Jane Austen's World: A Musical Courtship

A cursory glance at Jane Austen's musical life. 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a [woman] in possession of [culture and musical talents], must be in want of a [good husband].”

  • Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 1 (slightly altered)

 

While reading this above quotation, you may find the wording a bit odd if you’ve ever been in contact with Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” or if you noticed the brackets. In eighteenth-century London, this above statement was a prevailing sentiment among the citizens: women accomplished in skills such as piano playing were more likely to marry well and elevate their own social standing. For that reason, it was common for young girls to begin studying the piano or learning to sing. Many women pianists dominated the domestic musical scene in London, such as Elizabeth Billington, Maria Hester Park, and Jane Mary Guest. Despite the accomplishments achieved through their musical career, most women were unlikely to continue to perform or teach after finding a husband. Jane Austen noticed this trend amongst young women, and even comments on it in her Juvenilia writings on a fictional Miss Stanley: “Those years which ought to have been spent in the attainment of useful knowledge and mental improvement had all been bestowed in learning Drawing, Italian, and Music.”

 

Although Jane Austen is rather cynical in her opinion of London’s culture, she was a devoted musician. Her niece, Caroline Austen, notes that her aunt Jane began every day with music, practicing at the keyboard before making breakfast for the family and copying music into her manuscript in neat handwriting. Her family did not care for Jane’s dedication to music; Caroline even writes that she eventually realized that Jane tended to play very simple music, but did so beautifully. Her niece’s statement creates an interesting link between Jane and one of her most famous protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet, who also preferred to play simple music but with an affecting grace. Even with a lack of people acknowledging her talents, Jane Austen continued to study music into her adulthood, doing so for the most important reason: she enjoyed playing music.  

 

In 2016, with the effort of Professor Jeanice Brooks and the Jane Austen’s House Museum, the musical library of the Austen family was digitized and made available to the public. It is thanks to their work that these concerts are possible, giving us a unique insight to the musical life of Jane Austen, and allowing us to perform pieces that are not found elsewhere.

Sample Pieces:

When First this Humble Roof I Knew - William Jackson of Exeter

Robin Adair - Lady Caroline Keppel

Sonata No. 2 in G Major - Ignaz Pleyel

© 2019 by Amaranti Ensemble. Photo credits: Taylor Rossi and Fabio Morales

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