In the burgeoning field of disability studies, much has been, and continues to be, at stake for those who have been marginalized for their differences. In Deaf Studies, scholars have particularly noted the lamentable marginalization of signers in what one scholar has called a “linguistic genocide” (205). As a contribution to this fraught history, Reading Victorian Deafness traces the ideology of "oralism," a phonocentric pedagogical movement that “force[d] deaf people to speak and lip-read instead of sign” (2), through the Victorian period. Exploring the origins and consequences of this movement, Esmail shows how deaf Victorians viewed language, disability, and themselves, and sets this story in a larger context of Victorian attitudes toward language and difference.

Esmail opens Reading Victorian Deafness with an extended discussion of "deaf poetry," that is, poetry by deaf writers “who used signed languages or finger-spelling to communicate” (23). Working in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, this group comprised about a dozen writers of various social and educational backgrounds who nevertheless “shared a concern that their deafness might preclude poetic achievement” (23). They came by these fears honestly, as they faced substantial prejudice in Victorian literary culture. In particular, these poets struggled to be taken seriously because perceptions of deafness excluded the possibility that the deaf could write poetry at all. “We should almost as soon expect a man born blind to become a landscape painter, as one born deaf to produce poetry of even tolerable merit," opined an editor (qtd. on p. 27) who, in 1847, was astonished to discover what he considered to be a publishable poem, "The Mute's Lament," by John Carlin, a deaf poet who plays a leading role in Esmail’s study. In her sensitive exploration of this body of work, Esmail exposes the assumption that underpinned the prejudice: an idea of written poetry as supervenient on a highly valued fantasy: that poetry bubbled into existence through the medium of the poet, who was a conduit for "an original bardic orality" (43). Hearing poets, like Tennyson, to whom voices reportedly spoke even "in the wind" (qtd. on p. 41) "must be more than superior writers; they must also have a special relationship to aural experience." (41) To the extent that the critical establishment took deaf poetry seriously, deaf poets threatened to undermine the privileged relationship that was presumed to obtain between written poetry and the audible realm of human experience. To them, a deaf poet was a conceptual impossibility, a contradiction in terms.

In the next chapter, Esmail wades into the main current of Victorian literature in order to explore literary representations of the deaf and of deafness. Her argument turns on a carefully observed distinction between speaking and signing deaf literary characters, with the signing deaf posing a distinctive challenge to Victorian readers and writers. According to Esmail, signing deaf people were troubling because they raised uncomfortable questions about the meanings of signed, rather than spoken, language.

On Esmail's reckoning, signing deaf characters appear only twice in all of Victorian literature: there is Sophy, the heroine of Charles Dickens’ story "Doctor Marigold" (1865); and there is Madonna, heroine of Wilkie Collins' novel Hide and Seek (1854, 1861). In contrast, speaking deaf characters, as Esmail points out, were not at all unusual. Wemmick’s Aged P, in Great Expectations, provides just one instance of this type. For Esmail, the mystery is not that deafness should preoccupy Victorian writers but that signing deaf characters should be so unusual, given how frequently writers resorted to deafness and other tropes of disability in their "fictions of affliction," to use Martha Stoddard Holmes' resonant phrase. Once more, Esmail discovers a fundamental phonocetrism sustaining the imbalance. Through readings of these two key texts by Collins and Dickens, Esmail shows that "it is, in particular, a deaf character’s relationship to language that disqualifies him or her from conventional representation in Victorian fiction" (70). So, for instance, when the signing deaf character speaks in Collins’ novel, she only makes "husky moaning" noises that, according to Esmail, challenged the reader to see her not only as fully human but also, and perhaps worse, as recognizably feminine. Her "masculinized deaf voice" (85) alone put her beyond the bounds of acceptable femininity. Though Esmail does not beat the reader over the head with this insight, there is something chilling about the logical inference here, that only this character's silence could secure her identity, or at least its gendered aspect.

Esmail's argument shifts next to social history as she shows how Victorians’ views of signed languages helped to maintain a boundary between animal and human realms, both in literature and in Victorians' real-world encounters with animals. Esmail uses stories of talking animals in zoos and in the fictions of Kipling and Wells to show how signed languages unsettled this familiar distinction, which was already under a certain pressure thanks to the growing influence of Darwin's ideas. As Esmail observes, Victorians frequently equated signed languages to vocalizations made by primates; as signers' preferred mode of communication undermined the animal-human distinction, it “destabilize[d] the definitions of the human” (104). Although speaking animals were familiar enough from sensational newspaper accounts and carnival sideshows, signing humans were infinitely more troubling because signed languages were considered more “corporeal,” and so more debased (118), than speech. Here, again, Victorian commentators privileged speech over other linguistic modalities in a move that preserved the animal-human distinction.

The fear of a perniciously insular deaf community provides Esmail’s focus in her next chapter, which explores Victorian anxieties about the propagation of deafness through marriage and reproduction as well as the threat posed by wholly separate deaf societies. The result, according to Esmail, was “the pathologization,” through eugenic discourse, “of the deaf body itself,” and the “medicalization of deafness” as an urgent matter of public health (136). In 1884, Alexander Graham Bell, in his alarmist tract A Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, averred thatm“the practice of sign language … makes deaf-mutes associate together in adult life, and avoid the society of hearing people. It thus causes the intermarriage of deaf-mutes and their propagation of their physical defect,” a trend that Bell warned would lead to “the formation of a deaf variety of the human race” (qtd. p. 141). Others, such as Jane Elizabeth Groom and Jacob Flournoy, saw things differently, and advocated for the formation of more deaf communities, particularly in North America, in colonies that were politically and economically independent, where “people could thrive outside the reach of audist prejudice.” (153). Groom’s scheme, and others like it, “boldly reasserted deaf people’s control over their own bodies” (157) as well as their language and their social lives. Throughout these debates, Victorian commentators proposed deaf education as an instrument of social control, a way to manage the unruly signing deaf who preferred their autonomous forms of communication to spoken and written forms, both of which asked less of the hearing (143).

In her final chapter, Esmail turns to the intersections between deafness and the history of technology in order to show how many sound technologies that we now take for granted as part of ordinary life originated from a an extraordinary cultural preoccupation with deafness as a threat to social order. Of particular interest here is Esmail’s presentation of Bell’s phonoautograph, which used a “dead man’s ear” (185) to reproduce, it was hoped, the properties of speech by connecting the vibrations of the tympani to a stylus that, when disturbed by a person speaking nearby, left marks on a smoked glass plate. Although Esmail does not say much about how technologies like phonoautograph actually worked -- after sound propagated through the mechanism, how were the resulting marks decoded? -- her larger point is clear. The very importance of visuality to the functioning of these devices emphasized the relevance and naturalness of signed language, which was also visually apprehended (186). Nevertheless, Esmail notes that “[w]hile phonoautographic technology is ostensibly rooted in visuality, it is only a visuality in service of orality” (187). The technology’s “prosthetic logic […] seeks to remedy a perceived sensory and linguistic lack through technology” (187), rather than question the more fundamental and problematic assumption of such a lack in the first place.


Esmail, Jennifer. Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2013.

Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

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Last modified 10 January 20142