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The Worm Hole Podcast Episode 98: Sarah Marsh (A Sign Of Her Own)

Charlie and Sarah Marsh (A Sign Of Her Own) discuss the lesser-known aspect of Alexander Bell’s work – teaching deaf children to speak – in terms of both the real history and the fictionalised character she created in order to explore the events. This includes snippets about the manufactured rivalry between the two inventors of the telephone; Bell’s wife, Mabel Hubbard (who was deaf); the Deaf community in London in the late 1800s; and the way Sarah employs language – written, signed, spoken – to excellent effect.

Reuben Conrad’s 1979 book is called Deaf School Child
Wikipedia’s page on Bell and Elisha Grey’s rivalry

Release details: recorded 1st December 2023; published 27th May 2024

Where to find Sarah online: Twitter || Instagram

Where to find Charlie online: Twitter || Instagram

Go back to the list of episodes


01:55 The inspiration for A Sign Of Her Own
03:27 Alexander Bell’s work with deaf children, ‘Visible Speech’, and the reality of it all
07:08 The Deaf community in London at the time
08:13 The locations – America and London
09:21 The characters, particularly Sarah’s fictional heroine, Ellen, and where bird names as surnames come into it
11:49 Talking about Mabel Hubbard, Alexander Bell’s wife, who was deaf
13:24 The rivalry between Alexander Bell and Elisha Grey
15:30 The way Sarah uses different languages in her book
18:57 The romance in the book, between Ellen and Frank
20:48 Where Sarah sees Ellen going in her life beyond the book
22:34 Brief notes on what Sarah’s writing now


Please note that this transcript has been edited for legibility and is not a 100% accurate representation of the audio. Filler words and many false sentence starts have been removed, and words have been added in square brackets for clarity.

Charlie: Hello and welcome to The Worm Hole Podcast episode 98. Bringing on an author and talking with them, about one – occasionally more – of their books in detail. I’m Charlie Place and today I am joined by Sarah Marsh. We’ll be talking today about her debut, A Sign Of Her Own. Ellen, living in London in the late 1800s and soon to be married to her step-father’s nephew, has been approached about the schooling she received from Alexander Bell. Mr Bell is now getting towards the heights of fame – his invention of the telephone is starting to receive wide interest, and Ellen is required to help. But Ellen’s role in Bell’s life was very different. Born in America, and made deaf by scarlet fever in her fourth year of life, through the pressure of her grandmother she ended up in a school where the goal was to teach deaf children to speak out loud and lip read, because signing was just not good enough, not what would get children participating in hearing society; speech reading and the concept of Visible Speech, taught by Mr Bell, came afterwards. But as Ellen grew up and started to meet more people, the people she met included deaf people who happily signed and had their own community. Placed between two worlds and frowned upon by some on both sides for opposing reasons, she’s got some decisions to make in the here and now, and a lot of new information to take on board. Hello Sarah!

Sarah: Hello, thank you very much for having me, and for the brilliant summary of the book.

Charlie: Oh, thank you, and it’s great to have you on. Let’s get straight to it: so there are many themes in this book, many connected, but what was the core reason, or the core inspiration, that you wanted to write it?

Sarah: I think it was reading about Bell’s pupils; as you said, he taught deaf children and deaf adults how to speak. And I think it was looking at some of the letters and the class notebooks from that time that really grabbed me. And I grew up deaf myself – I wear hearing aids and I use lip reading to communicate – and there was always this idea that it was something to be fixed, and, that was what Bell was trying to do. So, yeah, I wanted to know more about his pupils, and there wasn’t much information about them in the historical record.

Charlie: So how much did you have to make up yourself and make up from other information that you knew at the time etcetera?

Sarah: I mean, it’s always a bit of a balancing act, isn’t it, I think, with historical fiction? And there was a lot of information about Bell; I was very interested in the letters by his wife, who was deaf, and there were notebooks and pamphlets and all sorts of information in Bell’s online catalogue with the Library of Congress. And it was really just trying to imagine what it must have been like to be one of those pupils and to think about that gap in history, what might have happened but never got written down. I created this protagonist, Ellen Lark – she stepped into that space of things that might have happened but not have been written down.

Charlie: Okay, so, I knew about the telephone, and I didn’t know about Alexander Bell’s work with deaf children. And also, I suppose I’m not surprised that a lot of it has been forgotten and not written about. But can you tell us about Alexander Bell’s work with deaf children, as much as you could find and the impact it had, whether good or bad?

Sarah: So he worked with children and adults. He used this technique, which was actually invented by his father, called Visible Speech. And it was sort of an instruction manual, if you like, a sort of visible instruction on how to make speech sounds. You could look at it and produce words without having to hear them, without having to have heard them first. And it was interesting; it’s a mechanical way of teaching anything. And he did privately acknowledge later on that it didn’t work [laughs]. But publicly, he campaigned for oralism and became quite a public authority on that, on promoting speech teaching, on discouraging, strongly, the use of sign language, because he was so famous as a telephone inventor. And I think the impact of that really came to light about 100 years later. So, going back a little bit: just shortly after the events of this novel concluded, there was a conference in Milan in 1800, which Bell wasn’t at, but there were a lot of hearing educators, like-minded hearing educators, who recommended that sign language was banned in educational settings, and that was widely adopted by lots of schools. But about 100 years later, there was a study in 1979 by Dr Reuben Conrad which really showed just how much oralism had failed deaf people, resulting in severe language deprivation. I think now we understand how important acquiring language is at such a young age, often at the age of two, and having access to sign language, having access to English, how important that is at such a young age. So I think it was a long century, and the impact was realised beyond Bell’s lifetime.

Charlie: I mean, it’s good to hear about Visible Speech being realised to not work, because you do a very good job of making it sound amazing, in terms of how people would have seen it historically, and I know, I was thinking, my goodness, this is working – okay. And then you allow us, through Ellen’s growth as a character and the movement of time in the novel, to see that the children that have been with Alexander Bell, learning with him, just seem to get forgotten afterwards and left to their own devices, almost.

Sarah: You’re right, absolutely. At the time, it seemed like an amazing magic trick. And I think the telephone as well, people were amazed by that, too. These voices appearing out of the ether along a wire. And Bell demonstrated his pupils a lot. He didn’t have a university education himself, he wasn’t trained as, an electrician, or he didn’t have a background in inventing work. But his route into scientific institutions was through his work on Visible Speech, because it got the interest of scientists, this extraordinary kind of… thing! But it was basically a kind of magic trick that wasn’t meaningful. It wasn’t meaningful communication for his pupils. And that bit of the puzzle he didn’t seem to realise.

Charlie: Fair enough. Fair enough. Yeah, I was surprised to find out that, at least in your novel, he deems his work with the children more important than the telephone, but also how it all fitted together, it was very interesting. I think towards the start of the novel, I was seeing a sort of My Fair Lady situation, where he’s teaching people and trying to improve them, but not necessarily for the better because it won’t fit who they are. So tell us about the Deaf community in London at the time.

Sarah: Yeah, that was a really interesting part of the research and also looking at the Deaf community in the States, because the novel is set between the two places. And there was a really strong Deaf community in London in the 19th century, often linked to schools. Schools have a very important part in Deaf culture, also to churches and to missionary work. And actually recently I was reading about a Deaf theatrical group in the mid 19th century who staged a performance of Hamlet in sign language. Towards the end of the 19th century, there were lots of newspapers and journals as well that were written by and for the Deaf community. And I was particularly interested in a church, St. Saviour’s Church, which used to be an Oxford street. It was a church for the Deaf community, and it was adapted so that it was accessible. So, for example, it didn’t have any pillars so that everybody could see the signers at the front, or the pews were raised at the back again, again so everyone had clear sight. And I was just fascinated by that space, really. So, yes, that made its way into book as well!

Charlie: Well, can you tell us – on location – why you decided to set the book in Boston, in America, and also London? I know there’s Philadelphia as well. But the two countries.

Sarah: Yes. It’s always hard, I think, creating a split timeline in any book and split places. I think it asks more of the reader. Bell’s work – I was interested in the period in which he was inventing the telephone, he was at the beginning of that journey, and he was working quite closely with his pupils at that time, and I wanted to explore the relationship there. But also I was interested – in fact, he came over to England, to London for one year in sort of 1870, 1879, and had a terrible time [laughs]. It was a really bad year for him. Everything with the telephone was just going wrong. And I wanted to explore my character as well, how she is in a similar position for different reasons – she’s in a position of regret and thinking about mistakes she’s made, and there’s that synergy. Yeah. And it was interesting also to write about the telephone just before it was invented and then just after it was invented, and what that meant for the character in terms of her journey as a deaf person.

Charlie: Well, can you tell us more about Ellen herself? I mean, I suppose this is also another question, maybe, I don’t know, but I liked how you had characters who had surnames of birds. This seemed to be a theme, although obviously I realised there could be some of them – I don’t know, maybe you’ll tell me – that were historical, real figures. Can you tell us about your creation of Ellen and a few of the other characters – the most important ones?

Sarah: Yes. It’s funny you mentioning the bird, because when you asked that question, I was like, yeah! When I started writing Ellen, and this name of Ellen Lark came to me, I didn’t really think about the significance of birds. I didn’t intend to put it in the book! But as I started writing, some of those names did reoccur, particularly the contrast between Ellen as a lark and Bell as an owl – Bell was always described as a night owl because he did most of his work in the middle of night. But also, I think there was this imagery around birds singing and wanting to change that to something that was more about sight and sharpness of sight. And there’s a lot of that, I think, in the book, because for deaf people, eyes are so important, although Bell was so fixated on sound and ears. So there was changing that imagery, I think, that interested me with the birds [laughs], but it wasn’t really intentional; it kind of snuck in through the process of writing. And then in terms of Ellen herself, she’s a fictional character, but she was based on Bell’s pupils, in particular – partly his wife, who was also deaf from age four from scarlet fever, partly one of his pupils, Theresa Dudley, who was born deaf, who worked with [him] very closely and demonstrated a lot. I never knew what happened to the end of her story, and I think I wanted to see what would happen if Ellen broke away from all those expectations that people had of her about trying to integrate her into the hearing society and started to make her own connections. And that was the journey she kind of took me on, I guess [laughs]. And the other important character in the book is Frank. And he is a deaf man who was born deaf and grew up in the Deaf community. And so he offers a very different perspective on Deafness to Ellen. He has sign language as his first language. Yeah, I think he offers her a very different kind of future, to the one that Bell has in mind. So Ellen has to make a choice. But it’s not simple, because it turns out Frank has his own agenda with Bell, particularly relating to his teaching methods. So the path of true love doesn’t run smooth.

Charlie: Fair enough. Now, when you were talking about Mabel Hubbard, you said that she had scarlet fever like Ellen, and she had influenced you. And that was my original question about Mabel Hubbard for you – my original question was going to be, how much did Mabel Hubbard influence your creation of Ellen? So instead, I will change the question to, obviously, Mabel Hubbard was Alexander Bell’s wife. Makes sense to include her. She was also deaf. Makes sense to include her. But was there a particular importance of including her to you.

Sarah: Mabel was a really fascinating person for me. I mean, so many of her letters as well are available to read. She was such an interesting person, I think, because as Bell’s wife, she managed so much as a deaf person in the hearing world, you know all the commitments he had as this sort of famous man. And I had a lot of respect for her. But it was interesting also because she very flatly denied her deafness, and she really didn’t like her husband’s work as a deaf educator, and didn’t associate with other deaf people. But she recognised that later, there’s a very interesting letter later in her life in which she acknowledged that fully and said, this is exactly what teachers of the deaf want deaf people to do, at that time. And that was very interesting to me, that realisation – I think now you might call it internalised ableism. She’s contrasts with Ellen; she’s a bit of a foil in a way, I guess – Ellen had that realisation earlier is what I’m saying, that she’s not going to live like that, she’s going to choose a different path.

Charlie: Bell and Elisha Grey, they were just happening to make similar inventions at the same time. Can you tell us a bit about this, a bit of the effective created rivalry and the patents and that sort of thing?

Sarah: Yes. So this is definitely an area of the story that took quite a lot of research. And Bell’s telephone patent is one of the most challenged in history. He had endless court cases about it, people claiming that it wasn’t really his patent at all. And one of the rivals was Elisha Grey. They submitted a patent for more or less the same device on the same day, and then there was some sort of process that followed that was a bit murky and resulted in Bell getting the patent in a way that, in hindsight, didn’t look as if due process had been followed. But I was interested that one piece of evidence surfaced later in England relating to the English patent. And so Ellen gets involved in that. She asks to get more information about this patent in a slightly deceptive way, using lip reading. And that interested me, because I think there’s often an idea about lip reading, that this is a magical thing that you can do – you can go out there and lip read and get information, and sometimes it’s a bit of a spying trick, but the reality is, it’s not like that at all [laughs] and so I wanted turn that a bit on its head, and she’s involved a bit in this web of intrigue about this patent. But her lip reading skills don’t help in the way that other people would like them to help. It’s more about what she learned as a person.

Charlie: There is an entire Wikipedia page I found, that I was able to read, so I will put that in the show notes for you listeners, and you can go and read more about this effective rivalry yourself. Sarah, you have said lip reading there – I want to stay on that sort of subject. You use different methods of language and dialogue. You’ve got spoken English, you’ve got written English via pen and paper, as they would have done. You’ve got sign language, which I think is both American Sign Language, and then you’ve got British Sign Language later. And I know in the advanced reader copies, you had a few lines of transliterated sign language that I loved, but it’s not in the final copy, I believe. And you use quotation marks, only sometimes, which makes sense. Can you tell us about your writing decisions in this vein, in the dialogue?

Sarah: Yes, it’s a good question! It was one area I had to think so hard about in the writing – how you create dialogue and how to create dialogue with a deaf character who’s only had very partial access to the information, sometimes depending on the form of which the information comes in. Yeah, and I think dialogue is interesting anyway for a fiction writer because it’s very highly crafted to appear realistic. But in reality, people don’t tend to speak in that sort of word for word way that is represented in books and in films! But I think for Ellen, as a lip reader, meaning is really slippery and has to be negotiated, so I wanted to give that sense of communication not being clear cut, use guesswork to work out what’s happening. It was quite hard settling on capturing her different modes of communication. I think the key, as with any kind of writing, is to be consistent and to arrive at a decision and stick with it! So what I settled on was using quote marks for her written exchanges. So there’s a lot of passing notebook between her and Bell and the other hearing characters. And I think I liked that because it feels very definite. If you have speech marks, it looks very definite and real because it’s literally word for word. But then for speech and sign language, there are no quote marks, because for her, it’s much more perceived. And sign language, she’s learning sign language, though even that as well, it’s much more of a sort of perceived experience, I guess. But I think readers probably will, maybe, have their own interpretation of how that dialogue works. The transliteration question is interesting; representing fine language was really difficult because it’s a visual spatial language, so it doesn’t have a written form, so it’s hard to represent on paper. So I did initially have a different word order to English, which has a completely different structure, completely different grammar to English. So I did transliterate some phrases, which I think does give a feel of that different word order, but it also misses out on so many of the other elements of sign language’s grammar that it risks seeming like a simplification, II think. Yeah, I think I made the decision it was better to just focus on the meaning of what was being exchanged and to think, could this be translated? If someone picked up and signed it, would it be easy to translate – it’s not too English, it’s not too bogged down in English phrasing. So I think that was a decision I made there. It took a lot of honing to get the final method [laughs].

Charlie: Well, I completely understand why you chose not to use the transliterations in the end, then. Yes, because if you haven’t got all of the meaning, and you know that there’s more meaning in there that you want to communicate and, yeah, it loses that. I get that totally. And I love what you said about the quotation marks and how you’ve used them for the written language because that… gosh, what’s the word? Subversive?

Sarah: It flips completely, doesn’t it, yeah!

Charlie: Yes, yes, okay, cool, you’re getting what I mean; I will keep that as the word! So I would like to ask about the romance between Frank and Ellen, because you did a very good job – because I picked up on it quite early – that Harmon and Ellen (Ellen’s fiancé), there’s definitely something missing there. They are there because of convenience, because they happen to be there, and the circumstances. And so I did wonder, is there going to be something else for Ellen? And you created it; there’s Frank. I completely understood why they didn’t end up together, and I could see why it worked, definitely. But at the same time, I loved them being together, and I really wanted them to be back together. Did you ever feel that same way yourself?

Sarah: Yes… yeah… I’m trying to remember to what extent I considered it. I mean, they have a whole ocean between them [laughs], which I think presented some physical obstacles by the end of the book. It’s always hard with romance to have the happy ending, isn’t it? And I think I wanted Ellen to make her own ending for herself and find her own route forward. And that is why I think I probably chose not to get them together again at the end. And also to see how Frank has made a life for himself in Boston. And so, yes, I think it is really hard with romance stories to figure out the best kind of ending! But ultimately, I think it’s about Ellen finding her own way, yeah.

Charlie: Fair enough. I think you are now the fourth author within… three months, maybe… that I’ve spoken to, that has chosen to keep her heroine single. And I’ve said already a couple of episodes ago that I really like it. And I think specifically in your case, obviously, it absolutely works. So, okay, on the very, very end: Ellen’s progress towards self confidence in her deafness is something that happens towards the end – she gets there, we have this big moment, the defining moment, effectively. And also, I think it could be said that she somewhat chooses a world – if we say – whether she signs, whether she lip reads, whether she continues to try to make her way in the hearing world only or in the Deaf world. And I think she’s found a sort of balance. How do you see her life continuing beyond the end of the book?

Sarah: That’s a really interesting question. Interesting game, imagining what your characters do after you put the last word down. But I think I felt quite clear that she was going off to find her place in the Deaf community again. So there’s another connection in the book, in London, Mrs Ketter, who’s a deaf woman who becomes a housekeeper just after Ellen’s mother died. And I felt that she would make that reconnection again and find her own way within the Deaf community in Britain. But I think you are right that there’s very much this narrative of being between worlds, between Deaf and hearing worlds, which I think is quite a common narrative for lots of deaf people. And it really was for Ellen finding a way of understanding that and finding her place in the Deaf community, but also in that middle space as well, and being comfortable in that space, too. Yeah, and discovering the freedom of language, I think, and just how important that is, because it was something that, despite Bell’s intense focus on communication, he didn’t really appreciate that freedom of language and self expression I think Ellen gets to at the end.

Charlie: What are you writing right now? What is going to be your next book, what can you tell us about it at this point?

Sarah: I can’t really tell you anything I’m afraid [laughs]. Not for exciting secrecy reasons, but I think I’ve got a couple of ideas in play. I’m still really interested in exploring Deaf experiences, particularly historical ones, and thinking about the Deaf experience with that period of history. So, yeah, I’ve got a couple of ideas that I’m playing around with in that vein [laughs]. Yeah, I’m still in a questioning stage, we’ll say that!

Charlie: That’s fair enough. So we will look out in around 2025, then, and see what you are doing?

Sarah: Have a check in. Yeah!

Charlie: Yeah. Sarah, it has been lovely having you on today, and, yeah, it’s been a very interesting book to read. I liked the way that you worked all the themes in together. Loved your character, and I think I’ve made it clear I loved the romance, even if very understandably, it did not come to fruition! Thank you very much for being here today.

Sarah: Thank you, it’s been really lovely to chat to you about the book. So thanks very much for having me.

[Recorded later] Charlie: And thank you very much for listening. Please do share this episode with anyone you think would be interested in it. The Worm Hole Podcast episode 98 was recorded on the 1st December 2023 and published on the 27th May 2024. Music and production by Charlie Place.


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