A Sign of Her Own

Written by Sarah Marsh
Review by Helen Johnson

London, England, during the reign of Queen Victoria, and Alexander Graham Bell visits his former pupil, Ellen Lark. Ellen watches him talk as he stands beside a jar of preserved peaches in the parlour. Politely, she makes him a gift of them. But there’s a mistake: he is not asking for peaches, he is asking for speeches. The mistake arises because Ellen is deaf and is lipreading. Bell wants Ellen to speak and demonstrate ‘Visible Speech’.

Bell teaches Visible Speech to show deaf people how to shape a word for the hearing world and how to read the mouth shapes of hearing people’s speech. Thus, he believes, deaf people will no longer need to be separated from the hearing world. But there’s a problem: homophones. Homophones look the same on the lips, but have different meanings. Peaches, speeches.

Bell’s passion for aiding deaf people to communicate involves him in scientific studies of the properties of sound. He invents a machine that transmits human speech along electric wires. But Bell has enemies. Enemies who want information from Ellen. Who should she trust?

The story bounces backwards and forwards between Ellen’s childhood in Massachusetts and adult life in London, with patent challenges and romance creating plenty of page-turning tensions. But the real story is about a deaf girl’s struggle to live in a hearing world. As a child, Ellen and her sister developed hand signals, ‘home-sign’. At her special school Ellen must learn to lip read and speak words she could never hear. Should she persevere in trying to read silent and confusing lips, or join a hidden ‘underworld’ of deaf people with a rich culture of signing?

The author is herself deaf, and the book gives a revealing insight into what this is like in a world which communicates so much by sound.