- Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture by Jennifer Esmail
One of the most important functions fulfilled by disability historians is that their work helps to dispel widely held perceptions that either there were no disabled people in the past or there were, but they had no agency, never did anything remotely noteworthy, and certainly did not play any sort of instrumental role in wider societal debates. Jennifer Esmail's fascinating new book continues this trend, simultaneously demonstrating that nineteenth-century debates about the relative merits of signing and oralism (the idea that deaf people should speak rather than sign) as means of communication for deaf people were in fact an integral part of post-Darwin concerns about the divide between human and non-human animals, whilst also focusing attention on the achievements of deaf poets, artists, and social reformers.
Chapter One ("Perchance My Hand May Touch the Lyre") opens with a statement by the deaf British writer and missionary John Kitto (1804–1854) expressing his belief that a deaf person who has never heard speech will, as a result, be unable to write poetry (22). Esmail then proceeds to show that Kitto's assertion was disproved by a number of deaf poets, including Kitto himself. Among this number were the Briton William Henry Simpson (dates unknown) and the Americans John Carlin (1813–1891) and Laura Redden [End Page 507] Searing (1840–1923). There was a larger number of deaf American poets than British ones, which can be accounted for by pointing to the existence of the National Deaf-Mute College in Washington D.C., which—although schools specifically for deaf students had existed in Britain and Europe since the eighteenth century—had no direct British equivalent (15). The College had a strong literary tradition, and this enabled many of its students to challenge the prevailing norm that poetry was necessarily rooted in orality. Challenging this norm became increasingly important as the nineteenth century progressed and oralism became more entrenched and more powerful. For example, in 1886, the famous American educator of deaf students Edward Miner Gallaudet was called before the British Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf and Dumb, to address the Commission's concerns about the supposedly poor economic prospects of non-speaking deaf people. Part of Gallaudet's refutation of this involved his recitation of a Petrarchan sonnet, "Memories of Sound" by Amos Draper (1845–1917), a graduate of the College. As Esmail makes clear, this public recitation was just part of the deaf community's resistance to oralism (49).
Chapter Two "I Listened With My Eyes" analyses Wilkie Collins's novel Hide and Seek (1854), and Charles Dickens's Christmas story Dr Marigold's Prescription, on the basis that they contain the only two examples of signing deaf characters in Victorian fiction (70). Through the character of Sophy Marigold, Dickens portrays a positive image of a signing deaf person—Sophy and her father use their own invented form of sign language, until Sophy enrols at the Old Kent Road School for the Deaf and Dumb, in London, where she learns a more standardized version (76). Wilkie Collins's novel Hide and Seek also endorses signing, by acknowledging that attempts to force the young deaf character Madonna to speak were cruel and pointless (77). Collins's portrayal of Madonna as unwilling to speak shows both his fidelity to his source material (John Kitto's The Lost Senses) and his commitment to de-pathologizing deafness by portraying it in terms which prioritize a deaf person's experiences rather than a hearing audience's assumptions of what deafness might be like (76). Nevertheless, both books portray deafness in somewhat problematic ways: Dr Marigold's Prescription has a plot which hinges on the question of whether or not Sophy's child by her deaf husband will similarly be deaf, whilst Madonna in Hide and Seek is portrayed in ways which make little or no effort to understand how she actually communicates. Madonna...