Jane Austen’s continued popularity almost 200 years after her death is a testament to the universal themes found in her books, which are as relevant today as they were in Regency England. One of the devices she uses to round out and illustrate her characters is music.
In Pride and Prejudice, Caroline Bingley praises the musical prowess of Mr. Darcy’s sister in order to emphasize the lack of ability of the Bennet sisters, who had a haphazard education at best. Their disparagement of Elizabeth Bennet’s singing and playing skill, however, does not prevent Mr. Darcy from enjoying her natural and unaffected performance, in contrast to her sister Mary’s weak voice and conceited air while playing. When they meet again in Kent, Elizabeth’s playing and singing for Colonel Fitzwilliam draw Darcy inexorably to her side and he is entranced, against his will, by her and her playful nature.
In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot fell in love over a mutual love of music, but she is persuaded by her proud family to give up the engagement. When they meet again 8 years later she is still playing- this time an accompaniment so the Musgrove ladies may dance with the Captain. Later, music also allows us to contrast the captain’s enjoyment of music with that of Anne’s cousin, William Elliot. While Wentworth quietly listens (and watches Anne) at a concert, Mr. Elliot distracts her from the music with continual questions about the pieces being played. Clearly, the concert is merely a front for Mr. Elliot’s courting of Anne, and Wentworth is overcome with jealousy. This episode provides the turning point in Persuasion and leads the hero to finally overcome his reticence and write the heroine one of the most romantic letters in literature, confessing that the years they have been apart have not changed his love for her.
Music is a major theme in Sense and Sensibility: Marianne Dashwood is passionate about all the arts, but especially music. Her recital for their kind, but vulgar, cousin, Sir John Middleton and his family provides an opportunity for readers to contrast them with Colonel Brandon. Sir John loudly praises Marianne’s singing and playing, but spends the entire time talking with the other members of her audience. Colonel Brandon, on the other hand, demonstrates his superior taste and refinement by listening intently to her performance. But here music can also betray. Willoughby, who seems to be everything Marianne could want in a man: passionate about poetry and music and overt in his admiration, turns out to be a weak man who gives her up for the security offered by a wealthy wife.
Music is also used for deception in Mansfield Park when Miss Crawford plays the harp, drawing Edmund Bertram further and further into her toils by almost daily recitals for his enjoyment. Edmund has never been blind to the faults of Miss Crawford, but has attributed them to faults of education from her early years with a weak and whiny aunt and a crude misogynist uncle. Miss Crawford’s musical taste and talent help convince Edmund that her faults of thought and behavior are minor flaws that, with the better influence of her half-sister, Mrs. Grant, will change. It is only when his sister elopes with her brother that he realizes that she is truly corrupted and not the refined and elegant woman that her music displayed.
Can you think of any other times where music is used to define character or take the story someplace new?