Children of Silence; or, The Story of a Deaf and Dumb Child was one of hundreds of nineteenth-century pamphlets outlining the ‘plight’ of ‘deaf and dumb’ children and, in particular, their spiritual isolation. ‘To be “Deaf” is to be cut off from enjoying the melody of nature…and the persuasive sound of the preacher’s voice calling men to hear the Word of God,’ the pamphlet began. ‘Muteness’, which in the nineteenth century was as much a defi nitive characteristic of ‘the deaf and dumb’ as hearing loss, ‘condemned’ deaf children to ‘perpetual and cheerless sadness’ and confi ned ‘the nobler part of the child’ to ‘a dark prison-house without any ray of hope to illuminate the path’. Most disturbingly, the author warned, it may be said of ‘persons in this lamentable state’ that ‘ “God is not in all their thoughts” ’. The condition of deaf children was one defi ned as ‘suffering’, and a key element of that ‘suffering’ was isolation from Christian religion and God himself. 1
Yet, if educated, Christianized and redeemed, it was suggested, deaf children (like differently disabled ones) could ‘suffer’ in such a way as to ennoble them, allow them to perform a purer form of devotion than their peers and, through struggling on Earth, secure for themselves a special place in heaven. In Children of Silence the eponymous ‘Deaf and Dumb Child’, William, went on a journey of spiritual redemption and behavioural transformation following his admission to Llandaff School for the Deaf and Dumb (for which the pamphlet was a fund-raiser). His temper, once ‘stubborn and petulant’, became ‘happily subdued’, and soon ‘[h] is thoughts seemed to be absorbed with religious subjects; and religion was connected with everything he did’. Not untypically of such narrative, the story of William’s life culminated with his tragically early death. In a scene laden with Christian pathos, the schoolboy was described signing ‘Jesus is kind’ before dying gracefully. Readers were assured that the heavenly greeting that awaited William would not only be a happy one, but one that would see his body restored to that of an able-bodied child. Heaven was defi ned as ‘that land where there are none Deaf and Dumb’, and the author imagined the happy ‘change for him to have his ears unstopped, to join the chorus of the redeemed in praise of Him who when on earth, made “the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak!” ’ 2 Physically ‘suffering’ but spiritually ‘saved’ children were common fi gures
in Victorian literature. 3 From Charles Dickens’s Tiny Tim to Dinah Craik’s Olive, sentimental fi ction could imbue disabled children with unusual depths of religious conviction, using physical deafness and blindness to throw into sharp relief religious hearing and sightedness. These characteristics also dominated representations of ‘real’ disabled children.