‘What Is Visible’ introduces modern readers to remarkable Laura Bridgman

07/18/2014 7:00 AM

07/31/2014 3:49 PM

Laura Bridgman, one of the most celebrated women of her time, has been mostly lost to ours. Now, a wonderful novel salvages her story from the sunken wreckage of history and tells it anew in riveting, poignant detail.

Born in 1829, Bridgman 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.

Bridgman 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 Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute in Boston, where Bridgman was taken at age 7. Howe taught her finger-spelling and reading raised type by touch, and he treated her as an adopted daughter. The girl adored him.

In “What Is Visible,” Kimberly Elkins weaves together Bridgman’s story with that of Howe and his wife, Julia Ward Howe, the poet, suffragist and abolitionist. The Howes’ tumultuous marriage drives a compelling plot and illustrates the novel’s lyrical themes of freedom and transcendence, which were preoccupations of 19th-century social reformers and thinkers such as the Howes.

Howe was a brilliant, autocratic man, prominent in Boston intellectual circles. He displayed Bridgman in public to show his accomplishments in teaching the deaf and blind. He also made her a pawn in his battle against Calvinism, to argue for the Unitarian idea that humans would naturally come to spirituality without biblical indoctrination.

Howe’s prize pupil was a handy exhibit, too, in the doctor’s promotion of phrenology, the 19th-century belief that the bumps and contours of the head revealed character.

Bridgman revels in the attention her fame provides, but she has her own agenda.

“I would like to be a present for the crowd,” she said, “to show how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.”

She craved affection, texture and touch, was mischievous and sometimes violently temperamental, utterly dependent on Howe. He dictated even what she ate and read. When she was disobedient, he punished her by gloving her hands, depriving her of her only method of communication.

And Bridgman was deeply jealous of Howe’s wife, Julia. For her part, Julia Howe was discomfited by the girl’s disabilities, her strange noises, her insistent need to touch and stroke faces, hair, fingers, fabric.

Yet Julia Howe, too, was constrained and dependent, in an era when women could not own property or manage their money. Her husband would not let her publish her writing and relegated her to domesticity.

Possessed of an extraordinary mind and a formidable character, Howe feared pregnancy — maternal mortality rates were high — and chafed under her husband’s rules. She was 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. Bridgman 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, too. “I didn’t like children even when I was one,” Bridgman says of Keller, with characteristic vinegar.

Elkins gives full throat to this strong voice: Bridgman 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 says is the only “major swerve from Laura’s documented life,” Elkins invents for her a sensual love affair, based on Bridgman’s often-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, human complexity.

Reviewed by Kate Manning, author of “My Notorious Life, ” a novel about a 19th-century midwife.

What Is Visible, by Kimberly Elkins (307 pages; Twelve; $25)

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