From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

This Noisy Old World

Sunday, June 03, 2007
Writers and noise are not a good combination. While some of us write to carefully chosen music and others prefer as much peaceable silence as is possible, no writer enjoys the general racket of modern life. Nothing can wither a perfectly good visit from a Muse faster than a monstrous trash truck, working its thumping and crashing way up the street. Teenagers cranking up rap music, weed-whackers and power-washers, high-decibel fire sirens and low-flying aircraft, all play havoc with writerly concentration.

And there’s at least one Wench (who, me?) who has been known to charge outside in her bathrobe to confront mystified lawn-crews with leaf-blowers about their misguided commitment to blast every last blade of new-mown grass to ear-splitting oblivion.

Modern folk like to think of this general din as one of the banes of contemporary life, another of our special crosses to bear for being so technologically advanced. “Noise pollution”, we call it, a splendidly polysyllabic term for something our more peaceful great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize.

Ah, but we history-geeks know otherwise. The past –– especially the urban past –– was one noisy place.Hogmusician True, the noises were a very different sort, but the distraction was there just the same. A famous 18th century illustration by William Hogarth called “The Enraged Musician” shows an earlier creative-type, pitifully tormented by the sounds of the London street outside his open window.

I’ve always tried hard to incorporate sound into my writing, one more way to evoke the past. Yet it seems my imagination has fallen far short of reality. I’ve just discovered a splendid new non-history book (oh, be still my history-nerd heart!) called Hubbub : Filth, Noise, & Stench in England, 1600-1770 by Emily Cockayne (Yale University Press, 2007).

This is not history for the faint of heart, or the weak of stomach, either. (All the following examples and quotes come from Hubbub.) Stuart & Georgian Londoners would have had to contend with constant traffic noise: metal-bound wheels and shod horses against paving stones, squeaking, creaking wagons and carriages, trumpets to herald arrivals and departures of coaches, and the bellowed oaths of drivers and footmen. Traffic noise was so bad that by the late 18th century, city churches and court houses were being designed without windows on the street levels in an attempt to quiet the spaces within.

Each morning terrified livestock was herded through the streets to market and slaughter, but hundreds of other unneutered animals ran wild through the city: stray dogs, spit dogs, and family pets alike played and barked and fought. Squabbling cats were also everywhere. So were goats and squealing pigs, and even city-dwellers were awakened by roosters before dawn. Early morning was also the time when the dog-skinners (I cannot begin to fathom a market for dog-skins, but then our ancestors were far more unsentimentally resourceful than we) were chasing down yelping strays.

StrawberryvendorPeddlers and vendors of every kind shouted their wares, striving to outdo one another. Apparently the pleasing sing-song cries of legend often degenerated into wordless roars. Milk-sellers were particularly known for their shrillness, and the writer Joseph Addison noted one seller who became infamous for her “inarticulate scream.” There were also frequent noisy brawls between vendors over sales turf, fights that were encouraged as free sport by cheering spectators.

Scores of church bells in the city rang for services, deaths, fires, and celebrations, and to tell the time. Street musicians played fiddles, whistles, flutes, and hurdy-gurdys, or simply sang; a loud, piercing voice was highly prized. Puppet shows, jugglers, acrobats, and other street performers added another layer of sound. Trumpets and drums were used to “drum up” an audience, and were also employed by the recruitment officers for the navy and the army outside of taverns. Politicians, charlatans, and itinerant preachers alike made impromptu speeches on street-corners and from balconies and windows.

Land and real estate was valuable, and most houses for rich and poor alike shared common walls. Without the muffle of 21st century curtains, sound-proof tiles, or wall-to-wall carpeting, voices echoed freely in most rooms and into the next. Add to that the open windows (before modern houses became so hermetically sealed for “climate control”), and there wouldn’t have been many secrets left between neighbors.

London was a growing city, and the sounds of construction were everywhere: hammering and sawing carpenters and roofers may not have had high-pitched power-tools, but they still contributed their share of noise. Other trades that involved striking like blacksmiths, masons, tinsmiths, coopers and coppersmiths added the clanging sounds of hammers on metal, while the rumbling grinding of mill-wheels was literally so deafening that the stereotypical miller had lost his hearing entirely.

The “great guns” (cannons) near the Tower of London were fired to celebrate royal births, weddings, victories, and other holidays. Shooting off muskets was a more common “noisemaker” that needed little excuse, and grand displays of fireworks (from the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall and Ranleigh as well as for civic displays) routinely exploded into the night sky over the city. More ominously, the broadsides exchanged at sea between the Dutch and English ships during the Dutch wars of the late 17th century were so loud that they could clearly be heard like distant thunder in London.

Things weren’t much quieter after dark, either. Watchmen with rattles or bells cried the hour throughout5hogarthnight_2 the night. “I start every hour from my sleep,” complained one visitor, “at the horrid noise of the watchmen bawling the hour through every street, and thundering at every door; a set of useless fellows, who serve no other purpose but that of disturbing the repose of the inhabitants.” Curfews were often created, and seldom enforced.

And in a city full of ale-houses, rumshops, and taverns that were serving customers well past midnight, those celebrants stumbling home in the wee hours contributed to the noise, too. “Great hallowing and whooping in the Fields,” noted one sleep-deprived gentleman, “by such Persons who have spent the Day Abroad, and are now returning home Drunk.”

Relative peace doesn’t seem to have arrived until three or so in the morning, when the “Whores, Bullies, and Thieves have retir’d to their Apartments; noisy drunken Mechanicks are got to their Lodgings; Coachmen, Watermen, and Soldiers are mostly asleep.” But by then, it’s not long until dawn, when the markets and trades come back to exuberant life, and begin the whole day’s cycle all over again.

You know, maybe those leaf blowers aren’t so very bad after all . . . .

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From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Beauty & the Barbara

Friday, June 01, 2007
Royalharlot Since I’ve begun writing historical fiction, I’ve crossed over into a writing-world where nearly ALL the characters are based on real people. I won’t go into every one of the challenges of that kind of research in this blog; I’ll save that for another day. But to my surprise, one of the unexpected ones was having the appearances –– the “beauty”, as it were –– of those characters already determined for you by their portraits. And that beauty doesn’t always agree with contemporary conventions.

Just as most modern-day professional beauties –– fashion models and Hollywood actresses –– would have found little favor in a past that favored the more lushly appointed, it can be hard to look at three-hundred-year-old portraits with modern eyes and see the same thing. My next book, ROYAL HARLOT, is a fictionalized biography of Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland. She was the most prominent mistress of King Charles II, and one of the baddest bad-girls in English history, which makes for a most entertaining heroine, if not perhaps the best girlfriend you’d call in a pinch. Barbara was universally regarded by her contemporaries as the most beautiful woman in 17th century England. Crowds would gather wherever she went, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Every head would turn when she entered her box at the theatre, and even happily-wed diarist Samuel Pepys made a point of walking by her house on487px-Barbara_Palmer_(née_Villiers),_Duchess_of_Cleveland_by_Sir_Peter_Lely laundry-day, just so he could see her lace-trimmed smocks hung out to dry and fantasize like mad.

Like most famous beauties of the past, Barbara was painted repeatedly, and her portraits by Sir Peter Lily are among the most enduring “images” of the Restoration. But her beauty hasn’t traveled well through the centuries. Sure, Alexander Pope wrote “Lely on animated Canvas stole/the sleepy Eye that spoke the melting soul”, but today those bedroom-eyes look, well, kind of burned-out and druggy, and the double-chins that were so celebrated among Restoration beauties seem matronly –– especially considering that most of these paintings were done before Barbara’s thirtieth birthday.

As a history-nerd, this didn’t bother me. I am up to the challenge. But the marketing folks at my publisher were scared to death, and as a result you won’t find Barbara’s face on the cover when the book hits stores on July 3. Instead we’ll be counting on readers to supply their own mental image of what the most beautiful woman in England looked like –– even if it’s not close to the 17th century truth.

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