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

By Nelson, Jennifer | Sign Language Studies, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Nelson, Jennifer, Sign Language Studies


Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture, by Jennifer Esmail (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013, 296 pp., cloth, $59.95, ISBN: 978-0-8214-2034-8)

Reading Victorian Deafness opens with the immortalization in a painting of Queen Victoria's willingness and ability to fingerspell with a deaf woman, Elizabeth Tuffield, by a deaf painter, William Agnew. Victoria's actions were contradictory to the spirit of her age in terms of comfort with sign languages and deafness and the focus on Hmiting the definition of language via the unrelenting rise of oralism. While this book does trace and revisit the historical and Hnguistic trajectory of events leading to the imposition of oralism on deaf people during this time, the value of Esmail's book is her focus on deaf subjectivity: "In addition to closely examining Victorian understandings of signed languages, this book focuses on two related topics: Victorian cultural constructions of deafness and the Hved experiences and self-representations of deaf Victorians" (4). Her expHcation of deaf people and their work and writings within the context of the Victorian process of mis-understanding language as speech shows that deaf people actively tried to question and undermine this cultural process.

Esmail's first chapter on deaf poetry and the politics of language "disentangles and then re-entangles the issues that arise in the intersections between deafness, sound, and poetry" (31). Esmail analyzes how deaf poets defended their "voices" in poetry as imagined, silent, and textual-not auditory-constructions of print. Esmail analyzes specifically how deaf poets such as Amos Draper and John Kitto at this time show, in addition to the celebration of visual properties and bodily signs within the poems themselves, how "patterns of rhythm and rhyme were therefore moored in textual practices rather than sound experiences" (30) or speech. Esmail analyzes how "the perceived gap between deafness and poetic ability was exploited by deaf people, and their allies, in their fight to defend sign language use" (23).The issue faced by nineteenth-century deaf poets was then "not a particular physical disability but rather cultural prejudices about the relationship between disability and poetry" (26).

In her second chapter, Esmail underscores the rarity of signing deaf characters in the world of Victorian fiction even as there are numerous examples of deafened, not signing, people in this genre.This chapter "posits that the absence of deafness in Victorian fiction reveals its investment in a particular and normativized relationship between bodies, spoken language, and textuality: one that understands fiction as a record of what was said and heard" (70) via problematic silent heroines. Esmail points out how deafness is not as much of a problem for Victorians as the lack of speech and the assumption that writing is a form of "printed orality" (73). For the silent Victorian woman to be acceptable, she had to have access to the oral voice; one thing I would have liked to see Esmail do is indicate that this tradition goes at least as far back as the early modern period in this era's dependence on speech along with anxieties about being heard and not hearing the wrong thing. These anxieties did not just pop up suddenly in the Victorian era as she seems to indicate.1 Writers like Dickens and Collins show the difficulties of representing deaf characters in fiction via "connecting corporeality to textuality and, more specifically, granting the hands, arms, and face the linguistic complexity of the vocal organs, tongue, and lips within the strictures of a written English text" (71). Esmail also does neglect somewhat a more complete analysis of the Victorian fiction genre in relation to silence, but possibly does so in order to focus on the deaf viewpoint and subjectivity within the works. She argues that Dickens and Collins portray Sophy and Madonna, the deaf women in their works, as having more agency than has often been acknowledged; she also illustrates how Dickens and Collins attempt to incorporate "inaudible voices" (100) and in so doing subtly point out some of the failures of the assumed oral nature of print. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.