Laura Bridgman, one of the most celebrated women of her time, has been mostly lost to ours. Now, Kimberly Elkins’s wonderful novel salvages her story from the sunken wreckage of history and tells it anew in riveting, poignant detail.
Born in 1829, Laura became blind and deaf at age 2, from scarlet fever, which also took her senses of smell and taste. But despite her disabilities, she acquired the use of language, 50 years before Helen Keller did. Laura stunned large audiences with displays of her knowledge and wit. She composed letters and poems. Charles Dickens and Henry James wrote about her. A popular toy, the “Laura Doll,” was made in her likeness — with the eyes poked out and an eyeshade of the kind Bridgman wore.
Her fame and accomplishments were due to the teaching of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute in Boston, where Laura was taken at age 7. Howe taught her finger-spelling, to read raised type by touch, and treated her as an adopted daughter. The girl adored him.
In “What Is Visible,” Elkins weaves together Laura’s story with that of Howe and his wife, Julia Ward Howe, the poet, suffragist and abolitionist. Their tumultuous marriagedrives a compelling plot and illustrates the novel’s lyrical themes of freedom and transcendence, which were preoccupations of 19th-century social reformers and thinkers like the Howes.
Dr. Howe was a brilliant, autocratic man, prominent in Boston intellectual circles. He displayed Laura in public to show off his accomplishments in teaching the deaf-blind. He also made her a pawn in his battle against Calvinism, to argue for the Unitarian ideal that humans would naturally come to spirituality without Biblical indoctrination. His prize pupil was a handy exhibit, too, in the doctor’s promotion of phrenology, the wacky 19th-century belief that the bumps and contours of the head revealed character.
Laura revels in the attention her fame provides, but she has her own agenda. “I would like to be a present for the crowd,” she says, “to show how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.” She craves affection, texture and touch, is mischievous and sometimes violently temperamental, utterly dependent on Dr. Howe. He dictates even what she may eat and read. When she is disobedient, he punishes her by gloving her hands, depriving her of her only method of communication. And Laura is deeply jealous of his wife, Julia. For her part, Julia is discomfited by the girl’s disabilities, her strange noises, her insistent need to touch and stroke faces, hair, fingers, eyes, fabric.
Yet Julia, too, is constrained and dependent, in an era when women cannot own property or manage their own money. Her husband forbids her to publish her writing and relegates her to domesticity. Possessed of an extraordinary mind and a formidable character, Julia fears pregnancy — maternal mortality rates were high — and chafes under Howe’s rules. She is torn between love for their six children and her wish for a role in the world of letters and activism.
Narrated from alternating points of view, “What is Visible” illuminates the historical blindness of men — and women’s struggles to be seen and heard. The novel is infused with longing and rich with detail about the social reforms of the Victorian era, the quest for rights and freedom for women and slaves, for the disabled and the poor. Laura meets many of the era’s luminaries, from Dickens and Longfellow, to reformer Dorothea Dix and abolitionist John Brown. Annie Sullivan and her young student, Helen Keller, appear here, too. “I didn’t like children even when I was one,” Laura says of Keller, with characteristic vinegar.
Elkins gives full throat to this strong voice: Laura is funny, angry, brave. She sees without seeing, hears without hearing, speaks without speech. Her world is rich indeed, one of yearning, secrets, defiance and lyrical flights of fancy. In what the author has described as the only “major swerve from Laura’s documented life,” Elkins invents for her a sensual love affair, based on Laura’s oft-punished habit of creeping into the beds of the female students at Perkins, craving touch and connection.
This important story has been hiding in plain sight for more than 100 years, and Elkins makes this great American woman visible again, in all her remarkable, fully human complexity.
Manning is the author of “My Notorious Life,” a novel about a 19th-century midwife.
By Kimberly Elkins
307 pp. $25