Music and the Austen Couple
Updated: Feb 26
In the Georgian era, female accomplishments were indispensable assets on the marriage market. Like Miss Bingley describes, the ability to speak French, draw, do fancy needlework, and move elegantly were the skills women were taught to show their cultural sophistication and how they could contribute to social life.
The most appreciated talent might have been music, although it was valued by some more than others, as we observe at an evening at the John Dashwood' in Sense and Sensibility:
The party, like other musical parties, comprehended a great many people who had real taste for the performance, and a great many more who had none at all; and the performers themselves were, as usual, in their own estimation, and that of their immediate friends, the first private performers in England.
Austen’s stories are full of skilled musicians and those who never bothered to learn; and people who appreciate their skills and those who can’t tell the difference between excellence and mediocrity. Let’s take a look at some of Austen’s heroines’ talent on the pianoforte and see how well the men they marry appreciate music.
Emma knows that her “steadiness had always been wanting” when it came to applying herself, and when she’s called on to perform at the Coles’ party, she “knew the limitations of her own powers too well to attempt more than she could perform with credit.” Emma has taste and spirit, but it’s Jane Fairfax who shines.
Mr. Knightley admires Jane Fairfax’s playing, as Emma can’t help but notice after Mrs. Weston hints that the two might make a good match.
“Presently Mr. Knightley looked back, and came and sat down by her. They talked at first only of [Jane Fairfax’s] performance. His admiration was certainly very warm; yet she thought, but for Mrs. Weston, it would not have struck her.”
She needn’t have worried, because while he is full of praise for Jane Fairfax’s superior skill, he sees Emma for who she is, flaws and all. He knows that Emma would “never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience,” and that she would never be musician to rival a Jane Fairfax, but Mr. Knightley loves her all the same.
Anne Elliot is a talented performer but, when she’s at Uppercross, she’s not among anyone who appreciates her skill.
She played a great deal better than either of the Miss Musgroves; but having no voice, no knowledge of the harp, and no fond parents to sit by and fancy themselves delighted, her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware […] Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste.
We can guess who---in that short period---might have truly listened to Anne.
We can also guess at Uppercross that Captain Wentworth enjoys music, and might be one to fully appreciate Anne again. He “sat down to try to make out an air which he wished to give the Miss Musgroves an idea of.” However, it’s in Bath that we learn for certain that “Captain Wentworth was very fond of music.” Anne’s courage has grown, and she attends a concert knowing he’s likely to attend, and expects that "if she could only have a few minutes conversation with him again, she fancied she should be satisfied." I think that after they’re married, with a husband fond of music, Anne Wentworth would again know the happiness of being listened to.
Some Austen heroines have no talent with the pianoforte. Elinor is “neither musical nor affecting to be so”; as a child, Fanny tells her cousins that she “does not want to learn music or drawing,” and since she's handy for fetching and carrying messages and is never seen playing, we can guess she never learned; and Catherine’s mother wished her to learn, at 8 she suffered a year of lessons, and was then finally allowed to give up.
Perhaps the most musical of the Austen heroines is Marianne. Her passion for music is an extension of her romantic nature, a contrast to sensible Elinor who has no musical talent. Willoughby begins his relationship with Marianne in the hopes of pleasing her but without returning her affections. She coincidently finds they have tastes in common—including music—and although he later becomes attached her, Willoughby leaves her brokenhearted.
After their breakup, Marianne turns to music to distract her.
She played over every favourite song that she had been used to play to Willoughby, every air in which their voices had been oftenest joined, and sat at the instrument gazing on every line of music that he had written out for her, till her heart was so heavy that no farther sadness could be gained; and this nourishment of grief was every day applied. She spent whole hours at the pianoforte alternately singing and crying; her voice often totally suspended by her tears.
Willoughby would be the first to admit that he was a “hard-hearted rascal” who misused Marianne, who said and acted in a way to attract her when he had no intention of returning her affections. Did he really enjoy the same books, the same poems, the same music, or was he always acting the part?
It’s Colonel Brandon who first notices Marianne’s playing and singing, while Lady Middleton applauds and asks to hear the song she just finished, and Sir John loudly talks to others while she plays.
[Colonel Brandon] paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for him on the occasion, which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste. His pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that ecstatic delight which alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the horrible insensibility of the others.
Not the warmest view of the man she comes to marry, but a stark contrast against the indifference that Willoughby showed her.
Now we come to Elizabeth, who has a rational view of her talents, and a turn for sarcasm. She says to Charlotte—who is trying to get her to perform—but with her attention on Darcy:
"If my vanity had taken a musical turn, you would have been invaluable; but as it is, I would really rather not sit down before those who must be in the habit of hearing the very best performers."
We all know her performance at Lucas Lodge was pleasing, though by no means capital, but we also know that Elizabeth---with her “easy and unaffected” style---was enjoyed more than Mary, even though she didn’t play half so well as her sister. Mary performed in order to be praised, while Elizabeth played to entertain others. Elizabeth is aware of her own skill level: not as devoted as Marianne, but she’s applied herself more diligently than Emma.
At Rosings, we see more of Darcy’s opinion of Elizabeth’s musical talents when he moved “with his usual deliberation towards the piano forte, stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer's countenance.” He might have been there for the music, since he says, “No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you can think anything wanting.” But it’s their banter over the instrument that’s more memorable than any song Elizabeth is playing.
He likes to listen to her play, but it's the liveliness of her mind--that easy, unaffected style of hers--that really wins over Darcy.
In my short story The Gentlemen Are Detained, Elizabeth and Darcy spend an evening trying and failing to have a conversation with one another. They’re thrown together after Lydia’s marriage but before Bingley proposes to Jane, and everything between them is deeply felt but still left unsaid. Darcy silently admires her while she's playing the pianoforte, but can they manage to have a private conversation about their feelings?