Have you read Brian Matthews’ Louisa? It begins, “Louisa Lawson (née Albury) was born on ..”. But this conventional start makes Matthews unhappy, he criticizes his typewriter, starts again.
I write, “Hearing Maud is the third work by Australian author Jessica White (1978- )”, and immediately think of Louisa. What to do? My ‘typewriter’ is an oldish pc with a 23 inch screen that was radical (and expensive) when I bought it, in 2008 I think, though the box has been updated since, sitting on the wooden kitchen table my paternal grandfather made for his wife, my Nana, in the early years of their marriage during the Depression.
… (how much easier it would be, I thought suddenly, if one could somehow step into that bland, printless expanse and leave behind the struggle with the black and compromising words), this sentence, anyway, reminded me forcibly of the problematic nature of biography and of this biography in particular. (Matthews)
Matthews’ problem is to construct a story from too little information. While Jess White’s, as in any memoir, is what information to hold back.
part of the furniture a familiar presence in this corner of the blogosphere, disability editor for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, a guest a couple of times on this blog (here, here, here), a fellow blogger (here), and an occasional correspondent as we attempt, unsuccessfully, to catch up for coffee.
Hearing Maud is her story. Though the Maud of the title is the daughter of Australian novelist Rosa Praed (1851-1935), the connection being their both being deaf. So should that be Non-hearing Maud (and Jess), or is it a plea for us to be hearing Maud who was brought up to speak and write but gradually lost the ability to do both as in adulthood she descended into madness. And, by extension, what is it that Jess wants us to hear from/about her.
Jess became deaf after an illness when she was four. She could already speak and retained some, limited hearing, so by concentrating, lip reading she could appear to be normal, or at the shy end of normal, and her parents made the decision that support at school and elocution lessons were a better option than learning to sign. I’m not sure that’s a decision Jess is happy with. But being publicly critical of parents you love, of anyone you love, comes with the memoir furniture so to speak.
It is easy to overlook that the other half of Jess’s name is White. Her grandfather was Patrick White’s father’s cousin (I think). David Marr, White’s biographer, is big on White’s background in the squattocracy –
The story of the Whites in Australia is the history of a fortune, a river of money that flowed through New South Wales … The Whites had hundreds of thousands of acres of the best land in Australia: in the Hunter Valley, across the Liverpool plains and up through New England.
That’s an unfair thing to apply to Jess, though I think she should have addressed it. Jess’s father shares a farm at Boggabri NSW with his brothers (a little north and west of the really fertile New England country) which he leaves while Jess is in high school, to concentrate on his landscape painting. I think though, Jess enjoys having the great novelist in her family tree as Rosa Praed had the poet Charles Harpur.
Praed too was born into the squattocracy. Her father was a Queensland grazier and politician (see Lady Bridget in the Never Never Land (here)). In 1872 she was married from Government House at St John’s Church of England, Brisbane, to Campbell Praed, younger son of an English banking and brewing family. Interestingly, White downplays this, to ‘Rosa Praed grew up in the Australian Bush’ (I paraphrase, I forgot to mark the quote).
The Campbell Praeds had a grazing property on Curtis Island, just off the coast north of Gladstone Qld. There they had a daughter, Maud, and a son but things went badly and they soon left to live permanently in England. Maud was probably made deaf by a serious ear infection, while only a few months old, on Curtis Island, for which Rosa was unable to obtain treatment.
In England, Maud is taught to speak. She seems intelligent, well educated and well-spoken. But Rosa holds her at a distance, sends her to boarding school, and when the marriage breaks up, replaces Maud with her new and permanent love, Nancy Hayward. Maud stays with her father, and when he dies, blames herself, has a breakdown and is institutionalised in Holloway Sanatorium, where she gradually loses the ability to communicate.
White uses the story of Rosa and Maud to talk about herself and her mother (and her father, brother and sister) and the lingering sadness of a stillborn brother.
I delved into the underworld through Rosa’s words and discovered a woman who used writing to eclipse the distance from Australia and express her enduring love for Nancy. Then I found her daughter, who showed me the terrible history and impact of oralism. Without Rosa, and without Maud, I would never have found myself: a partly deaf, partly hearing woman who travels between worlds, and whose travelling made her a writer.
Hearing Maud is a memoir which swirls around – from the illness which left Jess deaf, to the research in London which led to her interest in Rosa Praed, to her school days, to Maud and C19th treatments for deafness, oralism vs signing (the debate goes on (here)), to Jess’s loneliness, isolation, achievements and love life.
Near the end of the book, Jess’s sister Belle asks her “Is this book a cry for help?”. It’s a good question. Jess tells Belle, No. “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 and to know that … deaf people are still expected to act like hearing people.”
At the end, Jess is learning to speak French, learning to sign (at last!), and has, after many false steps, a bloke. She is, for the time being anyway, at peace.
Jessica White, Hearing Maud, UWAP, Perth, 2019.