By Jennifer Esmail
Reading Victorian Deafness is the first book to address the crucial role that deaf people, and their unique language of signs, played in Victorian culture. Drawing on a range of works, from fiction by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to poetry by deaf poets and life writing by deaf memoirists Harriet Martineau and John Kitto, to scientific treatises by Alexander Graham Bell and Francis Galton, Reading Victorian Deafness argues that deaf people’s language use was a public, influential, and contentious issue in Victorian Britain.
The Victorians understood signed languages in multiple, and often contradictory, ways: they were objects of fascination and revulsion, were of scientific import and literary interest, and were considered both a unique mode of human communication and a vestige of a bestial heritage. Over the course of the nineteenth century, deaf people were increasingly stripped of their linguistic and cultural rights by a widespread pedagogical and cultural movement known as “oralism,” comprising mainly hearing educators, physicians, and parents.
Engaging with a group of human beings who used signs instead of speech challenged the Victorian understanding of humans as “the speaking animal” and the widespread understanding of “language” as a product of the voice. It is here that Reading Victorian Deafness offers substantial contributions to the fields of Victorian studies and disability studies. This book expands current scholarly conversations around orality, textuality, and sound while demonstrating how understandings of disability contributed to Victorian constructions of normalcy. Reading Victorian Deafness argues that deaf people were used as material test subjects for the Victorian process of understanding human language and, by extension, the definition of the human.
“Jennifer Esmail has written the definitive work on deafness and language in Victorian England. But beyond that she has contributed immeasurably to our understanding of the way that language, spoken and written, was understood in that era culturally, politically, and socially. Since language was so central to the Victorians, this book opens a window not only on deafness but the larger Victorian culture as well.”
Lennard Davis — Department of English, University of Illinois at Chicago
“An extensively and assiduously researched study of Victorian Deafness as a multi-layered cultural entity … Reading Victorian Deafness makes a groundbreaking contribution to Disability Studies at large and Victorianist Disability Studies specifically.”
Martha Stoddard Holmes — Author of Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture
“Jennifer Esmail’s superb study establishes her as a name to be reckoned with in the developing field of disability studies, and in Victorian cultural and literary scholarship more generally. Her exploration of deafness illuminates how Victorians understood the senses, language, perception, and expressiveness. More than this, however, it is an important book about what it means to be human, and to possess the desire to communicate.”
Kate Flint — Provost Professor of English and Art History at the University of Southern California, and author of The Victorians and the Visual Imagination
“As literary criticism has broadened to encompass aspects of sensory history, innovative scholarship continues to illuminate connections between overlooked texts and embodied experience. Jennifer Esmail’s wide-ranging examination of Victorian deaf communities not only joins but also extends this endeavor. Her important, compelling book works at the junction of disability studies, sound studies, and English studies to alter conventional understandings of what it meant to communicate in the nineteenth century.”
John Picker — Comparative Media Studies and Literature, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of Victorian Soundscapes