Hearing Catherine: The Artist’s View

Felicity Ford is an artist working principally with sounds and textiles. She is especially interested in women’s lives and history, and her work mainly investigates domestic themes and materials. Completing her PhD on The Domestic Soundscape in 2011, she has since worked on projects for organisations that include the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, The Wellcome Library, TATE Modern  and The Museum of Oxford.


By Felicity Ford

As you may know from previous posts, this year I worked on a series of sound pieces for the Museum designed to give presence and texture to the memory of Catherine Dickens. My sound pieces are part of a wider exhibition called The Other Dickens: Discovering Catherine, which can be viewed at the Museum until 20th November.

On September 8th I gave a public tour of the house, speaking about the imaginative role that this charismatic building played in the development of my sound pieces. This blog post is a condensed adaptation of my notes for that event; the photos are mostly taken from the first time I toured the building. A full sound recording of the tour can be heard on soundcloud


Giving Catherine a Voice

The brief for Hearing Catherine was to give a voice to Catherine Dickens. This is not straightforward as her letters to Charles were burned by him following their separation, and she lived in an era before sound recording technology was invented. We’ll never know what Catherine wrote to Charles, nor the timbre, tone and accent of her speech. However, the prospect of giving her a voice in a more figurative sense spoke to my feminist instincts and sonic imagination; I determined to find and amplify her voice using other means.

Street in Edinburgh in which Catherine fist lived © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission

I began with Lillian Nayder’s book, The Other Dickens, and with exploring the very house in which Catherine lived in the late 1830s as Charles Dickens’s wife. In Lillian’s book I found clues about where Catherine might be heard in letters and archives and gained an understanding of Catherine’s Scottish, literary family background. I enlisted a voice actor – Rachel Moffat – who comes from a middle-class Edinburgh family, (like Catherine), she is the ‘voice’ of Catherine in all my sound pieces. I was also creatively inspired by the sense of retrieval in Lillian’s research; by her method of reclaiming Catherine from the past by reflecting on real evidence: I wanted to do something similar with sound.

48 Doughty Street itself provides wonderful evidence; these are the very rooms in which Catherine moved and breathed. I love exploring the building; trying to imagine how it once felt to her, and how her presence in turn changed its feeling or atmosphere. For Victorian women, the home was not simply a place in which to retreat from the working world, but an expression of self and identity. Juliet Kinchin notes in her essay on the subject that furnishings were seen “as a seamless extension of a woman’s character” and that “there was no comparable objectification of men”. In other words, 48 Doughty Street meant something different to Catherine than it did to Charles; it was intrinsically bound up with who she was; with Victorian ideals of beauty, motherhood and femininity.

The Morning Room | Charles Dickens Museum

The Morning Room at the Charles Dickens Museum © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission

The Morning Room

The morning room is quiet, set away from the street and acoustically dimmed by soft furnishings. Catherine appears here in a painting in which she is sewing, and her actual sewing is also displayed. We created sewing sounds – counting stitches; reciting yarn-shade names – and mixed these with the sounds of the fire that would have accompanied Catherine’s needlework, and the sound of the clock (owned by Charles Dickens) that counts the hours that Victorian women spent sewing.


Kitchen Range at the Charles Dickens Museum © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission

Kitchen and Scullery

The kitchen is full of objects that suggest sounds – coal scuttles; old iron grates; large cooking plates; pans, pots and basins. I wanted to bring to life the material context from which Catherine’s cooking book – What Shall We Have For Dinner? – was born. I recreated several of her recipes in a working Victorian kitchen and, while narrating the recipes, Rachel concentrated on speaking in an imperative, authoritative way. The scullery, with its carefully ordered bowls and basins, suggests a sense of order and organisation at stark contrast with the image of Catherine’s incompetency that Charles circulated following their separation. In my sound pieces, Catherine’s influential and carefully considered bills of fare ring out confidently in this room, as a capable riposte to these rumours, and as a celebration of her house management skills.

Piano in the Drawing Room

Piano in the Drawing Room at the Charles Dickens Museum © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission

Drawing Room

In the drawing room, Catherine plays the role of Lady Maria Clutterbuck in a play by Charles Dickens that is a satire on marriage, entitled Used Up. In Victorian Britain, “the drawing room came to represent the woman of the household” and the sound piece here celebrates Catherine’s wit (Lillian cites several pieces of evidence that Catherine had a superb sense of humour) and her literary, musical family background. Music that she would have played and also heard is included in the sound piece, on a piano dating from the 1830s. This includes a Waltz composed by her Father and excerpts of pieces by composers popular at the time – Beethoven and Chopin. The content of the play offers interesting perspectives on gender relations at the time, and the Chopin and Beethoven pieces were both included in volumes listed at the sale of Catherine Dickens’s estate. We know she definitely owned these tomes and that this music was part of what she heard every day .


Stone Marking Catherine's Grave, Highgate Cemetry © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission

Mary Hogarth Room

The thing that hit me most strongly on first seeing this room, was that someone whom Catherine loved very deeply – her sister Mary – died here and that, with it, Catherine also lost – as Lillian Nayder notes – a sense of herself.

Mary was a true comrade and partner in crime for Catherine; she accompanied her sister first to London, and then into her marriage. As was common for the time, she moved in with the Dickens and helped them with their growing family. She and Catherine shared a bond that was irreplaceable once broken and, after she died, Charles was stricken with grief, telling Catherine she must be strong for him, and also revealing that he wished - when his time came - to be buried with Mary. The sound piece for this room is constructed around a rare and precious complete letter written by Catherine to her cousin. The letter is filled with grief and Rachel Moffat’s emotional reading of it is accompanied with field recordings made at the gravesites of both Mary and Catherine’s graves. The sounds include birds (from around Catherine’s grave at Highgate cemetery) and emergency sirens (from Mary’s grave at Kensall Green cemetery). The bells were recorded around Highgate cemetery and are the same bells that would have tolled when Catherine was buried there. The emergency siren – though definitely not in keeping with the Victorian era of Mary’s death – immediately and sonically connects contemporary audiences with the difficult emotional contents of the letter. The gravesite sounds above the bed starkly highlight the real and figurative deaths – of loved ones and of certain senses of self – that have taken place in the room, but the birdsong gives hope and speaks to the tenderness and love with which Catherine describes Charles, even at this difficult time for them both.


Picture Book - From the book that Catherine read to her grandchildren © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission

The Nursery

When I first saw the nursery, I really wanted to find ways of animating the tiny children’s things with sound, and Rachel Moffat generously allowed me to record her boys – Hugo and Niels – responding to the pictures in a book that we know Catherine Dickens owned and read to her grandchildren. The sounds are embedded in a speaker in a nursing chair, so that the narration of the sound pieces suggests the seated figure of Catherine, reading to her children. This sound piece is a celebration of Catherine’s maternal qualities and also of the nursery as a space in which the young Dickens children once played.

Ancestral Things

Ancestral Things © Felicity Ford, used with kind permission

The Timeline Room

In this room you can hear Catherine’s will. This document, written by Catherine, is really important in terms of revealing who she was. An incredible material and familial inventory, it lists all the stuff she owned and how she apportioned it to the people she loved towards the end of her life. In its full length it speaks of the wide circle of people for whom she cared and with whom she was in contact, and in the objects that it lists, it tells of relative wealth but also of the special emotional value that she conferred on her things. Moved when reading her will, I found myself reflecting on my own female ancestors and on things they’ve left to me; I got out all such objects in my care, spread them on a table, and tried to find things that would have some kind of sonic similitude with the things Catherine left to her loved ones. I wanted to include a rustle here and there, so that you can sense, in Catherine’s will, the broader material and emotional context to which it refers.

I hope you have enjoyed this swift tour of Hearing Catherine – remember you can hear the pieces in situ up until November 20thand, if you cannot make it to the Museum, it’s also possible for you to hear them all on soundcloud

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