Making Music With Jane Austen

On Saturday I went to the Jane Austen House Museum in the village of Chawton, where Hampshire’s most celebrated author lived from 1809. It’s a stout 17thC brick house, with a pleasant garden and a modern learning centre. I was in the latter, taking part in a workshop with Professor Jeanice Brooks of Southampton University on music-making in Jane Austen’s time.

Brooks ran a really interesting session, even though I haven’t read any of Austen’s novels yet. Yes I know, it’s a blow to my Hampshire credentials, but in defence I have at least have seen the 90s BBC adaption of Pride And Prejudice.

Fans of the books will know that Austen included various scenes of domestic music-making, which give some insight into the importance of music in English society in her time. 

This was especially true for women. There was view that music was one of ‘the accomplishments’ – a form of suitably feminine education, and Austen began lessons as a child. Music would be an attractive skill to a potential marriage partner, and desirable for family life – if just one person was musically trained, the whole the family then had access to music in the home. Pictures by James Gillray from the time satirised amateur music-making – here’s one complete with howling family dog

Happily, some of the Austen family’s music books survive. There are lots of juvenile songs, suggesting that music-making with children was important. We know that Jane herself played piano, and having access to one was important to her – during an itinerant phase before she settled in Chawton, she rented instruments.

We were shown a copy of a manuscript owned by Ann Cawley, who taught Jane and her sister in Oxford when they were young girls. This simple song had lyrics, appropriately enough, about being nervous when asked to sing – it’s quite possible that Jane would have sung it in a lesson.

When you aske me to sing,

Then you raise all my doubt,

How to sound out a thing

I want art to make out…

Crucially, at this time a pupil would learn to write out music as well as play it. Even in the age of printing, manual copying still had an important role. Amateur musicians like Austen would create ‘binders volumes’ of pieces that they liked, out of individual printed pieces, but also their own handwritten copies of pieces they had borrowed – perhaps from friends, or from a lending library, of which there was one nearby at Winchester. Austen herself was known for being able to copy by hand in a way that was almost as neat as print.

There’s a fantastic online resource that allows you to browse through various of the Austen family binders volumes for free – you can find it here.

We looked at a copy of a Robert Burns song Their groves o’ sweet myrtle, thought to be in Austen’s hand. The composer of the music is unknown, and it’s interesting as the words have been Anglicised away from the Burns poem – and the poet’s love ‘Jean’ has become ‘Jane’(!)

It seems that for Austen, piano playing was often a solitary pleasure, and she would go downstairs and practice before breakfast. The house features a lovely Clementi ‘square’ piano of the period, with just over five octaves range. We were given a small performance on this by one of Brooks’ Southampton students, and we had a go at singing the Burns song alongside it, for which I can only offer my personal apologies.

The house museum is interesting and certainly worth looking around – find out about visiting here – though Austen geeks certainly won’t need any of my Persuasion. (For the less hardcore fan I should warn it’s not to be confused with the bigger Chawton House nearby, though you can visit that too). 

I must say, as someone who frequents both Hampshire and London, how surreal it is to hear the kind of international tourist accents in this quiet village that you’d expect in Piccadilly Circus. On which point I can only doff my cap to Jane – the vicar’s daughter with a wooden donkey carriage who conquered the world.

Find out more about Jeanice Brooks work, and read her article In Search of Austen’s ‘Missing Songs’. See events listings in the house museum here

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