2020 - Shortlisted
Usually books entered for the National Biography Award are either biography or memoir but Hearing Maud is a skilful interweaving of the two genres. Jessica White tells the tragedy of Maud, the daughter of expatriate Australian novelist Rosa Praed. Maud’s profound deafness deeply affected her life’s trajectory, as a clever and accomplished young woman ends up paranoid in Holloway Sanatorium. White brings to her account careful research, an excited sense of discovery and, above all, her own experience of deafness following a bout of meningitis at the age of four.
The writing, unsentimental and unobtrusive, beautifully evokes White’s life, a sunny Australian farm childhood, miserable London winters, the challenges of her journey to understand Maud. There are shrewd insights into the history of deafness and its treatments, the ideological battles between signing and oralism and sign language’s relationship to the emergence of the telegraph and the fad of automatic writing. But we are also left with a sense of exhaustion: how gruellingly hard it is to be deaf and not show it. This is simultaneously a contribution to the history of nineteenth-century women’s lives, a revelatory study of deafness, and a fine work of Australian literature.