Women and Music in the Age of Austen: an Interview with the Editors

Women and Music in the Age of Austen highlights the central role women played in musical performance, composition, reception, and representation, and analyzes its formative and lasting effect on Georgian culture. This interdisciplinary collection of essays from musicology, literary studies, and gender studies challenges the conventional historical categories that marginalize women’s experience from Austen’s time. This volume’s breadth of focus advances our understanding of a period that witnessed a musical flourishing, much of it animated by female hands and voices.

Here, the editors of the collection, Linda Zionkowski and Miriam Hart, talk with us about the motivations behind their collection, the dynamics of women and music today, as well as the overarching relationship between musical ability and social standing.

What motivated you to put together a collection on this topic?

The idea for this collection began decades ago, when there was little interest in Austen’s relation to her musical culture. Miriam knew that a collection of Austen’s music existed, but only discovered her songbooks on a visit to Chawton in 1995. She was shocked to see that they were not protected in any way; in fact, some visitor had scrawled across a page in red ink, “Mozart?” Speaking with the then-curator, Miriam found that Austen’s songbooks were considered of little value, since she did not compose the music. As a musician herself, Miriam immediately asked the curators to put the songbooks away and made plans to return to Chawton as soon as possible to have each page photographed, knowing that music history is a critical part of history, and especially women’s history. Linda entered the picture as Miriam’s dissertation director and many years after the dissertation was completed, the pair decided to work together on the topic of Austen and music.

What would you say are the implications of a woman’s connection to music within Austen’s works that might serve as an introduction to the general time period’s attitude towards women in general during this period?

Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins—whom Austen clearly loved to mock—declares music “an innocent diversion” fit for leisured women to pass their time. In Austen’s day, many conduct book writers agreed with Collins and urged female musicians not to allow their playing and singing to interfere with their more important caregiving duties. But Austen—herself an accomplished musician—disagreed. Instead, she treasured music for the pleasure it gave, the community it fostered, and the self-expression it enabled. Throughout Austen’s fiction, characters’ attitudes toward music reveal their inmost selves: whether women choose to play and sing, why they employ their musical ability, and even their selection of instrument all illuminate their psychological and ethical dimensions, while men’s reactions to women’s music reveal their fitness as romantic partners. In the novels, Austen’s musicians marry the men who know how to listen to them.

Why do you think a woman’s ability to perform music was so important and integral to their social standing?

In the Georgian period, women’s singing and playing the piano or harp reflected their families’ ability to afford a musical education: girls learning music would need instruments, teachers, access to performances, and of course time and space in which to practice. The degree of their talent might signal the household’s wealth and cultural capital, but it could also reveal the level of discipline and commitment the young women devoted to developing their skills. Overall, the musically “accomplished” woman was considered a more attractive partner in the notoriously competitive marriage market, yet some families—like Austen’s—recognized and valued a daughter’s talent for its own sake. Austen’s fiction makes her own preferences clear: her novels satirize women who perform to flaunt their musical ability while preferring those who sing and play to give pleasure to others or themselves.

Do you see any modern equivalents to the dynamics of women and musical ability as it was depicted within Austen’s writings? If so, what would you say is similar and why?

Our age is very different from Austen’s: whereas genteel women of Austen’s day would lose status by performing for money, modern women of all class backgrounds pursue careers as professional musicians, and the fame enjoyed by artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift enhances rather than detracts from their social standing. The closest comparison I can see between the domestic musicians of Austen’s age and female amateurs today lies in the sheer joy of noncommercial performance. Many of the amateurs playing and singing in live venues or on social media are having a very good time entertaining themselves and others, even if their skills aren’t perfect, and Austen loved this kind of “artless” music.

Do any of the essayists provide insight to the topic of Austen and music that readers will find surprising? Or is there a particular impression you hope readers will come away with?

What’s most surprising is that these essays highlight the wide range of women’s influence on Georgian musical culture: as domestic and professional performers, teachers, composers, collectors and purchasers, critics, and even as novelists (like Austen) representing female musicians, women helped shape the creation of and response to music. When our readers think of music in this period, I’d like them to look beyond major male composers like Handel, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven to consider the anonymous or forgotten women whose labor and talent brought harmony into being.

Is there a sentiment or idea that you find to be at the heart of most (or all) of the essays in this collection?

Each essay in this collection illustrates women’s power to configure the musical culture of their age: to determine what people heard, what they remembered, and what they valued and integrated into their own lives. Music, in other words, gave women a means to make their voices heard at a time when they might otherwise have been silenced.

Women and Music in the Age of Austen is available to order here in paperback, hardback, and ebook.

Linda Zionkowski is the Samuel and Susan Crowl Professor of Literature at Ohio University in Athens. She is the author of Men’s Work: Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660–1784 and Women and Gift Exchange in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Burney, Austen and coeditor of The Culture of the Gift in Eighteenth-Century England.

Miriam F. Hart received her PhD at Ohio University in Athens after twenty years of touring as a singer, recording with the Allman Brothers as well as with her group, The Local Girls. She has performed at the White House, on A Prairie Home Companion, and at numerous musical festivals and venues across the United States. Her dissertation included the first complete photographic archiving of Austen’s songbooks.