National Jane by Jeanice Brooks

Jeanice Brooks is Professor of Music at the University of Southampton. Her main interests include music and culture in Renaissance France; musical culture of the mid-twentieth century, especially the career of Nadia Boulanger; domestic music-making in Britain c. 1800; and song and gender. Current projects include research for a new monograph, At Home with Music: Sounding the Domestic in Georgian Britain, which explores the role of music in material and ideological constructions of home. This research is supported by a major grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, with partners from the Royal College of Music, the British Library, the National Trust, Sydney Living Museums and the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust.


Jane Austen is among England’s most successful exports, rivalled only by Shakespeare as a national literary icon. Translated into dozens of languages, adapted repeatedly for film and television, her novels represent England and Englishness for many people around the world who have never set foot in the country. The recent appearance of Austen’s likeness on the ten-pound note underlines the degree to which she stands for England at home as well as abroad.

But what of Austen’s own vision of nation? Her life spanned a turbulent period of war and revolution, with a concomitant increase in nationalist rhetoric in political and other public discourse.  But these themes do not form an explicit focus for her work, helping to fuel one historically significant strand of Austen criticism in which she was represented as a parochial author, unconcerned with themes of wider significance. In contrast, more recent generations of literary scholars have explored how her novels reflect and comment upon topics such as nation, empire and colonialism, vigorously mining a seam of inquiry that emphasises Austen’s awareness of political and national questions. Song, however, has not generally figured in considerations of Austen’s understanding and experience of nation and national identity.

Extant music books owned by Austen and her family testify to their collection and performance of national song, allowing us not only to consider Austen’s interactions with this music but also showing how the middling gentry more generally may have consumed the repertoire. The albums are held in three different collections, but are available as an ensemble in digital facsimile through the Austen Family Music Books project. There are eighteen bound volumes and a few loose sheets, representing music owned and used by members of the Austen family between 1750 and 1825. Several of the volumes were copied or compiled by Jane Austen, and she likely knew most of the others. Although much other music owned by the family has not survived, the remaining volumes represent a good cross-section of the types of music commonly found in domestic libraries, including pedagogical prints, anthologies of vocal and keyboard music, sheet music bound together in personal compilations, and manuscript copybooks devoted to the collection of favourite repertoire. Most of the music is for one or more voices, keyboard or harp, and the repertoire is drawn from an enormous variety of sources, featuring extracts from opera, oratorio and theatrical dance as well as standalone songs and instrumental pieces. In contrast to the methodical assembly of music carried out by collectors such as John Malchair (discussed in a previous blog post by Alice Little), these volumes represent a working collection of performance material, often owned or used by several different members of the family over time.

Jane Austen’s own books include two manuscript albums (one each for vocal and keyboard music) as well as binder’s volumes of printed sheet music and a scrapbook of mixed print and manuscript items. These were largely assembled in the 1790s when Austen was living in Steventon, Hampshire, though she continued to use the books in later life. National song is well represented in her albums. As we might expect, and in common with other domestic collections of the period both north and south of the border, Scots song is the most abundantly present national repertoire. Austen owned copies of Robert Bremner’s Thirty Scots Songs for a Voice & Harpsichord and A Second Set of Scots Songs for a Voice & Harpsichord, and we know that she regularly performed at least one song from the first book, ‘The Yellow Hair’d Laddie’. Further Scots songs are sprinkled among the pieces she collected in her manuscript album of keyboard music, mainly as themes for variation sets, as in Thomas Powell’s variations on ‘My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet’ and Domenico Corri’s variations on ‘My Ain Kind Dearie’. An anonymous setting of Robert Burns’s ‘Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle’, copied in Jane’s hand, appears in a volume of manuscript items produced by several different Austen family members. Her niece’s memoirs confirm that Austen sang this piece in the years after she returned to Hampshire in 1809, during the time she completed and published her novels. The consistent presence of Scots songs in various forms throughout the entire collection confirms the consumption of Scottish culture across Britain in the early nineteenth century, when – as David Kennerley observes – visions of Scotland became a significant element of British national identity more broadly.

In contrast, pieces we might consider as English national song are scarce. But those that do appear have strong connections to Austen’s representation of nation in her later novels, especially Persuasion, begun in 1815 at the climax of the Napoleonic wars and published posthumously in 1818.  This is the most ‘national’ of Austen’s works, but as many have observed, it is not overtly nationalistic. Instead, through her depiction of admirable naval characters, Austen associates a wide set of manly virtues – courage, steadfastness, honour, fidelity – with English identity at a time when the navy was a particular source of national pride. In doing so, Austen not only caught a general mood, but also reflected close family ties: her sailor brothers Francis and Charles were both active participants in the naval battles against France. Francis served with Nelson – until Waterloo and Wellington, perhaps the most celebrated national hero in Britain – and joined in the blockade of Napoleon’s forces at Boulogne in 1805. Jane’s brothers knew disaster as well as triumph at sea, however. Charles’s wife Frances and daughter both died in 1814 after Frances gave birth to her baby at sea, and the following year Charles himself was shipwrecked and returned home to a court martial before being cleared of responsibility for the accident.

Austen Family Music Books, CHWJA/19/3, pp. 25-27

Austen’s manuscript vocal album includes both William Shield’s ‘The Heaving of the Lead’ and ‘The Soldier’s Adieu’ by Charles Dibdin, taken from his highly successful table entertainment The Wags. Dibdin wrote a substantial number of sea songs, and his naval works emphasising the heroism of British sailors have been read as contributions to the reputation of the navy during the Napoleonic wars, when naval battles defined British military success and coastal defences protected England from domestic invasion by the French. Although the narrative voice is that of a soldier rather than a sailor, ‘The Soldiers Adieu’ is similar in style, and we see many of the same gestures also present in Dibdin’s hit ‘True Courage’. The male speaker bids farewell to his wife on leaving for war, telling her to dry her tears; her prayers will follow him, and in the thick of battle will summon a guardian angel to ensure his safety.


Charles Dibdin, ‘The Soldier’s Adieu,’ from The Wags (1790). Helen Neeves (soprano) and Samantha Carrasco (piano), recorded at Jane Austen’s House Museum.

Despite the tender topic and pious sentiments of the lyric, the musical language is military: repeated fanfares in the piano accompaniment and angular leaps in the vocal line serve to convey the speaker’s firmness in facing his fate, and – as in ‘True Courage’ – present a rousing call to patriotic fervour. Austen copied the piece faithfully from the first print of the piece, published in London by the author in 1790, but with one telling later change: the word ‘soldier’ in the text has been crossed out, and replaced by ‘sailor’, rendering the entire piece a hymn to naval rather than soldierly bravery.

Austen Family Music Books, Jenkyns 03, pp. 68-69

There are some instructive comparisons that can be made here between ‘The Soldier’s Adieu’ and Burns’s ‘Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle’, both of which we know were in Austen’s repertory. The anonymous setting of Burns’s poem includes all the standard gestures of Scots song, such as leaps through the tonic triad and ‘Scotch snap’ rhythms. But Burns’s song is not only ‘national’ in the sense that it deploys distinct Scottish textual and musical markers; it also uses explicit national references in the text. The poem works by conflating the speaker’s beloved with the national landscape: it claims that the soft climates and abundant flora of foreign countries are no lure for the true Scotsman, who remains loyal to the more modest attractions of his Caledonian homeland,  just as he remains faithful to his sweetheart.

Anon., ‘Song from Burns’ (‘Their groves of sweet myrtle’). Copied, probably by Jane Austen, into the MS Jenkyns 03. Helen Neeves (soprano) and Samantha Carrasco (piano), recorded at Jane Austen’s House Museum.

Thus although their musical language is very different – one displaying markers of emergent ‘English’ national song, and the other hitting a more familiar Celtic register – both ‘The Soldiers Adieu’ and ‘Their Groves o’ Sweet Myrtle’ associate home and homeland with the female beloved in describing  or representing the national character of the masculine subject. This gendered construction is common in national and nationalist rhetoric of many times and places; and while self-definition in national terms often emphasises the inferior feminine traits of foreign Others, it is equally common to portray the admirable attributes of the masculine national subject in relation to an abstracted feminine ‘nation’ and heterosexual fidelity as a marker of national loyalty. Performance of these songs provides a further twist, however, as both subject and nation were envoiced through the bodies of actual women such as Jane Austen herself. In bringing the national song to sound, Austen temporarily adopted not only the role of woman-as-nation, but also the voices of the men who claimed to serve her. Insisting on song as performance helps to underline women’s crucial role in creating sounding images of nation within the home, and in the critically significant conflation of home and homeland in the national imaginary.

This performative adoption of voice resonates strongly with Austen’s work as a creator of imaginative fiction. But in contrast to the ebullient treatment in Dibdin’s song, the voice of the parting sailor receives a very different handling in Persuasion, as Austen abstains from the upbeat patriotic rhetoric that infused much of her reading – and as we have seen – singing matter. Instead, Austen places her scene in a domestic conversation as painful reminiscence. Speaking to a visibly moved Anne Elliot about his military career, Captain Harville emotionally describes a departure similar to that in ‘The Soldier’s Adieu’. Although Harville’s bravery is not in question, the relative absence of fanfare perhaps reflects Austen’s knowledge of the realities of naval life experienced by her brothers, and the forms of trauma masked by patriotic bombast: ‘if I could but make you comprehend what a man suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children . . . and says, “God knows whether we ever meet again!”.’

Further Reading

Brooks, Jeanice. ‘In Search of Austen’s “Missing Songs”’. The Review of English Studies 67 (2016): 914-945.

Craig, Sheryl.  Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Frey, Anne.  ‘A Nation without Nationalism: The Reorganization of Feeling in Austen’s Persuasion’. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 38 (2005): 214-234.

Jensen, Oskar Cox, David Kennerley, and Ian Newman, eds. Charles Dibdin and Late Georgian Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Lamont, Claire. ‘Jane Austen and the Nation’ in A Companion to Jane Austen, ed. by Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite, 304- 313. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.

Roberts, Warren. ‘Nationalism and Empire” pp. in Jane Austen in Context, ed. by Janet Todd, 327-336. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Southam, Brian.  Jane Austen and the Navy. London: Hambledon, 2000.



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