The Braille Monitor                                                                                         July, 2002

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Will the Real Thérèse-Adèle Husson

Please Stand Up?

by Buffa Hanse

Buffa Hanse
Buffa Hanse

Reflections: The Life and Writings of a Young Blind Woman in Post-Revolutionary France by Thérèse-Adèle Husson, Translated and With Commentary by Catherine J. Kudlick and Zina Weygand, New York University Press, 2001.

From the Editor: Buffa Hanse is an active Federationist who has earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature. She has taught English, world literature, and Braille at the college level and now teaches Braille and audio technology for the Kentucky Department for the Blind. Cathy Kudlick, the American author and translator who contributed to this book, is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis. She is a specialist in French history and is interested in disability studies. Zina Weygand is a researcher at the Laboratoire Brigitte Frybourg pour L'Insertion Sociale des Personnes Handicapées at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris and author of Les causes de la cédité et les soins oculaires en France au début du XIXe siècle (1800-1815). Here is the review:

Kudlick and Weygand translate, edit, and discuss Thérèse-Adèle Husson's Reflections on the Physical and Moral Conditions of the Blind, the first known writings on the subject by a blind woman. This text and her more personal "Notes on the Author's Youth," a preface to one of her novels, appear in fluent English as part of NYU's History of Disability Series.

Like the recent discovery of the Laura Bridgman materials in the Perkins Library (see Deborah Kent Stein's review reprinted in the October 2001 Braille Monitor), Husson's undated manuscript lay unnoticed over 100 years in the archives of the Quinze-Vingts [insert circumflex above the o] Hôpital. In fact, had it been published when written, it would have predated Alexandre Rodenbach's Letter on the Blind Following That of Diderot (1828) and been the first known work on blindness by a blind person. But Husson didn't have the Belgian's connections. Rodenbach, who would soon sit in the newly established Belgian legislature, responded to Diderot's philosophical investigation Letter on the Blind for the Benefit of Those Who See (1749). He and Husson share comment on colors, the deaf, and the appropriate education of the blind. Weygand and Kudlick suggest the two may have had similar influences, except, of course, for Husson's discussion of womanhood.

Weygand and Kudlick's archival research from a myriad of sources makes Restoration France, the subculture of the blind, and the intriguing ambiguity of attitudes and conventions embodied in the life and work of Thérèse-Adèle Husson come alive. Weygand and Kudlick open their detective story about the twenty-two-year-old blind Husson from Nancy with an introduction that sets the scene in Restoration France. After the turmoil of the Revolution, the short-lived new France beginning in 1789, and the conquest of Napoleon, the return of the Bourbons and the Catholic Church to power is no surprise. Despotic as it was, this regime restored some order and stability to the existing chaotic economic and social conditions.

Weygand and Kudlick describe the precarious lot of the blind in the first half of the nineteenth century: how they faired living with families, on their own, or in the Quinze-Vingts, the only facility specifically for the blind, founded by Saint Louis in the thirteenth century. Even a definition of blindness was vague, as our authors report, and the number of blind in the country uncertain. The diversity of livelihoods, meager as most were, does suggest a lively and diverse community, although a poor one. Whether they were among the lucky-- "a useless mouth" fed by family (p. 6) or parish, widows, orphans, beggars, musicians, animal trainers in traveling shows, wheel spinners, hawkers, sellers of pins or matches, or sellers of lottery tickets--the average blind person struggled on the margins. But the very diversity of jobs is a marvel in itself. And the delight on the faces in the cartoon of the Café des Aveugles, one center of the blind community, hints that the blind then as now could live with a certain joie de vivre. Even those in the Quinze-Vingts, who performed more morally acceptable jobs such as chair caning, holy-water dispenser, or storekeeper on the institution's grounds, could only supplement their income equivalent to ninety centimes with these meager earnings.

In contrast, and to develop the milieu of the blind, the authors illustrate how a privileged few blind men, and even an occasional woman, might succeed in French society with enough "resources and drive"(p. 7). The life of the Chevalier Marie-Charles-Joseph Pougens, who was blinded in adulthood, became a linguist and writer, and was accepted into a French Academie, a mark of acceptance among the elite, serves as an example. Like Adèle Husson, without Braille he used secretaries as scribes.

Bonnie G. Smith sets the literary stage in her provocative foreword, which the authors amplify and detail in their essay. Smith points out that disabled characters in literature have functioned as foils, as in Dickens, or as "symbols of character flaws" for sighted writers, but have never spoken for themselves. Diderot's Letter clearly presented the blind as objects of scientific study. The blind became quite a literary fashion, and almost any student of late-nineteenth and twentieth- century French literature recalls André Gide's Symphonie Pastorale, one of the later works in this genre.

But unlike the others, Husson was not speaking for the blind but was among the blind speaking for herself, though determining just what her voice says remains an open question. Her work and her life often contradict one another. In 1826, she marries, a blind man no less, Pierre-Francois-Victor Foucault, a former student of the Royal National Institution and a musician. But in her Reflections she adamantly recommends that blind women never marry.

The tone and juxtapositions in Kudlick and Weygand's essay remain interrogative, puzzling over the clues that enlighten but never resolve the ambiguities of this mystery. For instance, how many of her ideas were meant as a conventional plea to gain entrance to the Quinze-Vingts Hôpital (the only publicly supported institution with internal and external places for the blind)? How many ideas were her own, and in what way were they influenced by the two scribes who penned the manuscript of the Reflections? What did she really think about disability, religion, the role of women, and notions of the self (p.75)?

Because Husson's manuscript was clearly written as a plea for admittance into the Hôpital, one would expect her to be poor, but as the authors point out, the choice of words and literary style suggest a fine education. And her father and step-father belonged to the lower bourgeoisie, at least until the young Adèle determined to be self-supporting when the family found themselves in great debt. Thus the contradictions between her life and writings invite question. Did her manuscript influence La Croix d'Azollette, an official of the Quinze-Vingts? What happened to her after she arrived in the capital?

The authors accidentally found a notation confirming that the novelist Madame Foucault was born Thérèse-Adèle Husson in Nancy, and on further investigation discovered that she wrote ten novels after her Reflections and died at twenty-eight. This lucky detective work and the authors' skills illustrate their historical use of clues, cross-checking, and even a cautious use of fictional techniques to delve into the possibilities that created the voice of Thérèse-Adèle Husson.

 Husson, in her foreword to Reflections, demonstrates an ambiguity of purpose. First she openly suggests that her friendship with her now deceased blind friend Charlotte provides happiness through the commonality of perception and life as blind women, but Husson laces the introduction with the somewhat formulaic gratitude and obedience to God necessitated by her plea to the Hôpital and social conventions. In her first-person voice she entreats her friend to intercede with God so that Husson "can accomplish the task pity has imposed on her, the strong wish to be of use and pleasing to all blind people" (p. 19). From this experience Husson determines she has the right to make generalizations about the blind. She wonders aloud why those blind with "sound judgment" and "devotion" don't feel as she and her friend Charlotte do.

In the first ten chapters of Reflections, drawing on her experience, Husson describes the nature and characteristics of the blind. Her subjects include the gait of the blind and the reasons for it, the significance of touch, the character of the blind, their responses to a sweet voice, the joys of hearing, their concepts of the sun and moon, questions about animals and people, perceptions of furniture and flowers, and a chapter about how they eat.

With practical and illustrative detail about the way blind people learn, Husson compares her understanding of the stars in the sky to sequins on a veil, although she is clear to note the ubiquity of the sky and her recognition that stars aren't really like sequins. Her discussion of the sun demonstrates that she "judges it by sensations it brings us" (p. 36).

Though she attributes characteristics to our innate nature and God's grace, points of view consistent with beliefs in her time, she uses an empirical model when teaching or demonstrating the knowledge of a blind person. For her, and no doubt for those in French society who have bothered to think of it, the sensitivity of the blind, their perception of sound, and their acute touch, are seen as gifts from God or innate characteristics. But the fear and slow gait of the blind clearly result from overprotective parents who would not, unlike her parents, allow the blind child free rein to explore. In contrast she thinks the sound of the voice is central to identity: the "sound of voice directs our judgment" (p. 38).

Despite her clear ability and strong character, Husson's sad chapter on how the blind eat shows her awareness of her own shortcomings. She points out that the blind raised with their families (like herself) often eat more "clumsily" than those raised at the Royal National Institution [for Blind Youth] because the former are "spoiled" and not used to being self-sufficient. Weygand and Kudlick demonstrate their perceptive reading of archives here by referring to Royal National Institution documents that support Husson's allusions to the students' routines of daily life.

Chapters 11 through 15 compose Husson's educational plan for the blind (women predominantly). In keeping with the importance of character education in Restoration France versus specific instruction in subjects especially for women, Husson urges parents to teach their blind children "humble submission," "patience," and "sweetness" (p. 45), traits necessary for their "status" in the world. Teaching a "lightheartedness" and "cheerfulness" will allow them to draw positive attention rather than "pity."

Continuing in the same vein, Husson urges parents first to teach their children to pray and to dress themselves. Parents and teachers should describe objects as they actually are when showing them to the child.

Husson believes that "If they [the children] have virtues, they can belong" (p. 48), but her own experience calls this assertion into question. She was denied a place at the end of her life. Weygand and Kudlick trace the spiraling downward mobility of Husson, her husband, and her child through the departments of Paris almost as if their words were lifted from Émile Zola. Her morality was probably questioned and her marital status, normally an asset in French society, became an obstacle to her survival.

Speaking directly to blind adolescents, Husson, in keeping with the Romanticism of her day, urges the young blind to be careful of their oversensitive hearts. They should never read Rousseau or Voltaire, for instance. Choose wisely among friends of the opposite sex, and flee from addresses with "sickly compliments" (p. 50). Her words recommend "virtue," "good deeds," and not taking advantage of others; her very act of writing and her way of life suggest that she is less submissive than her words imply.

According to Husson, a blind young man should react with a "modest" smile, "sound mind," and "good character." He should invite the "sacrifice" of a sighted woman. He should repay her care with "boundless tenderness and unconditioned trust" (p. 53), for this sighted woman serves as his "guide," "protector," and "guardian angel."

Husson, assuming that women by nature are sweet and patient, suggests that marriage to a blind man would be limiting and that one would have to entrust the raising of children to strangers. They would not see their parents as authority figures; so how could the parents punish them? If a blind woman married a sighted man, he would only seek her money, and "cold indifference" would be her lot after her youth. She encourages women with any means to keep their freedom and make good use of their possessions. Does she foreshadow Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, or is she only suggesting this because the women are blind? Blind women should "profit from their independence" (p. 55). Is she accusing herself too of "lacking common sense" since she married a blind man?

Husson suggests, in Ways to Console All Blind Women, that sweetness of temperament, good deeds, and "correct mind" will attract female friends (p. 59). She recommends the education of a friend or sister's child to provide the necessary attachment of the heart but with the reign of reason. Finally, she recommends religious consolation and the next world, as she does at the conclusion of almost every chapter. In her exhortation to blind people Husson reiterates her call for a tempered life of peace, calm, and belief, and a "noble frankness" (p. 62) for the basis of relationships among the blind.

In Note on the Author's Youth, Husson expresses her perception of her youth. She claims to have been ignorant until the age of thirteen. She says her parents felt that "the supreme good for me was being dressed, fed, and sometimes flattered." Comparing her happiness and lack of knowledge to her sister's, the young Husson clearly became depressed. Through three benefactors she was educated in a convent, learned some piano, and was encouraged in her writing career. When her family experienced debt, she "put all her faith in her resolve" and left with two hundred francs to launch a literary career in Paris. She quickly experienced all manner of suffering, married a young blind man, and saw her first novel The Converted Jewess published. Husson concludes with the now familiar undercutting of her talents and begs for gratitude from her audience (a common literary tradition of the day).

Through this work and its analysis, Weygand and Kudlick finally leave the reader with many of the questions with which we might approach such a book, but through their careful use of historical fact, in imagination these are now questions embodied in time, place, and genre to create a memorable life and work central to our history as blind men and women. With this history we, unlike Husson, often have the means and freedom to embrace similar questions in our daily lives. So does Thérèse-Adèle Husson, as Bonnie Smith asks, challenge "norms in a way that merely emphasizes her own exclusion from them--her own difference--or [is there] something bold and resistant in her way of life" (p. XIV)? Though one will never know, as a Federationist I would think that, notable as she is, Husson, like most blind people, is both, at different times and with respect to different issues in her life. Therefore one might conclude that there is no categorical real Husson, but an imagined one in the play of archive, art, and reader's experience. Thus one might ask, isn't her existence poised between exclusion from society and resistance to it?

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