Nineteenth-Century Disability:  Cultures & Contexts

The Lost Senses

john_kitto.jpg

Image

The black and white frontispiece from the Life of John Kitto by John Eadie shows the mutton-chopped deaf missionary in a relaxed seated pose, looking past the viewer to the left.

Introduction

John Kitto (1804-1854) was a British missionary and writer of religious books who was deafened at the age of 12 by a fall. In his youth, Kitto, who typically worked with his father, a mason, rather than attend school, was also forced to spend time in the workhouse. Kitto, then, was largely self-educated. His religious texts and travel writing, including The Pictorial Bible (1835-8)and the Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature (1845)were popular in his age. 

In addition to his religious writings, he composed an autobiographical narrative, The Lost Senses (1845), at the behest of his publisher, Charles Knight. While Kitto calls The Lost Senses “a natural history of my deafness” rather than “a biography of myself,” the first volume of the work, which is focused on deafness, narrates how Kitto came to be deaf and his experiences as a deaf man both in England and abroad. The second volume, blindness, is not autobiographical (since Kitto was not blind) and turns its attention, instead, to experiences of, and texts about, blind people, including the famous American Laura Bridgman, and various blind poets, musicians and philosophers. 

In this excerpt from the beginning of The Lost Senses, Kitto likens his autobiographical undertaking to the reports of travellers of “unexplored countries.” (Indeed, Kitto published accounts of his own travels in the Middle East). He then describes his fall from a ladder that led to his deafness and his experience of coming to understand his new disability. After becoming deaf, Kitto underwent extensive medical treatment; this excerpt provides a glimpse into the range of Victorian medical approaches to deafness. As Mary Wilson Carpenter notes, a Victorian “attitude toward deafness as an affliction or infirmity…was…reflected in medical practice during the nineteenth century. Some medical practitioners began to call themselves aurists…and to devise a variety of treatments and cures for the deaf, many of which were torturous and some of which actually caused or intensified deafness” (110). Kitto explains that at the time of writing The Lost Senses, he no longer sought remedies for his deafness because of his acceptance of this “part of [his] physical nature.”

For Kitto, one of the most important results of his fall and subsequent deafness was how it provided him with increased time, inclination and ability to read widely; Kitto emphasizes that his reading and writing, which emerged from his experience of deafness, allowed him to move from poverty to comfort as a prominent writer of religious works. Martha Stoddard Holmes describes Kitto’s account of his deafness as a “strange melodramatic mix of misery and triumph” where Kitto at once bemoans what he understands as the limitations of his deafness while celebrating the way that his deafness enabled his scholarly and literary success (163). In this excerpt Kitto describes both his deafness and his work as a reader and writer as “habit[ual]” to him; both enabled his success as a Victorian writer and their productive interaction is no more evident in his body of work than in The Lost Senses.

Primary Source Text

Any one who has spent a considerable portion of time under peculiar, or at least undescribed, circumstances, must have been very unobservant if he has nothing to relate in which the public would be interested. It may be, indeed, that such a person lies under the same obligation to the public of describing his own condition, as a traveller is under to render his report respecting the unexplored countries which he has traversed in his pilgrimage. It is under this impression that I now write. I am unwilling to quit this world, without leaving behind me some record of a condition of which no sufferer has yet rendered an account.

The condition itself is not entirely new; and that it has not been hitherto described, may be owing to the fact that a morning of life subject to such crushing calamity, has seldom, if ever, been followed by a day of such self-culture — which is the only culture possible, — and of such active exertion, as seems indispensably necessary to prevent the faculties from rusting under the absence of the diverse influences by which they are, in ordinary circumstances, brought into working condition for  [end page 5] the useful labours at which all men should aim, and for the struggles necessary to self-advancement  in a country and in a time like this.  

My case is this. It has pleased Providence that three-fourths of a life now at its meridian, should be passed in the most intense DEAFNESS to which any living creature can be subjected; and which could not be more entire had the organs conducive to the sense of hearing been altogether wanting. It is the consequences resulting from this position, that form the theme which I have now placed before me. For one who is deaf, my life has been studious; and for one who has been both deaf and studious — or indeed for any one — my life has not been uneventful. I know not, however, that I have any right to obtrude the events or studies of my life upon the public notice; and it is not my intention to refer to them further than may be necessary to bring out the points and peculiarities of the deaf condition. From the multifarious matters arising from the activities of a life which once seemed doomed to inertion, I shall select those only which arise from, which illustrate, or which are in any remarkable way connected with my deafness. It is needful to explain this, lest in sketching the natural history of my deafness, I should be supposed to offer a biography of myself. 

I became deaf on my father's birthday, early in the year 1817, when I had lately completed the twelfth year of my age. The commencement of this condition is too clearly connected with my circumstances in life to allow me to abstain from troubling the reader with some particulars which I should have been otherwise willing to withhold. [...]

The circumstances of that day — the last of twelve years of hearing, and the first of twenty-eight years of deafness, have left a more distinct impression upon my mind than those of any previous, or almost any subsequent, day of my life. It was a day to be remembered. The last day on which any customary labour ceases, — the last day on which any customary privilege is enjoyed, — the last day on which we do the things we have done daily, are always marked days in the calendar of life; how much, therefore, must the mind not linger in the memories of a day which was the last of many blessed things, and in which one stroke of action and suffering, — one moment of time, wrought a greater change of condition, than any sudden loss of wealth or honours ever made in the state of man. Wealth may be recovered, and new honours won, or happiness may be secured without them; but there is no recovery, no adequate compensation, for such a loss as was on that day sustained. The wealth of sweet and pleasurable sounds with which the Almighty has filled the world, — of sounds modulated by affection, sympathy, and earnestness, — can be appreciated only by one who has so long been thus poor indeed in the want of them, and who for so many weary years has sat in utter silence amid the busy hum of populous cities, the music of the woods and mountains, and, more than all, of the voices sweeter than music, which are in the winter season heard around the domestic hearth.  

***

[In the omitted section, Kitto describes falling from a ladder while assisting his father in slating the roof of a house and then being carried, senseless, to his home where he lay unconscious for two weeks.]

***

I was very slow in learning that my hearing was entirely gone. The unusual stillness of all things was grateful to me in my utter exhaustion; and if in this half-awakened state, a thought of the matter entered my mind, I ascribed it to the unusual care and success of my friends in preserving silence around me. I saw them talking indeed to one another, and thought that, out of regard to my feeble condition, they spoke in whispers, because I heard them not. The truth was revealed to me in consequence of my solicitude about the book which had so much interested me in the day of my fall. It had, it seems, been reclaimed by the good old man who had sent it to me, and who doubtless concluded, that I should have no more need of books in this life. He was wrong; for there has been nothing in this life which I have needed more. I asked for this book with much earnestness, and was answered by signs which I could not comprehend.   

"Why do you not speak?" I cried; "Pray let me have the book.” 

This seemed to create some confusion; and at length some one, more clever than the rest, hit upon the happy expedient of writing upon a slate, that the book had been reclaimed by the owner, and that I could not in my weak state be allowed to read.  

"But," I said in great astonishment, "Why do you write to me, why not speak? Speak, speak.”  

Those who stood around the bed exchanged significant looks of concern, and the writer soon displayed upon his slate the awful words— "You are Deaf."  

Did not this utterly crush me? By no means. In my then weakened condition nothing like this could affect me. Besides, I was a child; and to a child the full extent of such a calamity could not be at once apparent. However, I knew not the future — it was well I did not; and there was nothing to show me that I suffered under more than a temporary deafness, which in a few days might pass away. It was left for time to show me the sad realities of the condition to which I was reduced. 

Time passed on, and I slowly recovered strength, but my deafness continued. The doctors were perplexed by it. They probed and tested my ears in various fashions. The tympanum was uninjured, and the organ seemed in every respect perfect, excepting that it would not act. Some thought that a disorganization of the internal mechanism had been produced by the concussion; others that the auditory nerve had been paralyzed. 

They poured into my tortured ears various infusions, hot and cold; they bled me, they blistered me, leeched me, physicked me; and, at last, they put a watch between my teeth, and on finding that I was unable to distinguish the ticking, they gave it up as a bad case, and left me to my fate. I cannot know whether my case was properly dealt with or not. I have no reason to complain of inattention, of my own knowledge; but, some six months after, a wise doctor from London affirmed that, by a different course at the commencement, my hearing might have been restored. He caused a seton[1] to be inserted in my neck; but this had no effect upon my deafness, although it seems to have acted beneficially upon the general health. Some years after, Mr. Snow Harris,[2] with a spontaneous kindness, for which I am happy to be able at this distant day to express my obligations, put my ears through a course of electrical operations. He persevered for more than a month; but no good came of it: and since then nothing further has been done or attempted. Indeed, I have not sought any relief; and have discouraged the suggestions of friends who would have had me apply to Dr. This and Dr. That. The condition in which two-thirds of my life has been passed, has become a habit to me — a part of my physical nature: I have learned to acquiesce in it, and to mould my habits of life according to the conditions which it imposes; and have hence been unwilling to give footing for hopes and expectations, which I feel in my heart can never be realized.  

Notes

[1] “A thread, piece of tape, or the like, drawn through a fold of skin so as to maintain an issue or opening for discharges, or drawn through a sinus or cavity to keep this from healing up” (Oxford English Dictionary).

[2] Sir William Snow Harris (1791-1867) was a British physician who is best known for his experiments with electricity, including the development of an effective system for lightning conduction on ship.  

Source

Kitto, John. The Lost Senses. London: Charles Knight & Co., 1845. Pages 5-14.  Complete text available online at archive.org.

Date

1845

Further Reading

  • Bar-Yosef, Eitan. “The ‘Deaf Traveller,’ the ‘Blind Traveller,’ and Constructions of Disability in Nineteenth-Century Travel Writing.” Victorian Review 35.2 (2009): 133-54.
  • Carpenter, Mary Wilson. Health, Medicine and Society in Victorian England. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.
  • Esmail, Jennifer. Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture. Athens: Ohio UP, 2013.
  • Holmes, Martha Stoddard. Fictions of Affliction: Physical Disability in Victorian Culture.  Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2004. 

Contributor

Jennifer Esmail


Collection

Citation

Kitto, John, “The Lost Senses,” Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures & Contexts, accessed April 29, 2017, http://nineteenthcenturydisability.org/items/show/9.

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