“My letters are all talk”: community in nineteenth-century epistolary narratives of deafness and disability
LeGier, Nadine C.
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My dissertation expands on recent work in literary studies that has emphasized the significance of autobiographical narratives of disability for both identity construction and the establishment of narrative authority. It adds to this recent scholarship with the critical understanding that letters are often a significant part of the stories that persons with disabilities tell about themselves. I concentrate on the letters of three Victorian writers—Harriet Martineau, John Kitto, and Helen Keller—whose deafness or hearing impairment have been subjects of much scholarship, but whose familiar letters have not been completely recognized as vital resources for insight into their disability narratives. I examine how each author uses the implied or imagined community inherent in the exchange of familiar letters in specific yet different ways to write their disability narrative and I explore the ways that conceptions of disabled embodiment are constructed, deconstructed, and re-written. I explore ways in which Harriet Martineau uses letters to blur the lines between the private and the public and to publish an illness/disability narrative that allowed her to maintain both personal and public authority over her illness and disability; I examine Helen Keller’s early letters and the ways in which writing about her body enabled her, through a significant epistolary community, to explore her own existence and to develop a concern with philanthropic work; and I consider John Kitto’s familiar letters in comparison with his work The Lost Senses and I explore his self-construction in that work as a solitary “overcomer” and the manner in which these letters contradict this construction to provide a fuller picture of his life leading up to the book’s publication. I also discuss several of Kitto’s poems as critical additions to his disability narrative. Building on the work of my previous chapters, I conclude this dissertation with an examination of the familiar letters and poetry of Amy Levy. My inclusion of Levy’s letters and poetry builds on and complicates my work in the preceding chapters and makes a case for the recognition that disability narratives are multifaceted and cannot always be restricted to a single concern.