Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

15 December 2009

Bleak House and Babbage's library of sound

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:

The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered. There, in their mutable but unerring characters, mixed with the earliest,as well as with the latest sighs of mortality, stand for ever recorded, vows unredeemed, promises unfulfilled, perpetuating in the united movements of each particle, the testimony of man’s changeful will.

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:

Both sit silent, listening to the metal voices, near and distant, resounding from towers of various heights, in tones more various than their situations. When these at length cease, all seems more mysterious and quiet than before. One disagreeable result of whispering is that it seems to evoke an atmosphere of silence, haunted by the ghosts of sound—strange cracks and tickings, the rustling of garments that have no substance in them, and the tread of dreadful feet that would leave no mark on the sea-sand or the winter snow. So sensitive the two friends happen to be that the air is full of these phantoms, and the two look over their shoulders by one consent to see that the door is shut.

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:

He is not expected there, for he has been recumbent this quarter of a century in the churchyard of St. Andrews, Holborn, with the waggons and hackney-coaches roaring past him all the day and half the night like one great dragon. If he ever steal forth when the dragon is at rest to air himself again in Cook’s Court until admonished to return by the crowing of the sanguine cock in the cellar at the little dairy in Cursitor Street, whose ideas of daylight it would be curious to ascertain.

A now-vanished sound associated with road traffic is described when Ada, Esther and Richard cross the boundary between London and the countryside:

By and by we began to leave the wonderful city and to proceed through suburbs which, of themselves, would have made a pretty large town in my eyes; and at last we got into a real country road again, with windmills, rick-yards, milestones, farmers’ waggons, scents of old hay, swinging signs, and horse troughs: trees, fields, and hedge-rows. It was delightful to see the green landscape before us and the immense metropolis behind; and when a waggon with a train of beautiful horses, furnished with red trappings and clear-sounding bells, came by us with its music, I believe we could all three have sung to the bells, so cheerful were the influences around.

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.