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Charlotte Brontë, visiting London following the publication of Jane Eyre and Shirley, attended a party held in her honor by William Thackeray. His daughter Lady Ritchie explains how guests, conflating the author with her most famous protagonist, felt themselves invited “to meet Jane Eyre”:
[O]ne day Mrs. Proctor asked me if I knew what had happened once when my father had invited a party to meet Jane Eyre at his house. It was one of the dullest evenings she had ever spent in her life, she said. And then with a good deal of humour she described the situation – the ladies who had all come expecting so much delightful conversation, and the gloom and the constraint, and how, finally, overwhelmed by the situation, my father had quietly left the room, left the house, and gone on to his club.
(Brontë, Shakespeare Head, p, 50)
Greeted as a literary celebrity indistinguishable from her most famous fictional creation, Brontë retreated into near-silence: “It was a gloomy and silent evening. Every one waited for the brilliant conversation which never began at all. Miss Brontë retired to the sofa in the study and murmured a low word now and then to our kind governess” (Shakespeare Head, p. 49). Boredom and disappointment are inevitable when the author of a great novel turns out to have nothing to say, no “brilliant conversation” to offer her lionizing fans.
As Leopold Bloom muses to himself, there's nothing quite like the phonograph (or gramophone or graphophone, to name a couple of the competitors that followed Thomas Edison's 1877 invention) to keep alive the memory and voice of those dear departed:
Besides how could you remember everybody? Eyes, walk, voice. Well, the voice, yes: gramophone. Have a gramophone in every grave or keep it in the house. After dinner on a Sunday. Put on poor old greatgrandfather Kraahraark! Hellohellohello amawfullyglad kraark awfullygladaseeragain hellohelloamarawf kopthsth. Remind you of the voice like the photograph reminds you of the face. Otherwise you couldn't remember the face after fifteen years, say.
(Joyce, Ulysses, p. 114)
“Eyes, walk, voice”: James Joyce enumerates those quintessentially modern fragments – snapshots, recordings of voice – which are taken to stand for the whole of a person. By the time radio had made the technological reproduction of voice relatively familiar, a line like T. S. Eliot's “she smooths her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone” (Eliot, “The Waste Land,” lines 255–6) would suggest that a certain logic of modernity as governed by mechanical reproduction was already there for the taking in the culture. But in 1898, when Joseph Conrad began work on the novel which would provide the original epigraph for Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), the possibilities of a voice amplified and multiplied by technological means were newly available for exploration.
In 1853 Henry Noel Humphreys published a lavish tome entitled The Origin and Progress of the Art of Writing. Following his survey of the world history of writing – from the “Picture-writing of the Mexicans” to the “System of Writing of the Chinese” and “the Cuneiform Writing of Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia” – Humphreys appends a brief coda on the current, Victorian practice of writing. He concludes his survey with a tribute to a new method that he suggests may well utterly and permanently revolutionize the ancient “Art of Writing.” The changes introduced by this new writing system could be so sweeping, he suggests portentously, that we might wonder “whether professorships may be established in our colleges for the study of the ancient pseudo-hieroglyphic character, [that is, ordinary written English] in which books were printed and letters written, so late as the nineteenth century” (Humphreys, Origin and Progress, p. 178). Figuring himself and his age as poised on the brink of a monumental epistemic shift, Humphreys foresees the obsolescence of traditional writing and standard English, and the rise of an altogether new system, one which would eliminate the “arbitrary” and the “contradictory” from writing, and create “a more severe and scientific method, truly and originally founded upon a classification of all the sounds which the human voice is capable of enunciating” (Origin and Progress, p. 177).
Roger Chartier argues that our understanding of print culture and the literary public sphere suffers from a tendency to overlook the performative dimension of literature. He notes that notwithstanding the rigid separation we tend to draw between print and oral culture, overlaps of reading practices
associate the spoken word and writing: either a spoken word fixes itself in writing or, conversely, a text returns in oral form through the mediation of reading out loud. Other overlaps connect writing and gestures … The history of cultural practices must consider these interpenetrations and restore some of the complex trajectories that run from the spoken word to the written text, from writing that is read to gestures that are performed, from the printed book to reading aloud.
(Chartier, “Texts, Printing, Readings,” pp. 170–1)
This chapter takes such an approach to speech and writing in examining the career of Charles Dickens and the location of his own reading performances within it. Of all major Victorian bodies of fiction, certainly none is more thoroughly embedded in modes of vocal performance than his. Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend testifies to the strong link between reading and performance for Dickens:
By-the-bye, that very word, Reading, in its critical use, always charms me. An actress's Reading of a chambermaid, a dancer's Reading of a hornpipe, a singer's Reading of a song, a marine painter's Reading of the sea, the kettle-drum's Reading of an instrumental passage, are phrases ever youthful and delightful.
The nineteenth-century novel has always been regarded as a literary form pre-eminently occupied with the written word, but Ivan Kreilkamp shows it was deeply marked by and engaged with vocal performances and the preservation and representation of speech. He offers a detailed account of the many ways Victorian literature and culture represented the human voice, from political speeches, governesses' tales, shorthand manuals, and staged authorial performances in the early- and mid-century, to mechanically reproducible voice at the end of the century. Through readings of Charlotte Brontë, Browning, Carlyle, Conrad, Dickens, Disraeli and Gaskell, Kreilkamp re-evaluates critical assumptions about the cultural meanings of storytelling, and shows that the figure of the oral storyteller, rather than disappearing among readers' preference for printed texts, persisted as a character and a function within the novel. This 2005 study will change the way readers consider the Victorian novel and its many ways of telling stories.
Early and mid-Victorian poets often viewed the print culture in which they worked with suspicion and dismay: as mechanized, disenchanted, and bureaucratized. In an age of novels and journalism, the very mechanisms of print and publication could appear hostile to poetic expression. The dramatic monologue attempts to redeem such a print culture, but it does so by means of two apparently contradictory strategies: by way of an appeal to an imagined voice in print that appears to transcend the medium – an idealized voice very much like the one Carlyle, Dickens, and others invoke – and through a practice of authorship and interpretation that recognizes its embeddedness within that print culture: that is, something closer to Brontë's critical response to the storyteller paradigm. My aim in this chapter is to consider the paradoxical aesthetics of print that idealizes speech at its own expense. This paradox may be understood, to adapt a formulation used by Michael Fried in a different literary context, as the Victorian poet's “compulsion to declare but also to disguise both the literal circumstances and the material product” of his or her own activity as author. In this instance, a representation of print as “voice” functions to disguise the “material product” and process of print authorship. Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, I will argue, has the effect of producing what might be termed a print-culture guilt in its readers, who are made to feel that their participation in the practice of textual interpretation makes them complicit in a historical displacement of virtuous voices and self-possessed speakers by a professional information culture.
This book questions and hopes to trouble a well-entrenched commonplace concerning the relationship of speech to writing. It is no exaggeration to say that contemporary criticism is haunted by the paradox that speech is both extremely powerful and doomed to cultural obsolescence. “Writing is the destruction of every voice,” Roland Barthes famously proclaims in “The Death of the Author,” articulating a half-triumphant, half-guilty belief concealed at the heart of contemporary print culture. Most of us assume that orality is an attenuated relic of an era before the rise of modern print culture – and at the same time, a force latent in suppressed groups and indeed parts of our own selves, capable of disrupting writing with all the force of a resurrection. Contemporary literary criticism takes it for granted that members of pre-novelistic cultures relied on modes of oral communication exemplified by communal storytelling, and that the advent of print displaced the spoken word as the glue holding modern societies together – thereby driving speech into obsolescence. Studies of modern print culture have too often either neglected voice, speech, and orality entirely or romanticized the vocal as a remnant of a lost and mourned pre-modern past. The distinction between a pre-modern “oral culture” and a modern print culture thus becomes a narrative of the fall from an idealized folk to a degraded mass culture.
Walter Benjamin provides the classic articulation of the longing generated by the supposed displacement of voice in his melancholic 1936 essay “The Storyteller.”
New developments in English culture in the first half of the nineteenth century demanded new ways of thinking about speech and voice. During the 1840s, as a consequence of working-class literacy and political action, the English language became charged with new political meanings as a site of class conflict. This chapter investigates three interrelated narratives of the era of Chartism and industrial fiction: a celebrated memoir by Samuel Bamford, a veteran of working-class politics of two decades earlier, and two middle-class novels by Elizabeth Gaskell and Benjamin Disraeli that draw on or allude to Bamford. These three texts reveal how early Victorian culture transformed previous assumptions that public speech necessarily emerged from and addressed itself to an educated readership defined by print culture. In the 1830s and 1840s new categories for imagining speech and voice emerged, categories that granted the speaking voice autonomy from norms of written English. An emerging national movement for universal workers' suffrage developed new modes of political language. Print culture found itself besieged by voices that could no longer be successfully contained by those modes of expression permitted by written English; in response, the imagined figure of an authentic speaker, whose wise words serve as a balm for the wounds of modernity, emerged as a sublation of these discordant, uncontrollable voices.
The function of voice and speech in English political and literary culture has been persistently undertheorized in part because critics so routinely reduce voice to a metaphor for writing.
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