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FEATURE: Jane Austen’s Living Legacy in Art

A promotional image of the Élan Ensemble, a group performing music from Jane Austen’s family’s music collection.

July 18, 2017 formally marked the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s death. The milestone occasioned many literary, scholarly, and artistic endeavors across the world, exploring varied aspects of her legacy. While her works may now be more than two hundred years old, her legacy is very much alive.

The commemorations of Austen and her work have taken many forms, many of which began well before the formal bicentennial hit. Here in Minnesota, the Minneapolis Institute of Art setup a Jane Austen Reading Room as part of its Period Rooms Initiative. JARR was open to the public for a year and a half, and was opened formally for the 2015 bicentennial of the novel Emma‘s publication.

Scholars have also mined Austen’s letters and novels for details about life in Regency England. The website What Jane Saw, crafted by Professor Janine Barchas of the University of Texas at Austin, digitally reconstructs a pair of art exhibitions that the author saw in 1796 and 1813, down to the layout of each view in a museum long-since demolished. A love for this and other details about the period – many of which give context to discussions of art, aesthetics, and more in Austen’s novels – propels the magazine Jane Austen’s Regency World.

“It will be her turn soon to be teased,” said Miss Lucas. “I am going to open the instrument, Eliza, and you know what follows.”

“You are a very strange creature by way of friend!––always wanting me to play and sing before any body and every body!––If my vanity had taken a musical turn, you would have been invaluable…”

Pride and Prejudice, Vol. 1, Chapter VI

One of the more recent foci in Jane Austen scholarship has been an exploration of music in the author’s life and works. Austen’s interest in music is plain – she frequently refers to it in her novels, and musical performances are discussed by avidly by many characters, including different ideas of modesty, vanity, and good taste in performing. Austen’s letters and reminiscences also include frequent references to performances and playing.

A leaf from one of the Austen family’s surviving books of hand-copied music. Note the many creases and the repairs to the upper left-hand corner – signs of the music’s extensive use.

In a less happy synchrony, the musically inclined women of Austen’s novels facing financial troubles had a parallel in the author’s life. Her heroines’ woes were often linked to the United Kingdom’s gendered inheritance laws, which favored distant male relatives over close female ones. This spectre fell over Jane as well, but so did more immediate financial stresses during the Napoleonic Wars. At one point, the Austens were forced to downsize their living arrangements due to financial woes – a downsizing that included selling off their collection of printed sheet music.

In the evening, as Marianne was discovered to be musical, she was invited to play. The instrument was unlocked, everybody prepared to be charmed, and Marianne, who sang very well, at their request went through the chief of the songs which Lady Middleton had brought into the family on her marriage, and which, perhaps, had lain ever since in the same position on the pianoforte…

Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with others while every song lasted.

Sense and Sensibility, Chapter VII

Before the invention of the player piano in 1867, experiencing music was intrinsically linked to live performance. Ceasing to play – or losing the means to do so, by the sale of one’s music library – marked an experiential rupture, especially in a world where reprinting and libraries of old music were uncommon. It is small wonder that middle-class and well-to-do Englishmen were encouraged to seek out musically talented wives.

The Élan Ensemble at a recent rehearsal: soprano Elissa Edwards (left) and harpist Anastasia Pike (right).

Although no inventory of the Austen family’s printed sheet music collection survives, a set of hand-copied music albums does – some of it thought to have been personally copied by Jane Austen. As the Austen bicentennial approached, digital reproductions of these music albums were created and made available to the public. Now, musicians are bringing new life to the same music that Jane Austen sang and played. One such group of musicians the Annapolis, MD-based Élan Ensemble.

The Élan Ensemble, composed of soprano Elissa Edwards and harpist Anastasia Pike, doesn’t believe in doing things halfway. The duo has committed to rehearsing, performing, and recording the Jane Austen Songbook Project – an ambitious effort to recapture the style, spirit, and sound of music-making in Austen’s time, using the Austen family music books. The music may be two centuries and more in age, but the audience response has been tremendous: the ensemble repeatedly sells out its Jane Austen-themed performances.

To that event, one might be tempted to quote Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. “If you are speaking of music,” she said. “It is of all subjects my delight.” Or to quote the heroine of Emma, who said, “I absolutely cannot do without music. It is a necessary of life to me.”

Local Jane Austen fans can meet and discuss with other Jane Austen fans through the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Minnesota chapter.

Basil Considine