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Reviews John M. Picker. Victorian Soundscapes. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). xii + 220 pp. diaries Dickens, I recall, once confessed "a furtive fondness" for the banjo, a closet affection perhaps, but one which plainly could not survive "the bangers of banjos" who together with other "brazen performers on brazen instruments" constituted the swarmingbands of London street musicians. These unruly rascals precipitated the death ofJohn Leech and propelled Dickens into the ranks of protestors petitioningPadiament for legislation against the clamorous nuisance. The Victorian city generated a great range of new and disturbing sounds, a theme which recurs in Dickens who figures prominendy inJohn M. Picker's impressively researched study of literary and scientific perceptions of the new acoustic environment and the changing sensibility it engendered. In a searching interpretation of Dombey andSon, Picker's openingchapter demonstrates how Dickens worked assiduously to render sounds in a new dynamics of expression that made the author's voice more authentic and compelling, both on the page and in his public readings. Dickens acute aural alertness is thus made prime evidence of an emerging age of "auscultation," that is, of careful listening, "close listening" (an intriguing coinage), that produced new resources of representation and meaning, and served as a diagnostic device in plumbing the mysteries of the culture just as the recent invention of the stethoscope did those of the body. In his earnest attention to the effects and intelligibility of sounds and voices Dickens was influenced by the theories of his good friend, diaries Babbage. Much less known than his precocious formulation of computer math was Babbage's theory of the permanent circulation of sound, rescued by Picker as an example of the important role of science in informing the sensitivities of writedy listening and Dickens' "phonotext" in particular. It was the irascible Babbage who led the counter attack against street musicians, the focus of the following chapter. The eccentric polymath marshalled an impressive brigade of artists, authors and intellectuals to secure the Street Music Act of 1864, something of a hollow victory as it turned out, but important in registering the occupational, psychic and territorial identity of an emergent new professional class struggling to establish the home and office as a cloistered and inviolate workplace. (A familiar exercise still for today's scholar, with Carlyle's would-be soundproof study and Proust's cork-lined room two major historical landmarks.) This Victorian Review (2005)67 Reviews is a well known but still intriguingepisode, as Brenda Assael (and this reviewer) have also demonstrated, a significant skirmish in the Victorian batde of classes and cultures over issues of space, order and civility. And as Picker astutely argues, its noisy exchanges were really about silence and its commodification. The musicians (who gave further offence by being damned foreigners) sought payment not only for playingbut for shutting up - 'extortion', as their opponents howled. The intellectuals assumed mat silence and privacy were rights purchased with their domestic real estate. Picker correcdy identifies the ensuing spectacle played out on Babbage's doorstep as 'low comedy" and "festive disorder," but the scholady discourse, the rhetoric of our trade, can't really do justice to the rich comedy of it all as the crowds gather to enjoy the musical siege of the empurpled sage, framed in his doorway like some fruitlessly fulminating pantomime baron. Leech, poor lad, did better, showing Bass the brewer and the intellectuals' champion in the Commons shoving a scruffy Italian organ grinder off a cliff. (Some telling cartoons accompany Picker's text.) Silence is again a crucial property inJohn Picker's next (and most enthralling) exercise in close listening, as he unpicks the aural fabric of Eliot's DanielDeronda. Existing acknowledgments of the singular lyricality of the novel are pressed further to uncover the layers of meaning in sounds and their suspension that come charged with Eliot's oblique but powerful gender politics, her intimate acquaintance with Helmholtz's acoustic physiology (science again), and anticipations of Freudian analysis. Picker is elsewhere suggestive on the interplay of sound and gender. Socialised as the quieter if not silent sex, women were likely to be more aurally alert than men, though the articulation and meaningof relationships of hearingwere complex...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 67-70
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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