The past is silent. Even its breath is hushed in the library quiet of old documents, or in the hum of our houses when we read its books at home. The crust of paint shows us the wordless dead, but what medium can help us hear them too?
Er... I think that would be us. Obviously all the senses matter to a novelist, but if smell is the most evocative, then sound has a unique power to ‘make real'. One visit to Michelle Lovric’s wonderful ‘Undrowned Child’ website is enough to set me tingling with anticipation as I listen to the sound of muffled bells across the waters of Venice.
There’s only one snag for a historical novelist, which is that we don’t always know the sounds we’re trying to recreate. The rustle of heavy beaded clothing is different from the swish of a modern ballgown, and even the turn of a page makes a softer, thicker sound in the 17th century than it does today. The very silence is different, as we learn every time there’s a power cut and even the faint mutter of the refrigerator dies. To write these things we have to hear them first.
So as always, it's back to research. At least nature's reliable, and I bet I'm not only one who’s spent hours on bird-watching sites recoiling from ear-splitting shrieks I’m told are vultures indigenous to the Crimea. Cities are more changeable, but ancient maps came to my rescue many times when writing ‘In the Name of the King’. I knew about the hubbub of sound that would have greeted my country boy hero when he entered Paris – the maps gave me churches and therefore bells, contemporary engravings gave me cobbles and carriages, banging shutters and the cries of water-vendors – but I wanted something familiar under it to root him and keep him calm. Only one old map included the mysterious word ‘Ponceau’ right by the site of the old Porte St-Denis, but that gave me just what I needed: the sound of running water.
Yet even these clues depend on us knowing what bells, shutters and water sound like in the first place, and for most lost sounds I rely heavily on re-enactment. My husband might be excused for believing the sound of making fire with flint and steel consists of ‘scrape, scrape, b%!*er!’ as the skin is once again gashed from my knuckles, but it’s through doing such things that I learned a bandolier rattles enough to give away an ambush, a dozen muskets being rammed simultaneously sounds like the rittling of knitting needles, and a smooth-bore weapon makes a deeper boom than any gun with a rifled barrel – knowledge that could save a soldier’s life in the Crimea.
There are also contemporary accounts, and for my Crimean novel I’m lucky to have had imaginative writers on the spot. From Times Correspondent William Howard Russell I heard the screaming of birds under the booming of cannon, and from Alexander Kinglake the swish of the Highlanders' kilts as they marched through the long grass. Most of all I remember Lord George Paget’s diary reference to the ‘terrible slosh’ of a cannonball ripping into the belly of a man behind him. That one piece of onomatopoeia brought with it the sight and smell and touch, the wetness of the impact, the slurry on the cheek of the man next to him, the frailty and horror of it, one word for a death, slosh.
But these are all extraordinary things, and few eyewitnesses bother to record sounds so common as to be almost unnoticeable. I wrote a diary for ten years, and never once mentioned the constant ‘beep-beep-beep’ of the crossing outside my front-door – just the kind of thing a historical novelist 200 years from now will want to know. Only a poet tends to reference the mundane, as John Donne writes of ‘the noise of a fly… the rattling of a coach… the whining of a door’, but even then they rarely describe.
Perhaps we don’t need them to – especially when period drama has already familiarized us with basic sounds like carriage wheels or the clash of swords. OK, as a former TV producer I admit most of these effects are selected from CDs labelled ‘Transport – period’ or ‘Swords – generic’, but does the degree of authenticity really matter? Yes, it’s maddening to watch a duel dubbed to clashing broadswords because the director didn’t think the rapiers sounded butch enough, but as long as picture matches sound I doubt most of us really care. This isn’t ‘Top Gear’, and the aural difference between a barouche and a landau is unlikely to arouse the same passions of those discussing a Ferrari Testarossa and a Lamborghini Aventador.
Yet I still want to know what those sounds were, if only just for me. When I soak myself in music of the period, it’s not to describe it to the reader, but to take myself there so I can write about everything else. And in writing the 1850's I'm not limited just to music. In this wax cylinder recording the cavalry charge is being played by a surviving Trumpeter of the Light Brigade on the very same instrument he used that day at Balaclava.
But the recording that really sends shivers up my spine is this. Even the second, clearer rendition has deteriorated so much you need the transcript to understand it, but the voice you are hearing is of an old woman called Florence Nightingale.
Why is that so fascinating and extraordinary – why? We KNOW she was real, we’ve seen her photographs, and the plummy voice is exactly what we’d expect. Perhaps it’s the rarity value, the incredible sensation of hearing the dead speak, a feeling not dissimilar to nostalgia and an irrational ache for something lost.
Here’s a last example, which is far more ordinary and modern but has elements of all these things. My mother grew up in WWII and one of my earliest memories is of seeing her pause in the act of hanging up the washing to look up at a sound in the skies. I said helpfully ‘It’s a plane, mummy,’ but I’ll never forget her smile as she answered ‘No, that’s a Lancaster.’
To me there's no more evocative sound. This little video is from a DVD by Priory Records which they’ve put on youtube just for this blog, because the kind producer happens to be my long-suffering husband. It’s an organ performance of the Dambusters March, but watch what happens halfway through as the last working Lancaster in England flies in the sky above Lincoln Cathedral. The music is wonderful, of course, but as it dies my husband kept the sound going so we could hear the wonderful and unique sound of those four Merlin engines that say ‘World War II’ in a way nothing else can.
For my mother that sound recalled the war. For me it recalls both the war, and the wetness in my mother’s eyes as she stood still in a summer garden with a red plastic peg in her hand. Sound links us through the years in an unbroken chain, and I only wish I could do the same with words.
A.L. Berridge’s ‘In the Name of the King’ came out August 4th 2011.
‘Into the Valley of Death’ is due Spring 2012 if she can stop being maudlin long enough to finish it.
Her website is at http://www.louiseberridge.com