CHARLES DICKENS’ ACUTE sensitivity to the dramatic uses of sound makes his novels a good source of auditory descriptions of 19th century London. John M. Picker’s scholarly book Victorian Soundscapes scrutinises the sounds in Dombey and Son, and it’s particularly interesting to learn how Dickens was influenced by the thinking of Charles Babbage, famous for designing early mechanical computers.
Babbage believed that every sound ever made lived on in the atmosphere, weakening without disappearing. In 1837 he wrote:
Dombey and Son was published in the late 1840s, and the influence of Babbage’s ideas can also be discerned in Bleak House, published a few years later. Characters in the novel often speak in whispers, and in one passage ‘ghosts of sound’ threaten to intrude after whispering has lowered the threshold of perception:
Bleak House‘s environment of whispers and silences is largely an indoor one. But sometimes London itself approaches silence, even though its perpetual hum is not entirely absent:
A very quiet night. When the moon shines very brilliantly, a solitude and stillness seem to proceed from her that influence even crowded places full of life [. . .] In these fields of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s inhabiting, where the shepherds play on Chancery pipes that have no stop, and keep their sheep in the fold by hook and by crook until they have shorn them exceeding close, every noise is merged, this moonlight night, into a distant ringing hum, as if the city were a vast glass, vibrating.
What’s that? Who fired a gun or pistol? Where was it?
The few foot-passengers start, stop, and stare about them. Some windows and doors are opened, and people come out to look. It was a loud report and echoed and rattled heavily. It shook one house, or so a man says who was passing. It has aroused all the dogs in the neighbourhood, who bark vehemently. Terrified cats scamper across the road. While the dogs are yet barking and howling—there is one dog howling like a demon—the church-clocks, as if they were startled too, begin to strike. The hum from the streets, likewise, seems to swell into a shout. But it is soon over. Before the last clock begins to strike ten, there is a lull. When it has ceased, the fine night, the bright large moon, and multitudes of stars, are left at peace again.
Another urban sound of the 19th century punctures the relative quiet of night:
A now-vanished sound associated with road traffic is described when Ada, Esther and Richard cross the boundary between London and the countryside:
Bells on horses’ harnesses had a long history before the Victorian era. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written towards the end of the 14th century, the pleasure-loving Monk has them as a sign of affluence:
And when he rode, men might his bridle hear
Jingeling in a whistling wind as clear,
And eke as loud, as doth the chapel bell
‘Jingling’ and ‘jingle’ are also among the most common sound-related words in Bleak House, associated with everyday actions and hospitality, warding off for a while the ghosts in the library of sound.