Episode 1: Sound

A village choir (wikipedia)

When the two companions visited the Tottenham Court Road Chapel they heard ‘a great number of melodious voices, singing with the utmost harmony, the praises of ALMIGHTY GOD’ (p. 7). The narrator says that he was surprised to hear such a sound at such an early hour (before 6 am) and notes that its hearing ‘was a pleasure’. This is one of only a few descriptions of singing in A Sunday Ramble, and yet sound in general has an important role in the description of the Sunday walk.

In terms of sensory history, sound and hearing are perhaps only of secondary interest to sight and viewing.  Mark M. Smith has, for example, argued that in the eighteenth-century sound was increasingly mediating and informing ideas about class, identity, and nationalism (Smith, 2007, ch. 2). Sounds, Smith argues, could be considered a comfort or discomfort depending on the type of person hearing it. For example, the ringing of church bells in towns forms a backdrop to class struggles in which the elite ‘were intent on imposing their fastidious tastes and reducing noise to some sort of harmonious order’ – in other words controlled ringing of church bells – against the ‘rough music’ which were considered the tastes of lower classes.

If then, sound had become political by the eighteenth-century, as Smith suggests, then A Sunday Ramble – with its interest in satirising cultural morality and activity – might well include some interesting vignettes into the subject.

Music and Singing

The example of singing at Tottenham Court Road can be followed up with a similar occurrence at St Paul’s Cathedral. The narrator records that he and his friend had just arrived in time ‘to perceive several well-dressed people coming out of the church’ (p.38). The Captain’s response provides an argument that often such groups of people leaving the church suggested that ‘a curious anthem by some celebrated vocal performers, or an extraordinary fine piece of music by an admired organist’ had just finished. The Captain adds that at such times:

it was no uncommon thing to see a number of the musical gentry leave the church; not only to avoid the unharmonious voice of the minster, but that they might be able to make their exit genteely, without the inconvenience of dropping their mites in the church-warden’s plates (p. 38).

This description compares the sounds of good musicians and singers with that of the sermon of the priest, claiming the latter as uninteresting and the former as pleasurable. Those who seek such a pleasure though are of a particular class and persuasion. They are the relatively well-off. Such a satirical argument about the enjoyment or distaste of sounds in a church context further illuminate the core theme of morality. The well-to-do audience attends the church for a concert, not for purposes of religious devotion.

Similar satire against the well-to-do can be found where music is played or talked about in A Sunday Ramble. For instance, observing one person, the Captain explained that he was a musician and Italian ‘so celebrated for his musical abilities, and who ravishes the ears of the brilliant audiences at the Opera-house’. The man, the Captain claims, had been ‘imported’ for ‘the amusement of the nobility, at a very high price’ (p. 48). On another occasion, the companions are told a story of a country Squire’s daughter who had fallen to the lure of a man who had ruined her. Within the story, we are told that part of her education was to learn to play the harpsichord, but that ‘music however did not suit her taste’ (p. 75).

Musical sound could also be missing or silenced, ruining the pleasures of the well-off. One such example can be found in the companions visit to Bagnigge Wells which, the Captain notes, had been ‘greatly frequented’ because of a ‘fine organ’ which provided ‘entertainment of the company’, but the organ had now been banned from being used on a Sunday (p. 19), as had organs in other gardens ever since ‘the Pantheon’ had been opened up as a preaching place.

The musical interests of the gentry’ classes are one thing, but what about the lower classes that the ramblers meet? There is silence on the topic. The closest A Sunday Ramble gets to the topic is when the companions observe a failed poet who ‘sported himself with two fiddles in his hand and offers himself to imitate a whole concert therewith, as well as to mimic the notes of all the birds in the creation’ (p. 73). Nothing more on the subject is said.

Talking, whispering, and shouting

The most obvious sound that would have been recorded in A Sunday Ramble, is that of talking of one kind or another. Conversation is, indeed, the main tool that the author uses to satire his tales of morality. Talking whilst walking or pausing during the walk either outside or inside often takes the form of background noise and hubbub. In chapter 3, for example, when the companions pause at the Bank Coffeehouse the narrator describes the room as full of various kinds of people:

The sober citizen, the stock-jobber, and the politician, were promiscuously seated together; sipping their coffee, reading the papers, and displaying their several talents, (or want of talents) in curious arguments on their favorite topics. Some were enquiring the price of stocks, others the state of trade (p. 28).

The scene is one of a mingled noise and silence. Some are reading or sipping coffee with minimal sound, others are debating the topics of the day or discussing stocks and trade. Some of the noise is further analysed here. When the narrator describes how two groups were arguing over the persecution and imprisonment of a bookseller we are informed that one group were just making noise which ‘gave neither satisfaction nor information to any of the hearers’ (p. 29). The author appears to argue here that in a debate there is often one side who makes a lot of noise but provides little in the way of what is worth hearing.

From churches, singing and preaching were the most common sounds. Unlike St Paul’s where the thought of listening to the priest’s sermon was enough to send the gentry packing, the sound of the sermon at St Mary le Strand is described as ‘a very excellent discourse’ (p.39). Another sound is also mentioned. Once finished children are described as ‘placed at the doors’ so that they could ‘loudly implore the assistance of the numerous congregation; so that even those whose penurious dispositions would not permit them to part with a farthing from motives of charity, were compelled to do it through shame’ (p. 39).

Conversations of a different sort were held outside, in the parks and streets of the city. During a walk through the park at Primrose Hill, the narrator and his companion are confronted by ‘an eternal talker’ described as ‘a paradoxical argumentative little man’ (p.59). The narrator complains that:

Although he was a stranger to most of the company present, he took upon him to entertain them with a tedious string of stories of no sort of importance to any soul present, and all tending to display his own consequence, whims and independency. Such conversation was ill calculated for the company present, the majority of whom had I dare say had been founders of their own fortunes, and I should doubt if there was any quarter of the globe accessible to commerce, which had not been resorted to by some one or other sitting in the room (p.59).

Another unwanted sound – described rather than heard in this case – is in the description of a ‘wag’ named Zachary, who, after dinner, favored to perform ‘a certain favorite toast which he would not give direct before his wife, constantly started in his imagination, and was sometimes ready to leap from the roof of his mouth and the hinder parts of his oratorical organ’ (p.54). Whilst Primrose Hill was to be considered a place for fine walks by those of mercantile wealth, it was obviously also a place where some acted foolishly.

The most unusual – in terms of format – of a conversation held outside is an overheard one. The companions happen to walk close to two young women ‘seemingly persons of fashion’ who were holding ‘a very curious conversation’. The conversation is then played out as an actual dialogue in which the two women gossip about a friend who is engaged to be married.

“So! Have you heard that Miss T—– is going to be married?”

“Married! Lus ha’ mercy! No, sure! She going to be married?”

“Tis true, upon my word, for I saw her sister to-day, and she told me it was all settled.” (p.88)

The conversation continues for several pages and the two young women become quite mean about their friend. This is the one instance of the companions observing people talking whilst walking. It is also described as a common occurrence. The narrator even apologises for it as something that readers ‘may find nothing in it but what they have frequently heard before.’

Early in the narrative, the two companions happen upon a fight held in the fields near the Foundling Hospital. This provides an opportunity for other kinds of sound. To the narrator, one of the bystanders ‘whispered me gently that it was only a sham fight’ (p.15) whilst the ‘mob’ shout loudly when one of them is declared as the victor (p.16).

Another ‘hubbub’ is overheard when walking through Bagnigge wells. In this instance, it was a commotion caused by prostitutes arguing over the beauty of one-another. ‘The dust was raised’ the narrator states ‘in defense of the unblemished character of one of the girls’ who had been rudely attacked ‘by another frail sister’. In response, the narrator muses that ‘even envy carps in those scenes of life, as well as in any other’ (p.70).

Background sounds

Whilst moving through the city the narrator also mentions the occasional background sound to set the mood and scene. At the start of their journey, the narrator describes the scene of the fields, with the sun rising and the birds making ‘a concert of music, which would not have disgraced the most harmonious assembly’ (p.5). In chapter 7, at the tea gardens, those wishing privacy could ‘plunge into the recesses of a thick grove’ undisturbed ‘by the plaintive notes of the blackbird, or the more melodious voice of the sweet-warbling thrush’ (p.78). A more human background noise is described to set the scene at the Pantheon, in which the rotunda is described as crowded and:

 the noise of the people’s feet, coming in with the shape of the building, rendered it no bad similitude to what it was compared by a countryman present; who, starting with great seeming astonishment at the multitude of people in the spacious galleries, declared it was the largest beehive he had ever beheld (p.64).

Elsewhere the companions observe one ‘snoring away the hours’ (p.51) and in the final chapter ‘the clock […] struck nine’ (p.94) and a few pages later it ‘struck ten’ (p.96).

Conclusions

There is little in A Sunday Ramble to offer support to Smith’s assertion that sound was politicised in the eighteenth-century, however, there is a difference between the sounds made by gentry classes and those of lesser means. The gentry is interested in refined music – organs and church singing – and in engaging in moments of silence, discussion, and debate. The lower classes are more often associated with ‘hubbub’ – fights, arguments, and shouting. Those of the mercantile classes could cross the boundary between the two, such as the case in which the companions encountered ‘Zachary’ at Primrose Hill, in which good manners were seen to be broken.

Sources

Mark M. Smith, Sensory History (Oxford, 2007).

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