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Mistresses of Music: The Pianoforte and Social Mobility in Jane Austen’s Novels

Out of all the different musical instruments, Jane Austen seems to have had a special affinity for the pianoforte. Scholars Linda Zionkowski and Miriam Hart explain, “Austen always owned or rented a piano, . . . and she played every morning she could” (207). The author’s dedication to the pianoforte subverts many of her contemporaries’ views of women’s musical accomplishment. Other writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries describe playing the pianoforte as a frivolous amusement for upper-class women useful only for temporarily attracting the admiration of men (Zionkowski and Hart 206-07). As a dedicated pianist herself, Austen placed value in the pianoforte not just as an instrument for simple amusements, but as an expression of a woman’s skill and virtue. In her novels, Austen uses the pianoforte as a symbol of upper-class identity and social mobility. Playing the pianoforte allows heroines to improve their social standing by showcasing their education, taste, and charm.

In Emma, the grand pianoforte that belongs to the Cole family is a symbol of their wealth and social class. Scholar Nikolina Hatton, in her analysis of the pianofortes in the novel, explains that the Coles are part of the “pseudo-gentry,” an emergent class in Austen’s time composed of families who, despite not being born into genteel status, sought to acquire the lifestyle and material possessions of the gentry (139). A pianoforte is a prime example of a luxury item purchased to boost the owners’ perceived status because of its value, ornate construction, and sheer size. The choice of a grand pianoforte, one of the largest kinds, suggests that the instrument is meant to be an extravagant symbol of the family’s wealth. The family’s pseudo-gentry status is evident when Mrs. Cole describes the impracticality of their recent purchase, admitting, “’I do not know one note from another, and our little girls, who are but just beginning, perhaps may never make anything out of it’” (Emma 190-91). Mrs. Cole’s humble admission demonstrates her awareness that her family lacks high status, despite having material wealth. Although the Coles are wealthy enough to afford a grand pianoforte, the detail that none of the women of the family can play it implies that they truly do not fit in with the upper class. The pianoforte’s purpose is purely social for them. Mrs. Cole mentions that her husband hopes that “’some of our good neighbours might be so obliging occasionally as to put it to better use than we can,’” and claims, “’that really is the reason why the instrument was bought’” (Emma 191). By purchasing a pianoforte, the Coles hope to spend more time socializing with their upper-class neighbors who can play the instrument. Even though the Coles were not born genteel, the pianoforte creates an opportunity for them to imitate and socialize with members of the gentry. Austen utilizes both the physical and social aspects of the pianoforte to create a marker of social mobility.

Jane Fairfax from Emma demonstrates the most direct relationship in Austen’s novels between a young woman’s skill on the pianoforte and her ability to ascend in social class. Jane, an orphan of low status, receives a square pianoforte from an anonymous benefactor, whom Austen later reveals to be Frank Churchill, Jane’s secret upper-class fiancé (Emma 190, 395). Hatton insightfully describes how the detail that the pianoforte is a gift from Frank “anthropomorphizes” the instrument as an extension of the giver (143). However, Jane’s relationship with Frank is inseparable from her relationship with high society. Frank’s surreptitious gift of the elegant pianoforte reflects their secret engagement and the high social status Jane will receive by marrying a much wealthier man. Austen’s use of the pianoforte displays not only Frank’s wealth and relationship with Jane, but also Jane’s education, taste, and charm that make her capable of ascending to a higher class. After hearing about the arrival of the pianoforte, Mrs. Cole deems Jane a “’mistress of music’” and remarks, “’[i]t has quite hurt me that Jane Fairfax, who plays so delightfully, should not have an instrument. It seemed quite a shame, especially considering how many houses there are where fine instruments are thrown away’” (Emma 190-91). Mrs. Cole’s praise of Jane’s talent portrays her as a lady worthy of fine instruments and therefore of high status. While many pianofortes go to waste in upper-class homes, Jane’s skill is at risk of going to waste when she seemingly inevitably becomes a governess. As a journal by Gillian Dooley et. al points out, although the purpose of Jane’s musical education is to increase her chances of securing a governess position, the upper-class would have considered her having to work for a living degrading. In this context, the value of Jane’s talent is its ability to entertain members of the upper-class and to display not just her education, but also her taste and charm. After Jane accepts a governess position, Austen spotlights the fate of the pianoforte. Miss Bates tells Emma how Jane, addressing the instrument, lamented, “’[y]ou must go.’ . . . ‘You and I must part’” (Emma 347). Austen’s use of the second person pronoun “you” for the pianoforte connects to Hatton’s idea of anthropomorphization. These are words that Jane could just as easily say to Frank. Her letting go of the pianoforte symbolizes her ending her relationship with Frank and relinquishing her hopes of attaining a higher social status. While the pianoforte represents Jane’s relationship with upper-class Frank, her skillful playing proves that she is cut out for life in high society.

Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is another example of a piano-playing heroine who ascends in social class. Her playing demonstrates class dynamics in her relationship with Mr. Darcy. When she plays the pianoforte at Rosings, Darcy “station[s] himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance” (Pride and Prejudice 217-18). The setting of the scene, Catherine de Bourgh’s upper-class estate, frames Elizabeth’s piano-playing in the context of high society. Dooley et al. explain that “music in eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Britain was certainly very class-based,” largely because only women with adequate leisure time could develop their skills at music-making. Although Elizabeth must start at a somewhat high social standing in order to learn and perform piano music, her skill allows her to attract the much wealthier Darcy. Austen’s description of him “command[ing] a full view” of Elizabeth as she plays reflects his position of social power relative to Elizabeth in terms of both wealth and gender. Elizabeth’s social status is in jeopardy because her father’s estate is entailed only to male heirs, putting her and her mother and sisters at risk of losing their property and upper-class lifestyle in the event of his death (Pride and Prejudice 36). As a woman, the only way for her to safeguard or improve her social standing is to marry an upper-class man. The social nature of the pianoforte allows Elizabeth to connect with Darcy despite his higher status. Hatton explains that the physical size of a pianoforte and its combination of human and non-human performance make the instrument a social hub that invites interaction even across classes, like the discourse between Darcy and Elizabeth (140-41). By making Elizabeth a talented pianist, Austen creates an opportunity for her to interact with Darcy in a way that showcases her education, taste, and charm, and elevates her social standing. Elizabeth’s piano-playing catalyzes her relationship with Darcy, allowing her to cross over the barrier of social class.

Unlike Jane Fairfax and Elizabeth Bennet, proudly upper-class Emma Woodhouse feels no need to marry a wealthier gentleman in order to advance her status. Although she eventually marries Mr. Knightley, he comes to live with her and her father at Hartfield instead of Emma moving to his estate (Emma 419). Emma’s complacency with her social class matches her attitude towards piano-playing. As expected for a young upper-class woman, Emma plays the pianoforte well, but she admits that she is far less talented than Jane (Emma 205). After both women play at the Coles’ party, Emma’s relative inferiority inspires her to “most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood, and [sit] down and practis[e] vigorously an hour and a half” (Emma 205). Austen’s mention of “idleness” implies that Emma’s lack of skill results purely from her own past unwillingness to practice and her complacency with her playing ability. This scene is significant in terms of social dynamics because Emma displays jealousy towards Jane, who is of a much lower social standing than her. Emma recalls how Mr. Knightley once insightfully explained her dislike of Jane by arguing that Emma “saw in her the really accomplished young woman which she wanted to be thought of herself” (Emma 144). Since she is of a higher class than Jane, Emma feels that she should be the one whose talent people admire the most. However, without Jane to compare herself to, Emma lacks motivation to assert her status by improving her skill at the pianoforte. Since Emma is content with her social position, she has no desire to boost her status through musical skill.

Not all of Jane Austen’s heroines are pianists. Catherine Morland’s dismissive attitude towards piano-playing reflects her naïveté towards class and her more difficult ascension to a higher social class than Jane Fairfax’s or Elizabeth Bennet’s. This first pages of Northanger Abbey explain that, in Catherine’s childhood, no one “would have supposed her born to be a heroine” (3). By establishing Catherine as an unconventional heroine, Austen foreshadows the character’s lack of certain traits expected of young, upper-class women and foreshadows that Catherine’s personality will be a target of satire. Austen provides the example that, at the age of eight, Catherine attempted to learn to play on a spinet but quit after a year, stating, “[t]he day which dismissed the music-master was one of the happiest of Catherine’s life” (Northanger Abbey 4). Catherine’s youthful impatience with her music lessons creates a contrast between her and Austen’s more typical heroines like Elizabeth Bennet. Zionkowski and Hart accurately describe Catherine as “lacking the introspection and emotional intelligence that a more disciplined education – including time at the piano – might have brought her” (210-11). The heroine’s naïveté, demonstrated by her lack of musical education, extends to her attitude towards social class. In conversation with John Thorpe, Catherine declares, “I hate the idea of one great fortune looking out for another. And to marry for money, I think the wickedest thing in existence” (Northanger Abbey 104). These views set Catherine apart from Austen’s other heroines. “One great fortune looking out for another” could easily describe class-obsessed Emma Woodhouse, and although neither Jane Fairfax nor Elizabeth Bennet marry strictly for money, it is certainly a factor in their relationships. Unlike them, Catherine at least initially believes that social class will not play a role in her relationships. This naïve attitude is nearly her downfall, as, compared to many of Austen’s other heroines, Catherine faces more difficulty in her marriage to Henry Tilney. Henry’s wealthy father, the General, opposes the marriage due to John Thorpe’s false claims that the Morlands are poor and not of respectable standing (Northanger Abbey 210). He begrudgingly consents after learning about the Fullerton estate and that Catherine “would have three thousand pounds” (Northanger Abbey 215). Although Catherine tries to ignore class in her relationship like she ignored her piano-playing, it ends up becoming an obstacle. The General’s impression of her social standing is easily swayed by John Thorpe’s unreliable testimony, suggesting that Catherine lacks the markings of an upper-class woman. Catherine’s inability to play the pianoforte is indicative of her difficulty fitting in with the upper class.

However, Austen makes it clear that piano-playing is not the only factor in social mobility. Elizabeth Bennet’s younger sister Mary’s dedication to playing the pianoforte becomes a subject of the author’s satire. Austen explains that “being the only plain one in the family,” Mary “work[s] hard for knowledge and accomplishments [and is] always impatient for display” (Pride and Prejudice 32). Mary tries to use her skillful piano-playing to attract attention, especially from potential suitors, and to make up for her physical faults. Instead, her playing amplifies the faults in her personality. Although Mary plays better than her sister, the audience at the party hosted by the Lucas family enjoys her performance less because she plays with “a pedantic air and conceited manner” compared to Elizabeth’s “easy and unaffected” style (Pride and Prejudice 32). The faults in Mary’s piano-playing impede any positive effect that it could have on her social standing. Zionkowski and Hart explain that Mary’s prolonged and unenjoyable performance, which was “supposed to highlight the refined education of the Bennet girls, instead expose[s] the family’s lack of taste and manners and thereby threaten[s] their genteel status” (212). In terms of social mobility, Mary’s piano-playing has the opposite effect of Elizabeth’s or Jane Fairfax’s because it demonstrates her vanity rather than showcasing upper-class values of refined taste and a charming personality. Piano-playing itself is not enough to boost a woman’s social status. Instead, it works as a medium through which heroines can showcase not only their education, but also their taste and charm that make them worthy of an upper-class life.

In Austen’s novels, the pianoforte is a symbol of social mobility. The instrument itself is a physical display of wealth and the upper-class lifestyle, but it takes a heroine with charm, taste, and a high-class education to put the pianoforte to good use. Austen’s heroines’ piano-playing showcases their characteristics that make them suited to (or, in Mary Bennet’s case, not suited to) the social high life. Musical performance is inherently a social act, and, in Austen’s time, it was distinctly upper-class and feminine as well. By using the pianoforte as an instrument of social change, Austen subverts the trivialization of women’s activities and achievements.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc, 1996.
  • _____. Northanger Abbey. Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc, 1996.
  • _____. Pride and Prejudice. Book-of-the-Month Club, Inc, 1996.
  • Dooley, Gillian, Kirstine Moffat, and John Wiltshire. “Music and Class in Jane Austen. Persuasions On-Line 38.3 (2018).
  • Hatton, Nikolina. “A Tale of Two Pianos: Actants, Sociability and Form in Jane Austen’s Emma.” Open Cultural Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019, pp. 135-147. De Gruyter, doi.org/10.1515/culture-2019-0012.
  • Zionkowski, Linda, and Miriam Hart. “‘Is She Musical?’ Players and Nonplayers in Austen’s Fiction.” Art and Artifact in Austen. Edited by Anna Battigelli, University of Delaware Press, Newark, 2020, pp. 206-223. JSTOR, https://tinyurl.com/cm5kzrv5.
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