- Sound, Literature & London
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IMAGINE A TRAIN TRAVELLING through England. On it, there are kids (rather rowdy), basking musicians, and folks chattering their way back after a long day’s work. It is easy (even if fanciful) to imagine some of the writers explored by Patricia Pye in her fascinating Sound and Modernity in the Literature of London, 1880–1918 happily taking the first available seat, making themselves comfortable, and taking it all in. Equally, it is not difficult to picture others rushing for the quiet coach and, once in it, point irritatingly to the “be quiet” sign above them if a fellow passenger as much dares as to pick up a call.
Yet no matter where they would sit, all of the writers Pye considers in her study—George Gissing, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, H. G. Wells, R. L. Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Richard Jefferies, G. K. Chesterton, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford—were good and attentive listeners. To borrow James’s phrase (from the preface to his 1886 novel, The Princess Casamassima), all shared a “social ear,” which is what allowed them (again in James’s words) to go “beneath the vast, smug surface of London.” Following their lead, Pye lends a sharp ear to the changing sounds of late-Victorian and early Edwardian London. Her close listening reveals fascinating ways in which period writers responded to the sounds of modernity. But the book’s main success lies, I think, in the way Pye reveals how authors’ attitudes toward sound were closely connected to their attitudes towards modernity. The book will be of interest to all those working in the literature and ideological politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It was during this time that London really began to sound modern. The 1870 Education Act had created a ready audience for the popular press. News during this time often travelled by word of mouth, including through the cries of newsboys—whose very existence, as Pye rightly notes, was transitional: both “shackled to the modern economic enterprise of the popular press” and a memento of “the orality of old London.” The manners in which news moved through London, and the various and distinct ways in which Londoners experienced time and gleaned information about the city, are here explored through close attention to Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Ford’s Parade’s End. The discussion of the latter is an especially fascinating one. In A Man Could Stand Up (the penultimate novel in Parade’s End, which opens on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918), we see Valentine Wannop mingling [End Page 445] with the crowds and joining in the celebratory rowdiness. Many, not least Virginia Woolf, regarded this rowdiness as very un-English. Through Valentine’s act, Pye argues, Ford asserts the potential of the modern, city-dwelling individual to overcome the isolation of human existence, by having Valentine engage in a communal reaction to shared news. Pye’s reading of Ford’s account of Armistice Day in turn shows what literary studies can achieve: in this case, take us beyond official historical records into individual responses to communal events and the role that sound plays in these responses.
The 1870 Education Act also stimulated a revival of interest in oratory—in sermons (religious and secular), educational lectures, and political meetings. So it was not only newsboys that could be heard in the London of the 1880s, but also socialist orators and the working-class crowds that these orators attracted. Representations of political meetings in the works of writers such as Gissing evoke important but often overlooked features of the urban soundscape of London in the 1880s and 1890s, to which Pye does extremely well to return our attention. Gissing was interested in the characteristics of working-class speech, employing in his writings orthographic simulation of dialect to great effect. But his 1886 Demos also anticipates late-Victorian and early Edwardian theories of crowd psychology. Written a decade before Le Bon’s The Crowd (1895...