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Music as Therapy in Austen: Fiction and Film

Returning home to Mansfield Park after his long absence in Antigua, Sir Thomas Bertram arrives to find his household disturbingly transformed, with his children turned into actors and his beloved billiard room changed into a theater for the production of Lovers’ Vows.  The next day he begins setting the place to rights by having the stage removed and burning copies of the play, but the order he imposes is superficial at best:  “The evening passed with external smoothness, though almost every mind was ruffled; and the music which Sir Thomas called for from his daughters helped to conceal the want of real harmony” (224).  The music that Maria and Julia Bertram provide is supposed to be therapeutic:  by playing the piano and singing, the young women presumably ease the tensions and strengthen the sense of community in their domestic circle.  Unfortunately, the dissonance in the Mansfield family proves too deep for the healing powers of concertos, glees, or songs, and the harmony the women create only obscures the anxieties and dissatisfactions that lie beneath it.

Sir Thomas’s expectations, however, resonated throughout the culture of Austen’s day.  In his Principles and Power of Harmony (1771), Benjamin Stillingfleet approves of women’s musical instruction in light of the psychological and even physical benefits it offers: 

Their business should be to practice merely for the amusements of themselves, their own family, and particular friends, or rather for domestic comfort, which they were by Providence designed to promote; viz. to calm the boisterous passions—to relieve the anxieties and cares of life—to inspire cheerfulness—to appease the nerves, when irritated by pain, sickness, or labour of mind or body, to soothe the peevishness of infancy and old age—and to raise the mind to a feeling and love of order.  She who shall improve the natural talents, with which women are born, of doing all these things, will not have misspent her time by applying three years to music.  (151) 

Writers on female education such as Hester Chapone, Maria Edgeworth, and Erasmus Darwin joined Stillingfleet in praising music as an “innocent amusement” (Chapone 2: 117–18) and emphasizing the social benefits of women’s playing and singing:  they believed that learning music disciplines genteel women into using their leisure properly, for their family’s pleasure and instruction, instead of indulging in frivolous or even disreputable pastimes.  In this way, the female musician was charged with creating the “love of order” that supported the mental and moral health of the household, as well as promoting what Leslie Ritchie terms the “larger scheme of social harmony” beyond the domestic sphere (55). 

The health of the musicians themselves, however, received less attention.  Leslie Bunt and Brynjulf Stige observe that until the middle of the twentieth century, in the United States and the United Kingdom, “there appeared to be a general lack of understanding of music’s value, apart from its general aesthetic and cultural aspects, from both physicians and musicians” (7).  Since that time, however, music therapy has become widely established as a profession and a discipline, with clinical studies detailing how listening to music (receptive therapy) or playing music (active therapy) “helps to release feelings or to articulate in a musical gesture a feeling for which words are often inadequate” (Bunt and Stige 19).  Therapists believe that whether we express ourselves “vicariously, through the composer and performers of a piece,” or actively, through “singing, playing instruments, and the creative acts of improvising and composing” (Bruscia 79), music “provides an alternative means of communication, a means of individual voices being heard,” especially when those voices would otherwise be ignored or silenced due to social barriers (Bunt and Stige 19).  To that end, therapists encourage either structured or improvised sessions with clients, including activities such as performance, songwriting, and listening as a means of addressing clients’ psychological, intellectual, and even physical needs. 

A pianist throughout her life, Austen intuitively understood what cognitive science now asserts:  that music enhances well-being by enabling those who play an instrument to exert control over patterns of rhythm, translate feeling into sound, and communicate in nonverbal ways, all of which are especially important when speaking aloud might be difficult or disturbing.  Except for her time in Bath, Austen had a piano in her home wherever she lived; her determination to play whenever she could suggests that for her, a serious commitment to music made for a richer life—one devoted to creativity, self-development, and community with others.  In Austen’s fiction, characters who abandon their music immediately after marriage, such as Augusta Elton in Emma and Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility, earn the narrators’ contempt, and their permanent closure of their pianos signals their irreparable state of mediocrity.  By contrast, characters’ moral growth and maturity often rise along with the introspection and deliberation that practicing music requires.  Austen’s novels and the adaptations closely aligned with these texts represent how music allows women the opportunity to give voice to their desires and needs, arrive at self-knowledge, and find comfort for trauma and loss. 

The most painful musical expression of raw desire appears in Pride and Prejudice’s Mary Bennet, the only plain sister of the family who “worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments” (27) in hopes of attracting notice.  Living in the shadow of sisters who ignore or belittle her, Mary desperately seeks validation through her music, yet the hours of intense practice that she spends alone at the piano bring her little praise; the narrator remarks that her “pedantic air” and “conceited manner” repulse listeners, for Mary thinks more about displaying her own talent than pleasing her audience (27).  Although her technique is good—better than her sister Elizabeth’s—Mary is tone-deaf, at least figuratively.  Her pride in her keyboard skill and desperate need for attention prevent her from learning self-awareness or how she appears to other people, and her music reflects this moral deficit.  Oblivious to her limitations, Mary insists on “exhibiting” at the Netherfield ball, until her father ends her embarrassing performance with a cutting remark: “‘You have delighted us long enough.  Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit’” (112–13). 

Although Mary’s music is a target of satire in Austen’s novel, Simon Langton and Andrew Davies’s 1995 miniseries portrays her character with more empathy, highlighting the emotional pain of a naïve young woman failing miserably in her culture’s high-stakes marriage market.  This adaptation reveals how the lip-service given to accomplishments misleads women—especially less wealthy ones like Mary—into thinking that their talents would make them attractive or esteemed.  Apparently the only young lady in Meryton afflicted with myopia and teen acne, Mary literally jumps at every chance to play, carrying her sheet music into the parties and assemblies that she attends; however, her own mother prefers dance tunes to Mary’s concertos, for the quadrilles and reels allow Mary’s more attractive sisters to engage with men. 

© 1995 BBC

Female musicians were expected to provide tunes for dancing, but this role was usually performed by married women (like Emma’s Mrs. Weston) or women who appeared no longer eligible for courtship (like Persuasion’s Anne Elliot).  Langton’s close-ups of Mary’s face, however, underscore her disappointment in being relegated to the service of others, especially her sisters and their partners.  While the inclusion of dogs howling in accompaniment to Mary is an amusing and vicious touch, the perspective shifts from a critique of Mary’s self-satisfaction to pity at her experience of shock and humiliation as her father leads her away from the piano. 

© 1995 BBC

Through music, Mary attempts to restore a sense of consequence and confidence that the social environment of female competition repeatedly destroys, and the film encourages us to empathize with her painful awakening and dejection when she finally understands that her attempts prove futile. 

“[H]andsome, clever, and rich” (3), Emma Woodhouse could hardly be more different from the less privileged Mary Bennet.  Because of the unearned advantages that make her so desirable, however, Emma believes she has little need to practice at anything, least of all her piano.  Her refusal to apply herself to anything for long, whether her music or her reading list, leaves Emma sorely lacking in interpretive skills and less able to understand both herself and others: practicing her piano “vigorously an hour and a half” (249) one morning cannot make up for years of superficial effort.  Given Emma’s avoidance of serious keyboard study, it is not surprising that music provides the occasions for her most misguided judgments of others.  For instance, although the clues are fairly evident, Emma overlooks the erotic attraction between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill as they perform their duet at the Coles’ party:  since in public, this couple can only come together through song, Frank wants to continue their harmony as long as possible, while Jane’s voice grows “thick,” most likely with emotion (247).  By contrast, George Knightley—“among the most attentive” (246) of the party guests—correctly spots what Emma’s inattention leads her to miss:  the “sweet sounds of the united voices” (246) suggest the desire the pair have for each other.  But as an indifferent player herself, Emma cannot appreciate the sensuality of musical performance, or the intimate proximity of bodies joining together in sound, and pays no heed to the romantic scene enacted before her very eyes. 

Following Austen’s text, Autumn de Wilde’s film adaptation of Emma (2020) contrasts two scenes of diegetic playing and singing to suggest Emma’s coming to self-knowledge through music.  In the first, after a dinner at Hartfield Emma entertains guests with a rendition of “The Last Rose of Summer,” composed in 1805 by Irish poet Thomas Moore and published in Volume 5 of Moore’s Irish Melodies (1813); the piano arrangement was written by John Andrew Stevenson.  Emma has lived comfortably with little experience or remembrance of loss, so her choice of this song is rich in irony, and she performs with an affected sense of the song's pathos.

© 2020 Perfect World Pictures

Jane Fairfax, an orphan facing life as a governess, can barely stifle a smile when Emma pauses dramatically and stages a sigh while singing the last poignant lines:  “When true hearts lie withered / And fond ones are flown, / Oh! who would inhabit / This bleak world alone?”  Jane’s subsequent performance on the piano, played from memory, surpasses Emma’s entirely, leading Knightley to remark, “She is certainly accomplished.”  Emma feels her own inferiority in this scene but responds with resentment toward Jane’s excellence rather than investigating the motives behind her own lack of application. 

De Wilde departs from the novel, though, in featuring a duet between Jane and Knightley rather than Jane and Frank, and this departure highlights how music enables a growing realization of Emma’s own desire.  At the Coles’ party, Mrs. Weston’s imagining a match between Knightley and Jane throws Emma into a muted panic when she watches them sing and play together, with Jane’s piano accompanied by Knightley’s violin.  They join in performing “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” (Ben Jonson’s “Song: to Celia”), set to music in the early nineteenth century by Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Francis Mellish. 

© 2020 Perfect World Pictures

The smiles that Jane gives to Knightley, the blending of their voices in harmony, and their intense concentration on keeping time with each other suggest that Knightley and Jane are united sensually through music and perhaps have devoted time and attention to practicing together.  This scene troubles Emma both during and after the party:  she experiences intense jealousy and begins to reflect, apparently for the first time, on Knightley’s erotic life and on the attraction that she feels toward him.  De Wilde’s substitution of Knightley for Frank as the male partner in the musical duet displaces the novel’s portrayal of Jane’s concealed romance for a focus on Emma’s own sexual awakening.  The musical expression of desire in the duet brings Emma in touch with her sensuality, an arousal that is complete when she and Knightley later share a dance, ungloved and with bodies yearning, at the Crown Inn.  

© 2020 Perfect World Pictures

By focusing on Emma’s maturation, though, the film obscures the more poignant and painful sections of Austen’s novel involving Jane’s acquisition and near loss of her piano.  A surprise gift from a supposedly unknown donor, the elegant square Broadwood that Frank Churchill has commissioned and customized with the “‘softness of the upper notes’” (260) that Jane prefers offers Jane all that she needs to make her confined life more tolerable:  a proof of enduring attachment, a means of self-expression, and a confirmation of the genteel status so precarious in her residence above a shop with her aging aunt and grandmother.  As Deborah Cartmell notes, the piano in Austen’s fiction is “a must-have object, an object of desire and a site of erotic attraction,” and its music “speaks another, often forbidden, language, visually eroticized by the fingers caressing the instrument’s keys” (229).  When Emma and Mrs. Weston visit the Bateses’ home to hear the new instrument, they interrupt Frank and Jane in a rare moment of intimacy, perhaps in an embrace:  Jane keeps her back to the guests, “intent on her pianoforté” (259) to hide her confusion.  Although Emma mistakes the source of this discomposure, she observes the connection between Jane’s feelings and their musical articulation:  “she had not yet possessed the instrument long enough to touch it without emotion” (259–60).  Through her piano, Jane relates the memories and feelings that her secret engagement forces her to repress, and her language is audible only to those who know how to listen. 

Given the piano’s importance to Jane’s well-being, the possible loss of it signifies her return to isolation, confinement, silence, and depression.  When she believes Frank has withdrawn his affection and engages herself as a governess, Jane animates her instrument, addressing it as a beloved friend:  “‘You must go. . . .You and I must part’” (417).  Conversely, Jane herself loses agency and becomes a commodity when she enters the marketplace for the “‘sale . . . of human intellect’” (325), for her musical knowledge, as Mrs. Elton points out, will serve only to increase her market value.  Facing a life of deprivation symbolized by the loss of her own piano, Jane descends into illness and despondency until the misunderstanding with Frank is resolved.  In de Wilde’s film, however, Jane’s suffering appears very briefly in her somber piano playing that precedes Emma’s contrite visit to the Bateses’, and in the scene immediately following, the Westons reveal her engagement with Frank and the happy ending that awaits her.  With its pastel palette and moments of physical comedy, de Wilde’s adaptation shies away from portraying the physical and mental breakdown that Austen’s novel suggests through the parting of Jane and her instrument. 

The specter of grief also lies at the center of Sense and Sensibility, and Marianne’s piano becomes an objective correlative for what she has lost and then regained in her experiences throughout the novel.  This “handsome pianoforte” (30) is first mentioned as an article of household furniture associated with dispossession:  delivered by water from Norland, once the family home of the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, the instrument arrives at the cottage in Devonshire where the women find refuge after John and Fanny Dashwood inherit the estate.  Like the family’s books and Elinor’s drawings, Marianne’s pianoforte helps to “form themselves a home” (35) or recreate a comfortable domestic space that establishes their identity as gentlewomen, thus making their relative poverty less psychologically painful.  Marianne’s music also figures in the establishment of two courtship plots:  Colonel Brandon begins to admire Marianne by paying the sincere “compliment of attention” (41) to her playing, while John Willoughby, whose “musical talents were considerable” (58), encourages their romance by giving her music and singing duets with her.  Willoughby’s desertion of Marianne leaves her, as John Wiltshire notes, in a “stasis of disintegration” (43), and she nourishes her grief through music:  Marianne plays “every favourite song” the couple had enjoyed besides “gazing on every line of music” Willoughby had transcribed for her “till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained” (96).  Yet music also enables her eventual healing:  recovering from her illness, Marianne resolves to reconstruct her life by returning to the activities that she used to enjoy and that were integral to her identity.  While the sight of Willoughby’s music initially makes her retreat from and close her piano, she “declar[ed] however with firmness as she did so, that she should in future practise much” (388).  Sitting before the keyboard will involve confronting and deflecting the emotions and associations that almost killed her. 

Music’s role in the management of grief becomes amplified and emphasized in Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s 1995 film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility:  through music, the characters acknowledge what they have lost while exploring the possibility of healing and fulfillment.  In Thompson’s screenplay, Marianne’s piano playing initially suggests her indulgence in the mourning of their father:  the first scene in which Marianne appears shows her playing “a particularly sad piece” on the piano, followed by another even after Elinor asks her for “something less mournful” (Thompson 33) to ease their mother’s weeping.  But this comic portrayal of Marianne’s self-dramatizing emotion is modified in a later scene in which Marianne plays her “father’s favourite” as Elinor and Edward Ferrars listen:  Marianne’s music connects both sisters to the memory of their father’s affection, which contrasts with the callous, mercenary behavior of his heir John and John’s wife, Fanny. 

© 1995 Columbia Pictures

Her playing also allows Edward to understand the depth of the more reserved Elinor’s grief, and his sympathy for her kindles into love.  In the world of the film, where the desire for wealth and status often governs behavior, music enables an alternative experience:  as Penelope Gouk observes, music “not only provides a context in which a language of the emotions can come into being, but also gives actual shape and meaning to the emotions themselves, to what it means to be human” (13).  Marianne’s playing provides occasions for the articulation of this language, which is rarely heard in the social world beyond the Dashwood’s cottage. 

Along with music’s ability to convey the depth of grief, the prospect of healing through music functions as a central motif throughout the film.  Thompson’s screenplay emphasizes the loss that Marianne endures:  the Dashwood family’s move to Barton Cottage leaves her without a piano and without a mode of expression until she invites herself to play the instrument at the Middletons’ home.  As she performs, Brandon stands transfixed in the entry listening:  the screenplay notes the closeup of his face as he “gazes at MARIANNE with an unfathomable look of grief and longing” (Thompson 71). 

© 1995 Columbia Pictures

Other characters provide the clues to Brandon’s response in this scene.  Marianne learns from Mrs. Jennings that “our dear Brandon shares your passion, and plays the pianoforte very well” (78); later, Willoughby reveals that Brandon himself possesses “a particularly fine pianoforte,” and Brandon confirms it is a “Broadwood Grand” (105–06).  As the screenplay notes, “The undercurrents of this conversation are decidedly tense”:  Willoughby might have known that Brandon’s ward Eliza, whom Willoughby left pregnant and abandoned, played that grand piano at Delaford, Brandon’s home.  Moreover, Brandon himself might have taught her music.  Given the similarities that Brandon sees between Marianne’s “impulsive sweetness of temper” (106) and that of Eliza’s deceased mother, whom he also loved, Marianne’s musical ability might recall the performances of two young women, one lost to Brandon by death, the other by seduction.  Hearing Marianne play confronts him with this loss but also offers the prospect of recovery. 

The screenplay portrays the start of Brandon’s recovery—and Marianne’s as well—by restoring Marianne to her music.  In the garden at Barton Cottage where Marianne convalesces from her nearly fatal illness, Brandon reads verses to her from Book V, Canto III of Spenser’s The Faerie Queen; the lines confirm the plentitude that God brings to human lives with a metaphor of the ocean both removing and redepositing the sands of the shoreline:  “For whatsoever from one place doth fall, / Is with the tide unto another brought / For there is nothing lost, but may be found, if sought” (187).  What Marianne and Brandon have found is the chance to love again, which the film symbolizes through his gift of a piano and music to Marianne:  although the instrument is smaller than the one that she had to leave behind at Norland, it “fits perfectly” into the tiny parlor of the cottage and will give her a mode of expression—a therapeutic means to release and externalize her inner experience.  In the film, Marianne’s sensitive playing and singing of “The Dream” (a musical version of Ben Jonson’s poem by that name) shows her awareness of how deeply Brandon understands the stirrings of a new affection in her. 

© 1995 Columbia Pictures

In Austen’s fiction and in adaptations of her work, music offers characters the possibility of emotional and psychological healing, whether their impairments and limitations are imposed by their social world or self-inflicted.  Characters who learn to play attentively or listen carefully enlarge their scope of expression and communication, as they experience and realize feelings that they cannot articulate in language or that cultural conventions forbid them to display.  Most importantly, the sometimes painful self-knowledge that characters acquire through music can enable them to mature and develop beyond the confines of their expectations for themselves.  For contemporary therapists, an engagement with music can be “a radical force and an opportunity for change in peoples’ lives” (Bunt and Stige 79); a similar awareness of music’s transformative influence appears in Austen’s novels and in films carefully attuned to her fiction.  For the musical men and women these works portray, the possibility for solace, growth, and self-discovery lies inherent in every note.



The clips used in this essay satisfy the criteria for fair use established in Section 107 of the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the 
United States Code.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005–2008.
  • Bruscia, Kenneth E.  Defining Music Therapy.  3rd ed. University Park, IL: Barcelona, 2014.
  • Bunt, Leslie, and Brynjulf Stige.  Music Therapy: An Art Beyond Words.  2nd ed.  London: Routledge, 2014.
  • Cartmell, Deborah.  “Pride and Prejudice and the Adaptation Genre.”  Journal of Adaptation in Film & Performance 3.3 (2010): 227–43.
  • Chapone, Hester.  Letters on the Improvement of the Mind.  2 vols.  London, 1773.
  • Emma  Dir. Autumn de Wilde.  Screenplay Eleanor Catton.  Perf. Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, and Bill Nighy.  Perfect World Pictures, 2020.
  • Gouk, Penelope.  Introduction.  Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts.  Ed. Penelope Gouk.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.  1–25.
  • Pride and Prejudice.  Dir. Simon Langton.  Screenplay Andrew Davies.  Perf. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, Alison Steadman, and Lucy Briers.  BBC, 1995.
  • Ritchie, Leslie.  Women Writing Music in Late Eighteenth-Century England: Social Harmony in Literature and Performance.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008.
  • Sense and Sensibility.  Dir. Ang Lee.  Screenplay Emma Thompson.  Perf. Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, and Hugh Grant.  Columbia Pictures, 1995.
  • Stillingfleet, Benjamin.  Principles and Power of Harmony.  London, 1771.
  • Thompson, Emma.  The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay & Diaries: Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film.  New York: Newmarket, 1995.
  • Wiltshire, John.  Jane Austen and the Body: ‘The Picture of Health.’  Cambridge: CUP, 1992.
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