It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen wasn’t just an author—she was also a music lover. But just what music was she into? Open Culture reveals the answer, and points to a digital treasure trove of sheet music that the mannerly maven of literature loved.
It turns out that Austen was a skilled and enthusiastic musician. Regency-era families had to make their own entertainment, and they often relied on the women of the house—people who had both the leisure and the aptitude to learn music—to enliven family gatherings and enable dances and sing-alongs. Like many upper-class women of her day, Jane Austen’s “accomplishments” (genteel talents) included singing and playing the piano. Of course, Austen didn’t have Spotify or a phone that stored her favorites, so she collected sheet music and copied music from friends and family members into a series of albums.
The Austen family left behind almost 600 pieces of music in manuscript and printed form, and over the years they were acquired, categorized, conserved and eventually digitized by the University of Southampton’s Hartley Library. It’s now available for free at the Internet Archive. A library release notes that it was important to get the digitized music into the world before 2017, the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death. With the help of the digitized music, celebrations of all things Austen will be all the more lively—and authentic.
Just how much did Austen love songs like Dalayrac’s “Savage Dance”? A lot, apparently: Family remembers recall music as an integral part of Austen’s world. “Aunt Jane began her day with music,” wrote her niece, Caroline. “…I suppose, that she might not trouble [the rest of her family], she chose her practising time before breakfast—when she could have the room to herself—She practiced every morning—She played very pretty tunes, I thought.”
Austen apparently loved to have a room to herself—she wrote alone, too, with a famously squeaky door that let her know when pesky family members were about to intrude.
As Vic Sanborn points out at Jane Austen’s World, Austen made her heroines adept musicians, too: Regency-era heroines like Elizabeth Bennet have a way with a pianoforte, and music is often used as a way to underscore an emotion, create dramatic tension or insert a humorous break into her novels. With the help of Austen’s personal music stash, perhaps you can make your life a bit more of a comedy of manners.