NWSA Journal 14.3 (2002) 204-206
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Reflections: The Life and Writings of a Young Blind Woman in Post-Revolutionary France by Therese-Adele Husson. Trans. with commentary by Catherine J. Kudlick and Zina Weygand. New York: New York University Press, 2001, 155 pp., $20.00 hardcover.
Reflections: The Life and Writings of a Young Blind Woman in Post-Revolutionary France offers both a gaze backward, into the conditions for blind people living in nineteenth-century France, and a gaze forward [End Page 204] to foreshadow the "containment and control" response to blindness evident in society today. The book is presented in four parts, beginning with a brief introduction to establish the historic context of the era in which Therese-Adele Husson authored her lessons on living with blindness. Isolation, poverty, and dependency marked the general experience of blind people and despite the promise of reform in post-revolutionary France, "piety, charity, and self-sacrifice" remained the assumed values for both women and the blind (4). "Part II" and "Part III" offer two original works by the French writer Therese-Adele Husson. This prolific author, who died at the age of twenty-eight, lived a life that is difficult to piece together, despite the worthy excavation efforts by Kudlick and Weygand. Theirs was a "research detective odyssey" fueled by luck that first led them to the discovery of the unpublished manuscript, Reflections (1825), and later, to the autobiographical preface to the novel, Story of a Pious Heiress (1828). "Part IV" provides a more contextualized and critical analysis informed by contemporary feminist and disability studies insights.
Although Kudlick and Weygand remain perplexed by the many mysterious contradictions between the author's life and her etiquette on blindness they probe the broader implications for how we think about history, literature, and society. Reflections cohered with both the prevailing representations of blindness in society and with the designated subject location as ward and recipient of benevolence "quietly living out their lives without asking too much" (141). It was a life that was difficult to escape from the control of individuals running public assistance programs, difficult to contradict the cultural imperative for pious resignation, and difficult to curse the people to whom you might owe your existence. Being a blind woman from a lower-bourgeois background who struggled for her independence and the power to speak out against the system, Therese-Adele Husson may well have succeeded by authoring the ultimate manipulation and turning the charity discourse against itself. And yet, in all honesty, I found "Part II" and "Part III" very difficult chapters to read given the seemingly unresolved contradictions of Therese-Adele's real life circumstances. This brave young woman who defied the conventions of her time deserved a more noble life than she came to realize. "If only," I found myself positing, Therese-Adele had authored novels of her own transformation her accounts would rival the disabled women who transgressed in the novels of Wilkie Collins (Stoddard-Holmes forthcoming). How tragic to have the courage to defy the well-entrenched moral code for women and further, as a blind woman, to gain independence as an author, but then speak against her own experience.
To say more in this review threatens to diminish that which is so artfully rendered in this slim volume. The book succeeds because readers meet Husson through her writings and because Kudlick and Weygand [End Page 205] provide critical insight into the "psychic lives of people with disabilities as they refract and reflect the myriad of ideologies that compose the conflictual subject of disability" (Mitchell and Snyder 1997, 23). Looking at the present, we realize that the impulse to diminish and disregard disabled people remains a strong one in our culture. Although its origins may date back centuries, powerful ableist messages are reified in the most unlikely social spaces.
Linda Ware is a visiting professor at the University of Illinois, Department of Disability and Human Development. Her research focuses on the effects of ableist attitudes and practices in K-12 educational...