Jane Austen 200

This week, the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death has been marked in many different ways, including a statue unveiling, and a first look at the new plastic ten pound note featuring Austen, which has already attracted comment over its choice of quotation. Through the year in Cambridge there have been lots of Austen-related events, including exhibitions and illustration competitions. Keen to get in on the action, today MusiCB3 looks at Austen and some of her musically-inclined characters…

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There is no shortage of musical scenes in Austen’s novels. Balls and dances are eagerly anticipated by her characters (and readers) as events full of potential. They are opportunities for seeing and being seen, eyeing up potential suitors, and throwing one’s daughters into the paths of the rich men to whom you hope to marry them off. The kind of dances played at these events could be country dances and reels, with the waltz (which was seen as rather scandalous) beginning to become fashionable in England only towards the end of Austen’s life. A previous MusiCB3 visit to a Regency ball looks more closely at some of the dances and music.

As well as these grand occasions, there is plenty more music outside of the ballroom in Austen. At smaller gatherings, the characters who count singing and playing amongst their accomplishments often have the chance to show off their talent. There is even the occasional plot twist in the form of a mysterious musical instrument.

emma piano 2

“As soon as she entered the room, had been struck by the sight of a pianoforte”    Austen, Jane. Emma. London: George Allen, 1898. Wikimedia Commons.


In Emma, Jane Fairfax receives an unexpected gift of a ‘larged-sized square pianoforte’ by Broadwood. Among the sheet music that came with it was music by Cramer, as well as a ‘new set of Irish melodies’ including Robin Adair. Jane’s musical taste reflects the fashion at the time for arrangements of Scottish and Irish folksongs. To keep Jane busy among the MusiCB3 collections, I have found her a CD of Haydn’s Scottish songs (CD.K.289), and some Irish song settings by Beethoven (869.503.I4). Perhaps Miss Bates would enjoy leafing through a book on ‘Broadwood square pianos’ (M616.c.200.49) while Jane practices.


An Austen character’s attitude to music is often telling, and there are plenty of characters whose silliness is made evident through their approach to music. Think of the ghastly Mrs Elton (‘Without music, life would be a blank to me’) or Lady Catherine de Bourgh (‘if I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient’). Life as a musical Austen character is not always fair, and what is allowed for one character might be the downfall of another. In Pride and Prejudice Mary Bennett is laughed at for taking her music far too seriously, (she is often to be found ‘deep in the study of thorough-bass and human nature’) whereas the aristocratic Georgiana Darcy is forgiven for being a serious musician. This is partly because she wears her talent more lightly than Mary, but also perhaps because of the elegant instruments and music tuition that a member of the Darcy family can no doubt afford. I feel sorry for Mary, always having to put up with family members who insist she has ‘delighted us long enough’. So I found her some thorough-bass books to cheer her up…


Like so many of her characters, Austen played the piano, taking lessons at one point from George Chard, an organist at Winchester Cathedral. She would no doubt be pleased to find a couple of Chard’s compositions at the UL.

Perhaps it was under Chard’s guidance that Austen copied out pieces for her music collection. Her neat transcriptions might sometimes have been from sheet music that he lent to her, or perhaps from music borrowed from circulating libraries. You can find the Austen family music books, digitised by the University of Southampton, here.

If you have not yet been delighted for long enough, you can find plenty more Austen-related books and music at MusiCB3, including:

Mansfield Park : chamber opera in two acts / Jonathan Dove (MRU.260.a.201.5)

The innocent diversion : a study of music in the life and writings of Jane Austen / Patrick Piggott (M834.c.95.54)

Jane Austen sings the blues / Nora Foster Stovel (ed.) (M950.c.200.1439)

Music in the Georgian novel / Pierre Dubois (725:25.b.201.9)





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