primarily used a language that had no written form” (192) is one which Esmail ponders in her conclusion, as she draws on illustrations of sign language (including the wonderful picture of Queen Victoria signing which decorates the front cover) to attempt to reconstruct the experience of Victorian signers. While it may be impossible fully to achieve such a reconstruction, Esmail’s study triumphantly demonstrates the value of the attempt to understand historical experiences and representations of deafness, not only for those with an interest in disability history, but more broadly for those who seek to understand how speech, language and gesture have been understood in our shared past.

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