Guest post by Alice McVeigh ‘Susan: A Jane Austen Prequel’

This week I am delighted to welcome another guest to All Things Georgian. Today’s guest is Alice McVeigh, a London ghost writer and professional cellist, who has spent over fifteen years performing with orchestras including the BBC Symphony and the Royal Philharmonic.

Her first two novels were published to acclaim by Orion, marketed as ‘The secret life of a symphony orchestra’. Her latest book, Susan: A Jane Austen Prequel, was released just a couple of weeks ago and has already been rated 10 stars out of 10 by Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize.

With that introduction, I’ll hand over to Alice to tell you more about her new book and the music in the era of Jane Austen.

As Lady Catherine de Bourgh decrees in my own new novel:

‘In my opinion, every gentlewoman should be able to ride, to embroider, and to play tolerably on the pianoforte. To play too well on the pianoforte, however, might be considered vulgar.’

Music features in all Jane Austen’s works – one recalls Mary Crawford’s entrancing harp, Marianne Dashwood’s ‘magnificent concerto’ – the one enabling Elinor and Lucy Steele to speak without being overheard – not to mention Jane Fairfax’s effortlessly superior performances in Emma

On a less-exalted level, everyone remembers the Pride and Prejudice scene in which Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Mary tests the patience of the company to exhaustion-point. While Austen’s Lady Susan wrote of her daughter:

‘I want her to play and sing with some portion of taste and a good deal of assurance, as she has my hand and arm and a tolerable voice. I was so much indulged in my infant years that I was never obliged to attend to anything, and consequently am without the accomplishments which are now necessary to finish a pretty woman.’ 

Music, drawing etc. – even foreign languages, to some degree – were often regarded in such a manner: not as a means of personal enjoyment or as an artistic end in themselves, but as props deployed to display the daughters of the house to greatest advantage. Brides apparently often abandoned music upon marriage – it’s impossible not to imagine with some level of relief.  (As Mrs Elton observed sententiously to Emma Woodhouse, “… for married women, you know–there is a sad story against them, in general. They are but too apt to give up music.”)

As for the London music masters, most were barely scraping a living. It’s hard not to feel sorry for them. And yet, without teaching young ladies (more occasionally, young gentlemen) these music masters’ finances would have been rocky indeed. Beethoven himself was obliged to teach young Hungarian countesses, with whom he was – being Beethoven – occasionally presumptuous enough to fall in love… (One such instance was explored in Jessica Duchen’s novel Immortal, based on Beethoven’s famous letter to his “Immortal beloved…”)

In my own Jane Austen prequel,there is the following exchange between the sharp-elbowed Susan and her erstwhile music master.

Still accompanying another young lady, he said, very softly, without troubling to look up, ‘And so, Miss Smithson, we were betrayed.’

‘I did nothing wrong, yet it was I who was sent away.’

He glanced up then, with that strangely attractive smile – the smile that had first persuaded her that he was not, in fact, so very plain. As his fingers moved over the ivory keys, he asked, ‘And do you regret your expulsion, Miss Smithson?’

‘I do not.’

‘Of course not, for you were no more allowed to be your true self in that place than Mrs Ansruther’s spaniel… I presume that you do not wish to exhibit?’

‘Not in the least.’

‘Then I will shield you. But I beg, once you come into your kingdom, that you remember me.’

Flustered, Susan longed to say that she was in no need of shielding, but she did not dare. As for remembering him ‘once she came into her kingdom,’ she understood the implied compliment – that she might become a person of influence. She understood too the sadness in his tone, though only moments later he was light-heartedly castigating another of his charges. (‘My dear Miss Drayton, be so good as to count your rests!’) But he was true to his word, and, when the cry went up for more young lady performers and ‘Miss Smithson’ was named, Mr Maggini said, ‘Nay, for she has injured her finger. Miss Clara, perhaps you might charm us with an air?’

British Museum

In terms of instruments, the pianoforte and voice were most often preferred, but the harp was considered ladylike, and there were isolated cases of the violin being chosen – though the instrument possessed connotations of devilishness, and its shape seemed too suggestive for some.

Another alternative was the newly designed harp-lute, whose inventor, Edward Light, taught it to Princess Charlotte, and paid for its production. There was quite a vogue for the harp-lute during the Regency period. These apparently sounded rather harp-like (and, presumably, lute-ish) but were delicate, decorative and small enough to hold on one’s lap.

And then there was the repertoire.

Unpretentious little tunes – such as ‘Robin Adair’ – the song Frank Churchill teased Miss Fairfax about in Emma – were generally favoured over more earnest and difficult works. In Susan, I have Miss Caroline Johnson – a good-natured young heiress – struggling woefully with a sonata by Dussek:

Thus, Susan was at least partly prepared, after supper, to find Frank Churchill proposing that they stroll to her favourite spot, as Caroline was rashly embarking on her Dussek sonata.

They left, pursued by the sound of fingers falling with dogged persistence on ivory keys. Once outside, he added, ‘I am grateful. Otherwise, the Dussek might have been the death of me!’

‘I’m sure I should play it no better. Rather worse if anything.’

‘You would have the very good sense not to play it at all.’

‘I suppose it to be rather a compliment – Were the Cuthbert’s here, Miss Johnson would have confined herself to her well-trodden songs and airs.’

‘If so, it is a compliment I could willingly dispense with. I would rather hear young Miss Laura at her scales!’ They paused, to admire the scudding clouds in the half-light, then he said, ‘Miss Smithson, I asked you a question yesterday that you were denied the chance to answer. I asked whether you might one day like me better than “well enough”.’

Susan laughed. ‘Oh, that must be evident to everybody! Why, at this very moment, we are probably the talk of the place!’

Susan, however, used music to her own advantage – particularly when Lady Catherine requests that she read to her:

Now Susan had a low, pretty voice and natural discretion in the use of it. Lady Catherine had only once to object that she spoke too low for her to discover the pace and pitch most grateful to her ear. Of course, the book was wearisome, and the room overheated, but she read until she noticed her ladyship nodding off – at which she could not wonder – then she scraped the heel of her boot upon the floor.

Lady Catherine started, saying, ‘Nay, I was not asleep. You should take care not to sink your tone at the end of a section, Miss Smithson. Now, be so good as to play to me upon the pianoforte.’

Susan seated herself at the instrument, recalling an early work by Corri, which she had recently memorised. Lady Catherine beat time with her forefinger throughout and at its conclusion announced that she had always been devoted to Haydn. But when Susan enquired whether she might like another air, she said, ‘No. You may go, Miss Smithson – but come tomorrow at half-past two, to read to me again.’

Susan, hiding her dancing eyes, promised to attend her with the greatest pleasure…

As a professional cellist myself, I grieve that the cello was considered insufficiently decorous for a lady in the early 1800s. Worse, women were not allowed to perform in orchestras, whichever instrument they chose, though Austen does hint in Emma that Jane Fairfax’s unusual musical brilliance might have made her even more employable as a governess…

It’s a terrible thought: the elegant Miss Fairfax toiling over Miss Sophia’s pianoforte studies and Miss Maria’s vocal scales…

What a good thing it is that it never happened!


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