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Music and Class in Jane Austen

There is an intriguing moment in Mansfield Park that highlights the issue of music and class in Austen’s novels.  It occurs when Maria is showing off her general knowledge to Aunt Norris, who encourages the young lady in her conceit:  “‘[R]emember that, if you are ever so forward and clever yourselves, you should always be modest; for, much as you know already, there is a great deal more for you to learn.’”  Maria replies: 

“Yes, I know there is, till I am seventeen.  But I must tell you another thing of Fanny, so odd and so stupid.  Do you know, she says she does not want to learn either music or drawing.” 

“To be sure, my dear, that is very stupid indeed, and shows a great want of genius and emulation.  But, all things considered, I do not know whether it is not as well that it should be so, for, though you know (owing to me) your papa and mamma are so good as to bring her up with you, it is not at all necessary that she should be as accomplished as you are;—on the contrary, it is much more desirable that there should be a difference.”  (21) 

It seems odd that Fanny, whom we already know is an intelligent girl, observant and interested in everything, should decline to learn music.  It may be that her reserved nature shrinks from the element of display that musical performance entails, or it may be that she instinctively understands that to compete with her cousins on their terms has the potential to cause conflict and petty persecutions.  But there is also another possibility:  clever as she is, Fanny has recognized that she will never belong to the class in which “accomplishments” like musical performance and drawing will be useful social accessories.  It is evident that Mrs. Norris is pleased to hear that Fanny has no aspirations to “accomplishments,” or, in other words, that she knows her place in the social order.  Accomplishments, Aunt Norris’s response suggests, are reserved for the genteel classes (which she likes to think Fanny will never belong to).

Musical characters and allusions appear throughout Jane Austen’s novels, and she was a practicing amateur musician herself.  Scholarly interest both in the place of music and musicianship in her fiction and in her surviving music collections, is longstanding, with critical attention increasing markedly over the past decade.1  Class is necessarily a part of many of these discussions but deserves a more focused analysis, particularly in relation to the complexity of Austen’s engagement with music as a marker of social position.  Music in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain was certainly very class-based, as well as being divided on gender lines.  As the opening example of Fanny Price highlights, readers of Austen’s fiction enter a world in which musical accomplishment is a marker, often quite deliberate, of social class and social mobility. 

Yet, Austen does not use musical accomplishment or possession of a musical instrument solely as an index of gentility, femininity, marriageability, and social position.  At times owning an instrument is a sign of social pretension rather than good taste, especially when this ownership is not matched by a parallel ability to play, and musical skill is frequently indicative of precarity, with performance a necessary means of securing employment as a governess or providing a sense of purpose and usefulness to a spinster.  As Noël Riley points out, a woman “of the genteel classes . . . must be ‘leisured’ to maintain her social position,” and “those who were forced by their circumstances to take up employment were generally pitied, for their loss of caste was virtually automatic” (1).  As women of leisure became more accomplished over the course of the eighteenth century, music was correspondingly marginalized as a leisure occupation for gentlemen.  Here Austen’s subtle nuance is again to the fore, with masculine musical talent operating as a warning of instability and an excess of sensibility, but musical appreciation indicative of character, substance, and rationality.  Likewise, while music was increasingly regarded as a less than respectable occupation for the lower classes, leaving the field open for European professional musicians who were outside the British class system, Austen again challenges easy categorizations, providing brief glimpses of musical servants, sailors, and shepherds.  Austen is attuned to the way in which music could simultaneously be regarded as a marker of taste, social position, and a capacity for leisure, a useful occupation, a frivolity that could distract from the serious business of life, and a means of momentarily transcending life’s vicissitudes and boundaries. 

An incident that occurred some years before in London throws an elegant light on this matter of music and class as it played out during the Georgian era.  According to Frances Burney’s 1832 memoir of her father, Charles Burney, the famous musician and music historian, he wanted to establish a “Public Music School,” on the lines of the Conservatorios he had seen in Italy, and in 1774 proposed the idea of training those inmates of the Foundling Hospital who showed musical aptitude.  He argued that it would provide some of the foundlings with a career and that it would benefit Britain, since they would take the place of the Italian singers who dominated the London stage, as well as increasing England’s musical reputation.  But the Governors of the Foundling Hospital rejected the idea, objecting that “music was an art of luxury, by no means requisite to life, or accessory to morality”; furthermore, music was associated with “voluptuousness, such [as] had probably demoralised the children’s wastrel parents” (237–38).2  Although Charles Burney responded vigorously, arguing that while England might be a class society, it was certainly not a caste society where movement in the social hierarchy was impossible, the Governors did not relent. 

There are two notions in play here:  that music is potentially demoralizing and that it is the province of the rich or at least the well-off, the leisured classes.  These two assumptions are nicely illustrated later in Mansfield Park when Mary Crawford’s harp arrives in Northamptonshire from London, where she has lived with Admiral Crawford in Hill Street, one of the poshest addresses in the city.  Mansfield Park was finished in 1813, but it is set a few years earlier in 1808, at the height of the fashion for harps.  As Juliette Wells has noted, “The harp is an instrument both weighty and fragile, both useful and because of its expense, an unmistakable sign of social status” (“Harpist” 104).  The ledgers of the most famous harp-maker in London, Sébasten Érard, now held at the Centre for Performance History at the Royal College of Music, show that, for example, two harps made for a Mr. Duncan in January 1808 cost ₤199.10—plus over eighty pounds more for the necessary case, extra strings, and other accessories.3

dooley harp

Antique pedal harp made in London in 1813 by Érat, with a special double action, belonging to Adelaide musician Christine Morphett. It is one of only three of these harps left in the world. 

When Mary plays in front of Edmund, she is beguiling him with the latest of elegant blandishments and one that also allowed a lady to draw attention to her graceful body and fashionable attire.  An 1811 book entitled Regency Etiquette declared that the “shape of the [harp] is calculated, in every respect, to show a fine figure to advantage,” showcasing the hands and arms, the “gentle motion of a lovely neck,” and “the richly slippered and well-made foot on the pedal stops” (195).  As the narrator of Mansfield Park observes, “A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself . . . , was enough to catch any man’s heart” (76), and Edmund’s heart is, accordingly, caught.  Mary also underscores her family’s wealth when she mentions that her brother is fetching her harp from Northampton in his “barouche” because there is no cart to be hired.  Both her ignorance of rural work patterns and her sense of leisured entitlement are evident in her lament that her “‘London maxim, that every thing is to be got with money’” avails nothing in the country (69). 

By 1814–1815, the period in which Persuasion is set, the fashion for harps had diminished and their availability had worked its way down the social ladder to the country gentry.  The Musgroves’ drawing room is furnished in the new style, giving it “the proper air of confusion, by a grand piano forte and a harp, flower-stands and little tables placed in every direction” (43).  Such is the Musgroves’ delight in the instrument that, when Mrs. Musgrove is feeling low, thinking about her deceased son Richard, her daughters walk from the Great House to the Cottage, instead of riding in the carriage, “to leave more room for the harp,” which “‘amuse[s Mrs. Musgrove] more than the piano-forte’” (53–54).  In Sanditon, a harp turns up, this time hired, at the holiday resort.  Miss Beaufort may be in somewhat straightened circumstances, but the harp is regarded as a necessity to elicit “praise and celebrity from all who walked within the sound of her instrument” (Later Manuscripts 202).  However “economical” the Miss Beauforts are required to be, they still possess the funds to buy “six new dresses each for a three-days visit” (this lavishness necessitating a subsequent measure of frugality) and firmly belong in the middle- to upper-class realm in which luxuries such as harps were a part of daily life (202). 

But music-making went on at all levels of Regency society.  This activity surfaces occasionally in Austen’s novels.  In Mansfield Park there is a dance occasioned by the acquisition of a violin player among the servants:  there is not an older woman pianist handy to accompany the dancing, like Mrs. Weston or Anne Elliot, and the young ladies would not be expected to give up dancing to play for the others.  Robert Martin gets his shepherd boy to sing for Harriet in Emma.  And William Price reminds his sister of the hand-organ (or barrel organ) in the street in Portsmouth of their childhood:  “‘We used to jump about together many a time, did not we? when the hand-organ was in the street?  I am a pretty good dancer in my way, but I dare say you are a better’” (MP 291).  We do not learn much about the musicians who play at the concert in Bath where Anne and Wentworth meet or about any of the music that accompanies dancing at the various balls in the other novels, expect for a passing mention of the “violins . . . playing” at the ball for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park (319) and the reference to “the first scrape of one violin” that Mrs. Edwards and her charges hear in The Watsons when they arrive early for a dance (LM 93).  These would probably have been professional musicians, hired for the occasions—regarded as artisans rather than artists. 

Austen provides more detail about professional musicians performing in private homes in an 1811 letter to Cassandra.  Eliza and Henry Austen were planning a musical evening in their London home, promising “some very good Music” from “5 professionals, 3 of them Glee-singers, besides Amateurs.”  Jane Austen particularly anticipated the pleasure of “one of the Hirelings” who was reputed to be “a Capital on the Harp, from which I expect great pleasure” (18–20 April 1811).  A subsequent letter describes the evening.  The professional musicians arrived “in two Hackney coaches” half an hour before the guests.  In the event “[n]o Amateur could be persuaded to do anything,” perhaps because the standard of the professionals was so high: 

The Music was extremely good. . . . There was one female singer, a short Miss Davis all in blue, bringing up for the Public Line, whose voice was said to be very fine indeed; & all the Performers gave great satisfaction by doing what they were paid for, & giving themselves no airs.  (25 April 1811) 

Here Austen is expressing a conventional view about professional musicians.  Like actors, they were regarded as artisans or tradespeople and not accepted as the equals of those for whom they performed.  Class consciousness might also have been behind the refusal of the amateurs to perform alongside the “artisans,” rather than self-consciousness about their standard of performance.  Although Austen clearly enjoyed the music, there is dismissive snobbery underlying her sharp wit about the use of “Hirelings,” the approval for the musicians knowing their place, and the description of the “short” singer.4  In another letter, Austen complains about her niece Fanny’s music teacher:  “I think . . . Music Masters [are] made of too much consequence & allowed to take too many Liberties with their Scholar’s time” (2 December 1815).  According to Deborah Rohr, “by the late eighteenth century, music was no longer viewed primarily as a liberal art or a liberal profession, but rather as an artisanal craft with links to the theatres and pleasure gardens, financial insecurity, and poor long-term economic or social prospects” (10).  Although Austen had spoken affectionately and respectfully of her own music teacher, Mr. Charde, assistant organist at Winchester Cathedral, in her letter to Cassandra of 1 September 1796, it seems that, at least later in life, she shared the common contemporary view of most professional musicians. 

Amateur music-making is a quite different matter.  Although Mary Bennet, who persists in playing although she possesses neither “genius nor taste” (27), comes out badly in Pride and Prejudice, most of the performers in Austen’s novels enhance the private and domestic spaces where they are playing, providing pleasure, music for dancing, or even cover for private conversation.  Austen is also well aware of the genuinely erotic possibilities of music, evident in in the way Darcy “stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer's countenance” when Elizabeth Bennet plays the pianoforte (195), or in the world of two created by Marianne Dashwood and Willoughby as they “read, . . . talked, . .  [and] sang together” (58). 

A fascinating interplay between music and class is evident in many of these erotically charged scenes.  Austen’s female performers are all genteel, but in terms of wealth or position they are often the inferiors of the gentleman whose attention they elicit, either consciously or unconsciously.  Elizabeth is a gentleman’s daughter, but there is a social gulf between her father’s modest estate and Darcy’s £10,000 a year and Pemberley estates.  Jane Fairfax, grand-daughter of an impoverished clergyman’s widow, while she is patronized and pitied for her ambiguous social position, is admitted to Highbury society because of her elegance and accomplishment.  As Kathryn Libin writes, “musical affinities . .  help to define character and to illuminate the true social hierarchy in Highbury” (“Music” 15).  Musicianship is by no means the only way to a man’s heart in Austen’s fiction, with heroines such as Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Catherine Morland not playing at all, but Austen is conscious of the potential social and romantic benefits of performance. 

The many pianos and pianists in Emma provide a particularly nuanced insight into the class dimensions of music.  The various pianos disclose the social ranking of the owners and the way in which possession or lack of an instrument could mark a progression up or down the social scale.  There is no specific mention of a pianoforte at the Martins’ farm, but the house is filled with song, both from the shepherd’s son and Mr. Martin himself:  “‘He had his shepherd’s son into the parlour one night on purpose to sing to her.  She was very fond of singing.  He could sing a little himself’” (27).  His sisters are likewise fond of music, borrowing “two songs” to “copy” from Harriet Smith (52).  In this period, “song” could refer to the printed words without the “air,” or music, so this evidence alone does not imply that the Martins owned any instruments or that they, or Harriet, could read music.  The inclusion of a square piano in James Gillray’s 1806 cartoon of a farmer’s daughter being shown off to the neighbors, however, points to the popularity and accessibility of the piano in the homes of prosperous farmers. 

farmer giles betty

Farmer Giles & his Wife showing off their daughter Betty to their Neighbours on her return from School (1809), by James Gillray.
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. 

The Woodhouses, secure in their financial and social position, possess an instrument that Emma plays sporadically, her status and position meaning that she has the leisure and luxury of dabbling rather than working consistently on her technique.  Jane Fairfax’s proficiency may grate on Emma, but she is honest enough to acknowledge that her own “‘playing is just good enough to be praised, but Jane Fairfax’s is much beyond it’” (250).  Until Frank’s gift of a “very elegant looking . .  large-sized square pianoforté,” Jane did not “‘have an instrument’” (232–33).  Mrs. Cole, in justifying the purchase of a “‘new grand pianoforté’” that none of the family is able to play, argues that the acquisition will enable them to enjoy the music of guests to their home, like “‘poor Jane Fairfax, who is mistress of music, [but who] has not any thing of the nature of an instrument, not even the pitifullest old spinet in the world, to amuse herself with’” (233).  Mrs. Cole is not a spiteful woman, but her comment highlights both her own social elevation through her husband’s financial success in trade and the Bates family’s decline and consequent lack of even the most inexpensive and meagre of keyboard instruments.  Mrs. Cole’s self-satisfied reflection on her own prosperity, particularly in relation to Jane’s, looks forward to Harriet’s dismissal of Jane’s skill as “‘no more than she is obliged to do, because she will have to teach’” (250). 

Frank Churchill’s expensive Valentine’s Day surprise for Jane Fairfax is also replete with class symbolism:  the prestigious Broadwood piano conveys his promise that the cultivated life Jane Fairfax shared with the Campbells will be resumed.  She will not be forced to become a governess, who could not possibly take her instrument with her to any of the establishments pressed upon her as solutions to her future by Mrs. Elton.  However, as David Selwyn perceptively comments, before their marriage the instrument is also “freighted with the burdens of deceit and concealment that it has come to represent” (143).  Miss Bates reports that the seeming impossibility of keeping the Broadwood causes Jane pain and anxiety, with her niece addressing the instrument:  “‘You and I must part.  You will have no business here’” (417–18).  Yet in spite of the almost suffocating presence of the pianoforte, she cannot bear to part with it and all the hopes it represents, deferring the moment of relinquishment until Colonel Campbell can “‘help [her] out of all [her] difficulties’” (418). 

Jane Fairfax’s musical application is symbolic of her awareness of the liminality of her own social position.  For those forced to earn their living, music could help to secure a good position.  According to Rohr, 

teaching was one of the few completely respectable forms of musical employment for women because it did not involve public performance.  Furthermore, women teachers may have had an advantage over men in obtaining students, since there are indications that some middle-class families preferred their daughters to have female teachers.  (135) 

Assisted by the Campbells, Jane has learned from “first-rate masters” in London for, lacking an inheritance, she needs to be “suppl[ied with] the means of respectable subsistance” (175).  Jane’s skill at the piano is not purely a matter of talent or inclination; she has to become proficient to secure her own future.  Mrs. Elton laments that Jane does not play the harp but is confident that Jane’s “‘musical knowledge’” and ability to “‘sing as well as play’” will help her become “‘delightfully, honourably and comfortably settled’” with a wealthy family (325–26).  Richard Leppert writes that, while “respectability” was the primary requirement for a governess in the eighteenth century, being “conversant in music, and drawing,” could make an applicant “still more agreeable” (51). 

The history of Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, who becomes Mrs. Weston as the novel opens, illustrates that Mrs. Elton’s claims are not entirely false.  Valued as a companion and “beloved friend” as well as a teacher, Miss Taylor is genuinely part of the family, although Emma, if not her father, acknowledges that marriage offers Mrs. Weston an amplified world of independence, security, and “happiness” (4).  Miss Taylor’s congenial duties were probably the exception rather than the rule, and Jane does not look on the prospect of becoming a governess with favor, describing the profession as the “‘sale . . . of human intellect.’”  While she repudiates an exact connection with the “‘slave-trade,’” she does claim that the “‘governess-trade’” may cause an even “‘greater misery [to] the victims’” (325). 

Miss Taylor has traditionally provided the accompaniment to dances in Highbury, a role that befits her station as governess.  But she continues to play after her marriage and consequent social elevation.  Mrs. Weston is described by Mr. Knightley as “‘the very best country-dance player, without exception, in England’” (264).  His hyperbole is in part an ironic response to Miss Bates’s euphoria after the Coles’ party, but it also signals Mrs. Weston’s proficiency, which was once fostered as useful skill for her work as governess but can now be used in a social setting.  Significantly, those who fulfil this background social music-making function in Austen’s novels are typically either women regarded as past the age of dancing (such as Mrs. Weston or Anne Elliot in Persuasion), or lacking in the beauty and vivacity of popular young ladies (such as Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, who is “glad to purchase praise and gratitude by Scotch and Irish airs” after her “long concerto” fails to please [27]).  If Austen creates a nexus between musical performance, sexual attraction, and the accomplished and attractive young woman, she also establishes a connection between social precarity, spinsterhood, and loss of “bloom” that adds another tier of complexity to the interplay between music and class. 

This connection is particularly apparent in the scenes featuring Anne Elliot at the keyboard in Persuasion.  If it were dependent on her class alone, Anne should be the focal point of attention when she plays.  If it were a matter solely of talent, Anne should be lauded and applauded.  Yet this is not the case; when Anne plays for the Musgroves, she is conscious of “giving pleasure only to herself” (50).  There is a sadness in this glimpse into her heart, with the lack of congenial musical companions increasing her feeling of “being alone in the world” (50).  She is side-lined as a spinster in the same way as the liminal governess figure was relegated to the position of accompanist to the social pleasures of others.  Wentworth’s query as to whether Anne dances is met with the confident exclamation from his partner:  “‘Oh! no, never; she has quite given up dancing.  She had rather play.  She is never tired of playing’” (78).  Relegated to the role of accompanist, Anne is conscious of being excluded from the “merry, joyous party” and, more problematically, finds refuge in being “unobserved,” safe at the keyboard (77).  There is pleasure in playing, but there is also grief—at her various losses.  But Anne is still an Elliot of Kellynch.  She regards the Musgroves as “a very good sort of people” (43) (echoing Mary Crawford’s condescending remark about mere post captains in the navy [MP 70–71]), and she does not envy the young Musgrove sisters, despite their prosperity and happiness:  “Anne always contemplated them as some of the happiest creatures of her acquaintance; but still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments” (43). 

As these examples suggest, it is invariably women who play musical instruments in Austen’s fiction.  One of the fascinating things about Austen’s novels is that her heroes have little music-making ability at all, apart from being attentive listeners.  A musical man in an Austen novel is thus cause for wariness, as he likewise was in Regency England, where John Locke’s dictum that music “wastes so much of a young man’s time” continued to be influential (qtd. in Leppert 17).  The only gentlemen who have any musical ability in Austen’s novels turn out to be unreliable (Willoughby, Frank Churchill), while those who finally marry the heroines—particularly the musical heroines—are distinguished by their appreciation of music without being able to play themselves (Brandon, Darcy, Edmund Bertram, Knightley, and Wentworth) (Dooley, “A Most Luxurious State”). 

A comparison between Marianne Dashwood’s two suitors in Sense and Sensibility neatly illustrates this point.  Willoughby, whose “musical talents were considerable” (58), woos Marianne Dashwood by singing duets and reading love poems but is ultimately revealed to be unreliable and self-interested.  In contrast, while Colonel Brandon’s attraction to Marianne while she is playing is obvious, he is more measured in his response and provides Marianne with an audience rather than a musical partner.  In the pre-Willoughby era at the start of the novel, Marianne appreciates Brandon’s difference from the other characters in the Middletons’ party:  “Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard her without being in raptures.  He paid her only the compliment of attention” (41).  Brandon’s gentlemanly “attention” to Marianne’s playing, without the insincere “raptures” the other characters exhibit, marks him as an example of what Claudia Johnson calls the “older standard of rational masculinity” invoked by Mary Wollstonecraft, set against the highly sentimental models of masculinity in novels of the 1790s.  As Johnson points out, Austen managed to harmonize these two models in her depiction of George Knightley in Emma, a man of feeling but nevertheless free from sentimental volubility and able to control his feelings (7)—and Brandon is, at least in this scene, given a similar character. 

In the scene at the Middletons’, class, gender, and sexuality all play a part.  All the main characters are members of the landed gentry, but there are infinite gradations of class even within this stratum of society.  The Middletons are country gentry, Sir John and his mother-in-law totally lacking in refinement, Lady Middleton far more genteel than her mother but indolent:  she has brought conventional accomplishments to her marriage along with the pianoforte and the music that lies on it gathering dust.  Perhaps these accomplishments helped her “secure” Sir John.  Marianne has been brought up as the daughter of an established family with a large estate, which means she has had the opportunity to learn the piano and the leisure to become an expert pianist.  However, the inequitable society in which she lives has now deprived her of her status and financial security, and she feels the constraints of her newly limited environment keenly, using her music as a way of escaping from the suffocating evening parties with the Middletons, leaving Elinor to smooth over the social awkwardness this behaviour causes.  Colonel Brandon is an educated and well-bred member of polite society.  As this scene shows, he knows how to behave in company, but something more is of course implied:  he is susceptible to the erotic attraction of Marianne’s performance as well as to its aesthetic qualities.  But as a man of his class, he is typical in having no practical musical training:  his musical sensibility is all in the appreciation of another’s performance. 

Several of Austen’s female characters also enjoy music without being performers, and a class element is rarely absent.  What pleases Mary Crawford in having Fanny as an appreciative audience when she plays the harp is that she seems “so much obliged” (241); in other words, she pays the tribute of admiration to a performance in which wealth and talent are combined.  In another scene, the glees sung around the pianoforte at Mansfield unite the singers—her cousins and their social peers—in a brief community from which Fanny, who has declined to learn music, is excluded and painfully feels her exclusion.  Music-making around the pianoforte represents an easy sociability that Fanny finds difficult; she is a listener and an observer rather than a participant.  Edmund’s evident attraction to Mary causes Fanny pain, and her words to him, as they both look out the window, highlight all that Fanny and Edmund share.  He has guided her reading and taste, and she is both complimenting him and making an unconscious plea on her own behalf about the quiet “‘harmony’” and “‘repose’” (132) she can offer, so different from Mary’s more obvious and calculating production of musical harmony or what Selwyn terms the “false ‘harmony’ of the musicians inside the room” (134). 

For Kathryn Libin, this passage represents Austen and Fanny’s rejection of music and painting as pale imitations of the Romantic sublime (“Daily Practice” 15).  Fanny’s reading gives her access to sentiments of harmony and grandeur in a way that the musical and theatrical performances of her relatives do not.  Libin highlights the “ethical difference” between Fanny and her relatives, epitomized by her yearning for authenticity and beauty that is natural rather than contrived (“Lifting the Heart” 138).  Fanny is certainly a heroine of sensibility in contrast to the other characters in Mansfield Park, and it could be argued that the authenticity of her aesthetic responses qualifies her to move up the social scale in place of her female cousins, who forfeit their positions as daughters of Mansfield Park.  It is a mistake, however, to conflate Fanny’s opinions with Austen’s:  “Fanny’s moral world is not that of the novel as a whole” (Dooley, “My Fanny”).  Libin also uses twenty-first century concepts of high art and the classical canon to judge Austen’s musical taste, with her dismissive comment that Jane Austen’s own repertoire, as represented in her sheet music collection, “was not the most elevated sort; instead of the difficult sonatas and concertos that a Jane Fairfax or Mary Bennet would play, we find many songs and airs from musical theatre arranged for piano, country dances, and light music of all kinds by mainly English composers” (“Lifting” 142).  Gammie and McCulloch, however, comment on “the sheer scope and variety of the music contained within” Austen’s family music collection, including “keyboard sonatas of great sophistication and technical challenge” (4). 

dooley ja piano

1810 Clementi square piano in the Jane Austen House Museum at Chawton. It is not her piano but is similar to the one she would have owned when she lived there. 

Class operates in Austen’s novels in a myriad of ways.  It is far from simple, one complicating factor being the differences between how a character regards herself and how others see her.  It is not clear, for example, that the Middletons or the Musgroves regard themselves as the social inferiors of the Dashwoods or the Elliots, while Marianne Dashwood and Anne Elliot certainly see themselves as socially superior, their musicianship and aesthetic taste very much bound up with their self-esteem and class consciousness.  In the complex class hierarchies of Austen’s world, possession of a musical instrument may be an indication of wealth and social mobility, though not necessarily the ability to play.  Those who do play have had the means to learn and the leisure to practice, but their social position is not always secure.  Indeed, the ability to play is often enough a remnant of a former social position of which a woman has been deprived through adverse circumstances.  Music could be a means of attracting the attention of a potential husband, but it could also help to provide impoverished gentlewomen with a livelihood.  Austen is conscious of the erotic possibilities of music making and to the genuine joy a merry tune, impassioned sonata, or lively jig could provide.  Her fiction may focus almost exclusively on the genteel, but glimpses of music-loving yeoman farmers, seaman’s children dancing to a barrel organ, and fiddle-playing servants suggest the wider musical world of the Georgian era beyond the drawing room.  At the same time, musical taste and ability can indicate hierarchies and boundaries, contributing to the subtle class judgments characters form about each other.



1Early explorations of Austen and music include Lockwood’s and Cameron’s reflections in the 1930s on Austen’s own musical life, Piggott’s Music in the Life and Writings of Jane Austen (1979), and Wallace’s exploration of the quality of equilibrium in relation to Austen and Mozart (1983).  More recently, Austen’s sheet music collections have been a focal point for Kimber, Sandcock, and Zionkowski and Hart, while Rodgers and Thompson have concentrated on music and dance.  Austen’s musical heroines have continued to fascinate Libin, Wells, and D’Arcy Wood, while Dooley has profiled Austen’s men as consumers, listeners, and, occasionally, practitioners of music.  Trillini has warned that the popularity of Austen’s fiction has, on occasion, led to a consideration of music in Austen’s work being “subsum[ed] under the banner of ‘Victorians and music.’”  Trillini calls for critics to pay attention to the “Regency concerns and techniques” that form the core context for Austen’s discussions of music (66–67), a call that scholars such as Leppert and Selwyn have begun to answer. 

2See also Lonsdale 150–55.  A contemporary parody, Lonsdale points out, saw the scheme as “an extreme example of the contemporary triumph of luxury, effeminacy, and corruption” (154). 

3Though Austen was herself content with the pianoforte, she was familiar with the harp.  Her fashionable sister-in-law Eliza Austen played, as did her niece Fanny Knight, daughter of her wealthiest brother, who began lessons after hearing “delicious harp music” played on a visit to her friend Mary Oxenden in 1814 (qtd. in Wilson 23).  The Érard ledgers list one Edward Knight as a purchaser, possibly Austen’s brother buying an instrument for his musical daughter. 

4David Selwyn identifies the harpist as either John Weippart or his brother Michael, German immigrants with a fine musical reputation, John playing regularly at Covent Garden and Drury Lane (128).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed.  Janet Todd.  Cambridge:  CUP, 2005–2008.
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  • Burney, Frances.  Memoirs of Dr. Burney, by his Daughter Madame d’Arblay.  London: Moxon, 1832.
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