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Article: Jane Austen, Music, and the "Truly Accomplished" Woman

Jane Austen, Music, and the "Truly Accomplished" Woman -

Jane Austen, Music, and the "Truly Accomplished" Woman

A Short Essay Exploring Jane Austen Music and her Musical Characters

Image by Sarah Le on Unsplash

It is vain to expend large sums of money and large portions of time in the acquirement of accomplishments, unless some attention be also paid to the attainment of a certain grace in their exercise, which, though of a circumstance distinct from themselves, is the secret of their charms and pleasure-exciting quality."

A Lady of Distinction The Mirror of Graces, 1811

 As any daughter knows, Mrs. Bennet is typical not only of her time, but of any other. The marriage game has always held a fascination for mothers, and as Fanny Price comments in Mirimax’s Mansfield Park, "Marriage is indeed a maneuvering business."

With the war in France creating a shortage of eligible men on the homefront, it would seem that the more abilities a young woman had at her disposal, the greater chance she would stand of making a good match. Towards that end, parents during the Regency set about schooling their daughters in accomplishments that would make them stand out in the eyes of "men of good fortune."

Jane Austen’s Caroline Bingley gives us a contemporary definition of "accomplishment":

"No one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved."  - Caroline BingleyPeriod fashion plate

Jane Austen and Music

Jane Austen herself was known to be a diligent student of music, spending hours every day practicing. She played for the sheer love of music and she instilled that love into her "own dear child[ren]," her heroines. She valued this time with her music, transcribing her favorite pieces into a collection of books that exist to this day. This was not, however, her chief charm.That lay in her personality, her lively manner and her ready wit.

Jane Austen wrote about what she knew. In her books, she employs music to tell about the personalities of her characters. If Caroline Bingley’s was the accepted standard of accomplishment, however, it would seem that Jane Austen’s heroines fall short. Could it be that there is something more dearly prized among "sensible young men" than all the knowledge and "accomplishment" that a woman can possess? Lady Susan, one of Jane Austen’s early characters (a woman who, one would suppose, knows what gentlemen prefer) offers that:

"It is throwing time away; to be Mistress of French, Italian, and German, Music, Singing, Drawing, &c. will gain a Woman some applause, but will not add one Lover to her list. Grace and Manner, after all, are of the greatest importance."

It would seem, as her heroines suggest, that this is the view Jane Austen took. She is known to have been a sharp observer of the people and lives surrounding her. Is it possible that she could see evidence of this principle lived out in daily life? None of the six heroines of her major novels are "true proficients." Most do not play "so well as they could" and three do not play at all! Elinor Dashwood,"neither musical, nor affecting to be so," does not play, but rather draws. "The day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine's [Moreland] life."

As for Fanny Price, her cousins are scandalized to learn that "she does not want to learn either music or drawing." The others play "tolerably well"-- even "delightfully"; however, they also know that they could do much better if they practiced more, and most, at some point, are shown up by superior performers. "My fingers," said Elizabeth Bennet, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practicing." Emma Woodhouse seems to excel in everything, but on closer examination we see that this is a carefully constructed facade.

"She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress both in drawing and music than many might have done with so little labor as she would ever submit to."

However, "She knew the limitations of her own powers too well to attempt more than she could perform with credit."

Anne Elliot, who can play "for half an hour together, equally without error, and without consciousness" is an exception to this general rule. However "her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware. She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself..."

Viewers of Persuasion (Sony, 1995) may observe how she is neglected at the piano, left to provide entertainment while others dance. In transferring Jane Austen’s work to film, most screenwriters have been careful to preserve these scenes of musical diversion and revelation. Because of this, we are treated not only to the sounds of period pieces and instruments (Miramax’s 1996 Emma used music directly from Jane Austen’s own song books) recreating the atmosphere with which Jane was familiar, we are also given the added bonus of seeing the effect of the music and/or performance reflected in the faces of those listening. None of the rest of Jane Austen’s characters who do play an instrument can be held up as examples of happiness or felicity. All are deficient to our heroines in the area of "Grace and Manner." Most of her young ladies who are musical play the pianoforte: Mary Bennet, Marianne Dashwood, Mary Crawford, and Jane Fairfax were always "happy to oblige." Anne De Bourgh would have been a true proficient "had she ever learnt." Elizabeth and Emma took a little more coaxing, but their efforts were rewarded by warm praise and thanks.

This popular instrument was easy to learn, and could be demonstrated by students at all levels of accomplishment. There was, however, another instrument that was quite the rage during the Regency- the harp. None of Austen’s six heroines play this instrument, rather, it symbolizes wealth, sophistication, and perhaps a slight snobbery. It is, after all, an instrument of choice for Mary Crawford, Louisa Musgrove, and Georgiana Darcy.

What about the men? Some of them were quite musically inclined and, here again, Jane Austen uses the music to display character. Col. Fitzwilliam is a cultured man who can speak intelligently and entertainingly on the subject. John Willoughby, Frank Churchill,Hugh Thompson Illustration from S&S and Henry Tilney (Northanger Abbey, 1986) sing. Mr. Collins finds it a not unacceptable pastime ("If I," said Mr. Collins, "were so fortunate as to be able to sing, I should have great pleasure, I am sure, in obliging the company with an air; for I consider music as a very innocent diversion, and perfectly compatible with the profession of a clergyman.") Even Capt. Wentworth is seen to play a little. It is interesting then to note that most of these men did not marry the girls they performed with or for! Willoughby and Churchill are well known cads and used music for their own purposes.

While both were, at the time, sincere in their attentions to the ladies they accompanied, they are two of the most notorious flirts Austen created. Mr. Collins is only interested in displaying himself. Tilney’s singing, in light of Catherine’s non-musical nature, sets him apart from her -- for the moment, he belongs to another sphere. Col. Fitzwilliam seems to be the only character to escape villification. Capt. Wentworth uses his ability on behalf of the two Miss Musgroves ("[Anne] had left the instrument ... and he had sat down to try to make out an air which he wished to give the Miss Musgroves an idea of."), but it is his musical appreciation ("Capt. Wentworth was very fond of music...") that brings him to the concert in Bath (one of the few appearances of professional musicians in the novels).

It is there that Anne begins to feel that there might be a chance for them after all; "He began by speaking of the concert gravely.... owned himself disappointed, had expected singing; and in short, must confess that he should not be sorry when it was over. Anne replied, and spoke in defense of the performance so well, and yet in allowance for his feelings so pleasantly, that his countenance improved, and he replied again with almost a smile..." Only when discussing music do they finally attain a "real" conversation which opens the way for their reconciliation later on in the book. Hugh Thompson illustration for MPThis is not to indicate that our other heroes are not appreciative of good music.

Indeed, though their motives for doing so were often misunderstood, all listened to their beloved ones (who could) play at some point before finally proposing. Mr. Darcy, Edmund Bertram, and Col. Brandon come readily to mind, and are well known for the rapt attention they give the fair performers. Elizabeth Bennet takes delight in teasing Mr. Darcy about his intentions:

"[Mr. Darcy] moving with his usual deliberation towards the piano forte, stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer's countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said, ‘You mean to frighten me, Mr Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? But I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.’"

Andrew Davies’ film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice makes Darcy’s admiration for her less than superior performance quite apparent with his famous use of close-ups and replay. Mr. Knightley too enjoys hearing Emma play: "I do not know a more luxurious state, sir, than sitting at one's ease to be entertained a whole evening by two such young women; sometimes with music and sometimes with conversation." What he does not enjoy is Frank’s unpardonable audacity in presuming an intimacy with Emma in which he, himself, did not share. It is only Edward Ferrars who is inclined to be dismissive of music altogether-- a fact which is incomprehensible to Marianne: "Music seems scarcely to attract him; and, though he admires Elinor's drawings very much, it is not the admiration of a person who can understand their worth." One must attribute his preferences solely to affection. Music may be the food of love, but it is not apparently the cause of it. As an offering of love, however, it is a most acceptable gift. Robert Martin hires his shepherd’s boy to sing for Harriet Smith and leaves his marriage proposal for her in a packet of music. Frank Churchill, Mr. Darcy, and even Col. Brandon (Thompson’s screenplay, 1995) make gifts of pianofortes to young ladies they adore. Extravagant? Yes. But also thoughtful, sensitive tokens they know will be appreciated. Hugh Thompson Illustration for P&PWhat is it that Jane Austen is trying to tell us? Why would she create such "untalented" heroines? Wouldn’t she want to encourage her young readers to excel in their studies? There are two categories of performers she describes: those who play out of a love of music (Elizabeth, Anne, Marianne Dashwood, Jane Fairfax, etc.) and those who play for love of attention (Mary Bennet, Louisa Hurst, Caroline Bingley, Augusta Elton).

Though the latter are often praised for their execution, it is only the ones who love what they are doing who are described as giving pleasure to their listeners. Is this not another instance of "Grace and Manner?" Is this not another instance of Jane Austen’s perfection of craft? Could unconventional heroines- ones who are admired not for what they can do, but for who they are, be a part of the genre she created? Heroines who seem real -- who are as fresh today as when they were penned nearly 200 years ago -- heroines who remain as enduring role models for today’s young women. This is, after all, the woman who wrote, "Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked."


Laura Sauer is the only non-musical member of her family. As such this essay is a sort of vindication of her skills and proof that one needn't play and sing to be "accomplished." Besides- if everyone were a performer, who would be left to listen?

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