Victorian culture was a
culture of orality. Despite the rise of mass print, oral storytelling,
political speeches, sermons, lectures, public trials, and the reading aloud of
poetry, novels, and newspapers contributed to a thriving oral culture which in
terms of its huge audiences can well be termed a mass culture in its own right.
This seminar will engage with print-orality feedback loops in literary
writings; it will examine some of the settings and social contexts of popular
Victorian oral performances, examining how they, in turn, resurfaced in print.
There has been a number of cultural histories offering analyses of acoustics
and ‘soundscapes’ of the past (see John Picker’s Victorian Soundscapes,
2003), and we, too, will attend to phenomena of sound, including Gothic sound,
unlocatable sound and its troubling effects. The main part of the seminar will
then be concerned more specifically with the sound of voices, given that any
investigation of historical orality has to be concerned with vocal sound as the
“social-material dimension of human language” (Bernstein 2011). From early
Victorian horror stories (Edgar Allan Poe) we will proceed to sound and voices
in poetry (Browning and Tennyson), to staged reading voices in mid-Victorian
journalism and novels (Mayhew, Dickens), to questions of political
speech-making, especially by women orators (James, Du Maurier, Sharp, Robins).
Finally, we will discuss the topic of new technology for the ‘transportation’
and recording of voices – the phonograph and the telephone – as it was deployed
in fictional and non-fictional texts (Conan Doyle, Stoker). We will also listen
to some famous Victorian poets’ voices, e.g. Tennyson’s and Browning’s, recorded
via phonograph at the very end of the nineteenth century.