Historical Figures, Archives and Australian Disability Life Writing: Reading Jessica White’s Hearing Maud and Writing Hysteria


Through examining Jessica White’s hybrid memoir Hearing Maud and my own work Hysteria: A Memoir of Illness, Strength and Women’s Stories Throughout History, I explore how archival research shapes a disabled writer’s work and written representation of the self. I particularly focus on how memoirists convey the embodied experience of disability through writing lived experience, as well as writing about disabled women they have found through archival research. I consider how writers’ conceptions of the self and body coalesce and depart from the women they are researching. I am intrigued about how, for writers, archival research shapes contemporary disability hybrid memoir writing. In addition, I suggest that imagination accompanies encounters with archival material. Writers imagine the past life of their historical subject(s), and in doing so, imagine beyond ableism. Further, a theme of institutions and how they impact individual lives throughout historical periods emerges.

‘As a writer, it’s my job to go into the underworld, to collect the stories of the dead and bring them back to the living.’ Jessica White, Hearing Maud (11)

In ‘Crippling the Archives: Negotiating Notions of Disability in Appraisal and Arrangement and Description’, archivist Sara White aligns the theory of complex embodiment in disability studies – that is specific knowledge derived from particular disabilities – with archival practice. White writes that because understandings of disability have ‘evolved’ over the past century, ‘only recently have people with disabilities been recognised as an underrepresented group. As a result, archivists have just embarked upon documenting them’ (110). This mirrors the feminist archival reclamation that occurred during the 1980s and which, as Maryanne Dever, Sally Newman and Ann Vickery write in The Intimate Archive, mostly focused on ‘rescue missions in order to install past women writers in the archival record’ (15). These…

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Published 23 May 2022 in Special Issue: Writing Disability in Australia. Subjects: Disabled writers, d/Deafness, Epilepsy/seizures, Jessica White.

Cite as: Bryant, Katerina. ‘Historical Figures, Archives and Australian Disability Life Writing: Reading Jessica White’s Hearing Maud and Writing Hysteria.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2022, doi: 10.20314/als.867e51f1b7.