"Aunt Jane began her day with music": Austen and the female amateur

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Date: Annual 2015
Publisher: Jane Austen Society of North America
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,544 words

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IN 1922 VIRGINIA WOOLF characterized Jane Austen's juvenilia musically, as a prelude to her later novels: "She is only humming a tune beneath her breath, trying over a few bars of the music for Pride and Prejudice and Emma" (334). Woolf's metaphor is perceptive but not unique: some of Austen's earliest critics have reached for musical language to describe her writing. While Austen's niece Caroline had recalled her aunt's devotion to practicing and copying music in manuscript, music historians Elisabeth Lockwood (1934) and Norman Cameron (1937) were the first to pay serious attention to Austen's musical knowledge and proficiency as a pianist; in 1979 Patrick Piggott, a British music teacher and composer, helpfully collected Austen's musical experiences and their use in her novels in a slim book, although his title alone, The Innocent Diversion, recalls Mr. Collins's dismissive assessment of music's significance. By contrast, Robert Wallace, in his fine comparative study of Austen and Mozart (1983), was the first scholar to detail the imposing presence of music throughout her life and writings, a presence as imposing as the pianoforte itself. Overall, however, despite a growing interest in Austen's relation to music, repeated categorizations of her as an "amateur" seemed to diminish her lifelong commitment to collecting, transcribing, and playing. The label of "amateur" stuck and is still applied.

The focus of women's musical instruction during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped reinforce this label. As Kathryn Libin notes, while daily practice on the piano, harp, and, less commonly, the guitar became the "hallmarks of a proper liberal education" (3) for genteel young women, cultural anxieties about the value and use of such accomplishments ran high: practicing too much or performing too well was believed detrimental to women, who foolishly risked making spectacles of themselves--or becoming mere entertainers--by exhibiting their talent too insistently, even in the relatively private sphere of the home. In order to retain their class status and reputations for modesty, it was imperative for women to remain amateurs and to avoid self-display, competition with other women, and the quest for admiration of their playing. Gillen D'Arcy Wood argues that during the Regency period, female amateurism was redefined, as the "new movement in serious music ... embodied in Beethoven" (159) changed cultural perceptions of domestic performance. Instead of signifying an inappropriate allocation of time, women's virtuosity, or "successful self-discipline in musical accomplishment" (158), revealed their corresponding psychological development and complex subjectivity, both of which made them suitable partners for the emerging class of male professionals.

Yet for Austen--who played and wrote mostly after the 1790s and before the Romantic era--the ideal of the amateur comprised neither the accomplished woman displaying her skills at the keyboard to attract suitors nor the proto-professional whose mastery of her discipline enables expression of her deepest self. Rather, Austen's letters and fiction suggest a different social role for women who play: their task is the maintenance of a rich domestic life lived among friends and family, in which music allows for communication,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A453723469