Reconstructing Domestic Soundscapes

I am working on a new commission for the Charles Dickens Museum called “Hearing Catherine”. This is an ACE Grants for the Arts funded project which will run alongside the Charles Dickens Museum’s 2016 special exhibition “The Other Dickens”. For the project I’m composing six special sound pieces designed to represent Catherine Dickens – Charles’s wife – in the London house in which the Dickens family lived between 1837 – 1839. The compositions will be installed throughout the building in appropriate locations and I am really enjoying working on them.

To say that Catherine lived in the shadow of her infamous husband is so obvious it barely merits saying; add to this the narrow range of self-expression granted to respectable middle-class Victorian ladies and the fact that Charles burned all Catherine’s letters to him following their separation, and it becomes clear that sonically retrieving Catherine from the past will be a partial and fragmentary exercise, littered with silences as well as with sounds. However, for me that only makes the endeavour more necessary.

The Other Dickens by Lillian Nayder; Victorian London's Middle-Class Housewife - what she did all day by Yaffa Draznin and Dinner for Dickens by Susan M. Rossi Wilcox

The Other Dickens by Lillian Nayder; Victorian London’s Middle-Class Housewife – what she did all day by Yaffa Draznin and Dinner for Dickens by Susan M. Rossi Wilcox

In the chapter “Reconstructing Catherine” in her magnificent tome “The Other DickensLillian Nayder writes about her motivations for researching the life of Catherine in an explanation that really resonates with me;

Rather than search for an “essential” Catherine Dickens, this book considers how she presented herself to the world, constructing and reconstructing her own identity while also being constructed by others. It looks at her from an array of vantage points, acknowledging discrepancies rather than seeking to obscure them, and approaching selfhood as a largely relational phenomenon.
Catherine’s story helps us understand the workings of her culture and ours. For all its notoriety, her situation as Dickens’s estranged wife merely publicized the potential vulnerabilities of all Victorian wives, legally denied properly and custody rights well into the nineteenth century, many of whom struggled to embrace submission and service as womanly duties, as Catherine long did.

I have been thoroughly energised by reading Lillian’s book. It is a rich, scholarly investigation into Catherine’s life, and it saves her from being defined entirely by her marriage to Charles Dickens – a fate compounded both by Charles’s narrative powers, and by subsequent generations of scholars who have taken his word over hers. In its thorough investigations into the complexity of selfhood for women in Victorian Britain, and in its respectful examination of Catherine’s life, marriage and relationships, it paints an engaging and well-evidenced portrait of a lively, competent, warm and loving woman with proud Scottish origins and a wide circle of friends. It is then a book about Catherine Dickens, but it has wider implications for understanding what life was like more generally for women in Victorian Britain. It also models some of the scholarly strategies that might be used to retrieve women – like Catherine – whose lives are scantly documented, and whose experiences, versions of events and social role are simply not as well represented as those of men. This matters a great deal for the future as well as for the past, because with each fragment of obfuscated female experience unearthed from the archives and given a bigger place in history, the version of the world passed on to future generations becomes a bit more balanced; a bit more equal, by increments.

Working on this project speaks directly to the feminist aspects of my practice and to my fascination with domestic spaces as special sonic sites of meaning; in many ways I am reminded of previous projects on which I’ve worked in a similar vein, using sound recordings to explore the texture and materiality of the lives of women in the past. You may recall the soundtrack I produced for the BFI’s release of historic childcare videos – Bathing & Dressingfor which I researched early midwifery; or the project on which I worked for Shetland Wool Week in 2013 – Listening to Shetland Wool – which explored the sonic textures of wool in Shetland and particularly the sounds associated with the hosiery trade there; and very recently – The Fabric of Oxford – which explored textile stories in the city of Oxford and reflected the daily lives, labour and experiences of different generations of both men and women (and mainly women) living in that city.

The Fabric of Oxford | Sonic Wardrobe from OCM on Vimeo.

However, the sense of biography – of working specifically with the memories and traces of one woman, Catherine Dickens née Catherine Hogarth – gives this project a special intimacy and particularity. It also makes me think about the unique ways in which an individual person sounds as a self in the world.

I haven’t yet discovered any direct descriptions of Catherine’s voice; I know she grew up near New Town in Edinburgh – at sites I intend to explore next week when I am in that fabulous city for another reason – and I have found a voice actor from the same area of Edinburgh with whom to work to give Catherine a voice. However I’m really aware that it won’t be Catherine’s voice; similarly, in consulting various sources, I have found many references on which to draw, but there is no evidence of how she sounded in other ways in her daily life.

"Silly Joey Muffkins is in the sink again..."

“Silly Joey Muffkins is in the sink again…”

For example did she, as I do, wander around in her home singing foolish ditties to her children and/or pets such as “silly Joey Muffkins is in the sink again” (this week’s song in our domestic soundscape); did she crack jokes and was it important to her to make the family laugh; was she a list-maker, reflecting audibly on the jobs requiring to be done or groceries required? Did she play the piano every day and did she also sing at it? How did she move about the house, rustling in the massive cumbersome garb of the nineteenth century; was she fast or slow coming up and down the stairs, swishing as she went? Did she hum to herself, or make little irritated noises when threading a tapestry needle with which to sew? How did she talk to the domestic servants and the cook, to her children and to her husband? Did she have an irritated way of saying “Charles?” when she needed to ask him something and he was proving elusive or unavailable? And how precious must silence and quiet have been in a house with all those children and the never ending rota of dinner guests that Charles Dickens liked to entertain? It is frustrating to have no answers to such questions, and thinking of them makes me consider the highly personal ways in which we each sound in the world.

I often sing tuneless songs all over the house to amuse myself and Mark, and I can be very bashy when some irksome and irritating domestic task needs doing that I don’t want to do. I talk to my ducks – “the ladies” – in a very calming and gentle voice designed to soothe their demented quacking; I don’t have the television on much when I’m here alone, though I love watching it with Mark, and when I have lovely long phone-calls with my friends I go on a ceaseless tidying quest, wandering round and round the house picking up and putting away things that should have been picked up and put away days before. There are carefully considered sounds that I present to the world in my podcasts, in my art works, in my online presence and in my occasional accordion performances. But those sounds are only some of the sounds of me existing and being and expressing my personality and subjectivity. I like the word TURBO, and gratuitously adding it to made-up songs to make Mark laugh; I sing to Mark very often – sweet, loving songs sometimes – “when I wake up in the morning…” and sometimes not so nice songs; “poor little Felix had to clean out the recycling bin again, because some monster put a dirty beans tin in there, now it’s gone mouldy, tra la la la la la, what sort of psycho would do such a thing” etc.

There are words that define different eras for me, too – I like hyperbolae and say the word “Amazing” perhaps more than any other – but I’ve no idea what fashionable words or slang words or favourite words Catherine Dickens liked… I also rap Missy Elliott numbers all over the house in my terrible attempts at her glorious accent, and I am afraid I really enjoy swearing which Catherine Dickens almost certainly did not. Charles Dickens is quoted in Lillian’s book speaking about the behaviour of two eminent ladies met by himself, Catherine and her sister, Georgina, in Switzerland. From his words we can infer some of the ways in which Catherine did not behave or the sort of language she didn’t use;

At the end of September the three dined with Lady Walpole and Lady Pellew, who were “both very clever,” Dickens felt, but who shocked him by smoking cigars “in the most gentlemanly manner” and using language generally reserved for men.

The sonic freedoms that I enjoy closely mirror my social freedoms; I am free to swear, to clatter about the place, to complain, to admonish the cat or the man or the ducks, to sing loudly, to do housework in an openly grudging manner, to speak excitedly about my day and to rant with authority and at great length. I luckily have a partner who listens to me and who does not wish to “master” me in the manner that Charles Dickens sought to master Catherine. It is difficult, examining the facts of Catherine’s life, to see what sorts of sounds she would have made or been allowed to make, or to have felt entitled to make in the submissive position that Charles Dickens encouraged her to inhabit in their marriage. I do not want to fall into the trap of imagining she was completely silent, nor to over-embellish the known facts with imaginary sounds. As in my previous projects – Bathing & Dressing; Listening to Shetland Wool; and The Fabric of Oxford – I’m mindful of how the sounds I use in this project will be received and interpreted by audiences. I’m aiming to make sound pieces that will give Catherine a tangible sonic presence in the Charles Dickens Museum, but which will also connect with broader ideas about expressiveness, female freedoms, and domestic soundscapes.

In this project I feel acutely aware of the limitations of attempting to reconstruct domestic soundscapes of the past; the most intimate sounds of self seem to be those of which no audible records survive. Voices from the past often come to us in written documents, but audible speech and written language read very differently; and if there are any documenters of domestic soundscapes past who recorded much in the way of the incidental sounds people used to make while living in their homes and bustling about their daily business, I am yet to find them. I’m reading another book called “Dinner for Dickens” in which I am finding some clues as to what dinner parties would have sounded like chez Dickens, but I think it’s unlikely that I will ever satisfactorily know if Catherine sung around the house, or whether she swished noisily or went quietly when she was walking round it.

Catherine's hand-writing

Catherine’s hand-writing

Instead I’m looking at Catherine’s surviving letters*, at the cookbook she wrote and published under the pseudonym “Ladia Maria Clutterbuck”, a children’s book from which she read to her Grandchildren later in her life, and the compositions with which she would have been familiar through her wide circle of friends and through her father, George Hogarth.

I’m also spending some time in the house itself, listening to the groans and creaks of the lovely old floorboards and the beautiful clock that still strikes the hour today as it did in the 1800s.

I am quiet and thoughtful at these times, and when the natural light is coming through the windows hitting on the old furniture, I do find myself wondering if I am looking at the very same view that Catherine might once have seen, and in what context she would have been standing where I am standing.

The view from one of the landings in the house in which Charles and Catherine lived together from 1837 - 1839

The view from one of the landings in the house in which Charles and Catherine lived together from 1837 – 1839

Also, last week I stayed in a house in Shrewsbury with a working Victorian range to understand the textures and sounds that would have fuelled the Dickens’s dinner parties and entertainments with glittering, coal-fired heat; and I am chasing up the inventory of Catherine’s worldly possessions from the sale of her estate in 1879, to see what sorts of books were in her library, and whether any sonic clues as to how she spent her time in the home might be found there.

The catalogue of the estate sale following Catherine Dickens's death

The catalogue of the estate sale following Catherine Dickens’s death

Catherine’s commanding voice comes through in her cookbook – “stir it quickly over the fire till the butter is melted, but do not let it boil”;

The sounds of cooking on a Victorian range

The sounds of cooking on a Victorian range

her loving voice comes through in her letter to the artist Maclise, when she thanks him for the beautiful painting of her children commissioned to accompany her and Charles on their North American tour; and we hear mischief and defiance (and perhaps some skills in mimicry) in her son Henry’s account of her favourite joke;

Catherine enjoyed telling stories about Scotswomen who openly questioned or defied male authority. That much is clear from her son Henry’s account of Catherine’s favourite joke, which centered on such a figure and conveyed “a Scotch woman’s views with regard to the Garden of Eden”: “Someone had been expatiating to her on its beauties when she retorted, in broad Scotch, ‘Eh mon, it would be nae temptation to me to gae rinning aboot a gairden stairk naked ‘ating green apples.’” Catherine’s joke works to the disadvantage of the Scotswoman, whose ignorance of the Genesis story is comical in itself. But Catherine’s humor, like the “Scotch woman’s,” is also aimed at the ministerial “mon” (man) who holds forth about the Garden and its perfections… unimpressed by his sermonizing, the Scotswoman in Catherine’s joke suggests instead that Paradise is overrated and that no apple would ever tempt a woman to fall.

Catherine’s choice in female friends – particularly talented young musicians and women who resisted the same paths of constraint in marriage that Catherine experienced – gives some clues as to the sorts of songs and pieces of music that might populate the sound pieces, and from her tone in letters about her children and the children of other women, I think a loving and interested voice can be found for reading from “A Children’s Summer” – a book from which we know Catherine read to her grandchildren.

I am frustrated to never be able to know for certain how Catherine sounded as herself in the home she shared with Charles, but in seeking to really hear her in the available evidence, I hope to partially reconstruct her presence in the domestic soundscape at Doughty Street.

I have written more about this project on the Charles Dickens Museum blog in a post coinciding with International Women’s Day and you will be able to follow the progress of the project on their website here.

5 Responses to Reconstructing Domestic Soundscapes

  1. Juliann says:

    This is truly a daunting task. To understand Catherine’s inner voice is going to be difficult. I admire you for doing this. I suppose there would be tension with her being a “fierce” Scotswoman and he a “proper” English gentleman. I think we would like to romanticize her and say in her alone times with her children she would tell them funny stories and sing to them Scottish songs. But her son sounds like his father. I guess it is the “times” they lived in. Boys were not coddled and were expected to follow in daddy’s footsteps. They learn quickly that mommy is “just foolish”. Keep up the good work and let us know how she is coming along.

    • That is exactly it – how to do justice to Catherine’s memory in sound, without totally fictionalising her or bringing in too much romance in her representation. For me it’s about going back to the evidence – the technology, texts, documents and written music that were definitely in the house and part of the soundscape. It will be partial and gappy but I will keep going!

  2. Jeannette Smyth says:

    i wonder if her oppression (if indeed dickens oppressed her, as opposed to being very cruel (?))s was part of dickens’ powerful, and powerfully self-examined, social climbing? if submissive wives were thought to be that which a gentleman must have?
    or was she the provincial wife a young provincial marries before he becomes the most famous man in the world? i don’t think tiernan was less provincial.
    i remember poor dora, so foolish, asking pip if she could help him by hand him his quills, and how kindly dickens treats her.

    • Catherine was not necessarily a provincial young wife; she had amazing literary connections of her own when she married Dickens – her Father, George Hogarth, was an eminent musicologist and was involved in lots of different publishing ventures. As to whether or not having a submissive wife was more desirable to Dickens than to other men is not something I would feel comfortable to speculate on; what we do know for sure is that Coverture – the means by which a woman gave up her legal identity or was “covered” under the legal identity of her husband during marriage in Victorian Britain –
      almost assured the dependence and submission of not just Catherine but many other wives at this time. How Dickens writes his female characters does give some insight into how he viewed women, and Sue Perkins has created an amazing documentary that looks into this a little bit, but I think there are both specific and general elements in this project… things really specific to the Dickens, and other aspects of their life together that more broadly reflect the social times in which they lived…

  3. Nadine says:

    Your new project sounds very interesting and I can relate to the frustration of having very little access to the actual sounds of Catherine – I feel the same when researching historical language patterns. There is often no way to find out how ordinary people actually spoke or what they talked about because the only material we have access to today is written language and texts made by a small elite on a very small range of topics. Best of luck for your research! Also, I tend to pick up my flat while I’m on the telephone, too . Hope to see you in Edinburgh! Xx

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