Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1869-1900: Representations of Music, Science and Gender in the Leisured Home. Series: Music in 19th-century Britain

Jun 6, 2013 | Reviews

The cliché of the female musician in the Victorian drawing-room is epitomized by William Orchardson’s painting, Her Mother’s Voice, with its pensive father, pausing from his newspaper to listen as his daughter plays the piano and sings to her lover. The role of parlour performances within middle-class courtship rituals certainly has its place in Phyllis Weliver’s Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction. Her study, however, sets out to complicate this stereotypical image with reference both to fictional and to real-life women musicians. Whilst the piano was a mark of Victorian respectability, and society encouraged young women to display their musical accomplishments to audiences within the domestic environment, Weliver argues that, from 1860 onwards, there was, in fiction, a shift towards depicting some musical women as positively dangerous – as likely to signify the “demon” as the “angel” in the house.

Her investigation of fictional representations of female musicians in the period 1860-1900 focuses upon changing gender roles, actual musical practices and scientific discourses. As the author herself acknowledges, Women Musicians is not the first scholarly study to deal with music in Victorian literature. She cites, among others, Alison Byerly’s Realism, Representation and the Arts in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1998). Weliver, however, emphasizes music’s function as an “important component of mental science and a central metaphor for explaining and conceptualizing theories of consciousness” (8). It is this emphasis that leads to the dominance of George Eliot’s works in her book.

Explorations of the angelic and demonic, and of music’s relationship with nineteenth century writings on such topics as mesmerism, hypnotism, multiple consciousness and double personality, all lend themselves quite naturally to analyses of the sensation novels: Mary Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Wilkie Collins’sThe Woman in White and Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood. Equally, George Du Maurier’s 1890’s Trilby, a strikingly dramatic example of the “mesmerized female musician,” the tone-deaf Grisette who, under Svengali’s power, becomes a great professional singer, provides an apt conclusion to the book. This chapter works particularly well, both chronologically, and in its linking of those “mental science” topics to Weliver’s early discussion of the actual musical practice, amateur and professional, of Victorian women.

On the other hand, when it comes to a well-known novelist of the time, who might be shown to draw upon theories of music, aesthetics and evolutionary biology, and who was known to be familiar with the writings and ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer Charles Darwin, Ludwig Feuerbach, Jean- Jacques Rousseau, Herbert Spencer and James Sully, there is perhaps only one credible contestant – George Eliot. Devoting three chapters to Eliot, and treating in detail three of her novels, when two chapters must suffice to cover Collins, Dickens, Braddon and Mrs Henry Wood, may leave some readers who come seeking an overview of “Victorian women musicians in literature,” with a sense of imbalance. Indeed the Dickens chapter focuses largely upon the male musician, the villain, John Jasper, a variant of the Fosco type, “the diabolical, foreign male musician who practices animal magnetism.” Jasper is particularly insidious because his position as an English clergyman masks his “criminality, mesmerism and Eastern orientation,” enabling him to infiltrate a girls’ school without arousing suspicion. (116).

Weliver’s scope, however, includes a wider range of Victorian texts than simply fiction, and, whilst women feature prominently, it is the gendered concept of the musician as “other”, rather than the female music maker per se, which is her main concern. Her subject matter is perhaps more accurately summarized as the issues implied by her subtitle, “Music, Science and Gender in the Leisured Home.” It is their interrelationships in Victorian culture and society, and how they are exemplified in fiction, that is the thrust of this book. The intriguing and informative illustrations further emphasize this. Here are no reproductions of Her Mother’s Voice. The bias is, instead, scientific: anatomical Venuses and Dr Elliotson “playing” the brain of his mesmerized female patient, rather than the female singers and violinists whom the book celebrates as precursors and examples of the “New Woman.” The few images of historical musicians are all of men – Paginini, in dramatic pose, exhibiting all the alienating characteristics of the “foreign musician,” and an 1864 cartoon of Berlioz and Wagner “in a recognized position of mesmerism” (fig. 11).

In fact the great strength of the book lies in Weliver’s interdisciplinary approach, which should make it attractive to scholars from varied backgrounds. She makes use of a commendably broad range of sources, including contemporary periodicals; and though she chooses to restrict herself to a handful of novels for detailed discussion, references throughout the text to other fiction – Madame Pratolungo in Poor Miss Finch and Lydia Gwilt’s passion for Beethoven in Armadale, for instance – testify to the author’s extensive knowledge. Moreover, the focus upon the leisured home of the middle classes is contextualized by her outlining of the role of music in the lives of workingmen and women.

The early chapters, dealing with real-life musical women in England between 1860 and the end of the century, and with the links between music and the theory and practice of mesmerism, should be of interest to researchers in women’s studies as well as musicologists. It may surprise some to see the number of prominent professional women instrumentalists (mainly, but not exclusively, pianists), singers and composers, who continued to practise their careers after marriage. Of particular note is Weliver’s convincing evidence for the importance of her musical activities in Caroline Norton’s professional career, a facet of her life which receives little attention from feminist historians. The chapter “Music, Mesmerism and Mental Science” draws upon the practice of mesmerism in Britain to explain how it was that fiction, in expressing contemporary anxieties about foreign immigrants and influences, particularly upon innocent English girlhood, found in the discourses of music, mesmerism and the occult, such potent images. Weliver’s discussion provides illuminating insights into the many instances found in sensation fiction of the seductive power of music, and its relation to the unconscious.

Readers of the Wilkie Collins Society Journal may well be familiar with the central discussion of “Female Power in Sensation Fiction” since much of the material relating to The Woman in White first appeared here in 1999. Fosco offers an obvious example of the villainous, musical foreign charmer, just as Mary Braddon’s accomplished Lady Audley is a prototype of the demonic siren, capable of destroying the domestic harmony over which she ostensibly reigns as “angel.” Weliver’s study of their musical displays and the part played by music in the lives of characters such as Lucy Audley, Maggie Tulliver and Rosamund Vincy enable her to throw new light upon Laura Fairlie. Weliver offers a subtle reading of Laura’s exploitation of her “cultural capital,” her musical sensitivity, knowledge and skill, to woo Walter, the man she loves, whilst overtly engaging in a dutiful courtship with Percival Glyde. Laura’s responsiveness to music is, unlike that of Middlemarch’s well-trained, but imitative, Rosamund Vincy, whose playing deceives as it ensnares Lydgate, integral to Laura’s sense of identity. It is this part of her identity which is the price she pays for domestic happiness with Walter. Weliver shows how her music both assists and demonstrates Laura’s strength, but that ultimately Walter Hartright masters the woman he loves by silencing her. She is one of those Victorian “angels in fiction, like young women in reality, [who] … relinquished music upon marriage” (114-5).

The role of music in affecting the subconscious is further explored in Eliot’s works. The powerful influence of sound and music upon Maggie Tulliver’s psychological development makes her “both exemplary and undesirable” (184), stimulating her human sympathy and sense of the divine, but also inspiring forbidden passion, and ultimately leading to an unresolvable conflict. In the chapter “Sexual Selection and Music:Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda” Weliver shows how Eliot skilfully deploys the social phenomenon of parlour performance as an agent of courtship rituals. Deronda also gains from the earlier account of actual Victorian professional practice, enhancing our understanding of the novel’s practitioners, Klesmer, Gwendolen, Alcharisi and Myrah. Weliver revisits earlier feminist views of this novel’s portrayal of the female singer, suggesting that in Daniel Deronda “the activity of creating personal meaning by making music … might be seen as a more accurate feminist reading … than that of focusing on independence, freedom or career” (237). In such detailed interpretation of her theme the author risks seeming occasionally over ingenious. This reviewer remains sceptical of the idea that there is at one point in Middlemarch an intended pun on the name of Will Ladislaw who “understands the musical aspect of Schopenhauer’s das Will” (221). But one need not be convinced by every suggestion to find Weliver’s book a stimulating reading.

The scholarly apparatus is impressive. As well as detailed references and an extensive bibliography, the non-musician will appreciate the appendix of musical terms, and even readers familiar with Weliver’s contemporary sources will find it convenient to have to hand her appendix of relevant extracts. To those for whom this is virgin territory, these “Source Readings” should prove a most valuable addition to the book.