"I Burn with Contempt for My Foes": Jane Austen's Music Collections and Women's Lives in Regency England. (Conference Papers)

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JANE AUSTEN "had a natural taste for" music, as her niece Caroline recalled (6-7); her nephew James Edward remembered that she practiced the piano daily for several hours before breakfast, and she sometimes sang in the evenings:

Jane herself was fond of music, and had a sweet voice, both in singing and in conversation; in her youth she had received some instruction on the pianoforte; and at Chawton she practised daily, chiefly before breakfast. I believe she did so partly that she might not disturb the rest of the party who were less fond of music. In the evening she would sometimes sing, to her own accompaniment, some simple old songs, the words and airs of which, now never heard, still linger in my memory. (Memoir 330)

Sheet music was expensive, and people shared it and copied it by hand; Austen painstakingly copied much of her music into manuscript books, eight of which are owned by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust and kept in Jane Austen's House at Chawton. (1) About half of the music in these notebooks is vocal: songs with words that tell stories and present pictures and interpretations of the world. While Austen did not write the lyrics she sang, she chose them; if she had recited poetry for two hours every day before breakfast, we would want to know what that poetry was.

These eight music books do not represent the whole of Austen's collections; other books once available to scholars in the 1970s and 1980s are not owned by the Trust and are unfortunately no longer available for study. Also, some of the material in the eight books was copied or acquired by other Austen family members. But we can assume that the songs copied in Austen's own hand or bearing her signature were important to her in some way and intended for her use. So, what do their lyrics say?

Some of the songs are delightful but, in a way, unsurprising: they reflect the kind of humor that we might expect to appeal to Jane Austen. Others are surprising in two different ways. First, many of the lyrics explore veins of feeling that Austen did not often allow into her novels or her (surviving) letters. And secondly, a great many of them are startling when considered as songs to be sung by genteel ladies in a place and time when the behavior of such ladies was policed and circumscribed and subject to anxious national debate. Austen's music collection shows that women could express in song, particularly songs in foreign languages or Scots dialect, all kinds of emotions that were otherwise forbidden: lust, sexual longing, rage, impatience with "imprisonment" and restraint, enthusiasm for drinking, etc. Women could temporarily take on male roles: soldiers and sailors departing for battle, shepherds desiring shepherdesses, gentlemen desiring gentlewomen, Cockney laborers making off-color jokes, and all kin ds of unladylike personae (all scored for the female voice in the treble clef). They could explore political partisanship, not then considered appropriate for women. Yet singing at the piano was a sanctioned, almost a required "accomplishment" for genteel women, whose speech and actions were otherwise so constrained, at least if we judge from the dictates of conduct-book writers and the evidence of novels, letters, and diaries. Of course real, living women vary, and family standards vary (consider the Austens, those unapologetic novel-readers): we cannot assume that the narrow path marked out by the conduct literature was rigorously followed by every young lady in word, thought, and deed. But it is still curious that many of the songs "assigned" to young ladies were so much at variance with the modes of speech and behavior "assigned" by the same system.

A number of Austen's songs reflect the sort of comic, witty fun we would expect to appeal to the author of Pride and Prejudice. A prime example is "The Joys of the Country," which Austen copied by hand. It was written by Charles Dibdin, who was a composer and performer, a forerunner of the Victorian music hall, the Benny Hill of his day as well as the composer of many serious, sentimental, and patriotic songs. …