Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature
Ohio University Press, 2013
In Reading Victorian Deafness, Jennifer Esmail sets out to draw attention to the often ignored “third mode of human language use”—one that can stand equal to the “dyad of speech and writing”—by considering the way in which signing languages challenged conceptions of language, normality, ability, national identity, and humanity in the 19th century. This “third mode”, the use of signing languages by deaf people, was encumbered by the ascendency of the “oralist” movement in the mid-19th century, whose proponents believed that deaf people, in particular those who used manual rather than oral communication, were a threat to belief in human superiority, as well as to British identity, because they saw non-verbal communication as more primitive. Esmail argues that the oralists’ attempts to supplant signing languages and to compel deaf people to speak and lip-read were not only indicative of Victorian mores but contributed to their formation.
Esmail makes a compelling argument for the existence of this “third mode” and presents vital research exposing deaf language, deaf writing, and deaf communities in the 19th century in a nuanced and explicit manner. From the outset of her study, she is careful to define her treatment of deaf people in relation to conceptual models used in contemporary disability studies. She articulates, for instance, the d/D distinction between the ‘deaf’ as designating the “audiological condition of deafness” and ‘Deaf’ as the somewhat tautological “identity [which] involves communication through sign language, membership in Deaf community and culture, and an orientation toward what is called Deaf pride.” Indeed, Esmail’s insistence on the ‘complexity’ of the deaf experience from the outset of the 19th century is one of the most significant arguments to emerge from Reading Victorian Deafness. Its significance, however, is weakened by her problematic treatment of several broad yet important concepts at the heart of her study.
Most importantly, Esmail does not define what she intends by ‘Victorian’—a term which she uses quite liberally. While ‘Victorian’ may not appear the most contentious of terms, it behoves any text purporting to address a subject in relation to the ‘Victorian’ to explain ‘what is Victorian?’ in relation to the subject at hand. In this case, the subject is the deaf population of a period that roughly spans the 19th century. Though she notes in her introduction that her interest is concentrated on the mid to late 19th century, in subsequent chapters she traces implications and trends well into the 20th and early 21st centuries, dipping back into the early 19th century as her argument requires. She contends, for instance, that oralism is a distinctly Victorian movement, though its reach extends well into the latter half of the 20th century. While this temporal fluidity does not present a problem in terms of her argument or its structure, it undermines her stake in the important question of the relationship of deaf experience to the ‘Victorian’. A reader should not have to work out for themselves where the Victorian ends and the 19th century begins.
At the same time, though Esmail claims that Reading Victorian Deafness is a transatlantic project—the scope and provenance of her research extends from British novelists, such as H. G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling, to leading American figures in deaf education and the advancement of oralism, such as Edward Miner Gallaudet and Alexander Graham Bell—the application of the term ‘Victorian’ to North America (including its indigenous peoples) further problematises her use of the term ‘Victorian.’ England and Britain, in the 19th century as now, are not interchangeable; Washington, D.C. and Louisiana are not London, though there may have been networks of influence between the various places mentioned; the lived experiences of signing indigenous American languages and that of a literate deaf Londoner would not, to borrow Esmail’s own descriptor, have been “mutually intelligible.” When such boundaries are obscured, the argument being made about the relation between the oral expression of language and national identity—that signing languages posed a threat to what it meant to be ‘British’, to be human—are diluted.
Some of the lesser definitional infractions which Esmail commits can be forgiven because her argument that ‘Deaf Victorians were disabled through language’ is a potent one. Her engagement with deaf poetry in Chapter 1, for instance, considers not only its aesthetic values but its political value and power. She finds that, “[b]ecause writing poetry in English required both fluency and the use of abstraction in language, the genre was the perfect battleground for challenging oralist claims.” Her consideration of the first generation of deaf poets—John Kitto, James Nack, and John Burnet—as well as their successors—William Henry SImpson, Amos Draper, Mary Toles Peer, Laura Redden Searing, Angie Fuller Fischer, and John Carlin—builds up a rich landscape of poets who not only identified as deaf but also explored contentious issues within the deaf experience. Esmail finds that deaf poets of the 19th century “underscor[ed] how that imagined ‘voice’ [in poetry] was a silent construct of print.”
In Chapter 2, Esmail considers the paucity of representations of deaf, signing characters in fiction. She insists that there is a pronounced “reliance on printed orality” in Victorian fiction and, despite the many deaf and differently disabled characters represented in the literature of the period, she identifies only two instances of deaf, signing characters. In these cases, she finds that the valences of the latter category tend to be less symbolic, comedic, or pathologised in the narratives. Though she does not define the ‘genre’ concerns that arise from what she calls “Victorian fiction,” her reading of deaf, signing characters in the novels of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins challenges the “paradigm of orality” which she sees as being established in Victorian fiction.
The later chapters of Reading Victorian Deafness explore the relationship of signing languages to emerging evolutionary theory and the definition of the human, to eugenics and the creation of deaf communities, and to the development of technologies for speaking and hearing. The breadth of topics covered by this study is incredibly admirable and represents a degree of interdisciplinarity to which many scholars can only aspire. However, by binding her research to the adjacent fields of disability studies, literature and technology/science/medicine, and Victorian sound studies, she risks over-extending the influence of her findings and her argument. One suspects that the breadth of her research arises from a desire to make it influential in as many ways as possible and hence to answer the demand made of scholars that their research should be relevant and accessible. Yet its breadth is also indicative of the project of cultural studies within which Esmail locates herself.
Esmail’s project would not be possible without the theoretical foregrounding of the cultural and disabilities theorist Lennard Davis, a debt she acknowledges throughout the book. It is unfortunate, then, that the spectres of Jacques Derrida and Gayatri Spivak go largely unacknowledged, other than in the occasional footnote. If she inherits from Davis the ideas of the “variability of the body” and the “foundational ableist myths of our culture”, she also inherits from Spivak the idea of the subaltern speaking in the voice of the dominant culture—in the case the deaf person writing in English—and from Derrida the idea of the pharmacy of writing, wherein representations of lived deaf experiences in the 19th century are primarily preserved because they are recorded in writing. These borrowings culminate in the self-acknowledged limitations of Esmail’s work: it not only “attempts to use print to access information about a group of people who primarily used a language that had no written form” but is also “part of that body of work [which presumes the supremacy of spoken and written English] even while it emphasizes the untenability and audism inherent in any hierarchization of spoken and signed languages.” These limitations are not entirely negative. Without such attempts, readers of Reading Victorian Deafness would not be privy to the “written remains of deaf cultural life in the Victorian period.” As such, we benefit rather ironically from a culture which privileges the preservation of experiences, language, and identity,—deaf, Deaf, or otherwise.
Laura Ludtke  is reading for a D.Phil in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is the ORbits editor at the Oxonian Review.