Heather Tilley, Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing

Heather Tilley, Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) 294 p. £80.00 PDF, £75.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781107194212
Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing
ushers in a new way of understanding ocularcentric constructs of blindness and new writing technologies for blind people during the nineteenth century. Heather Tilley’s study brings ophthalmologic discourse, autobiographical writings by blind people, and changing access to literary form, into dialogue with sighted writers’ literary depictions of blindness.

In the introduction, ‘Embodying Nineteenth-Century Blindness’, Tilley’s starting point is John Thomas Smith’s portrait of a blind man. Illustrator, curator, and antiquarian, Smith offers an important transition for the discussion of visual impairment and its identification with the issue of literacy. Tilley argues forcefully that the blind man’s story and his status as a subject of the engraving, is rendered in a visual medium, to which he, as a blind person, has no direct access. Distanced from his story, he suffers a loss of voice: ‘a palpably common recurrence in blind people’s experiences of this period, and which Blindness and Writing seeks to redress’ (1). One of the key aspects to Tilley’s argument is that blindness assumed new meanings through its relationship to literacy in the nineteenth century, which in turn produced new forms of experiences for people living with, or alongside, sight loss.

Blindness and Writing is divided into two parts. The eight chapters coalesce around important themes: Part I, ‘Blind People’s Writing Practices’, and Part II, ‘Literary Blindness’. The central chapters of Blindness and Writing offer a sustained analysis of the relationship between ophthalmologic discourse and autobiographical writings by blind individuals. Chapter One, ‘Writing Blindness, from Vision to Touch’, details the theoretical framework of Blindness and Writing. Tilley examines the central role played by the figure of the blind person in Enlightenment philosophy; philosophers including John Locke and George Berkeley analysed the experience of blindness to prove what vision, and consciousness, was. The tension between ideal and embodied interpretations of blindness that Tilley examines in this chapter forms the basis of a reappraisal of the poet William Wordsworth as a blind poet.

Chapter Two, ‘The Materiality of Blindness in Wordsworth’s Imagination’ considers Wordsworth’s experience of ophthalmia, an eye disease brought over to Britain by soldiers from the Napoleonic war. The author focuses on three episodes of blindness in Wordsworth’s literary writing, including his encounter with a blind beggar in his autobiographical poem The Prelude.

Tilley considers the development of embossed writing systems for blind people in Chapter Three, ‘“A Literature for the Blind” The Development of Raised Print Systems’. Her study focuses on the roles played by technological advancements, evangelical desire, and shifting ideas concerning literacy and the education of people with sensory impairments.

Chapter Four, ‘Memoirs of the Blind: The Genre of Blind Biographical Writing’, is an exploration of the literary constructions of self and identity by four blind people, in both prose and poetry, published in Britain: James Wilson, whose Biography of the Blind, was published in 1821; John Bird, who edited Wilson’s autobiography in 1856; Edmund White, a former railway guard who turned to poetry to supplement his income following loss of sight in 1856; and Mrs Hippolyte van Landeghem who privately published two attacks on the ‘exile’ system of education during the 1860s. This chapter reveals a networked community of blind and visually impaired people using life writing for therapeutic, financial, and political means in nineteenth-century Britain.

In Part II, Tilley extends themes established in the previous three chapters but focuses more on sighted authors’ engagement with the subject of blindness. In Chapter Five, ‘Blindness, Gender and Autobiography: Reading and Writing the Self in Jane Eyre, Aurora Leigh and The Life of Charlotte Brontë’, the author examines three texts concerned with ‘what it means to write a life’ (123). Tilley concludes that Elizabeth Barrett Browning, reading blindness in part through Charlotte Brontë, registers that reading is, also, the expression of the desire to be blind and ‘summon[s] forward a voice outside of the material limits of the visible word’ (151).

The sixth chapter, ‘Writing Blindness: Dickens’, explores how anxiety concerning the limits of empirical vision underpins Dickens’s literary project, manifesting in repeated allusions and figurations of blindness in his fictional and journalistic writing. Extending her concerns in this study, Tilley examines how blindness is a trope through which Dickens analyses limits to writing.

Chapter Seven offers a detailed discussion of two novels: Frances Browne’s My Share of the World and Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch. This study is important as Tilley highlights the distinct construction of blindness in these works: the way that gender continues to determine the representation of blindness in nineteenth-century literary texts. Browne’s Lucy becomes depressed as her eyesight fails and she eventually commits suicide, whereas Collins’s Lucilla, with the surgical restoration of her sight, fears losing her identity as a blind person.

In Chapter Eight, ‘Blindness and Writing: Gissing’s New Grub Street’, the author makes a case for how the contemporary social meaning of blindness as disability in an industrial age powerfully combines with the mythic fear of blindness as punishment in a novel. In the end, Tilley questions how Gissing’s novel functions as a riposte to the episodes of blind literary culture considered throughout the study.

This critical analysis makes an important contribution to future scholarship on the lived experience of blindness and visual impairment. Blindness and Writing is certainly a book that all who are interested in ophthalmologic discourse should read.

Denise Saul, University of Roehampton