Music and Female Power in Sensation Fiction

by Phyllis Weliver

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) are two sensation novels that connect the power and identity of their heroines to music.1 Sensation fiction—the best- selling thrillers of the 1860s—reveals masquerade in the home where it is least expected, and depicts crisis as a series of unexpected changes and shocks. Fictional observers and Victorian readers alike were startled when characters or situations were revealed to be other than they seemed, and this provided the “sensation.” Because unravelling the mystery in these novels meant looking beneath the surface and reassigning meaning to recognizable types, sensation fiction challenged “the premises of judgement” and startled “early-Victorian sensibilities”, in Nicholas Rance’s words (2-3; see also Taylor, Heller, and Cvetkovich). As Rance comments on the first appearance of the woman in white in Collins’s novel, Victorian moral attitudes assume that a woman discovered alone after midnight on the high road must be guilty of something (2). However, this woman is not “wild,” “immodest,” impatient or extravagant, and the protagonist is further perplexed because he cannot determine her social rank (Collins, 48). As all the visual, vocal, and behavioural signs are confused, he is slow to respond, not knowing what attitude to take. Her identity and its strange signposting are thus the initial mysteries of the first sensation novel, The Woman in White.

Issues of gender construction are particularly relevant to sensation novels, which also probe how Victorian ideals of passive womanhood were polished and formed by attendant accomplishments like musical skill. Social fears were unveiled as the potential dark side of angelic traits was explored. Suddenly, passive did not necessarily mean powerless, and accomplishments might be more than adornments, becoming a means of surprise attack through sensuous pleasure. Music’s presence in these novels was almost guaranteed since it was considered the ideal lady’s accomplishment, heralding refinement in the performer and attracting suitors. Sensation fiction frequently explores the problems that ensued when husbands discovered that their wives were not as angelic as they seemed during courtship, couching this sense of betrayal in terms that raised readers’ hackles as everyday homes were destroyed by bigamy, adultery, and murder.

Music in Victorian England

To best understand fictional representations of female musicians, it is necessary first to examine how music was situated in mid-Victorian England in terms of gender and class.2 Music occupied a contradictory position, as it was considered an emasculating or debasing activity for men of the aspiring middle classes and nobility to practice, but also an appropriate activity for women, working-class men, foreigners or professional “artist-musicians.”3 Though there is no doubt that professional and domestic music-making were then important parts of daily life, musicologists have disagreed over whether nineteenth-century England could be fairly stigmatized as Das Land ohne Musik, the land without music (see Temperley, ed.,The Lost Chord, Banfield, and Hyde). The phrase (which derives from the title of a 1914 book on Britain by Oscar A.H. Schmitz which itself has little to do with music) expresses the belief that first-rate music has not been produced by English composers, but it is also noteworthy that many Victorians did not themselves consider the English to be musical. Recognizing the prevalence of this idea, choral conductor Henry Leslie rejects it in his article, “Music in England”: “To say that England is not a musical nation is absurd” (250). If England is not in practice Das Land ohne Musik, then the term must be an ideological construct, or a way that most Englishmen chose to see themselves. After all, prominent Victorian men like Gladstone, Tennyson, Charles Lamb, and the Archbishop of Canterbury all declared with pride that they knew nothing of music (Banfield, 12; Auerbach, 30). The English were musical and not musical, depending on the speaker, and therefore Das Land ohne Musik is a concept laden with gender- and class-based significance, since many women, factory workers, and artist-musicians were regularly practising, teaching, and performing music.

One way of understanding conflicting notions of Victorian music- making is by considering music’s link with the rise of the middle class. While both genders attended public concerts, women’s domestic music-making was a means by which the family enacted their class placement and aspirations at home. As Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall observe, “consciousness of class always takes a gendered form.” (13). Sexual division of labour within families was part of middle-class identity, as was dividing the world into public and private spheres, again along gendered lines. For instance, unlike middle- class men whose social power in mid-nineteenth-century Britain derived from property ownership, business success, and membership in public bodies (whether philanthropic, professional, or cultural), women were judged by personal behaviour (including modesty and table manners), appearance (dress and cleanliness), language (see Davidoff and Hall, 397-416) and accomplishments such as musical skill.

Women’s accomplishments had class significance because they were a form of cultural capital existing within the home. By cultural capital, I mean Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of how tastes in art “function as markers of ‘class.'” In other words, “[a] work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded” (Bourdieu, 2). Possession of this code (the cultural capital), and the ability to decipher meaning in a work of art, occurs through a lengthy process of accumulation and education, as family members, the society within which they exist, and educational institutions impart a sense of value and appreciation for certain types of music, literature, or painting, and as the beholder comes into repeated contact with these types. Having economic capital, then, does not necessarily imply possessing cultural capital, nor is the reverse true. Rather, an appreciation of certain types of music as beautiful can place the listener within a grouping or class of those who share the same tastes, and therefore class placement can be signified by appreciation of specific types of cultural production, as much as by possessing money. In Bourdieu’s words, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (6).

That is not to say that ownership does not play a part in cultural capital, but a piano seen in a house only becomes cultural capital as the viewer realizes what it means in a wider context (on the most simple level, that the family can afford a piano). Similarly, certain knowledge was required to appreciate that drawing-room performances displayed the existence of money enough to buy lessons, sheet music, and even leisure time, since women who could afford to practice probably did not have to work either inside or outside the home, except for management tasks such as organizing servants and menus. When ladies performed for select gatherings of peers after dinner, they therefore visibly and audibly demonstrated the family’s respectable social standing and financial well-being to those who shared the same cultural capital.

In Victorian England music-making could be deemed tasteful depending on who played (gender, class, nationality), what they played (instrument and repertoire), and where they played (public or private). The performers who were most unambiguously appreciated in middle- and upper-class domestic settings were unmarried daughters. Because many lady musicians abandoned music-making after marrying, it seems that amateur music was largely used to secure a good marriage. This was recognized by Krebs in 1893:

One great reason why so many women utterly neglect music after they are married, or after they have finally given up all hope of ever marrying, is that, with them, music has simply been a means to an end, and that end—to shine in society— having been accomplished, or its attainment being despaired of, music is laid aside like a worn-out garment. (85)

The most important tasks for Victorian women were to marry suitably and happily, and to raise a family, and Krebs demonstrates that music was used to attract husbands even at the end of the century. Parlour performances presented potential suitors with the opportunity to watch a young lady’s graceful and beautiful actions, to read the signs of her class suitability (her knowledge of how to behave socially), and/or to note her father’s social status, which allowed her enough leisure to practice music. After marriage, music lost its purpose for these women, and household and mothering duties took precedence. Wives’ musical performances might make others suspect that household tasks were being neglected, particularly in the second half of the century when there was widespread worry that middle-class women had forsaken the art of housekeeping (Branca, 22-3).4 This is not to suggest that all wives abandoned music, but rather that the emphasis in social settings was placed on eligible daughters’ performances, and that for a wife to play and sing could convey messages beyond those relating to her family’s place on the class ladder.

The type of music played by prosperous daughters further illuminates domestic music’s meaning to respectable society. Serving social ends, music was an ornamental skill. Consumers wanted to play pieces that sounded more like concert hall repertoire than music hall tunes, but which did not require professional technique. Favourite pieces like “The Battle of Prague,” opera medleys, or a set of dances, were all pleasing and had the virtue of sounding less serious than a sonata (Temperley “Ballroom”, 121).

What happened when music itself became the focus, rather than merely a signifier, conscious or unconscious, of domestic refinement? When daughters played rigorous works by Beethoven or Mendelssohn, these members of a prosperous middle-class family appeared to be in danger of displaying attributes of a lower class. Focusing on music for its own sake certainly brought censure within mid-century novels. For instance, in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel, Aurora Floyd (1863), Aurora’s guest, Mrs. Lofthouse, is mistaken for a governess by the footman because “she plays too well for a real lady” (234). Indeed, the key signatures of her “sonatas in C flat” (242) and preludes in six flats themselves border on the ridiculous:

Mrs. Lofthouse was rather a brilliant pianist, and was never happier than when interpreting Thalberg and Benedict. . . . Mrs. Lofthouse was seated at Aurora’s piano, in the first agonies of a prelude in six flats; a prelude which demanded such extraordinary uses of the left hand across the right, and the right over the left, and such exercise of the thumbs in all sorts of positions,—in which, according to all orthodox theories of the pre-Thalberg-ite school, no pianist’s thumbs should ever be used . . . (231)5

Mrs. Lofthouse’s “brilliant” skill is called an agony. Rather than reassigning meaning to her virtuosity and therefore giving it new cultural currency by narrating the scene with dignity and respect, the narrator emphasizes the mistaken assumptions about her class status and ridicules the performer. The unflattering representation simultaneously reasserts existing cultural capital, and potentially discourages girls from emulating this particular type of display. In other words, ridicule serves as a potent control against a woman’s exertion for reasons other than advantageously demonstrating the social position of her family.

Given music’s position in mid-Victorian middle- and upper-class domestic settings, how does sensation fiction use music to create a (false) expectation through social signposting? Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne(1861) contains an excellent example when, before Isabel is married or even courted, her style of music-making helps to label her as an exemplary lady. When Archibald Carlyle visits Isabel’s father, encountering his future wife for only the second time, there is no suggestion that she will become adulterous:

The conversation of the earl and Mr. Carlyle had been of the eager bustling world, of money getting and money spending, . . . and that sacred chant broke in upon them with strange contrast, soothing the ear, but reproving the heart.
“It is Isabel,” explained the earl. “Her singing carries a singular charm with it; and I think that charm lies in her subdued, quiet style: I hate squalling display. Her playing is the same. Are you fond of music?”
“I have been reproached by scientific performers with having neither ear nor taste for what they call good music,” smiled Mr. Carlyle; “but I like that.”
“The instrument is placed against the wall, and the partition is thin,” remarked the earl. “Isabel little thinks she is entertaining us, as well as herself.” (48)

Victorian women ideally provided a refuge for their husbands, fathers, and brothers from the outside world of business, and Isabel’s voice, piano technique, and religious repertoire are themselves this haven, indicating her candidacy for the position of the “good wife” since she soothes away commercial concerns effortlessly. Moreover, her playing suggests her “true” personality since she is unaware of being overheard, and therefore shows a natural inclination to play morally-upright music. Indeed, Archibald only thinks of her music as “sweet” and “delightful”; he does not believe himself bewitched. Rather, it is her father who refers to Isabel’s musical “charm.” Musical performance helps to create sensation by sensually charming Archibald without his awareness, making him judge Isabel as exemplary because of cultural associations or meaning given to her type of playing and singing. Her ensuing adultery shocks because Isabel is not portrayed to Archibald, the reader, or herself as a powerful siren who knowingly enchants.

The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret

With this description of sensation fiction and amateur music-making in mind, let us turn to two novels that connect the power and identity of their heroines to music. While critics have highlighted the parallels between The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret (Showalter “Family”, 112; Pykett, 55), the role of music has been overlooked even though both texts depict fear of domestic, amateur music, and end in ways that validate this anxiety. Collins’s novel establishes a strong marriage partly by extinguishing music as one of the heroine’s pursuits, while Lady Audley’s Secret focuses on an unworkable marriage where the musical wife wields dangerous, seductive power. Placing these representations in their cultural context, we can see that societal concerns were amplified in fictional portrayals of musicians, and that Victorian theories of identity formation inform fictional portraits of women’s domestic music-making.

In Collins’s text, music helps to promote true love by enabling the characters to circumvent social hierarchy, thereby allowing a drawing master, Walter Hartright, to marry an aristocratic heiress, Laura Fairlie. This occurs as Laura plays music that evokes Victorian courtship rituals and displays of cultural capital, while simultaneously suggesting her strong personality through a virtuosity that violates class norms. Of course, other elements in the text also reveal the unsuitability of Laura’s seemingly advantageous first marriage to Sir Percival Glyde as opposed to her socially undesirable union with Walter, but music proves especially important in this regard. Transmitting disparate cultural messages through drawing-room entertainments, Laura’s musical performance initially helps to break class barriers, making a cross-class marriage possible. Music is then later forgotten, partly because when Walter provides for Laura within a working-class setting, earning money is more important than displaying amateur musical skill. The text’s use of music is also informed by Victorian notions of identity, or the formation of a strong and unified “self.” The Woman in White is allegedly written to reinstate Laura’s rightful inheritance and class identity after Sir Percival wrongfully declares her to be dead. It is no coincidence that Walter and Laura only unite once the heiress is estranged from her class and community, and has at the same time lost her music and her sense of identity. The pivotal questions are these: why does Laura lose her memory and why does Walter need to re-member it? After all, her sense of identity is initially stronger than Walter’s, as the connection between her powerful sense of self and music-making reveals.

As discussed earlier, many women like Laura abandoned musical performance after marriage, a fact which was particularly unfortunate given that music was uniquely linked to identity formation according to Victorian mental science. For instance, William Hamilton (1788-1856), Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh University from 1836, thought identity was partially formed through performative actions, like playing the piano. Learning to play keyboard instruments was frequently used as an example in associationist psychology, which proposed that the mind stored simple ideas derived from sense or introspection that were then linked in chains to form complex ideas. Association of ideas explained how human identity held together over time. As an example, Hamilton cites learning to play the harpsichord:

The first step is to move his fingers, from key to key, with a slow motion, looking at the notes, and exerting an express act of volition in every motion. By degrees, the motions cling to one another, and to the impressions of the notes, in the way of association, so often mentioned; the acts of volition growing less and less express all the time, till, at last, they become evanescent and imperceptible. For an expert performer will play from notes, or ideas laid up in the memory, and at the same time carry on a quite different train of thoughts in his mind; or even hold a conversation with another. (Hamilton, 356)

With the unconscious and habitual actions involved in musical training thus tied to identity and memory, to stop practising could disconnect the performer from part of him or herself. This is precisely what Laura experiences when she develops partial amnesia. In effect, a doorway to her associative self is closed, a process that the text treats as necessary for a peaceful marriage.

Collins’s novel is constructed as a collection of testimonies written by several characters, which replaces Laura’s faulty memory and identity as it reconstructs events. The connection between memory and identity is viable because nineteenth-century theories of consciousness stress memories as essential to defining the self. For instance, respected Victorian physiologist, William B. Carpenter (1813-85), wrote in Principles of Mental Physiology that personal identity is created by recognizing memory as a distinct mental state from present consciousness. Yet the past is also connected to the present, and this allows the feeling of identity to be carried from moment to moment (Carpenter, 455). Collins’s novel records memories dealing with the Hartrights’ marriage since it begins with Walter accepting work where he meets Laura, and ends with their child’s birth in the penultimate paragraph. The novel therefore makes the Hartrights’ “marriage identity,” and this becomes the substance of Laura’s identity.

Yet despite Laura’s loss of memory, from the beginning it seems that Walter, not Laura, needs to capture memories. This is hidden within the text. In narrating musical events, Walter constructs Laura as the passive female ideal. The first time Laura plays is at Walter’s request, but she repeats the melodies later that evening:

As the last sentence fell from the reader’s lips, Miss Fairlie passed us on the terrace once more. She was softly singing to herself one of the melodies which she had been playing earlier in the evening. Miss Halcombe waited till she had passed out of sight again, and then went on with the letter . . . (83)

Although Walter requested the original performance, Laura chose the repertoire and decides to repeat it. By interrupting the primary action, Laura also subtly undercuts Walter’s linear narration and his attempts to discover the woman in white’s identity, proving that Laura has more power to direct the story than Walter admits.

There is a difference between events (the story or plot) and how they are told (the narration). Although the plot depicts Laura as having a frail memory after traumatic events, Walter’s narration early in the novel reveals the instability of his own identity. For instance, Walter experiences a new self upon leaving familiar London:

. . . I seemed to burst into a new life and a new set of thoughts the moment I looked at it [the view]. A confused sensation of having suddenly lost my familiarity with the past, without acquiring any additional clearness of idea in reference to the present or the future, took possession of my mind. (57)

Lacking associations with the landscape, Walter floats outside past, present and future. Without time and memory, new possibilities of identity can occur, and he falls in love soon after. Writing then helps him to redefine and stabilize his own identity, as well as Laura’s.

Walter also works to reconstruct memory because, by the time he collects the narratives of The Woman in White, he has married Laura and erased moments need resurrecting. The text is a re-membered history of their mutual identity, stabilized and set in concrete, verbal terms instead of floating free in memories that are as easily lost as traces in sand, strains of music, or traumatized psyches like Laura’s. Walter establishes himself as the dominant partner, and he only allows Laura to echo his musical requests and warn him that his feelings are inappropriate. He takes complete responsibility for the emotions aroused, and this is written in terms of lost memory:

All memory of the past, all thought of the future, all sense of the falseness and hopelessness of my own position, lay hushed within me into deceitful rest. Lulled by the Syren-song that my own heart sung to me, with eyes shut to all sight, and ears closed to all sound of danger, I drifted nearer and nearer to the fatal rocks. The warning that aroused me at last, and startled me into sudden, self-accusing consciousness of my own weakness, . . . came silently from her. (90)

When Walter loses his sense of time, he also loses his identity and forgets the class difference between himself and Laura. It seems that he enters an unconscious life since that state is contrasted with sudden “consciousness” of the inappropriateness of his feelings. In unconsciousness, love appears and is nurtured by his heart’s seductive “Syren-song.” Woken to the consciousness of the impossibility of union, the memory of events creating that possibility fades. For instance, Walter can no longer discern where trysts occurred: “Wind and wave had long since smoothed out the trace of her . . . the place in which we two had idled away the sunny hours was as lost to me as if I had never known it . . .” (140-1). Their love is as transitory as wind, water, and music. Sensitive to landscape, Walter secures places with paint on paper. By writing their story, he similarly captures the memories, making them permanent and assuring that he and they will not reenter a state of lost identity.

Because Laura does not contribute her own text or testimony to The Woman in White, it seems that she does not participate in (re)creating her identity. The reason for this, writes Walter, is her faulty memory. Therefore, he provides her lost identity by collecting verbal testimonies, which he claims the right to do because she has been cast out by “Rank and Power” (435). Despite Walter’s construction of events, however, Laura is active before her amnesia. For instance, while sketching excursions and the ensuing musical evenings encourage intimacy, the text focuses on Laura’s art as the lovers’ language. Theirs is a forbidden, hidden courtship, alive with the genius of Mozart. Laura does play for Percival, but she chooses:

new music of the dexterous, tuneless, florid kind. The lovely old melodies of Mozart, which poor Hartright was so fond of, she has never played since he left. The book is no longer in the music-stand. She took the volume away herself, so that nobody might find it out and ask her to play from it. (187)

Within the semi-public Victorian courtship, Laura creates privacy by her choice of repertoire, causing Mozart to remain sacred to her memory of Walter. Moreover, Laura’s repertoire of “dexterous” new music, in addition to her ability to play Mozart, suggests that her musical skill surpasses that of most young ladies.6 Therefore, she demonstrates an interest in music beyond the display of cultural capital, while also suggesting an adroitness in manipulating how she uses music: she chooses tuneful melodies, even if they are technically demanding, for a courtship that she encourages with Walter, but the new “tuneless” music for a dutiful courtship with Percival. This dexterous music had accumulated little cultural capital at the time, causing William Pole to complain in Macmillian’s Magazine (1861) about

the wretched and unworthy style of music which is now so much in vogue for this instrument at boarding-schools and other places where they learn to play. We allude to . . . torturing scraps of airs into a wild, harum-scarum filigree of notes, scattered about the instrument in a manner so utterly unmeaning as only to excite ridicule or disgust, instead of pleasure . . . (Pole, 455)

Laura does not encourage Percival’s courtship as she did Walter’s, and this is figured in music and its placement as cultural capital. It is this ability, under the surface, to manipulate courtship relations with men which is represented as dangerous in the heroines of many sensation novels, as I will discuss later in relation to Braddon’s Lady Audley.

Far from having an unstable identity, Laura indicates that she is attuned to multiple layers of reality by communicating her own complicated feelings while participating in socially-approved conduct. For example, the evening before Walter leaves Limmeridge, Laura’s piano playing masks conversation between the lovers, and then it is the actual forbidden language, becoming the very happiness they cannot have. Laura whispers, “Don’t speak of tomorrow. . . . Let the music speak to us of tonight, in a happier language than ours” (145). Yet while she tries to express happiness, she fails as she strikes wrong notes. Laura’s musical skill and interpretation not only reveal her feelings, but also connect her to her sense of identity—of what she would like to be real as well as what is real:

She played unintermittingly—played as if the music was her only refuge from herself. Sometimes her fingers touched the notes with a lingering fondness—a soft, plaintive, dying tenderness, unutterably beautiful and mournful to hear; sometimes they faltered and failed her . . . (146)

Laura may play to forget, but the act of playing is simultaneously one of remembrance since it is intimately connected with Walter and courtship. Obviously, Laura’s identity is initially flexible and strong, able to negotiate multiple levels of memory, feeling, and association.

Given the link between Laura’s sense of self, music, and constructions of class, it is significant that when she loses her memory she also loses her music and her class identity. It seems that if he had encouraged her to play piano after her traumatic experience in the asylum, Walter might have helped Laura to remember for herself. Instead, he recommends drawing, an activity that Laura practised in the past but which is not linked to Victorian theories of identity formation. Rather, by encouraging Laura to practice his art and to believe that she is contributing wages to the household through it, Walter becomes the drawing master again and establishes himself as master within a respectable, artist-class household where demonstrations of leisured, domestic accomplishments like music-making are not needed. He gives Laura the role of a working-class wife, although even this should not preclude music-making, since music for the masses was encouraged in Victorian England (Leslie; Ehrlich, 94; Newsome; & Rainbow). Yet there is a contradiction in the text because, although Laura believes that she is contributing to the household’s earnings through her artistic efforts, Walter does not actually sell her drawings. Therefore, besides establishing himself as a working-class artisan (engraving for periodicals now instead of aspiring to painting) he simultaneously sets up the household as middle class, where the wife’s leisure is a marker of that class. Laura’s contribution to the household economy is contained within the house, making her wage-earning status invisible to outsiders. Moreover, Laura is deceived as to her actual role because Walter is not selling her amateur drawings. Therefore, the class of the household is firmly established as middle or upper class, making her cessation of music even more inexplicable in terms of a household’s class identity, except if her musical skill itself, and its role in establishing her own identity and sense of class placement, is interpreted as threatening to Walter.

The periphery can be a powerful space, even as Laura’s centrality and power are masked. She may not write her own words, but Laura is the text’s focal point, just as the novel’s other musician, the evil Count Fosco, only seems marginal. For example, Marian and Laura stumble upon Fosco histrionically singing “Largo al factotum”:

He was singing Figaro’s famous song in the Barber of Seville, with that crisply fluent vocalisation which is never heard from any other than an Italian throat, accompanying himself on the concertina, which he played with ecstatic throwings- up of his arms, and graceful twistings and turnings of his head, like a fat St Cecilia masquerading in male attire. ‘Figaro quà! Figaro là! Figaro sù! Figaro giù!’ sang the Count, jauntily tossing up the concertina at arm’s length, and bowing to us, on one side of the instrument, with the airy grace and elegance of Figaro himself at twenty years of age. (250)

In an opera filled with masquerade, Figaro manipulates events in exchange for cash, as does Collins’s villain. Interrupting the main action, Fosco’s performance takes control of Marian’s linear narration and recalls the scene in which Laura interrupted Walter’s investigation of Anne’s identity by singing. The Count’s personality is deepened by comparison with Figaro’s egotism, cleverness, and genius at disguise, so that the role becomes another identity, both masking and defining Fosco as he sings. Fosco, like the aria’s text, is everywhere, hidden and visible, where he is least and most expected: “Figaro here, Figaro there, Figaro up, Figaro down.” In a book in which appearances are deceptive, it is telling that the masterful Fosco appears as if on the edge, and it is significant that Fosco and Laura are the two musicians of the novel, both of whom Walter masters as he also masters his own sense of identity.

 * * *

The threat of hidden female power is implicit in Collins’s narrative, which successfully suppresses Laura’s power before it erupts, and explicit in Lady Audley’s Secret, in which Robert Audley discovers Lucy Audley’s secrets and hidden identity. Braddon’s text unveils the danger of subversive wives, using the metaphor of the siren. Beneath the singing seraph may lurk a fishy monster, sometimes unknown to the angel herself. Wives like Lucy are presented in sensation fiction as both the female ideal and its opposite. The danger these women pose lies in their ability to deceive. Just as the narrator suggests that calm, beautiful locales may be the settings of unimaginable crimes, violence, and secrecy, the innocent, childishly beautiful Lucy hides a destructive temperament. Only Robert sees the secret threat hidden beneath her sensual appearance and accomplishments, envisioning Lucy in his sleep as “a pale, starry face looking out of the silvery foam, . . . transformed into a mermaid, beckoning his uncle to destruction” (246).

Playing piano is part of Lucy’s conscious masquerade as an upper-class woman, but even more it symbolizes her power: her continuing sense of identity and individual motivation. Music is one of the few aspects of Lucy’s life that remains constant in the face of poverty and wealth, marriage and desertion. It provides her income when she teaches, and becomes an opulent adornment after she marries Sir Michael Audley. Through music’s continual presence, Lucy demonstrates an unchanging, if hidden, sense of self. Significantly, although she excuses her arson, bigamy, and murderous intentions by calling herself mad, a term which would indicate socially abnormal or unacceptable behaviour in 1862 (Showalter Female, 29), a physician of insanity instead pronounces her “dangerous” and acknowledges Lucy’s rational reactions to desperate situations (Braddon Lady Audley, 379). The doctor’s diagnosis is supported by Lucy’s enchanting accomplishments, which reveal such complete awareness of community standards and upper-class cultural capital that she successfully masquerades as an angelic lady. However, music also indicates or encourages internal power as it did in Collins’s novel. The difference between the texts is that Laura’s music and sense of identity falter during her marriages whereas Lucy’s only grows to frightening, uncontrollable proportions. Any woman in sensation fiction may be angel or siren, and the thrill comes from the difficulty of distinguishing between them. For instance, proficient musicality marks the allure of both seraphs and fiends, and so Robert can no more vanquish Clara’s image than Sir Michael can rid himself of Lucy’s. Clara is the truly angelic sister of Robert’s friend, George Talboys, but she spins spells as well as any siren when Robert hears her play the village church organ:

He stopped and listened to the slow harmonies of a dreamy melody that sounded like an extempore composition of an accomplished player. . . .
He lingered at the gate, not caring to break the lazy spell woven about him by the monotonous melancholy of the organist’s performance. . . .
“I’ll have a look at this new organist,” he thought, “who can afford to bury his talents at Audley, and play Mendelssohn’s finest fugues for a stipend of sixteen pounds a-year.” (255-6)

Clara, playing without knowledge of her future husband’s presence, enchants Robert by sound alone. He is not influenced by physical beauty, personality, or even gender. However, Clara’s choice of instrument is problematic since organ was the only instrument which became less acceptable for women to play during the nineteenth century (Hyde, 32-4). Mid-Victorian female organists might exhibit signs of sexual transgression and danger. Clara chooses Mendelssohn instead of the simplified pieces normally played by amateur ladies, demonstrates accomplished improvisation, and plays fugues.7 These skills seem more likeClara Wieck who, before her marriage to Robert Schumann in 1840, included an improvisation or an original composition in every recital, as was customary for professional performers, and which required advanced theoretical training (Reich “Clara”, 266). Therefore, Clara Talboys’s repertoire, instrument, and improvisation combine to form an impression of a professional, male musician, and justify Robert Audley’s mistaken reference to “his talents.” Proficient female musicality is unexpected in Lady Audley’s Secret, and it has interesting implications. Besides loosely linking Braddon’s characters with the contemporaneous Schumanns, interpreting Clara’s musicality as masculine supports Lynda Hart’s thesis concerning Robert’s homoerotic bond to George, whom Clara physically resembles (34-5). Regardless of Robert’s sexual orientation, however, extraordinary female musicality in Braddon’s text reveals hidden depth and power in Clara and Lucy. An unexpected comparison between the two is even suggested because Lucy also plays Mendelssohn (4). As angels and sirens mirror each other’s repertoire and skill, the text emphasizes that bewitchment is as much the angel’s effect as the siren’s tool. Yet beneath the surface of accomplished refinement, their polarity remains, since Lucy merely impersonates the feminine ideal, while Clara embodies it (Pykett, 55). The coexistence of seraph and demon within a woman reflected contemporary fears. During the last half of the century, gender ideals and traditional female roles were questioned, and sensation fiction suggests that a woman’s use of music reveals how she positions herself. Does she intentionally enchant like Lucy, or is she unknowingly overheard, like innocent Clara? What if the woman is deserted by her husband and is subsequently subjected to emotional trauma and poverty, like Lucy? Is she justified in deliberately charming her way into a luxurious marriage? Or what if an angel does not intend evil, but is still powerful through music? Although Laura is not a siren, her music dies and a harmonious marriage results, but the price is dependency upon Walter for her identity. How different from Armadale (1866), another novel by Collins, where villainess Lydia Gwilt writes that the only man she cares for is Beethoven, a composer whose music requires hours of dedicated practice. In mid-nineteenth through early twentieth-century British fiction, Beethoven’s music figures repeatedly in the repertoire of independent or rebellious women, from Lucy Audley to Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View (1908). Sensation novels make musical virtuosity a symbol of an alternate reality where women satisfy themselves. Novels use this depiction of music to different purposes: musical entertainments help to circumvent restrictions against a cross-class marriage in The Woman in White, while Robert Audley, in pitting himself against a dangerous siren, engages in purposeful activity and thereby discovers his own place within the existing social structure while unveiling Lucy’s hidden identity. Although music assists and reveals strong female personalities, they are nonetheless defeated by men in these sensation novels. Singing mermaids do not succeed in drowning their ensnared husbands, but rather die or are banished, and angels in fiction, like young women in reality, frequently relinquish music upon marriage. The women who survive are those who adapt or submit after the nature of their power has been probed, and after their representation has been unmasked to reveal their true nature as siren, angel or both.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Emily. Maestros, Dilettantes, and Philistines: The Musician in the Victorian Novel. New York: Lang, 1989.

Banfield, Stephen. “The Artist and Society.” In Temperley, ed. The Romantic Age, 11-28. Beer, Gillian.George Eliot. Brighton: Harvester, 1986.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. 1979; London: Routledge, 1984.

Braddon, Mary Elizabeth. Aurora Floyd. 1863; London: Virago, 1984.

_________. Lady Audley’s Secret, ed. David Skilton. 1862; Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1987.

Branca, Patricia. Silent Sisterhood: Middle Class Women in the Victorian Home. London: Croom Helm, 1975.

Burgan, Mary. “Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” In Victorian Studies 30:1 (Jan 1986) 51-76.

Byerly, Alison. Realism, Representation and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Carpenter, William B. Principles of Mental Physiology. London: King, 1874.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. Ed. Julian Symons. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Cvetkovich, Ann. Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. London: Hutchinson, 1987.

Ehrlich, Cyril. The Piano: A History. London: Dent, 1976.

Gray, Beryl. George Eliot and Music. London: MacMillan, 1989.

Hamilton, William. Lectures on Metaphysics and Logic. Ed. H.L. Mansel and John Veitch. Vol. 1. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1859.

Hart, Lynda. Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression. Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1994.

Heller, Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven: Yale UP, 1992.

Hyde, Derek. New-Found Voices: Women in Nineteenth-Century English Music. Whitstable, Kent: Tritone, 1984.

Leslie, Henry. “Music in England.” In Macmillan’s Magazine 26:153 (Jul 1872) 245-53.

Newsome, Roy, Brass Roots: A Hundred Years of Brass Bands and their Music, 1836-1936.

Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998. Pole, William. “The London Musical Season.” In Macmillan’s Magazine 4:24 (Oct 1861) 449-55.

Pykett, Lyn. The Sensation Novel: From “The Woman in White” to “The Moonstone“. Plymouth: Northcote, 1994.

Rainbow, Bernarr. “Music in Education.” In Temperley, ed. The Romantic Age, 29-45.

Rance, Nicholas. Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists: Walking the Moral Hospital. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991.

Reich, Nancy B. “Clara Schumann.” In Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950, ed. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986, 249-81.

_________. “Women as Musicians: A Question of Class.” In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth A. Solie, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993, 125-46.

Schmitz, Oscar A.H. Das Land ohne Musik. Munich: G. Müller, 1914.

Showalter, Elaine. “Family Secrets and Domestic Subversion: Rebellion in the Novels of the 1860s.” In The Victorian Family: Structure and Stresses, ed. Anthony S. Wohl, London: Croom Helm, 1978, 101-16.

_________. The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980. 1985; London: Virago, 1998.

Taylor, Jenny Bourne. In the Secret Theatre of Home: Wilkie Collins, Sensation Narrative, and Nineteenth-Century Psychology. London: Routledge, 1988.

Temperley, Nicholas. “Ballroom and Drawing-Room Music.” In Temperley, ed. The Romantic Age, 109-34.

Temperley, Nicholas, ed. The Romantic Age: 1800-1914. Vol. 5 of Athlone History of Music in Britain, gen. ed. Ian Spink. London: Athlone, 1981.

_________.The Lost Chord: Essays on Victorian Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Wood, Mrs. Henry. East Lynne. 1861; London: Bentley, 1888.


  1. This research has been partially funded by the Overseas Research Students Award Scheme, administered by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. []
  2. For scholarship on music and Victorian fiction, see Auerbach, Beer, Byerly, Gray, and Temperley, ed., The Lost Chord. []
  3. Following Nancy B. Reich (“Women”, 125), I define “artist-musicians” as “a category which includes actors, artists, artisans, dancers, writers, and practitioners of allied professions. They had in common an artistic output and a low economic level. Above all, they depended on their work for a livelihood.” []
  4. See William Kitchiner’s Housekeeper’s Oracle (1829) and Alexis Soyer’s The Modern Housewife or Ménagère (1850) for contrasts between learning keyboard instruments and housekeeping (cited in Burgan, 61-62). []
  5. Some nineteenth-century pianists like Sigismund Thalberg (1812-1871) aimed at showmanship and became successful display pianists, but were often considered second-rank composers. []
  6. Although Mozart did write some pieces for beginners, most of his pieces would be too difficult for Victorian ladies. []
  7. My thanks to Sophie Fuller for the suggestion that playing a fugue, an intellectual form of composition which Victorians deemed unsuitable for women, is part of Clara’s gender ambiguity. []

Music and Female Power in Sensation Fiction by Phyllis Weliver
The Wilkie Collins Journal 02 (1999)

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