“Aunt Jane began her day with music—for which I conclude she had a natural taste; as she thus kept it up—tho’ she had no one to teach; was never induced (as I have heard) to play in company; and none of her family cared much for it. I suppose that she might not trouble them, she chose her practising time before breakfast—when she could have the room to herself—She practised regularly every morning—She played very pretty tunes, I thought—and I liked to stand by her and listen to them; but the music, (for I knew the books well in after years) would now be thought disgracefully easy—Much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself—and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print.”
—Caroline Austen, My Aunt Jane Austen: A Memoir, 1867
Music was integral to the life of Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen enjoyed music. Music was an integral aspect of her life. Like many of her characters she played the pianoforte and her letters contain enthusiastic accounts of attending performances. She played the piano every day, compiled her own albums of sheet music, and danced when others played. Music plays an important role in her novels and movie adaptations of her books. An 1811 letter about a soirée at her brother, Henry’s home states:
Above 80 people are invited for next Tuesday evening, and there is to be some very good music — five professionals, three of them glee singers, besides amateurs. Fanny will listen to this. One of the hirelings is a Capital on the harp, from which I expect great pleasure.”
Music was the elixir for social contact between genders
In the social and political history of England, the period between 1714 and 1830 is often called the Georgian Era. It is because these years mark the reign of King George I, followed by King George II, III and IV. The Georgian Era was a time period of great social gap between the wealthy and the poor. As a result of this, social behaviour and approval were some of the major areas that the people of this time concentrated on. This resulted in a long list of norms of social etiquettes that people used to follow at that time, which was taken very seriously by everyone in society.
There were highly complex rules for social interaction between men and women, but all women were expected to marry and marry young, but interaction between men and women during these times was very constrained. House parties, salons and balls were therefore an important part of the social culture as these were the only places where men and women could pursue each other in a romantic manner. Even these events were closely monitored and it was still important to follow the norms of behaviour for both genders.
The common factor to all these social contacts was music. Most young women were expected to play a musical instrument to entertain house guests. Salons were where more acknowledged musicians performed and Balls mostly required a group of musicians.
From her biographer, and niece Caroline Austen, we know about the music that Jane Austen played and liked. Her stories of family news and memories show how Jane Austen’s life had a rich background of domestic music-making. She listened to her cousins play, danced to the music from her sisters and sisters-in-law, played for her own satisfaction and for her nieces and nephews. The theme of vying for attention of possible suitors is common in all her novels. Think of Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, Miss Jane Fairfax and the pianoforte in Emma.
One has only to watch the numerous films and television shows based on Austen’s six published novels, and one unfinished, to see the key role that music played in the lives of her characters and the people of the Georgian time.
Jane Austen’s collection of music
There were 18 music albums that belonged to Jane Austen and her female relations. Like many similar collections, this is an intriguing collection including compilations of printed sheet music, manuscript albums copied into pre-ruled music books, compilations of separately copied manuscripts and scrapbooks mixing print and manuscript items. At least seven women in the extended Austen family copied or collected music into the 18 albums. Jane Austen was responsible for a large portion. Often a collection was started by one woman then added to by another. As a set, they are a rich illustration of domestic music-making.
The collection was held together in the Knight family (descendants and owners of Chawton House) library until the middle of the last century, when was broken up, with eight books thought to be most closely associated with the author herself donated to the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, and the remainder split between descendants of the family.