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Music in the Georgian Novel


Pierre Dubois


Cambridge: University Press, 2015

Hardcover. xi+364 p. ISBN 978-1107108509. £74.99


Reviewed by Gilles Couderc

Université de Caen




Pierre Dubois’ objective here is to investigate various representations of, and allusions to, music in the novels from Richardson to Jane Austen. Scenes where characters perform, or attend to music, play a dramatic role in the diegesis, reveal emotions, help define a character’s morality or lack thereof and are part and parcel of the authors’ narrative strategies. Such scenes also tell the reader about the period’s musical context, hence the need to inquire into the social and cultural aspects of such allusions so as to understand how they were perceived by the readers of that period, and for the modern reader to fully grasp their impact. That particular field of study has been strangely neglected as it is considered beyond the literary critic’s ken and within the musicologist’s. Yet music played such an essential role in their society that its representations afforded its Georgian readers a wide range of meanings. In a primitive musicalisation of fiction, Georgian novelists were prone to using the language of music in their diegetic strategies as the evolution of aesthetic theories about music now granted it full autonomy as an artistic medium. Consequently, in tune with Robert D. Hume’s Archeo-Historicism, Dubois sets out to analyse how music was conceived and perceived in the individual and/or collective imagination.

His study is divided into four parts, 21 chapters, with copious notes, an impressive bibliography and a practical index. Dubois opens his first part, Sound and sense: moral issues, with a Prelude: Italian opera and English oratorio, which charts the rise of the new commercial classes as the British Empire expanded, the new wealth it created within this new society whose moral standards were loose and encouraged corruption, luxury, selfishness and effeminacy, opposed to the traditional values of private morality and civic virtues. The debate was reflected at length in Addison’s Spectator with the opposition between Italian opera and English oratorio. The former was depicted as scandalously costly, as “sound without sense”, with nonsensical libretti sung in an incomprehensible language—hence morally suspect—by sexually ambiguous castrati, while music’s duty was basically thought to be that of enhancing poetry. Moreover, at a time when conceptions of gender were undergoing significant changes and national character was seeking new definitions, castrati were seen as a threat to the patriarchal order. Opera thus presented a picture of disorder not to be tolerated when new British values were being asserted, casting the shadow of suspicious morality on those who attended it. Its empty and showy virtuosity and the enjoyment thereof became, linked with moral weakness, sexual ambiguity and depravity—and this well into the late nineteenth century; hence the need for an art that combined music, poetry, sense and manly dignity—Handel’s English oratorio. The genre became associated with charities and the representation of clearly defined gender categories, in total opposition with opera’s profligacies and sexual ambiguities. Linked to a new moral and patriotic discourse, the discourse on music in fiction then attempted moral edification through the novel.

Chapter 2, The English Orpheus, recalls that the novel, just like music, was thought of as potentially morally dangerous, or conversely, as a means of moral edification and the duality between opera and oratorio was exploited at length in fiction both to assert moral values and to justify the very existence of the novel. Dubois shows how allusions to opera and oratorio were systematically used by Richardson, echoing Addison, as moral markers in the 1741 sequel to Pamela known as Pamela II and in Clarissa, especially when the heroine, the embodiment of St Cecilia, decides to compose an Ode to Wisdom. He then sets out to demonstrate that the novelist used Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, assimilated to an oratorio though technically an ode on the powers of music, as the matrix for his History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753). The novel connects Sir Charles, an embodiment of moral perfection, as well as Harriet who eventually marries him, with the virtues extolled by English oratorio, moderation and excellence, while the characters of Olivia and Clementina, both Italian, are associated with the excesses of opera, strengthening the view of Handel’s English oratorio and of the whole genre in the collective imagination as the perfect means of moral reformation and guidance, a status it was to keep for three centuries.

Chapter 3, Damnable pleasures, shows how Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas echoes the age-old debate over the potentially negative influence of music on people and how, in debunking the optimistic philosophies of the time, the novelist dwells on the manipulative powers of music and its illusory charms to soothe either savage or tame beasts. Chapter 4, The natural voice and the ideal of purity, deals with vocal music, thought of as the most perfect form of music and the opposition by Georgian critics between the monstrous artificiality of Italian female opera singers and the natural characters of English women vocalists. Yet Italian as a language was considered as the better suited for vocal music: hence the difficulty of asserting the superiority of English singers and musicians. However one dominant topos became the purity, sweetness and delicacy of English female vocalists leading to a preference for melancholy melodies and slow tempi, and the rejection of the empty virtuosity and effects of Italian opera. In the critical discourse English was thus restored as a refined musical language and the English female soprano eventually supplanted the Italian castrato in a new ideological construct of national identity.

In the following chapter, Malodorous soundscapes and musical incenses, Dubois suggests that in Georgian novels the female voice is staged to reveal the singer’s heart and soul, and thus to define an ideal of meek, pure and tender feminity, reflecting the duality analysed in the previous chapter. In Fielding’s anti-Pamela, Joseph Andrews, not only is music used as an indication of a character’s morality but Joseph, that paragon of virtue, is endowed with a charming, soft voice. Dubois then moves to the noisy, vibrant world sound of Smollet where, he contends, stenches, noise and the sounds of voices and accents not only provide a lively background but also moral import and judgement on a character, which music, and especially singing also does. Music reveals characters’ inner selves, their goodness, sociability and excellence but is also used as a metaphor for ideally harmonious social intercourse.     

Part II, Sentiment and sensibility, opens with a chapter, The perimeter of the sentimental mode, devoted to the evolution of the theoretical discourse on music in the second part of the eighteenth century, and the development of the sentimental mode during the Age of Reason and the crucial contributions of David Hume and Adam Smith to the debate, putting forward sentiment and sympathy as bases for moral judgment and human concord. Novel readers were now prompted to emotionally identify with characters, due to a shift in the meanings ascribed to “sentiment”, from moral principle for Richardson to feeling for Sterne, with sympathy linked to the musical metaphor of the vibrating heartstrings. Charles Avison presented music as the embodiment of the philosophy of sympathy and concord but also as a mysterious phenomenon which escaped the rules of rational enquiry and explanation, a dilemma echoed in the novels of Sterne, Mackenzie and Goldsmith, analysed the next chapters.

Chapter 7, The crisis of language, is the first of four chapters devoted to Sterne. It  concentrates on Tristram Shandy and the Sentimental Journey, replete with musical allusions. Dubois’s point here is that those references contribute to inscribing elements of uncertainty and of the ineffable within the discourse as Sterne looks on music, autonomous from meaning, as the ultimate form of the uncontrollable. Uncle Toby’s whistling Lillabullero in times of crisis when words fail expresses both his fear of words and his use of music as a substitute for them and echoes Locke’s distrust of language as ambiguous and misleading. But musical metaphors, however strong and potent, may remain opaque. In Chapter 8, The impression of harmony, Dubois recalls that the Western tonal system demands the resolution of discords into harmony and that Sterne’s musical references reflect such a traditional conception while the novelist resorts to the metaphor of string vibrations to define “the man of sensibility”, whose body is thus “musicalised”. In Dubois’ view, music for Sterne is at the same time a sensory phenomenon, a means of apprehending and expressing what neither language nor reason can perceive or express and, thanks to the harmony metaphor, a mode of achieving temporary communication, understanding and concord between individuals in a world of chaos and disorder. In the Maria-Yorick episode of the Sentimental Journey, music is the only means Maria has to relate to others, and being both physicality and evanescent, music becomes, as Yorick muses on his emotions within him, a means of transcending the physical and the spiritual.

Chapter 9, The salutary romance of discords, suggests that, despite Sterne’s references to the resolutions of discords into harmony, to the vibrations of heartstrings and the vocabulary of sensibility and religion, he is not a writer of harmony but of chaos and dissonance, of the non-linear and the unpredictable. His idealised moments of harmony and feeling soon give way to selfish enjoyment. They are longed for but then achieved transitorily, as the Maria-Yorick episode and many other ones show. They are but temporary moments of respite in a world that is perceived as utterly chaotic, where dissonance affects not only the narrator’s uneven tale and sometime unreadable text but also his language, reduced at times to cacophony, underlining the incapacity of language to express music and the limits of language itself. Yet music offers the only means of conveying the emotions of the heart, the victory of sentiment over the intellect. Chapter 10, The inexpressible mystery of music, links Sterne and the late eighteenth century’s new conception of (instrumental) music as an independent fine art of a purely emotive kind, divorced from meaning and logic, giving access to the irrational and to mystery. Tristram Shandy and its narrator demonstrate the failure of all the conventional devices of writing and music is then called upon not only to express the ineffable but also to provide a mode of discursive and digressive organisation of narrative, reflecting a vision of the world as uncertain and mysterious that cannot be apprehended by purely rational means.  

Chapter 11, The music of feeling, tackles the novels of Henry Mackenzie, greatly influenced by Sterne and other novelists before him. Here again, only music and singing can express feelings more than words and procure sympathy between characters. Music is also an index of sensibility and sincerity, precisely because it offers no specific semantic meaning. Chapter 12, Pastoral music, examines the role of music in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, where it constructs an image of idealised pastoral innocence constantly opposed to the real, wicked world of reality and social strife, the values of sincerity and good will of country life contrasting with the superficiality and artificiality of the town. Music stands for the celestial harmony based on shared emotion included in the pastoral topos. As with the other authors examined in this part of the study it is not the musical works performed that matter—and they are rarely identified much to the frustration of the cultural historian—but their emotive import, perceived by men and women of sensibility.

Part III, Sweet music and the sublime, opens with two chapters that, prior to dealing with the representation of music in Ann Radcliffe’s novels, tackle the difficulty for eighteenth-century critics, Addison, Baillie, Burke and Avison, to define what might be music with a sublime character, conveying an impression of immensity, strength and infinitude while retaining the fundamental parameters of pleasure, moderation and balance that were required of beautiful music and the tendency to endow the musical sublime with religious and moral dimensions, imposing restrictions on religious music the better to exert control over it. The first function of religious music being to facilitate devotion and meditation, the oxymoronic notion of “a sublime of moderation” gradually emerged in the Church of England’s prescriptions for religious music which clashed with the aesthetic conception of music that required change and variety, combining the beautiful and the sublime, tensions and contradictions which are reflected in Ann Radcliffe’s novels, dealt with in the long chapter 15, Ann Radcliffe’s feminine sublime, divided into four sections. Radcliffe’s numerous extended descriptions of landscapes are based on Burke’s terror-based sublime and provide an index for her heroines’ moral perfection as they spontaneously respond to natural scenery, both frightening and comforting, a duality Dubois suggests applies to Radcliffe’s little-commented-upon use of music. He contends that music reveals her heroines’ sensibility to the beautiful while it is associated to a God-related or divine sublime inspired by the stupendous spectacles of nature. Akin to the religious musical sublime, it delineates a feminine form of sublimity. Yet Radcliffe’s references to music are vague, her choice of instruments stereotyped or anachronistic, as she is more interested in the emotions created by music than in symbolical organology and she makes no effort to make her readers hear it. She perpetuates the old poetic topos of music embodied in her heroines, who are often proficient performers or singers, commended for their delicacy of expression and taste rather than for their virtuosity, a sure sign of their sensibility and moral goodness. Their emotions when hearing music often shift from gaiety to grief and melancholy, felt to be ethically superior to joy, while music remains the best cure for their spleen, an oscillation between the modes of the sublime and the beautiful. In some passages, Dubois contends, through music, Radcliffe blends awe and reverence for the divine with a sense of rest and peace resulting in a peaceful and positive kind of sublimity.

Radcliffe often links nature and music as catalysts for pleasant melancholy and for sublime emotions connected with religious feeling and divine epiphanies in The Italian, her most musical novel, where hearing even supersedes sight, thus reversing Locke’s epistemology, as it is the voice that reveals the self of the singer to the careful listener, not sight. She blends natural sounds and man-made music which then function as soul-lifting, comforting sublime scenery. But music also contributes to establishing an atmosphere of mystery, in tune with the Gothic sublime that springs from the unknown and the unknowable, to the “supernaturalisation” of everyday life and to the musical sublime, as sacred music is soft, solemn, slow and mysterious. Radcliffe echoes the late eighteen century’s view that music has a meaning precisely as it is devoid of semantic content. She offers music as a necessary process of sublimation as the erotic and the sexual are translated into an aesthetic experience allowing her heroines to express desire and frustration within the bounds of female decency, in an equivocal form of the sublime which blends terror and delight.                      

Part IV, Music as a vehicle for female identity, opens with another introductory chapter, The musical and novelistic perimeters of feminine sensibility that focuses on the novels of sensibility or education written by women writers in the late eighteenth century, where music plays a central part as it was one of the accomplishments expected of them as creatures of sensibility, delicacy, modesty and morality, which was expected of their musical performance, greatly reducing women writers’ literary scope in terms of plot, range and style. Dubois contends that inserting representations of musical activities, definitely a feminine topos, in the basically male genre of the novel, contributed to the assertion of a feminine identity. If previous authors remained vague or approximate in their choice of musical instruments, the women writers Dubois looks into paid more attention to the instruments chosen, the harpsichord, the pianoforte and the harp, for realistic as well as symbolic reasons.

Chapter 17, Intimations of musical gendering: Anne Hughes, Caroline, examines the novel of that little-known writer, in connection with Fanny Burney’s last novel, The Wanderer, which Burney must have known. In Hughes’s novel, allusions to music are few but always significant. The beautiful and charming heroine loves music within the bounds of decent social and moral behaviour and plays the harpsichord, a constituent of her identity and an activity identified with peace and domestic bliss and social harmony. Caroline’s harpsichord, as well as her chamber-organ, and Burney’s Julia’s harp and pianoforte are all cumbersome instruments, linked to home, permanence and steadfastness. Caroline plays the organ to compose herself after the stress of intense emotions. Linked to religion and morality, the organ stands as a repository of private feelings, of moral rectitude, dignity and decency but also as the instrument that facilitates her discovery of love, of her husband and happiness, thus crucial to her life.

Chapter 18, Instruments of a new sensibility, examines the crucial part played by the pianoforte and the harp in the definition of feminine identity in the end-of-the-century novels. The pianoforte’s vogue resulted both from the rise of instrumental music at the expense of opera in the late eighteenth century and technological progress,            which allowed for the softness, flexibility, nuances and contrasts demanded of the human voice and now of keyboard instruments by the new sensibility, hence its success in all moneyed households and its symbolism of domestic security and stability. The modern harp appeared at approximately the same time as the pianoforte. It easily connected to all kinds of associations, Biblical or aristocratic, to the vibrations of the heartstrings through sympathy, and to femininity, for both visual and musical reasons, and credited the idea that sensuality could lead to sentiment, as analysed in the following chapters.

Chapter 19, Sensibility and affectation: Jane West, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald and Sydney Owenson, examines the contrasting uses of the harp in feminine fiction. In Jane West’s Gossip Story (1796), whose goal is to expose affected sensibility, the harp is associated with the dangerous cult of emotions and to wealth and fashion as opposed to moral excellence in her Tale of the Times (1799) where Geraldine’s excessive sensibility and showy musical talent leads her to delusion and eventual ruin in a novel whose moral is the age-old precept, “Nothing in excess”. Elizabeth Inchbald’s Simple Story (1791) posits body language as speech that may contradict what language says and pits the moral and social opposites of church music against opera. Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1802), presented as a moral tale, introduces a gifted harpist as its heroine and the paradox of music as an index of feminine sensibility but also of social and moral dissipation. In Helen (1834) the paradoxically deceitful Cecilia, introduces discords in the narrative and causes the heroine to break two strings of her harp when forced to lie, contrary to her truthful nature. Sydney Owenson’s Irish Girl (1806) features the old Celtic harp of Brian Boru, played by its heroine, Glorvina, who, despite her enthusiasm for her country’s former glory is a creature of feeling and sensibility. Her beauty and sensitive performance attract the English Mortimer who eventually marries her, and mingle in a synaesthetic construct wherein the harp combines the vision of the body of the beloved, amorous passion and music, completed by the final vision of an Aeolian harp.

Chapter 20, Variations on a feminine theme: Frances Burney’s musical heroines, present the novels of the daughter of the musician, historian and composer Charles Burney, who had first-hand knowledge of music and of the difficulties of the musical profession. No wonder, then, that music permeates her fiction, which generally opposes town as a world of moral corruption and disorder to which beautiful innocent country heroines are introduced much to their dismay. Burney often associates music with the highest moral values but Dubois contends that it is shown as two-faced, pandering to the basest instincts in human nature or triggering moral reform, a point later echoed in Reverend H.R. Haweis’s Music and Morals of 1871. Burney’s Evelina, one of her country innocents, is exposed to music in London’s symbolical music venues and the reactions of the people around her lead to the now classic opposition between the social affectation and frivolousness of some listeners and the sincere love of music, listened to in silent attention, the key to sympathy and charity, thus pairing off aesthetics and ethics, as is staged in Burney’s Cecilia. Contrary to tradition, it is the publicly shared emotion of music at the opera, not the oratorio, linked to moral excellence, which prompts Cecilia’s private gesture of charity. Burney thus indicates the superiority of the emotions created by music over the musical genres and redeems opera as “a sentimental place”, thus playing out the supremacy of the ineffable and the mysterious over limited reason.

Burney further illustrates the antagonistic visions of music, a superficial and worldly form of entertainment as well as a private experience prompting sympathy and generosity, with two contradictory visions of the harp in The Wanderer, a “Beethovenian novel” as Dubois puts it, though Schubertian might be more appropriate here, and her heroine, Juliet, a harp player. It pits music as a private amateur experience against the professional one, Juliet’s sincerity, excellence and application against social pretence, carelessness and moral failings, and shows the social stigma attached by society to professional musicians, especially women. Juliet’s fate is compared to that of a wandering blind Welsh harper, dependent on the fickle patronage of immoral or feckless aristocrats, thus revealing dissonances within society as within Burney herself. The nameless Juliet plays unidentified music and remains mysterious and charming but inaccessible, and her instrument embodies the duality attached to women—pure, sensitive souls of virtue and dangerous, seductive creatures—and to music, stimulating both the highest inspirations and immoral or dangerous thoughts.

The last chapter, Jane Austen, music, woman and the middle way, concentrates on the ambiguous role of music in her novels. In Pride and Prejudice she turns down the topos of feminine beauty linked with musical excellence and lampoons Mary Bennet’s musical tastes and performing skills at the pianoforte while Elizabeth’s average proficiency does not detract from her moral worth as she has employed her time in forging a critical mind. Characters who profess to be passionately fond of music turn out to be frauds. Reflecting Elizabeth and Darcy’s move towards each other, music allows Elizabeth and Georgiana Darcy to come to an understanding, the former’s sensibility enriching the latter’s striving at virtuosity, thus suggesting a middle way. The same musical metaphor goes for Sense and Sensibility which condemns Marianne’s excessive attachment to music and to her pianoforte but eventually unites sense to sensibility. Contrary to Burney, Austen systematically uses the harp in a negative way, an enticing weapon of public performance, synonym with seduction and delusion, as with Mary Crawford’s harp in Mansfield Park, and contrasts it with the more intimate, expressive virtues of the pianoforte. The Austenian heroine combines musical sensitivity and sense, i.e. moderation in her practice of music, so as to develop detachment and a critical mind and moral excellence, a new vision of female accomplishments.   

Dubois rounds off his study by a conclusion that insists on the need to examine the increasing presence of music in Georgian novels and the evolution of meanings in such musical references, from the rather simplistic and systematic oppositions suggested by the controversy between opera and oratorio to the more complex representations of the novel of sensibility. He contends that the theoretical work that enabled music to become a vehicle for philosophical speculation had started in Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century, well before the same change occurred in Germany, and that the emancipation of music from semantic meaning chimed with the Enlightenment’s sceptical crisis and with the realisation that man was a creature of feeling and emotion. He argues that representing music in a novel can only be done through images and metaphors that make readers visualise it but not hear it, attesting to its elusive and mysterious character, hence its association with femininity. For Dubois music, entrusted by novelists with conveying the depth of the human soul, became a means to examine and picture the workings of the human mind, thus modestly, in its own fashion, opening a way for the exploration of the unconscious.

It is difficult in the little space we have here to pay a full tribute to Dubois’ breadth of scholarship, which attests to a long acquaintance with English literature and with music. If I may voice a personal opinion, I sometimes felt like re-reading some of the novels that Dubois examines, prompted by his delicate and relevant analyses. He confesses to repetitions in his conclusion but they are due to the wide scope of his corpus and the variations on the same theme developed by different novelists writing into, or in opposition to, the same ideological framework. Over the last years, many researchers have devoted time to convincingly bridging the gap between literature and music. Dubois offers a sure guide through the maze of eighteenth-century fiction that will meet the expectations of the lover of literature and the musician.


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