Writing Della: A Peek inside Deaf Education in the Gilded Age

Writing is always a risk. People say to “write what you know,” which is safe advice to be sure, but fiction will inevitably push these boundaries. For me, the history is what I know, so the history is where I start. But sometimes plot bunnies lead me down dangerous plot burrows.

fiction model of Annabelle Kent by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
How do you borrow from real historical outliers to write fiction? This is one way: the ice cube tray model. I used adventurous traveler Annabelle Kent as inspiration for Hotel Oriente heroine, Della Berget.

A few years ago, I was trying to find an American source to describe the entrance into Manila Bay via steamer ship. One of the best I found was written by a traveler named Annabelle Kent:

…we were hardly outside the harbor before it became very rough, the flying spray beat against the saloon windows, and it was necessary for our chairs to be lashed to the rail. I am never sea-sick, but once ensconced in my steamer chair, it seemed best to stay there, and it really was a delight to sit there snugly wrapped up from the flying spray and watch the huge waves thundering around our little boat, which rode them like a bird….Before [landing] I had gone down to the cabin to do the repacking for my sick roommate and myself. This was no joke; with the trunks sliding around with every movement of the ship, I had to dodge the one while I held on to the other and crammed things into it.…

Round the World in Silence

Wow, now that’s evocative writing. Why was Ms. Kent so impervious to seasickness, I wondered? I went back to the beginning of the book to read this: “I would like to show others, as well as my deaf brethren and sisters, how much pleasure and profit one can get through travel not only in Europe, but the Orient. I am not merely hard of hearing, but entirely deaf.”

What is the connection between deafness and intrepid water travel? Apparently, those with a damaged vestibular system are far less likely to be seasick:

The US Navy ran an experiment in the 1960′s where they put a few Deaf men…in a window-less galley of a ship in the middle of a horrendous storm off of Newfoundland. As the ship tossed, the Deaf men sat at a table and played cards. Meanwhile, every Naval scientist became seasick.

There is a nice sort of justice there. As I read more of Ms. Kent’s book, I learned how she circumnavigated the globe—part of the time with friends, but mostly with complete strangers, all without a sign language interpreter. One of the most adventurous women of her era, Ms. Kent was perfect material for a romance heroine!

Gibson girls gone wild by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Heroines, heroines, everywhere! Gibson girls gone wild from the Gilded Age. From left to right: the cover of Mary H. Fee’s memoir (from the New York Society Library); a portrait of Annabelle Kent in China (from her book Round the World in Silence); the legacy of Rebecca Parish as seen through a nurses’ basketball team for the Mary Johnston Hospital in 1909 (print for sale on eBay); and the classic Gibson girl image on a music score (courtesy of the Library of Congress).

But, wait. Hold on. What do I know about deafness and Deaf Culture? Watching movies doesn’t count because they are so often written by the hearing. As blogger Charlie Swinbourne wrote about deafness in the movies:

On one hand, it’s exciting to see characters like yourself represented on screen. On the other hand, you get the FEAR.

Fear of what? Well, of the deaf character being hard to understand (especially if they’re being played by an inexperienced signer), or of their presence in the story being insubstantial and throwaway.

Worst of all, you get the fear of their appearance on screen being unrealistic, making it hard to believe in, and enjoy the story.

Swinbourne proceeds to list the top ten errors from real films. Some of the errors are obvious: a person cannot lipread when he or she is turned away from the speaker, or while sitting in the dark, or at night, and so on. And, yet, these things happen in movies all the time. If I have managed to avoid any of these pitfalls (eh…I did okay, not perfectly, but more on that later), it was because of Mr. Swinbourne’s blog, The Limping Chicken, and other sources. (Also, see his own films here.)

Limping Chicken deaf blog posted in article by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Could a deaf writer have written my character, Della Berget, better than me? Yes, no doubt. Are there better books out there about Deaf Culture? Uh, like every one written by someone hard of hearing. But the story of Hotel Oriente was grounded in history, and that is my comparative advantage. I decided to take a risk and write Della as best I could. Of course, this meant research.

I found out some interesting aspects of deaf education at the beginning of the 20th century:

  • The federally-chartered university for the hard of hearing, Gallaudet, known today for proudly teaching in two languages (American Sign Language and spoken English) was forced by Congress to teach only the “Oral Method” of communication throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Oralism” meant lipreading/speechreading paired with speaking. So, if you were wondering why my heroine Della does not use ASL, it is because the “experts” of her age felt it was the duty of those hard of hearing to assimilate to the hearing world, rather than acknowledging the value of their own vibrant culture. An 1880 conference of these “experts” in Milan even tried to ban “manualism,” or sign language! Though that law was not binding, it guided Congress. Even prominent hearing folks like Alexander Graham Bell got involved. (He wanted Gallaudet to stop hiring deaf teachers, whom he felt would emphasize sign language.)
Gallaudet University history post by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
An early photo of what would become Gallaudet University, featuring College Hall, Chapel Hall, and Fowler Hall.
  • The emphasis on lipreading began with an incredibly patronizing idea: that all Deaf secretly wish to hear. This is not true. Limping Chicken blogger Toby Burton puts it best: “If you were to offer me a pill that would grant me [hearing], I’d be offended. Would you say to a woman,‘Take a pill and become a man, you might have more opportunities’? Of course not.” A story from Annabelle Kent’s 1911 book shows the time-tested nature of this truth: “…there happened to be a young man in the party who was totally blind. I was full of sympathy for him, but he, instead of feeling regret, thought the sympathy should be bestowed on me since I was deaf instead of blind.” You know the adage about making assumptions.
  • Gallaudet began accepting women in 1887, but they were not treated equally. In fact, the school newspaper describes a harrowing welcome for some of them: “all the [male] students would line up in rows and thus compel them to run a daily gauntlet of masculine curiosity.” Gee, that’s fun. And because women could not attend clubs and society meetings without a chaperone, they could never assume the highest positions of leadership. For example, even though women were influential in starting the school newspaper, the Buff and Blue, a young man would always be chosen for editor-in-chief because he could make the meetings without fail. This inequity is one of the reasons why my heroine, Della, an aspiring journalist, will leave college early to accompany her congressman grandfather to the Philippines: she is hoping to find fresh opportunities on the new American frontier.
Buff and Blue Gallaudet University for Gilded Age deaf history post by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
The masthead of one of the last issues of the Buff and Blue that Della Berget might have contributed to. Notice the women bolstering up the editorial board.
  • And yet Gallaudet may have been more expensive back then. The 1900 tuition was $250, which in terms of 2016 commodity value is $19500—not so far off the current tuition of $19,852 for an undergraduate student, including a health insurance fee. But, when you consider the value of $250 as a proportion of someone’s income in 2016, it is the equivalent of $52,800—more than twice the current fee. (All inflation calculations are courtesy of Measuring Worth.)
Gilded Age deaf history by Jennifer Hallock author of Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
When the women of Gallaudet could not join the men’s literary society, they made their own. It still exists as Phi Kappa Zeta.
  • Because she has to, Della lipreads. Unlike some of the movies Swinbourne skewers, she does not do it from too far away (though I stretch her abilities a little in the Clarke’s cafe scene), nor does she do it in the dark (though in one scene, only the couple’s faces are illuminated). She can read some people better than others, which my research suggests is common. (And guess what? The easiest person for her to read is our hero, Moss. But, duh, romance.) She cannot read anyone with a mustache, which hides the lips—also a note from my research. And she prefers full sentences to fragments. Why? Because only about 30% of speech is readable, according to Albany Jacobson Eckert. That means context is everything, especially when dealing with commonly confused words—which are different pairings than a hearing person would confuse. A few times in Hotel Oriente, I let Della make mistakes, get frustrated, and develop a headache because lipreading is really, really hard work. Is she still maybe a little too good at it at times? Probably. (Again, romance.) But I did take hope from Dr. Neil Bauman‘s remarks that while only 23% of hard-of-hearing people become effective speechreaders, women tend to be more effective than men. Also, nonverbal cues are important, as are vibrations and light.

  • Like many in her generation, Della lost her hearing to Meningitis. She was sick after age three and a half—the time at which most sounds have been learned and can be mimicked, according to Dennis C. Tanner—which would have made her a good candidate for oralism. However, there are still distortions in her pronunciation and tone, which Moss does notice. After he notices, though, I write her speech without accent because that is a better reflection of her intention and the story. I assume that the reader knows her speech is not perfect, but it is no reflection on her intelligence or eloquence.

All this being said, I am guilty of #5 on Swinbourne’s list: letting her fall in love with the first person who shows a serious interest. (Della does reference another gentleman back in Washington, before her trip to Manila. And Della and Moss’s quick courtship is really a function of the time period, when women were less experienced than their male counterparts. But, yeah, sorry. Mea culpa.) There is probably so much more I missed, too, and I apologize.

Hotel Oriente teaser for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

I did try to soften Della a little bit with a few flaws, thanks to Swinbourne’s blog, but she still is significantly more sympathetic than everyone else—even the hero, maybe. (At first, Moss is not quite woke on deaf appreciation, but he learns.) Della’s grandfather is a tool, but he is the one who paid for her education—so that relationship is complex. Della’s feelings toward him are understandably ambivalent and somewhat Machiavellian: if he is using her as a political pawn, she is using him right back to get to Manila.

Since there are no other deaf people that Della knows in her corner of Manila, there is no real treatment of Deaf Culture and its rewards, nor would I be the best person to translate these ideas to the page. Still, I would consider Hotel Oriente a form of cross-cultural romance, like my other books. ‘Cause that’s my jam.

Hotel Oriente promo for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

[Edited on October 21, 2017: Comments have been turned off due to spamming by bots. If you would like to make a remark of substance, you can find my link to this post on Facebook and comment there. Thank you.]

 

More Sugar Sun teasers

It’s a hot summer! The Sugar Moon teasers have been so popular—and so much fun to make—that I have a few more for you from the rest of the series. Enjoy!

I will continue to create more for the #TeaserTues (#TeaserTuesday) and #ThursdayBookTease hashtags on Twitter, and I will post everything I make on both my instagram and Pinterest pages.

Note on all images used: All are either CC 2.0 licensed photos (which I may use with attribution, so check the fine print on the photo) or are released free of copyright (CC 0.0) and found at Pixabay, Pexels, or Unsplash.

Welcome to the Sugar Sun Series

Read the series that Courtney Milan called “meaty historical romance . . . must-reads” and “Like nothing I’ve ever read before.”


Chronological Order*

*All books are standalone HEAs (happily-ever-afters) and do not have to be read in order. Try before you buy: read a few teasers from the series!

Hotel Oriente by Jennifer Hallock novella one in the steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series

The Oriente is the finest hotel in Manila… but that’s not saying much.

Hotel manager Moss North already has his hands full trying to make the Oriente a respectable establishment amidst food shortages, plumbing disasters, and indiscreet guests. So when two VIPs arrive—an American congressman and his granddaughter Della—Moss knows that he needs to pull out all the stops to make their stay a success.

That won’t be easy: the Oriente is a meeting place for all manner of carpetbaggers hoping to profit off the fledgling American colony—and not all of these opportunists’ schemes are strictly on the up-and-up. Moss can manage the demanding congressman, but he will have to keep a close eye on Della—she is a little too nosy about the goings-on of the hotel and its guests. And there is also something very different about her…

Find Hotel Oriente at Amazon.com.


Under the Sugar Sun by Jennifer Hallock book two in the steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series

A schoolmarm, a sugar baron, and a soldier…

It is 1902 and Georgina Potter has followed her fiancé to the Philippines, the most remote outpost of America’s fledgling empire. But Georgina has a purpose in mind beyond marriage: her real mission is to find her brother Ben, who has disappeared into the abyss of the Philippine-American War.

To navigate the Islands’ troubled waters, Georgina enlists the aid of local sugar baron Javier Altarejos. But nothing is as it seems, and the price of Javier’s help may be more than Georgina can bear.

Find Under the Sugar Sun at Amazon.com. (And if you’ve read it and want to know more about Javier and Georgina, check out these extras.)


Tempting Hymn by Jennifer Hallock novella three in the steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series

A Missionary and a Sinner

Jonas Vanderburg volunteered his family for mission work in the Philippines, only to lose his wife and daughters in the 1902 cholera epidemic. He wishes his nurse would let him die, too.

Rosa Ramos wants nothing more to do with American men. Her previous Yankee lover left her with a ruined reputation and a child to raise alone. A talented nurse at a provincial hospital, she must now care for another American, this time a missionary whose friends believe her beyond redemption.

Find Tempting Hymn at Amazon.com.

Also, listen to the hymns of Tempting Hymn here.

Sugar Sun series glossary term #27: sillon

Moss led Della over to the sillon in front of the window. The planter chair was a deep recliner made out of wood and rattan, and it had long, wide arms that stretched out in front of the seat. The sillon was built for napping, but Moss had not brought Della here to sleep.

She sat, and he gently lifted one of her legs to rest on the extended arm of the chair. She relaxed there, wanton, ready for him. He started with a gentle kiss to her knee and then moved his lips up her inner thigh. Della gave a deep moan, vibrating her entire chest.

“I love you,” he mouthed against her skin. He said it a second time. And a third.

The words earned him a soft giggle. “I understood you the first time. I love you, too.”

It was good that he would not need to repeat himself because he was running out of room on her leg.

Hotel Oriente

I do use furniture creatively in my books. Ahem. Though my first thought when I sat in a sillon, or butaka, was not dirty at all. It was, “Boy, could I sleep right now.” After all, that was what the “silla perezoza” or “lazy chair” was designed for. (It was also called a “sillon de oreja” or “chair with ears.”) The backs were curved and the arms flat and long, all the better to slump deep and raise your feet. The cane backing circulated the air around the siesta-enjoying hacendero in his bahay na bato house. (Yes, Javier Altarejos owns a sillon or two, but he never stays seated long enough to use one. He’s a vigorous romance hero, or didn’t you know?)

Sign from the Clarin Ancestral House in Bohol, Philippines, by Tom.
Sign from the Clarin Ancestral House in Bohol, Philippines, by Tom.

The fact that hacenderos owned furniture designed around day-sleeping had to frustrate their employees, though. In fact, the more unequal the labor relations, the more popular the chair seemed to have been. Designed in Cuba, these chairs were found everywhere from Mexico to the southern United States to the Philippines to India—all with their own variations. Even Thomas Jefferson had one, and he gave one to James Madison. Interestingly, most American colonial officials in the Philippines had never seen one before because relative few were from the South. They found them fascinating (and comfortable), never knowing they needed only to go to Virginia to see one.

Thomas Jefferson's butaka chair (left) and a fancy butaka from a turn of the century Philippine home (right).
Thomas Jefferson’s butaka chair (left) and a fancy butaka from a turn of the century Philippine home (right).

There may be a dirty underbelly to this piece of furniture, but in the era of La-Z-Boys, I think we can put our differences aside. I wish I had my own sillon right now, in fact…I could use a nap.

Featured image: Two views of the sillon, or butaka, chair by ioculus on Flickr.