Jessica White, Hearing Maud (#BookReview)

Book coverHybrid memoir-biographies take many forms. For a start, some are weighted more to biography while others more to memoir. As I wrote in my post on Jessica White’s conversation with Inga Simpson, most of those I’ve read “have been mother-daughter stories, the biography being about the mother and the memoir, the daughter. White’s book is different. The biographical subject is Maud, the deaf daughter of the late nineteenth-early twentieth century writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935)”. However, Bill (The Australian Legend) responded in the comments that “I’m pretty sure Hearing Maud is another mother/ daughter memoir. On two levels”. In a sense he’s right.

I say “in a sense” because Maud is not White’s mother. However, two mother-daughter threads do run through the book, Maud and her author mother Rosa, and Jessica and her mother. But, unlike those more direct mother-daughter memoirs in which the daughter focuses on the mother’s story while also throwing some light on her own life, in White’s book the two mother-daughter stories work in some way as foils for each other, but, more significantly, the focus is on the two daughters’ lives. As with most memoirs – hybrid or otherwise – there is a larger intent behind Hearing Maud than simply telling the story of a life or lives. It involves exploring deafness.

As I reported in the conversation post, White talked about “coming out” as a deaf person. I wrote how “living in the country amongst a large extended family, she’d been, essentially, sheltered from fully experiencing her deafness”. This resulted in her growing up as “a hearing person” albeit a “bad” one! It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that she started to think about herself as deaf, and to understand its impact on her life, particularly in her longstanding sense of loneliness and isolation.

Before, however, you start suspecting that this is going to be another misery memoir, let me get to the book. It starts with a Prologue, in which White tells us how she lost most of her hearing around the age of four, due to meningitis (or, more accurately, the treatment for it.) She then says, and it is this idea that underpins her story:

My life came to be defined by what the ancient Greeks termed a pharmakon, that which is a poison and a cure.

She goes on to say that the way the pendulum swings, between these two, depends on the time and culture in which the deaf person lives. For Maud, deafness was “a bane”. It led to her being committed to an asylum at the age of 28 and being left there until she died 39 years later. For White, on the other hand, it led to her becoming a reader and then a writer, because these “assuaged my persistent loneliness and gave me a sense of purpose”. What White goes on to do in her book is provide a mini-history of attitudes to deafness and deaf people over the last century and a half, exploring the ways in which both personal (including family) circumstances and social attitudes and policies can deeply affect the course of a deaf person’s life. Of course, life is a lottery for all of us – we are all affected by time and place, family and culture – but for those with a disability, there are additional layers that further reduce their control over their outcomes. (Interestingly, probably because of when she was born, White doesn’t discuss the whole nomenclature issue. In the early 1980s, for example, it was not acceptable to call people “deaf”, they were “hearing impaired”.)

Now though, I want to talk a bit about the writing. Hearing Maud is White’s third book (I’ve reviewed her second, Entitlement), and it shows. It shows in the novelistic language that brings life to the story. It’s never overdone, but there are scattered images that beautifully convey her feelings, such as this comment after her first real conversation with another deaf person, when she was 32:

Once again I have the sense of something settling into place, like a bird alighting in a tree, its wings relaxing. When I say goodbye and walk back past the sandstone buildings to the bus stop by the lakes, my step is buoyant.

You can feel the emotional release, can’t you.

It also shows in the confident handling of the multiple storylines – hers, and Maud and her mother Rosa’s stories. The stories are told generally chronologically but are interwoven with each other, so we start with White’s childhood ending a little before this book is completed, and similarly we move through Maud’s life. However, there are some backwards movements when something in the life of one raises an issue in the life of another. It does require some concentration from the reader, but the segues are natural and clear. Describing her childhood, for example, White tells of the times she spent in the bush, and how “the solitude was a balm”, enabling her to daydream about the boy on whom she had a crush. This leads her directly to  Rosa Praed – “Whenever I read Rosa’s novels, I reconnect with this heady mix of romance and the bush” – and a discussion of Rosa’s focus on the bush in many of her novels. Similarly, a discussion of the importance of letter-writing to her – being an “unthreatening way … to make connections” – leads to an extended discussion of Maud’s letters, and from that to Maud’s education and the history of deaf education in Europe in the late nineteenth century. There’s a lot of information here, but it’s so well integrated into the narrative that you learn almost despite yourself!

Finally, White’s skill shows in her control of tone. This is not a dry non-fiction work, despite the amount of information it contains, but a story about real people. White’s tone balances the formal (grammatical sentences, endnotes, and so on) with the informal (first person voice, and expressions like “I imagine Maud walking to the museum”). She also conveys her passion for her subject, and sometimes her frustration and anger, but doesn’t let it flow over into diatribe. However, she’s very clear about her intention for the book, as she tells her sister:

‘I’m tired of being taken for granted. I want people to know how hard I’ve worked – and how hard most people with disabilities have to work – to get where I am. I want them to hear Maud’s voice [hearing Maud!] and to know that, although things are much better, deaf people are still expected to act like hearing people. I want them to see how difficult it still is, when it shouldn’t be…’

I hear you Jess, loud and clear!

Lisa (ANZ LitLovers) and Bill (The Australian Legend) have also reviewed this book.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeJessica White
Hearing Maud
Crawley: UWAP, 2019
ISBN: 9781760800383

19 thoughts on “Jessica White, Hearing Maud (#BookReview)

  1. I would like to send you a copy of my new book, Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage. Where could I send it? And do you prefer print or ebook?

    Desley Deacon Emeritus Professor of History Australian National University


  2. Such a beautifully and sensitively wrItten review, WG. I am in Armenia – and have just read Ashley Kalagian BLUNT’s novella and essay – My Name is Revenge – dealing with aspects of the Armenian genocide and its continuing aftermath – I think a recommendation I took from Jonathan Shaw’s Literary blog. A delicately nuanced approach to the story – and hopeful in its resolution/accompanying essay.

  3. Hi Sue, thanks for the mention…
    It’s just coincidence but yesterday I went to a session with Ron McCallum, blind since birth but with an impressive range of achievements to his credit. He made mention of the way new technologies has made so many things possible for him, and in particular mentioned audio descriptions of films… that is, the bits that are shown as action sequences, that make no sense if you can’t see them. Apparently this technology is embedded (by law) into all American films, and all a person needs to do is ask for the headphones at the cinema, but it’s not mandatory here. Another example of things being harder than they need to be for disabled people.

    • Thanks Lisa. I’ve recently heard one of those description. Can’t remember where or why but it was really fascinating. I guess it takes a while for legislation to catch up to technology, though these sorts of things shouldn’t need legislation should they.

  4. One of the many industry-related jobs I had was working for a company called The Caption Centre in Sydney, doing – yep, captioning. Helluva long time gone, when captioning was much more detailed and set about with rules.
    This place was strongly tied in to the deaf community (to the extent that eventually the staff were going to have to learn Auslan); and I was amazed to find how strongly that community felt about not integrating with hearing people. It was a large group of very tightly-knit, somewhat difficult people (no offence); and it didn’t take long to get the feeling of how much they felt not only rejected by us, but entirely careless of it.
    To have been amongst them, and then to read that Maud was committed to an asylum would be laughable were it not tragic.

    • Thanks very much for that insight M-R.

      I remember the Caption Centre, and met with people from there back in the early 80s when I was trying, at the National Film Lending Collection, to build up a collection of captioned films for hearing impaired people. I did meet with some hearing impaired people here in Canberra, but of course they were positive with me because they were keen for us to have films for them.

  5. Thanks Sue, always glad to contribute. I have enjoyed interacting with Jess, about her extensive knowledge of Rosa Praed and Georgianna Molloy mostly, and found that interaction made reading the memoir that much more interesting. It also meant I really wanted her to succeed, and of course she did. Phew!

    I have an amateur interest in Rosa Praed, but I must say her treatment of Maud made me angry. I am also developing an interest in deafness, apart from having a deaf workmate, I’m not sure how much hearing I’ll have myself in 20 years.

  6. Pingback: Hearing Maud, Jessica White | theaustralianlegend

    • Oh that’s lovely Laura. I love it when my review encourages someone to read a book and see for themselves – particularly with such an interesting book like this one.

  7. Pingback: #NonFicNov 2020 Week 4 New to My TBR | NancyElin

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