Juvenile Songs and Lessons: Music Culture in Jane Austen’s Teenage Years

Stream: Jane Austen
Date: Friday, 20 May 2022
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm


In 1786, Jane Austen turned eleven and her formal school education ended – she and her sister Cassandra returned home and her education continued there. A piano was bought for her to practise on and she had lessons for at least another ten years. Not all the music she studied is known – some was sold with her piano when they left Steventon – but some of her music books survive among the family music collections, including three manuscript books with piano music and songs copied out in her own hand. One of these, which contains mainly solo piano music, has a decorative title page on which is written ‘Juvenile songs and lessons for young beginners who don’t know enough to practise.’ This manuscript book was printed by London music publishers Longman and Broderip, who were in business 1779-1798, and was probably produced before 1794, and the first pieces to appear in the book date from the early 1790s. Was Jane Austen this ‘young beginner’? The phrase seems to display that spiky humour we know so well from the juvenilia, but she had been learning the piano for some years already by then, and the music she wrote out in this book, although not remarkably virtuosic, is far from beginner’s fare, including piano reductions of operatic overtures and variations on well-known melodies. Another book contains mostly songs, including several by Charles Dibdin, the famous composer and performer of character songs on the London stage, and others with explicit political and historical connections to France and Scotland. The songs in this book are on the whole slightly earlier than the piano music in ‘Juvenile songs and lessons’. In this paper I look at some of the pieces of music she chose to copy into her manuscript books during her teenage years, alongside her contemporary teenage writings, and consider how her musical knowledge and practice might be reflected in what she was writing, and vice versa. One example might be the setting by Tommaso Giordani of ‘Queen Mary’s Lamentation’, a Scottish folk song in which Mary Queen of Scots ‘burns with contempt for [her] foes’ while preparing to die on Queen Elizabeth’s orders, read in conjunction with the section on Elizabeth in ‘The History of England’, where the English queen is thoroughly condemned for her treatment of Mary. Other examples might include the sentimental and melodramatic love songs in her collection, like Miss Mellish’s ‘My Phillida’ and Samuel Webbe’s ‘The Mansion of Peace’, which formed part of the cultural milieu that Austen lampoons in stories such as ‘Frederic and Elfrida’. In the stories song lyrics sometimes appear, which are only slightly more ridiculous than earnestly flowery verses that appear in these songs. On the other hand, the songs by Charles Dibdin take themselves less seriously and it is possible that Austen enjoyed Dibdin’s sense of humour and often irreverent approach, while at the same time appreciating his skill at presenting character sketches in music. It is not possible to prove influence, and I mean only to suggest some possibilities for the role played by Austen’s musical activities throughout her teenage years in the formation of her writing persona.


Gillian Dooley (Presenter), Flinders University
Gillian Dooley is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in English literature at Flinders University, and a Visiting Fellow in Music at Southampton University, UK. She has published several books and essays on literary and related topics, and has a particular interest in Jane Austen, often with an emphasis on music. She was co-convenor of the ‘Immortal Austen’ conference in Adelaide, July 2017, and she has been curating and presenting programs of music from Austen’s personal collection since 2007. One of her ongoing projects is creating a detailed index of each of the 500-600 items in the Austen music collections.