What Is Visible*, Kimberly Elkins’s debut novel, begins with a meeting. Helen Keller, just eight years old, is introduced to the woman whose fame was legendary in the nineteenth century, a woman whose incredible story will be eclipsed by Helen Keller, fifty years her junior. The woman’s name is Laura Bridgman, and she’s the subject of What Is Visible, a fascinating novel.
At the age of two, Laura Bridgman lost not only her sight and hearing, but also her senses of taste and smell to scarlet fever. Brought to the Perkins Institute in Boston, she becomes a star pupil, learning to read and write, communicating through hand spelling. Crowds came to see her, and dignitaries requested private meetings; Charles Dickens wrote a chapter about her in American Notes. At one point, it’s said, she and Queen Victoria were the most famous women in the world.
What Is Visible traces the story of Laura’s life, interspersing her narration with that of the people closest to her; they fill in the gaps with parts of the story Laura could not know. The novel includes a striking number of nineteenth-century celebrity cameos, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to John Brown to Dickens and (in absentia) Emily Dickinson.
What’s more remarkable, however, is Ms. Elkins’s skill in bringing Laura’s world — a world dominated by the sense of touch — to brilliant life. In her rendering, Laura is immensely perceptive and inquisitive; she could tell if someone enters a room by the change in the air currents, and loves the textures of fabrics especially. She’s also very sensitive, and devoted to her teachers, in particular Sarah Wight and Dr. Samuel Howe, the head of the Perkins Institute (then in South Boston, now in Watertown). Until his marriage, he and Laura act more like father and daughter than teacher and pupil; when he meets the lovely Julia Ward, however, everything changes.
The Howes’ marriage is the first great disruption of Laura’s life that we read about in the novel, though others follow. Julia Ward Howe — yes, the poet behind “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — is the novel’s second fixation. Prone to depression, sometimes repulsed by her husband’s pupils, chafing under her husband’s edict that she cease to write and publish, and very uncomfortable with Laura’s attentions, Julia is often unsympathetic, but endlessly interesting. Laura and Julia’s dynamic relationship is expertly rendered here.
The brilliance of What Is Visible lies in the way it explore’s Laura’s inner world, the vast richness of her emotions, opinions, and perceptions — and the way it explores the outside world’s fascination with her, a fascination that reveals a determination to view her as a social experiment. Laura’s education, her religion, even her body are subjects of controversy and concern. Dr. Howe, who helped her to acquire language, is also the person who denies her glass eyes, a Bible, a lock on her door, all in the name of her best interests, her moral upbringing. Laura’s fits of temper are completely understandable given the lack of control she’s awarded over her own life; her aching desire to be loved, to be seen, is heart-wrenching.
It’s astounding that such a witty, intelligent, accomplished figure has virtually disappeared from our collective memory. Here’s hoping What Is Visible will bring Laura Bridgman back to the spotlight she deserves.
Wednesday: An interview with Kimberly Elkins, author of What Is Visible
*I received a review copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Readers interested in nonfiction accounts of Laura Bridgman’s life have two recent (historically speaking) biographies to choose from: The Imprisoned Guest, by Elisabeth Gitter, and The Education of Laura Bridgman, by Ernest Freeberg.
What Is Visible is published by Twelve, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, which, if you haven’t heard, is having a, shall we say, disagreement with Amazon at the moment. If you’re considering buying What Is Visible, I highly recommend shopping your local independent bookstore.