Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'You Say You Want a Revolution': Dialectical Soundscapes in Gaskell's North and South

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

'You Say You Want a Revolution': Dialectical Soundscapes in Gaskell's North and South

Article excerpt

You tell me it's the institution / Well, you know / You'd better free your mind instead. The Beatles, 'Revolution 1'

Industry allows financial imbalance / Thrusting it between his shoulder blades /The Watusi, the Twist / El Dorado / Take this, brother, may it serve you well / Maybe it's nothing. The Beatles, 'Revolution 9'

I. Noises Off

In his 1836 'Civilization', John Stuart Mill writes that the creation of society depends upon the occlusion of the offensive: he ascribes social advancement and its refinements to 'keeping as far as possible out of sight, not only actual pain, but all that can be offensive or disagreeable to the most sensitive person'.1 Yet as relatively easy as it might be to police the visual, attempting to police the aural presents a difficult challenge. Sound, despite being a physical pattern of vibration in the air, remains markedly difficult to physically contain and regulate. As Peter Bailey observes, the potential difficulty of wielding sonic control functions as a 'reminder of the more intrusive properties of noise as sound: it goes round corners; it goes over as well as through walls; [and] it surrounds and envelops and is not easily located'.2 In The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844), Friedrich Engels focuses upon the occlusion of the lower classes within urban spaces, detailing the visual disappearance of such peoples from the tableau of civilised society: the poor, 'removed from the sight of the happier classes', have been consigned to a space of visual occlusion.3 Adhering to the demands of Mill's visually policing society, here Engels's 'great and luxurious' city effaces any visual evidence of the working class. But, what of the acoustic traces? Does the Victorian city render its lower castes inaudible as well as invisible? In the case of Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel North and South, the answer is a loud, resounding 'no'.

Mirroring the 'slippery' or uncontrollable nature of sound itself, the acoustics of the novel simultaneously articulate a wide range of discourses and ideas, preventing a simple or straightforward reading. Just as sound waves blend and clash in complex ways, the interplay of sonic representations of society in North and South provokes a veritable chorus of consequences. Raymond Williams notes that Gaskell 'writes in a city in which industrial production and a dominant market are the determining features, and in which [...] there is the new hard language of class against class'.4 Framing this conflict acoustically, the various instances of sound within the novel - natural and artificial, music and noise - all help to articulate, entrench, and reflect upon mid-Victorian socioeconomic class divisions which kept the sources of physical labour separate from the owners of the means of production (as well as the latter's more 'refined' sense of culture and aesthetics). More precisely, the industrial discord of Milton reinforces the lack of 'harmony' between the working class and their masters, as well as among the members of the working class themselves.

Yet as powerfully as Gaskell's novel divides, it also unites, teaching, as I will be suggesting, a new mode of listening - one which bridges the Victorian socioacoustic divide and helps reshape how the middle-class ear perceives workingclass sounds. To undertake such an investigation, however, first requires a benchmark to be established in the field of relative sonic interpretation: how might one define 'noise?' Bailey posits that 'noise' can be identified as the 'broad yet imprecise category of sounds that register variously as excessive, incoherent, confused, inarticulate, or degenerate - the insistent pejorative comes with the word itself which derives from the Latin nausea, originally meaning sea-sickness'.5 What, then, does not classify as 'noise?' In North and South, the resonances of nature often sound apart from the disquiet of the industrial city. In describing the pastoral realm of Helstone, the text notes that 'The common sounds of life were more musical there than anywhere else in the whole world' (NS, p. …

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