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
Louise, what a stunning piece. I LOVED hearing Florence Nightingale (though I could barely understand a word she said) and the Lancaster at the end of the YouTube clip gave me CHILLS!
I love steeping myself in the sound of my period, too. I couldn't do it with the Romans, but thank goodness I know what music in the 1860's sounded like, and can gauge the BANG! of a cap & ball Colt's Navy at a shooting range, and hear the slurry of a horse's hooves in the desert.
Thanks so much, Caroline. You're right about the music making a lot of difference too - do you listen to it when you're writing?
I've only just taken on board we're writing just six years apart,so I'd be really grateful to hear if you've got any favourite pieces you think help particularly.
There was American music in the Crimea too. One of the pieces the bands played at the landing was 'Camptown Races'!
And yay for the Navy Colt! That is a WONDERFUL noise.
What Caroline said! There is something very eery about hearing voices from the past - Florence Nightingale, Tennyson, Mark Twain... If only we could hear Julius Caesar or Oliver Cromwell.
Yes, Camptown Races was the theme song of Virginia City in the 1860s and there was even a livery stable called the Flora Temple Livery Stable. Who is Flora Temple, you ask? She is the bob-tail nag (or mare) of the song!
I also want to compliment you on your assured use of LINKs in this post! :-)
P.S. Stroppy Author, I'd love to hear Mark Twain but that famous recording is by a man who knew him well and impersonated him - not quite the same! :-(
But, yes, wouldn't it be great to hear Caesar, Cromwell & Cleopatra! :-)
Oh, agreed - and definitely Caesar and Cleopatra! But wouldn't it be awful if their voices were a disappointment, like those macho silent film stars who couldn't survive the transition to sound? Imagine Genghis Khan with a squeaky voice, or Napoleon with adenoids...
What a wonderful essay on sound and the past. Thank you for sharing some of these resonant gems. For me it was that 1815 bugle that sent the shivers down my spine. Also wonderful was the 'terrible slosh' of the cannonball tearing into flesh was with all its attendant sensory connotations. Evoking sound in words is an art but this dimension adds so much to the pleasure of reading. For years I have struggled to describe one of my favourite sounds, that of the call of swifts as they swoop through an evening sky. I've never come close to capturing the poetry of it . Thanks for a fascinating post.
I love this post. I can't access the links till I'm home from holiday with a proper computer but am looking forward v much! In the meantime it's set me thinking. I'd love to hear Henry VIII of course - though, yes, what a danger of his voice being so very different from what I'd imagined that it's disorientating... But I'd ESP like to hear Mary Tudor - according to accounts her voice, for a small & slight woman, was startling deep, loud and "mannish".
Linda - yes,indeed about the bugle. For me I think it's the frailty that does it, the fact that he's an old man now and doesn't play it very well.
And I am SO annoyed I didn't think of the phrase 'attendant sensory connotations'!
Harriet - Ooh, I didn't know that about Mary Tudor, and it's amazing what a difference it makes. You've just made her more real to me - brilliant.
Wonderful! I must admit sound is not something I'd given an enormous amount of thought to (well, except for wondering what different kinds od shells in WW2 sound like). Will take more notice from now on. Very interesting indeed - thank you!
Have just watched the video and am quite choked up. After my dad died (see my post a couple of days ago for his connection with the war), we were up at his house clearing it out, and there was a special event at the village; during the war, an RAF plane had crashed nearby on a test flight, and a memorial had just been unveiled to the crew. A Lancaster bomber (probably the same one) flew up from the south west to Stanley (which is in Derbyshire) to do a fly-past, and it felt just as if it was saying goodbye, as we all stared up at it and listened to the sound of those engines...
Oh, Sue, what an incredibly moving experience. That was a beautiful bit of timing, like a final tribute to your dad.
It was almost certainly the same plane, as I think the only other one still flying is in Scandinavia. I do hope they keep it going a bit longer, but she's a very old lady now.
Coming late to this but as all the others have said, it's an astonishing post. Loved the recording of the bugle. And Florence Nightingale. Shivers down the spine.
As for the sound of that cannon ball described...well. Fantastic post.
I'm also coming late to this. Fascinating post... we rely so much on the visual... think of how much has been said about period costume recently... so to focus on the auditory was wonderful. Apart from the links to real sound recordings, just thinking about the difference of hearing a broadsword rather then a rapier is fascinating. In the movie 'Psycho' they plunged a knife into a watermelon to get that fleshy sound in the shower scene but I was too terrified to even discern whether the sound was authentic or not!
I'm glad I stumbled upon this post! Yesterday I spent a fair amount of time listening to clips of airplanes and bombs and air raid sirens, just sitting in the dark with my eyes closed, trying to feel them as much as describe them. And you've captured that concept so beautifully here, Louise. It's not so much trying to describe the sound itself (something not always possible explaining to a modern audience using modern language), but to describe how that sound would tug at a character at that time. Your example of your mother and the Lancaster is perfect. I do agree that the auditory is underrated in fiction, especially as when it does appear, it's the commonplace, the stuff that modern audiences can fill in on their own. It's the unique, the meaningful, the hard-to-explain that I wish I saw more of in historical fiction.
this post makes so much sense. I hadn't really thought about the differences between the soft whoosh of a light modern day skirt to something weighted with beads. It really made me think.
What a beautiful image at the end. Oddly enough there was a Spitfire display near here a few weeks back. I was out taking the clothes off the line and I stood and listened to that Merlin engine and wondered if another woman had stood in the same spot all those years ago and heard the same thing, while shielding her eyes from the setting sun.
Great post, Louise! I think onomatopoeia is the writer's best friend, especially in historicals. It offers a quick way, easily palpable to the reader, to communicate sound without a clunky 'sounded like'. And in historicals, we don't always have something to compare to -- recall Tolkien's dragon Smaug sounding 'like a freight train'. So give me a rumbling voice, the slap of oars, the hiss of an unsheathed dagger or -- ewww -- the slosh of a cannonball's impact.
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