The Inspiration for A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh | Magazine | Historical Fiction | Interviews
A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh

By Sarah Marsh

The inspiration for my main character, Ellen Lark, in A Sign of Her Own came from a notebook in the US Library of Congress’s online records. The notebook was part of the collection on Alexander Graham Bell, but it didn’t concern his work on the telephone. Instead, it was a class notebook that he used with his deaf pupils to instruct them in a method called Visible Speech. Because his pupils couldn’t hear, he wrote down his lessons, and they passed the notebook between them. Pages are filled with his handwriting as he sets out Visible Speech symbols and his accompanying instructions.

On one page his pupil replies to him: ‘I can feel the air shaking in my throat.’

In that single, carefully written line, I saw a young woman sitting across the room, her attention fixed on her teacher and this notebook, trying to orchestrate a vocal voice: a quantity that she had never known or heard.

There is a flip side to Bell’s triumphant communication breakthrough with the telephone. This was his belief in the value of speech and that sign language should be suppressed. Instead, it was preferable to labour over the goal of speech, however intensive the work was, and regardless of the fact that his pupils couldn’t hear what was being said back to them. It was a side to the telephone’s story I hadn’t known, and I was drawn to it because I’d grown up deaf, as the daughter of a deaf mother. I had always used hearing aids and lipreading to communicate and only learned BSL later in life. I’d also had some speech therapy myself. As I read about Bell and the movement of oralism that he ardently supported, I began to understand a trend in history that had shaped most of the decisions that had been made for me and my mother, and had caused harm to the Deaf community. As a result, we had kept our deafness well-hidden, and grappled with our failures to ‘hear’ well enough privately. It made me wonder: how had Bell’s pupils felt about his lessons?

 The more I read about Bell’s deaf pupils, the more I began to ask what a ‘voice’ might mean to them. The young deaf woman I placed in Bell’s classroom, seated opposite him with the notebook going to-and-forth, was Ellen Lark. Early on, I’d decided on a fictional protagonist. This was partly because there isn’t a huge amount of information about Bell’s pupils in the historical records, aside from his wife, Mabel Hubbard, who was deaf. But I also wanted a protagonist whose particular set of life circumstances would place her between the hearing and deaf worlds of the time. I wanted her to have the freedom to make her own discoveries about Bell and deafness, weaving this journey into the historical events of Bell’s work. In many ways, I based Ellen on Mabel Hubbard as they both lose their hearing aged four as a result of scarlet fever. But unlike Mabel, Ellen fails to hide her struggles with Bell’s methods. Her encounters with Frank McKinney, who is deaf from birth, reveal to her a different side of the story, and path that she might take.

Writing a deaf character wasn’t straightforward, despite my personal experiences. In particular, I wanted to convey the nature of lipreading, and the slippery guesswork that the lipreader must engage in, working constantly with a set of shifting deductions. For instance, Paper looks exactly like Baby, and Gardens look like Darkness. Often these lipreading errors inform the plot, and propel Ellen towards certain conclusions. In this sense, I wrote Ellen’s deafness in parallel to Bell’s explorations as an inventor. They were both working in the dark, trying to feel and guess their way forward. When Bell finally attains his goal of the telephone, and voice transmission, Ellen’s own experiments and guesswork have taken her in different direction.

Lipreading errors and misunderstandings are a trope of deaf experience. This is because of our never-ending negotiation with the hearing world. Usually, the emphasis is placed on the deaf person’s failure to understand, rather than the hearing person’s failure to communicate. As I was writing the book, I asked myself where are the spaces where one is allowed to be deaf, and these mishaps of communication disappear? I wanted to find these places for Ellen, since it seemed she could not fully question Bell’s teachings without them. I turned to my growing ‘Deaf shelf’ of books, and the online archives. I was fascinated to come across 19th century deaf newspapers and journals, known in the US as the ‘Little Paper Family’ which connected deaf people across the country. Comparable newspapers existed in the UK, filed away in the now-closed Action on Hearing Loss library. These revealed to me the lively Deaf community of the time, with its events, gatherings, marriage announcements. I also researched a church for deaf people in London called St Saviour’s where the Deaf community gathered not only for prayer and worship but also for social events, debates and theatre. Reading about the nineteenth century Deaf community showed me spaces where this sense of being on the edge of understanding might simply melt away. Ellen had the chance to live as a person who wasn’t defined by society’s conceptions of deafness.

In some senses, Ellen Lark was writing me, as much as I was writing her. Reading about Deaf history, and connecting with other deaf people, has taught me there is no one right way to be deaf, but a multitude of ways. What mattered to Ellen, and has mattered to me, is the chance to define one’s own deafness for oneself. I hope this story helps others on their journey, as well as showing a different side to a well-known history.

(c) Sarah Marsh

Author photograph (c) Rii Schroer

About A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh:
A Sign of Her Own by Sarah Marsh

Ellen Lark is on the verge of marriage when she and her fiancé receive an unexpected visit from Alexander Graham Bell.

Ellen knows immediately what Bell really wants from her. Ellen is deaf, and for a time was Bell’s student in a technique called Visible Speech. As he instructed her in speaking, Bell also confided in her about his dream of producing a device which would transmit the human voice along a wire: the telephone. Now, on the cusp of wealth and renown, Bell wants Ellen to speak up in support of his claim to the patent to the telephone, which is being challenged by rivals.

But Ellen has a different story to tell: that of how Bell betrayed her, and other deaf pupils, in pursuit of ambition and personal gain, and cut Ellen off from a community in which she had come to feel truly at home. It is a story no one around Ellen seems to want to hear – but there may never be a more important time for her to tell it.

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About the author

Sarah Marsh was short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Prize in 2019 and selected for the London Library Emerging Writers Programme in 2020.A Sign of Her Ownis her first novel, inspired by her experiences of growing up deaf and her family’s history of deafness. She lives in London.

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