- Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture by Jennifer Esmail
Late in her reign, Queen Victoria allowed herself to be painted finger-spelling a conversation with a deaf1 woman, Elizabeth Tuffield, who was convalescing in her home on the Isle of Wight. This was something more than a moment of royal benevolence for an ailing subject; the monarch’s apparent pride in her skills of dactylogical communication set her at odds with a growing contingent of other subjects who favoured oralism (the use of the voice) as the primary mode of communication among the deaf. Jennifer Esmail’s fascinating and amply illustrated study of Victorian Deaf history begins with a discussion of this painting by the Scotsman William Agnew. Much of the book is concerned with navigating complexities that are echoed by the painting, which depicts a deaf person side by side with the personified centre of British power. Similarly, Esmail persuades us, Victorian deafness was both a [End Page 172] marginalized way of being and an integral force in major intellectual concerns of the period. For reasons that the book explains, much of Victorian society had a stake in the lives of the deaf, and, most saliently, in their language.
Victorian ideas about language were predicated on spoken language and its corollary, alphabetic writing. The central concern of Reading Victorian Deafness is with the effects of this oralist bias, the most damaging effect being the denigration or prohibition, chiefly in education, of sign language, the first language of many deaf people. Nineteenth-century oralism temporally displaced an extant sign language culture in Britain and the United States, and one of Esmail’s objectives is to show how contemporary misunderstandings about Deaf life and language originated with this century-long cultural war between oralism and sign languages. Some of these misunderstandings have become obsolete, but not all. Thus, while the more flagrant errors of nineteenth-century scientific or pseudo-scientific attitudes toward the deaf (eugenics, race theory) may seem like sobering tales of past offences, a strength of the book is that it gently and systematically makes its reader aware of lingering misconceptions about disability, specifically as they persist in assumptions about language and writing.
The third, fourth, and fifth chapters exemplify interdisciplinary work at its best. Chapter 3 explains how oralist attacks on sign language marshalled support from evolutionary theory. An intellectual alliance between philologists and evolution theorists tried to inscribe a boundary between humans and other animals based on types of language use and the cognitive capacities they were thought to evidence; sign language came out on the losing end of this quintessentially Victorian field of study, referred to as “linguistic Darwinism” (122–23). Other disciplines and encounters contributed to the trend: Esmail traces the Victorian obsession with categorical questions about species and human exceptionalism through Kipling’s tales, F. Max Müller’s lectures, and Garrick Mallery’s and W.P. Clark’s ethnological writings on sign languages among indigenous Americans. The late-nineteenth-century confluence of these fields of enquiry created a perfect storm of ideologically inflected assaults on the dignity of signing deaf people. The logical extension of such assaults emerged in eugenics, which Esmail takes up in her fourth chapter, uncovering a chilling rhetorical war on intermarriage among the deaf and their attempts to escape discrimination, the chief one being Jane Elizabeth Groom’s scheme for a deaf emigrant community in the Canadian Northwest. Chapter 5 explores innovations in nineteenth-century sound technologies, which Esmail surprisingly and convincingly argues were a product of the Victorian desire to eradicate deafness and its perceived deficiencies. The chapter includes discussions of ear trumpets (favoured by Harriet Martineau), Thomas Edison’s attempts at designing hearing aids (Edison himself was partially deaf), and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and phonoautograph.
Throughout these three chapters, Esmail interweaves examples from fiction and poetry, but her main discussions of literature occur in the first two [End Page 173] chapters. Chapter 1 presents poetry written by nineteenth-century...