Her novels record the effect of music on human relationships.
|Jane Austen…musically yours
Very few writers of English literature are as musically inclined as Jane Austen. Her famous novels effectively mirror this fact.
One of the most pursued aspects of women’s education during Jane Austen’s time was the ability to sing and play on the pianoforte. Judging by the way she used music in her novels, we can conclude that she had immense love for music. It would be worth our while to know about the kind of influence music had on her own life before attempting to trace it in her writings.
We learn through her biographies (there are several of them) that Jane was an ardent listener of a wide variety of music, such as comic songs, concerts of sacred music, orchestras and frequent visits to the opera in Bath and Winchester.
Jane started learning the piano from the age of 7. I am reminded that Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abby began her music lessons at exactly the same age. The Austens acquired their first pianoforte in 1796. Jane started learning music from Winchester organist and composer, George Chard.
After the death of her father, n 1801, they had to sell the pianoforte before setting up house in Chawton. We come to know through a letter written to her sister Cassandra, that Jane bought a new piano for 30 guineas.
In one of her letters, her niece Caroline says,
“Aunt Jane began her day with music—for which I conclude she had a natural taste; as she thus kept it up—tho’ she had no one to teach; was never induced (as I have heard) to play in company; and none of her family cared much for it...she chose her practising time before breakfast—when she could have the room to herself—She practised regularly every morning—She played very pretty tunes, I thought—and I liked to stand by her and listen to them;”
(Caroline Austen (1805-1880), My Aunt Jane Austen: A Memoir (1867; modern edition in: Austen-Leigh, A Memoir) pp. 170-171)
It is interesting to know that some of the music Jane Austen played has been preserved in her family’s music books, which were assembled by different family members over a lengthy period. There are 18 books in total and nearly half belonged to Austen herself, including two manuscripts that she copied out herself by hand. That’s really amazing!
In Jeanice Brooks’s blog in Oxford University Press’s “Academic Insights for the Thinking world” we can find out more about Jane Austen’s music. Jane kept her music books in meticulous order. The design and construction of the scale of notes is equally admirable.
More than anything else, it was highly impressive that she had the discipline to practice music everyday of her life till she fell sick. She was considerate enough not to disturb the family and so practised her piano long before the family assembled for breakfast.
Music must have helped her to live joyfully, facing the changes and tragedies of life. Music perhaps was not only her passion and hobby, but also a definite therapy and a motivational force that helped her to be cheerful and hopeful. Her enthusiasm to learn music for the country dances and play it for her nephews and nieces is so charming and sweet.
It is no surprise therefore, that music is a significant tool for portrayal of several characters and eventful turns in her plots. Jane Austen’s musical talent is evident in characters like Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill in “Emma”, Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby in ‘Sense and sensibility”, Mary Crawford in “Mansfield Park”, Anne Elliot in “Persuasion” and almost all the characters in ‘Pride and Prejudice”.
Her novels depict music as a way of connecting characters and bringing people together. The presence of music is probably felt mostly in Emma. For instance, Mrs. Elton claims,
“but without music, life would be a blank to me.'"
The appearance of the piano as a gift from an unknown admirer of Jane Fairfax heightens the mystery of her past and leads to speculation by Emma as to the donor…and Emma is wrong in her musings. Jane Fairfax is obviously a very proficient piano player which is more than can be said of Mary in “Pride and Prejudice”, who over estimates her abilities and is an embarrassment.
In chapter 27 of “Emma”, we see Emma playing the piano. It is a telling scene. Poor Emma knows that her performance is not so great (but desired for other people to have a high opinion of it). She is followed by the talented Jane. We also see Frank Churchill’s singing talent, with both Emma (who he is supposed to be fond of) and then Jane (who he is secretly engaged to). The audience want another song and Frank joins others encouraging Jane to sing even though she is tired. Mr. Knightley intervenes, and checks Frank’s lack of considerateness.
It may be observed that in Jane Austen’s writing, ability to play music or sing shows varying degrees of good breeding and sensitivity. It can also be an opportunity for relative intimacy - standing near the piano while someone is playing, singing or turning the pages of the music allows a physical closeness within a group setting. For example, in “Sense and Sensibility”, Colonel Brandon first encounters Marianne, when she is singing and playing piano with great feeling. Although he is reserved by nature, his appreciation of her musicality and emotional performance is heartfelt. Marianne is not aware of his presence or his admiration; she is not performing for him but the glimpse into her personality via her sincere and sensitive playing and singing tells him all he needs to know to fall in love with her.
By the same token, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is portrayed as crass and ill-bred despite her wealth and upbringing as she has no musical skill or inclination; this does not prevent her from criticizing the performance of others:
"If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient," she says in “Pride and Prejudice”..
Anne Elliott of “Persuasion” is a music lover. She offers to play whilst others dance- in doing so she can withdraw and be anonymous; her lack of confidence is obvious. She attends a concert, which Captain Wentworth also attends and she is delighted and hopeful of spending time with him. But she is dismayed when he leaves early having seen the attention Mr. Elliott is paying to Anne. Her enjoyment in the evening is dissipated.
In “Pride and Prejudice”, Elizabeth was asked to play the piano by the colonel. We see Darcy joining them. Soon, they engage in spirited conversation, in which Lizzy accuses him of not being social and his reply that he is not inclined to speak to strangers.
Again we see her playing the pianoforte at Lady Catherine's estate.
“Moving with his usual deliberation towards the piano forte, Darcy stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer's countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and...turned to him with an arch smile”.
Her feelings for Darcy are evidently undergoing a change. And so are his sentiments for her.
The pianoforte thus seems an important tool in facilitating the progression of relationships.
Quite unassumingly, and with relevance, music is shown bridging gaps and cementing the relationships, in Jane Austen’s memorable novels.
To me, it is matter of wonder that Jane Austen could combine the rhythm and tone of her writing with those of music. Conveying the sound of music through literature is a challenge. Jane Austen clearly took it and succeeded in overcoming it.