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Staging Flirtation at the Pianoforte in Sense and Sensibility and Emma

According to Caroline Bingley, an accomplished woman must have “‘a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages’” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice 29). Within Caroline’s catalogue of accomplishments—Johnson’s “ornament[s] of mind or body”— music and singing are distinct, because they are personal talents that can contribute to an evening’s entertainment (“Accomplishment,” def. 3). If the musician happens to be an eligible young woman, and there happens to be an eligible young man lounging among the audience, the site of music-making becomes a site of attraction and flirtation. Given that several of Jane Austen’s heroines, both primary and secondary, are skilled musicians, the instruments themselves and their paraphernalia become a part of the flirtation strategies deployed by eligible young men. In particular, the musical talents of Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility attract John Willoughby and Colonel Brandon, while those of Jane Fairfax from Emma attract Frank Churchill. In this essay, I will analyze how John Willoughby deploys overt flirtation strategies and Frank Churchill deploys covert flirtation strategies at the site of music-making. Ironically, John Willoughby’s overtness is meant to conceal his fickleness towards Marianne, while Frank Churchill’s covertness is meant to reveal his steadfastness towards Jane.

Shortly after Marianne Dashwood first meets Colonel Brandon at Barton Park, she is “discovered to be musical” and thus is “invited to play” upon the pianoforte (62). Here, the narrator’s use of the passive voice in the phrase “was discovered” suggests that Marianne did not put herself forward to contribute to the entertainment of the evening—unlike Pride and Prejudice’s narrator who uses the passive voice ironically in describing Mary Bennet who “[hears] herself mentioned . . . as the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood” (9). Rather, Marianne was found out, most likely by Mrs. Jennings or Sir John Middleton, like a continent by an explorer who strives to extract its resources. Therefore, although she is “everything but prudent” (42), she is not “impatient for display” (Pride and Prejudice 18). Although those at Barton Park are “in raptures” over her playing, no one pays attention to her playing by listening to her music, save for Colonel Brandon (68). Marianne knows this and thus pays him the compliment of thinking him not as “shameless[ly] want[ing] of taste” and as “horribly insensible” as the others (68). Thus, it is not Colonel Brandon’s own attributes, such as being “on every occasion mindful of the feelings of others,” that Marianne “respect[s]” but that he is not as deficient in manner as the other members of the Barton Park party (91; 68).

On the other hand, the pianoforte and music in general are sites of mutual attraction, “mutual affection,” between Marianne and John Willoughby (78). Willoughby, who “unites frankness and vivacity,” shares with her an “enjoyment of dancing and music” (78-79). Greater than that, though, they have a “general conformity of judgment in all their relations to either,” with their tastes “strikingly alike” (79). Moreover, because Marianne is as “‘frank’” as Willoughby, their dispositions also seem to be strikingly alike, even though in reality Marianne “abhor[s] all concealment” while Willoughby can only conceal (79; 84). They sing together and discover that Willoughby’s own “musical talents [are] considerable” (80). However, as Willoughby later admits to Elinor, he is invested in staging himself as a lover—even if he did enjoy music-making for its own sake, he intended only to “‘pass [his] time pleasantly’” by using music instrumentally to gain favour with Marianne (314).

Previously, the narrator in Sense and Sensibility represented a scene of Colonel Brandon singularly paying attention to Marianne’s playing. In Willoughby’s case, though, the narrator does not represent any scenes in which he does the same. Instead, the narrator summarizes that “the ease and familiarity” of the private balls and water-parties at Barton Park “afford him opportunities of witnessing the excellencies of Marianne” (84). By representing Willoughby’s interactions with Marianne through summary and not scene, combined with the lack of specificity accorded by the plural nouns “opportunities” and “excellencies” (which excellence at which occasion?), the narrator represents Willoughby as not only possessing multiple opportunities to witness the excellencies of Marianne, but also multiple opportunities to be witnessed as witnessing her excellencies. Indeed, the narrator’s deliberate lack of specificity and deliberate exclusion of a single scene of music-making between Marianne and Willoughby imply that Willoughby’s “intimacy” with the Dashwood family at Barton Cottage is habitual, a time investment that seems to attest to the antithesis of “‘selfish vanity’” (84; 315). Additionally, Willoughby’s writing out of lines of music during these opportunities attests to the number of hours he has spent in her company. Consequently, Marianne’s “‘tastes’” and “‘opinions’” have become “‘better known to [him] than [his] own,’” as he confides to Elinor (319).

In addition to being flattered by Willoughby’s constant attentions, Marianne delights in his internal “‘unity’” of the two figures of the “‘lover’” and the “‘connoisseur,’” a delight that is underscored by the narrator’s use of repetition (51). For Marianne, knowing the worth of a woman’s accomplishment is to know her, and the only way to know the worth of a woman’s accomplishments is to have a taste that “‘coincides’” with her own: “‘the same books, the same music must charm us both!’” (51). Given Marianne’s repetition of the adjective “same,” although Colonel Brandon too derives “pleasure in music,” since his pleasure fails to soar to her level of “ecstatic delight,” she believes that she cannot be content with a man whose taste does not “sympathize with her own” (68). Marianne’s delight, however, does not stem from any “natural ardour of mind” from Willoughby, for it has been carefully cultivated through his deliberate attempts to please himself by pleasing her (80). The narrator states that Willoughby “acquiesce[s] in all her decisions, [catches] all her enthusiasms” (79). The parallel phrases, underscored by the repetition of ‘all,’ signify the all-consuming adoration Willoughby has successfully stoked in Marianne’s heart—and which Colonel Brandon with his “gravity and reserve” does not and will not do (81). After Willoughby leaves for London, Marianne “spends whole hours at the pianoforte alternately singing and crying,” because their coincidence of tastes morphs “every favourite song . . . every air . . . every line of music” into vehicles to compare “the past and present” (110). Willoughby’s enmeshment of himself with Marianne’s ardour for music is underscored by the narrator’s repetition of “every” in the phrases “every favourite song,” “every air,” and “every line of music.” Her own love for music has been supplanted by the love of music that Willoughby also loves. Therefore, far from gaining a lover of her person or a connoisseur of her music, she has become a lover and connoisseur of Willoughby.

Meanwhile, in Emma, the pianoforte is also a site of attraction between one of its couples: Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill who formed “a solemn engagement” at Weymouth (338). While Jane Fairfax is residing with her aunt and grandmother in Highbury, she and Frank Churchill cannot openly conduct their courtship; hence, music is the primary way in which they signal their continued attraction to each other. Although Frank Churchill disavows any knowledge of music, that “‘[he] know[s] nothing of the matter [him]self” and that he is “‘without the smallest skill or right of judging any body’s performance,’” he too is found out, like the ‘discovered’ Marianne (172). He is “accused” of having “a delightful voice” and “a perfect knowledge of music; which was perfectly denied and that he . . . had no voice at all” (194). Unlike Colonel Brandon and Willoughby who both appear to pay attention to Marianne, Frank Churchill pays attention to Jane Fairfax when in Highbury by affecting to not pay her any attention, except when teasing her. Frank Churchill intends his affected ignorance of music to be metonymic for his affected indifference of Jane in favour of the “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma (9). While he seeks initially to hide his engagement from his aunt, he realizes that he must also hide it from Emma who believes herself to have an aptitude for matchmaking. Moreover, unlike Willoughby who wants to be admired as one who admires, Frank Churchill affects to be reticent in his praise for Jane Fairfax’s musical skill: “‘she appears to [him] to play well’” and that he has “‘been used to hear her [performance] admired’” and that it is Mr. Dixon’s approbation of Jane Fairfax that provides “‘strong proof’” for the strength of her playing, not Jane Fairfax’s performance on its own merits (172-173). Frank Churchill uses equivocal diction, “appear” and “used to hear,” to indicate that his positive judgments of Jane Fairfax’s performances stem from what is commonly said and not from himself. Therefore, unlike Willoughby who seems to unite both lover and connoisseur in one character, Frank Churchill disavows both characters at least in relation to Jane.

The closest that Frank Churchill comes to openly admitting his desire for Jane Fairfax’s company is when he states that “‘[he] would have given worlds—all the worlds one ever has to give—for another half hour’” of listening to her play a waltz (207). Because he pretends that she dislikes his company by stating that she appears to be “‘tired’” and “‘did not enjoy’” the waltzes, he gives the impression to Emma that he is continuing to tease Jane Fairfax, while simultaneously letting his betrothed know that he misses her (207).

The purchase of the Broadwood pianoforte, though, is the most important, and most apparent, way in which Frank Churchill continues to flirt with Jane Fairfax through music. It is literally an outsized symbol of his continued attraction for her. Although he is compelled to be indifferent towards her, he indicates that he values her both for herself and for her talents through affording her an opportunity to exercise her talents. The pianoforte also functions as a symbolic remembrance of their past in Weymouth. Moreover, in his role as neither lover nor connoisseur, Frank Churchill is assiduous in helping Jane Fairfax’s recently delivered pianoforte “‘stand steadily’” (206). If the pianoforte is a symbol, then his gesture symbolizes his desire to right their secret relationship, which increasingly stands on tenuous ground. For the mysterious origin of the pianoforte has raised rumour and drawn unwanted attention towards Jane Fairfax. Who is the mysterious benefactor? Is it Colonel Campbell, her guardian and surrogate father? Or is it Mr. Dixon, the new husband of her best friend—a rumour, if true, would garner her a fate worse than censure. Even so, Frank Churchill deploys the existence of these rumours as further “vehicles for gallantry and trick” (298). Both he and Jane Fairfax know that it was he who bought it. However, he flirtatiously teases Jane Fairfax by participating in Emma’s guessing-game when he ostensibly converses with Emma while, in reality, directing his remarks towards the former. For example, he claims that “‘true affection only’” would have motivated the mysterious benefactor to gift both the pianoforte and sheet music of new Irish melodies (208). Jane Fairfax is aware of the game he is playing with her, for she “colour[s] deeply” with “the deep blush of consciousness”: she wears “a smile of secret delight” at the secret that only she and Frank Churchill share, despite Emma’s high evaluation of her own perspicacity (208). For her own part, Jane Fairfax too non-verbally signals her continued interest in him. After she plays “Robin Adair,” one of the newly arrived Irish melodies, he states that it is “‘his favourite’” (208). Even though the pronoun ‘his’ refers to Mr. Dixon within the context of his conversation with Emma, the deictic nature of the pronoun “his” simultaneously confirms Emma’s conjecture to herself and allows him and Jane Fairfax to flirt without words.

Almost inevitably, therefore, Frank Churchill’s propensity to tease Jane Fairfax, under the cover of a confederacy with Emma, leads to those at Highbury learning that he and Jane Fairfax “had sung together once or twice, it appeared, at Weymouth” (194). Through the use of free-indirect discourse filtered through Emma’s perspective, the narrator’s studied vagueness about the number of times the two had sung together is meant to endow Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill’s acquaintance with a casualness antithetical to a solemn engagement. Moreover, because Emma is preoccupied with the question of Jane Fairfax’s mysterious benefactor and has been led astray by Frank Churchill’s disavowals of “the fine glow” of Jane Fairfax’s “complexion,” Emma experiences the “sweet sounds of their united voices” only as “momentary interruptions,” not something to be dwelt on, or conjectured about, for its own sake (170-171; 195).

After Marianne recovers from her illness near the close of Sense and Sensibility and returns to Barton Cottage, she “tries her pianoforte” (334). However, as Willoughby is still associated with all her ideas of music, the sight of an opera “procured” by him and “bearing on its outward leaf her own name in his hand writing” results in her “running over the keys for a minute”—a far cry from the hours she had spent previously at it (334). Additionally, though she “declares . . . with firmness . . . that she should in future practice much” and “‘shall divide every moment between music and reading,’” the narrator informs the reader that Marianne’s “extraordinary fate” is to “submit to new attachments, enter on new duties, placed in a new home” (334-335; 366-367). The narrator’s repetition of ‘new’ signifies that Marianne’s mind, once totally devoted to music and books, necessarily must encompass other, newer things as a result of her marriage to Colonel Brandon. Despite her new obligations, however, it is doubtful whether Colonel Brandon would allow her to never touch the pianoforte, for he too is an admirer of her music, but one less pleasing in his manner than Willoughby. On the other hand, given that some of Austen’s other characters “celebrate” their marriages by giving up music like Lady Middleton (67) and Mrs. Elton takes it as a fait accompli that married women “‘are but too apt to give up music’” (236), I wonder whether Jane Fairfax will continue to play the pianoforte after she becomes Jane Churchill. Perhaps Frank Churchill’s gaiety will take up too much time to allow her to practice, or perhaps the sweet sounds of their united voices in Highbury will prove prophetic.

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