Friday 1 March 2024


Welcome, dear readers, to our new journey into a lesser-explored aspect of Jane Austen's world: her profound connection to music. In this exclusive interview, we have the pleasure of discovering Austen's musical inclinations with the esteemed author, Gillian Dooley, whose latest work, "She Played and Sang: Jane Austen and Music," unveils treasurable insights Austen’s musical legacy.

Gillian Dooley, an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in English at Flinders University, has dedicated years studying both Jane Austen's fiction and her passion for music. Through meticulous research and a profound understanding of Austen's world, she sheds light on a previously unexplored facet of Austen’s life.

Please, scroll down and enjoy our interview about Jane Austen and music, guided by the expertise and passion of Gillian Dooley.

Hello and welcome to My Jane Austen Book Club, Gillian. As usual, my first question for my guests is: when and how did you first encounter Jane Austen and her work?

I can’t say for sure – it is a long time ago! I know that we were studying Pride and Prejudice in my second or third year at high school in Canberra, but I read so much when I was young that I’d be surprised if that was my first encounter with Austen.

 Can you share with us how your interest in Jane Austen’s relationship with music developed and what inspired you to explore this aspect of her life and work?

Music has always been a big part of my life, alongside reading, so I tend to notice when music appears in a book. I remember a discussion with my high school English teacher about the significance of Mary and Elizabeth Bennet’s piano-playing, and when it came to choosing a topic for my Honours thesis 25 years later, music in Austen’s novels was the natural choice. At that time (mid-1990s) I didn’t have access to the music collection, as I’m based in Australia and none of it was digitised, so it wasn’t until much later, only about 17 years ago, that I started seriously investigating the actual music she owned, with the help of the various catalogues and recordings that had appeared by then, and curating concerts based on the collection. And it was even more recently that I began to bring the two strands together: a study of music in the novels combined with and informed by the in-depth knowledge of her music collection which I have gained by creating catalogue records for each of the individual items in the music books for the University of Southampton Library.


What aspect of Jane Austen’s musical inclinations surprised you the most during your research process?

There have been a few ‘light-bulb’ moments. For some reason, I was surprised when it dawned on me that she sang as well as played the piano – hence the title of my book, She Played and Sang. In the novels, she tends to say that her character ‘plays’ a ‘Scotch Air’, for example, but of course they are singing as well, and she was clearly a singer as well as a pianist, as about half of her music is vocal music. She must have been a soprano, with some of the songs set quite high in the voice. Another surprise was the variety of characters portrayed in the songs – male and female, of all classes – sailors, farm workers, would-be seducers – and even some exotic figures like a ‘Hindoo Girl’, or a Venetian chimney-sweep. And I must say that the German drinking songs were unexpected! When singing these songs she was impersonating, or acting the part of, a wide variety of people.

What insights have you uncovered regarding Jane Austen’s personal preferences and tastes in music through your research? Are there particular genres, composers, or pieces that she favoured?

Most of the composers were her contemporaries, as was normal in those days. The Austen Family Music Books contain a mixture of manuscripts, in her own hand and that of several family members across three generations, and printed music, some of which she appears to have owned. If we look at her own manuscript music, which one could guess was the music she particularly favoured, the composers who appeared most often were Samuel Arnold, Thomas Arne, Stephen Storace, William Shield, Charles Dibdin, and Michael Kelly – all except Arne still alive during her lifetime. Many of these songs and instrumental pieces originated on the stage – in plays or operas – which were then published with piano accompaniments, extremely popular in those days. There are several ‘folk songs’, some quite humorous, and more conventional art songs, as well as the exotic items mentioned above. There are also several songs in French and a few in Italian. For the piano, repertoire she collected included military marches, folk dances, the ever-popular themes with variations, and sonatas. Quite a lot of her musical choices overlap with those of other members of her family and also with other collections of the period, but she does seem to have enjoyed songs with a robust and direct kind of humour more than some other women of her generation did.

How do you interpret the role of music in Jane Austen’s novels, and what insights do you believe it offers into her characters and their stories?

This is a big question! I don’t believe that being musical in itself makes her characters better or worse people. The musical characters can be very different from each other. It’s more important whether they are ‘affected’ or not. Each of the musical heroines has a different attitude and approach to music – for Marianne Dashwood it is an indulgence, while for Elizabeth Bennet it seems more like an enjoyable social pastime. For Emma Woodhouse it is an accomplishment that she feels guilty for neglecting, while for Anne Elliot it is a solitary pleasure. Music often has a role in the plot – it helps both Colonel Brandon and Edmund Bertram to fall in love, it brings Anne and Captain Wentworth together in Bath, it allows Frank Churchill to communicate his feelings to Jane Fairfax in secret. It even provides an opportunity for Eleanor Dashwood to have a confidential talk to Lucy Steele while Marianne is playing long piece on the piano in the Middleton’s drawing room. I think music was a part of everyday life that came into the world of her novels quite naturally.

How do you believe Jane Austen’s personal involvement with music influenced her literary creations and the portrayal of musical elements within her novels?

I certainly think that her intimate knowledge of music and what it was like to be a musician, and a music-lover, is reflected in her novels – and it definitely shows up in her juvenilia. I also suspect that the rhythm and cadences of her prose are influenced by her own musicianship. One of the chapters in my book compares a piece of vocal music that she owned with the story and rhetorical structure of Sense and Sensibility. Without necessarily proposing direct influence, I suggest that some of the features that the novel and the ballad (called ‘Colin and Lucy’) share can be traced to origins in the language of music and the theatre. 

From your perspective, how do you think Jane Austen’s appreciation for music contributes to her enduring legacy as an author, particularly within the context of literary discussions and cultural appreciation of her work?

I think that her musicianship was part of what made her the unique individual that she was, and like everything else about her – her wit and humanity, her love of family, her acute insight into society and the human condition, her brilliant use of words – contributed to her enduring legacy. Quite a few articles and several books have been written about her knowledge of music and how it appears in her novels. The new field of Word and Music Studies allows for musicologists and literary scholars to bring complementary insights to musical influences in the works of all writers and, given Austen’s prominence, it is no surprise that she has been the subject of several studies of this kind. However, I still often meet people who have no idea about her musical interests, and programs about ‘Jane Austen’s Music’ are often based on the music in the various screen adaptations of her novels – very little of which has any connection with her actual music collection. I’m hoping my book will help to change that situation.


Like her much-loved heroine Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen ‘played and sang’. Music occupied a central role in her life, and she made brilliant use of it in her books to illuminate characters’ personalities and highlight the contrasts between them.

Until recently, our knowledge of Austen’s musical inclinations was limited to the recollections of relatives who were still in their youth when she passed away. But with the digitisation of music books from her immediate family circle, a treasure trove of evidence has emerged. Delving into these books, alongside letters and other familial records, She played and sang unveils a previously unknown facet of Austen's world.

This insightful work not only uncovers the music closely associated with Austen, but also unravels her musical connections with family and friends, revealing the intricate ties between her fiction and the melodies she performed. With these revelations, Austen's musical legacy comes to life, granting us a deeper understanding of her artistic prowess and the influences that shaped her literary masterpieces.

Out on March 5th, 2024

Buy it from Amazon


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