Eliot, Music and Victorian Culture
In her introduction, Delia da Sousa Correa states that this book is “for those who share some of Eliot’s own impassioned intellectual and emotional involvement with music.”
I suppose that the amount I thought I shared with one of my favourite authors is not enough because I did not find this study a compelling read. I have, however, emerged after three weeks, more fully informed about George Eliot’s lesser known poetry and articles and the influence of German philosophy on the Victorians and Eliot. Through the well argued and illustrated third chapter, “Music and the Woman Question,” I have even learned more about the role of women in Victorian society, which I thought I understood well. Therefore my application has been bountifully rewarded.
The introduction gives an accessible and necessary overview of the book and draws an analogy with Eliot’s little read poem “Jubal,” her later prose and her ideas and experience of music. Then comes a chapter on “Music, Science and Literature.” Given the chapter’s title it is understandably long, 48 pages containing a lot of information which I’d guess is unfamiliar to anyone not well up in Victorian Studies. It is at this point that da Sousa Correa risks losing the literature student, which seems a pity because the remaining three chapters are well structured and packed with interesting, useful perceptions.
Still, Chapter One covers ground that must be crossed if we are to see George Eliot in context. She was connected, in lively discussion and musical soirees, with some of the most eminent thinkers of her day—particularly Herbert Spencer, the social evolutionist, who was her friend and, frequently, her escort to the opera. Although George Eliot maintained that the direction of her thought was in place before she met Spencer, she acknowledged that he enlarged her ideas. So his theories are moot, although, warns da Sousa Correa, unreadable for most in this day and age. I am now inclined to agree with her, without even trying to read him.
Even in modern “translation,” Spencer’s idea that music is an extension of speech is developed in a very complex way; but then the structure of da Sousa Correa’s chapter is complicated and its material dense, yet wide-ranging in terms of references.
Herbert’s argument is juxtaposed with one of Darwin’s, i.e. music originated in the courtship rituals of pre-human species and then became adapted for pure pleasure. Edmund Gurney, another associate of Eliot’s, who had a more psychic theory of music, is mentioned because he agreed with Darwin about music and courtship as well as with another hidden woman, Vernon Lee (Violet Piaget), that music and speech are as different as architecture and painting. James Sully, the psychologist, is cited for managing to combine the theories of Spencer and Darwin with Helmholz’s in a study of human sound.
Helmholz is investigated at greater length, as George Eliot’s husband, G.H. Lewes, was an advocate of his writing, particularly “On The Sensations of Tone as a Psychological Basis for the Theory of Music,” which Eliot would have read and discussed. She also knew of Joseph Mainzer, a priest who was very influential in the nineteenth-century development of amateur choirs. Mainzer and Spencer and many social reformers agreed that music, specifically singing, was a civilising force, ministering to human welfare. This argument civilises art too, since the artist or singer is placed inside society, creating for that society’s good, as opposed to being placed outside society, in line with the Romantic conception, which may have been growing rather worn.
I might have understood more with subheadings. Nevertheless, I am clear that the origin and purpose of speech and music was a hot subject amongst eminent nineteenth-century thinkers. It seems too that the most formative philosophical input was from Germany, like the most groundbreaking music.
George Eliot was a keen and accomplished pianist, who enjoyed musical evenings at home. She loved going to the opera and recitals—especially Handel, which she knew was unusual for a Victorian. She read and spoke German. In 1854, she travelled to Weimar with her husband and discovered its music scene. She met and dined with Liszt, heard Schumann play and was introduced to Rubinstein and Wagner, whom she saw in London a year later. That year, 1855, she wrote the first article on Wagner published in Britain, in the form of an essay entitled “Liszt, Wagner and Weimar” which appeared in Fraser’s magazine. She was clearly impressed by the phenomenon and effect of Wagner and, whilst not utterly enjoying his compositions, she was prepared to defend them from the general distaste and confusion of British critics.
Perhaps Eliot’s grounding in Germanic culture, notably the philosophy of Feuerbach whom she had translated in 1854, gave her more liberty to “understand” Wagner. She professed to agree completely with Feuerbach. According to da Sousa Correa, the Das Wesen des Christentum argued that music is “the language of feeling” [p. 28] and that “all human attributes and feeling spring from the communication between individuals” [p. 29]. Delia da Sousa Correa feels that “the degree to which Feuerbach’s ideas informed [George Eliot’s] writing makes them a significant aspect of her transmission of German thought into English culture” [p. 29]. I have not read Feuerbach, but am persuaded by da Sousa Correa’s final chapters (“The Mill on the Floss—A Mind Susceptible” and “Daniel Deronda—The Other Side of Silence”) that this makes sense.
Delia da Sousa Correa is accurate in her breakdown of Maggie Tulliver’s susceptibility to sound. She asks us to remember, amongst the magic of a musical snuffbox and the ambiental accompaniment of the millwheel, the mingled effects of Stephen Guest’s singing voice versus Philip Wakeham’s on Maggie’s passionate nature. Is this also a reference to Darwin and Gurney’s view of courtship?
The interpretation of music and its meaning in Daniel Deronda comes across as more political. The novel itself is arguably more political in its discussion of Jewish and female identities. Building on ground covered in “Music and The Woman Question” da Sousa Correa investigates Eliot’s view of the position of women as symbolised by music and the options open to them as female artists / performers / teachers. By association, we suspect Eliot’s interrogation of her own position as a writer.
Finally I recommend this book to the people it was written for, students of Victorian culture and literature who are inspired by music, and providing they are not reading in haste. The lines are close on the page and the font small, but the book is well annotated and modestly but appropriately illustrated. Now that I’ve finished it, I enjoy its effect. I know more than I did and it will come in useful.