Music, Character, and Social Standing in Jane Austen's Emma. (Miscellany)

By Shanks Libin, Kathryn L. | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Music, Character, and Social Standing in Jane Austen's Emma. (Miscellany)


Shanks Libin, Kathryn L., Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


Kathryn Libin teaches music history and theory at Vassar College. Her specialties include music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries and early keyboard instruments. Ms. Libin has lectured and published on Mozart's concertos, music in Jane Austen's novels, and Goethe's Faust in music. Currently she is writing a book on Mozart's keyboard concertos.

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MODERN READERS MAY NOT BE FULLY AWARE of the crucial and all-pervasive role of music in English domestic life during the nineteenth century. Jane Austen's affectionate and disciplined attachment to music, which she cultivated throughout her life, is manifest in her novels, all of which contain scenes of music and dancing. Accomplished musicians appear in Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park; however, in Emma musical accomplishment reaches its peak in the person of Jane Fairfax, while musical symbols and implications lie at the heart of Austen's narrative. In no other novel does Austen employ a musical instrument as a central plot device, and in no other novel do so many of the main characters reveal essential aspects of their personalities through their attitudes toward music. Indeed, musical affinities, or their lack, help to define character and to illuminate the true social hierarchy in Austen's Highbury.

The mysterious arrival of a Broadwood piano and a parcel of sheet music at Jane Fairfax's humble home triggers the speculation and intrigue that eventually reveal her as Frank Churchill's fiancee. Austen treats this plot element with an unusual degree of detail; the unique indication of a brand name for a household item, and the specification of title and composer for the music played on it are most significant. As I will explain, the names "Broadwood" and "Cramer," and the titles "Robin Adair" and "Irish melodies," would have transmitted to the informed reader of Austen's day valuable information about the tastes of their donor and the nature of the complicity, even deception, which binds him to Miss Fairfax.

We can also use music as a lens through which to examine the tension between Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax. In Jane Fairfax we find an illustration of the ancient equation of virtuosity with virtue; despite Fairfax's poverty, her rich personal gifts ennoble her. Emma Woodhouse, who sees herself as the leader of Highbury society, nonetheless regrets her inferiority as a musician. Emma's conversation with the artless and under-educated Harriet Smith (who possesses no musical pretensions whatever) about "taste" versus "execution" in musical performance not only alludes to a long-standing cultural debate, but reveals Emma in a rare moment of honest self-examination -- a small milestone on her road to self-knowledge.

Musical Artefacts: Pianos and Music

Let's begin with the tangible musical artefacts that Austen introduces in the course of her story. As Emma states, Highbury is "'a very musical society,'" (277) and all the main houses have pianos, and likely good ones. Emma obviously possesses a good instrument at Hartfield, one in keeping with their status as the first family of the area; Mrs. Weston also plays the piano, and surely has a good one at Randalls (perhaps a wedding present); and the Coles, who though "in trade, and only moderately genteel" (207) are rising in society, have a "'new grand pianoforte in the drawing room'" (215) for their little girls and occasional guests to play upon.

Indeed, it is Mrs. Cole who first reveals to Emma and to the reader, during dinner at her home, the mysterious arrival of an instrument at the home of the Bates ladies and Jane Fairfax: "Mrs. Cole was telling that she had been calling on Miss Bates, and as soon as she entered the room had been struck by the sight of a pianoforte -- a very elegant looking instrument -- not a grand, but a large-sized square pianoforte;" and that "this pianoforte had arrived from Broadwood's the day before, to the great astonishment of both aunt and niece. …

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Music, Character, and Social Standing in Jane Austen's Emma. (Miscellany)
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