Tales of Sound and Seduction:
Organists in Nineteenth-Century British Novels
Unlike its sister keyboard instrument the piano, the organ has not been the focus of research on music making in nineteenth-century British novels. This blog considers the role of the organ, its performers, and their music in three novels – Lady Audley’s Secret (Braddon 1862) and Desperate Remedies and Under the Greenwood Tree (Hardy 1871, 1872) – for what the authors’ choice of instrument and repertoire – and even gender of the performer – can tell us about contemporary society off as well as on the books’ pages. (See Blog of 10 October 2021 for Part 1 of this topic and Book Editions Consulted.)
To seduce, in its broadest sense, need not be limited to the act of leading a person astray, whether for sexual or other purposes, but can also mean to allure, attract, beguile, entice, fascinate and tempt, to name but a few synonyms. The link between seduction and music was well known in arts and sciences in nineteenth-century England. Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, for example, with servant Leporello’s ‘Catalog Aria’ of all the women his master has seduced, was first performed in London in 1817. And Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism or mesmerism, which used music as a healing agent, crossed the channel to England in 1843. 1 That same year Punch satirically noted Mesmer disciple John Elliotson playing the phrenological organs of an entranced patient like a pianist, comparing the young lady to a finger-organ on which the mesmeriser-organist plays a fantasia on the themes of La ci darem la mano – significantly, the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina, another attempted sexual conquest. 2
What, then, of the organist ‘seduction’ scenes in the novels of Braddon and Hardy? What non-musical meanings lie within those ivory keys?
Neither author was an organist, but both had musical backgrounds – Braddon was a proficient pianist as a child and Hardy was a fiddler at country-dances and weddings. Hardy’s cousin Teresa played the harmonium for church, and his sister Mary was a church organist whom her brother tapped for information. 3 In a letter of 1863, for example, Hardy wrote to her, ‘Tell me about the organ and how the Sundays go – I am uncommonly interested.’ 4
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To Herbert Klein, writing about Lady Audley’s Secret, the obedient and morally upright Clara Talboys, who is the principal foil to the morally deficient and ultimately mad Lady Audley, never transgresses the conventional boundaries of her sex. 5 But Klein overlooks some of Clara’s less conventional attributes, such as strength of character and decidedness of action described by some authors as masculine, and an appearance that Robert Audley describes as ‘very handsome’ – indeed, Robert is attracted to Clara’s resemblance to her brother. Even as an accomplished musician Clara has taken an unconventional route by becoming an organist. According to Nicole Fisk, ‘Clara’s visions of happiness seem to depend on breaking free of, or triumphing over, patriarchal rule,’ exemplified in Clara’s tyrannical father, and she has done this in part through her choice of musical instrument and repertoire, which she employs however unintentionally, to lure Robert into the church with her playing. 6
As Robert Audley enters a rural churchyard, he hears ‘the slow harmonies of a dreamy melody that sounded like an extempore composition of an accomplished player’. [Ch. 28: 261] ‘The music still rolled on. The organist had wandered into a melody of Mendelssohn’s, a strain whose dreamy sadness went straight to Robert’s heart.’ [Ch. 28: 262] Curious to see this new organist ‘who can afford to bury his talents at Audley, and play Mendelssohn’s finest fugues for a stipend of sixteen pounds a year’, Robert waits spellbound for the organist to descend from the organ loft. [Ch. 28: 263] Much to his surprise, the organist is Clara Talboys. That Robert mistook Clara’s playing for that of a man is noteworthy, but not surprising, for in nineteenth-century England, improvisations and fugues were considered masculine music, and the organ was considered a masculine instrument, reinforced by the use of masculine imagery as in Alfred Tennyson’s verse:
The great organ almost burst his pipes,
Groaning for power, and rolling through the court
A long melodious thunder to the sound
Of solemn psalms, and silver litanies. 7
William Wordsworth drew on equally masculine associations for the organ:
While the tubed engine feels the inspiring blast,
And has begun—its clouds of sound to cast
Forth towards empyreal Heaven,
As if the fretted roof were riven. 8
The sexual connotations of an organ almost bursting his pipes and a tubed engine feeling the inspiring blast are clearly indicative of a male, not a female, instrument.
The location of the organ in the patriarchal world of the church secured its masculine association, as did its very size, shape and sound. Although varying in size, the organ’s console was augmented by an array of phallic pipes, some of which were of massive dimensions. Even the sound of the organ determined its gender. Capable of playing the most delicate of tones, the organ was characterized more by its loud, full sonorities. So, for Clara to take command of this male instrument and its masculine repertoire was clearly to transgress conventional female musical boundaries.
Indeed, musically, Braddon has described a role reversal, with the active, manipulative female player attuned to the masculine strains of a fugue and the passive, compliant male affected by the melody’s dreamy sadness. Braddon’s decision to make Clara an organist and to include the scene at Audley church in her book supports the characterization of a female capable of taking on male traits that would avenge her brother. As a pianist, she would not have differed from Lady Audley, who was also a musician, but as an organist, she was the pursuer, not the pursued, in the cause of justice. To Phyllis Weliver, the shared names bring to mind Clara and Robert Schumann, another couple whose roles were reversed when proceeds from Clara’s concerts, which she organized herself, provided essential family income. 9 Like the fictional Clara Talboys, Clara Schumann could be commanding and demanding – traits expected of a nineteenth-century man, not of a woman.
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Desperate Remedies is another tale of ‘mystery, entanglement, surprise and moral obliquity’, with the sinister steward Aeneas Manston the male equivalent of Lady Audley. 10 As in Braddon’s sensational novel, blackmail, murder and romance are featured prominently in the plot, and one of the characters is an organist. Hardy’s choice of instrument is more straightforward, however, given that it is played by a man, apparently intent on seducing, or at least captivating, a young woman.
In the wake of an approaching storm, Manston lures Cytherea Greye into his house, where she is surprised to see a pipe organ. Allegedly to pass the time and amuse them both, Manston begins extemporising a harmony that ‘meandered through every variety of expression of which the instrument was capable’. Cytherea soon feels uneasy and frightened, and not only because of the increasing intensity of the storm.
He now played more powerfully. Cytherea had never heard music in the completeness of full orchestral power, and the tones of the organ, which reverberated with considerable effect in the comparatively small space of the room, heightened by the elemental strife of light and sound outside, moved her to a degree out of proportion to the actual power of the mere notes, practised as was the hand that produced them. The varying strains – now loud, now soft; simple, complicated, weird, touching, grand, boisterous, subdued; each phrase distinct, yet modulating into the next with a graceful and easy flow – shook and bent her to themselves, as a gushing brook shakes and bends a shadow cast across its surface. The power of the music did not show itself so much by attracting her attention to the subject of the piece, as by taking up and developing as its libretto the poem of her own life and soul, shifting her deeds and intentions from the hands of her judgment and holding them in its own.
She was swayed into emotional opinions concerning the strange man before her; new impulses of thought came with new harmonies, and entered into her with a gnawing thrill. …
He turned his eyes and saw her emotion, which greatly increased the ideal element in her expressive face. She was in a state in which woman’s instinct to conceal has lost its power over her impulse to tell; and he saw it. …
After a few more minutes the sky begins to clear. ‘Cytherea drew a long breath of relief, and prepared to go away. She was full of a distressing sense that her detention in the old manor-house, and the acquaintanceship it had set on foot, was not a thing she wished. … O, how is it that man has so fascinated me?’ was all she could think. [VII Ch. 4: 148–157]
Like John Jasper, Manston uses his hands and his eyes to seduce his victim, and like Rosa Bud, Cytherea is caught up in the intensity of his attention on her. In both cases the sound of the instrument – Jasper’s repetitive sounding of the key note and Manston’s powerful meandering through all the tones – holds the women spell-bound. But Manston has more instrumental resources on which to draw that, coupled with the sound of the storm, create what Cytherea considers a general unearthly weirdness surrounding her. [VII Ch. 4]
The storm ends before the seduction – which Irving Howe considers an attempted rape – progresses any further, but that early musical acquaintance with Manston foreshadows Cytherea’s eventual unfortunate marriage to this criminal. 11 In this case a man, not a woman, organist, shows socially transgressive behavior on the bench, and Hardy’s choice of instrument and type of music played strengthens the masculine imagery associated with sexual seduction. Only by locking herself in a separate room on her wedding night is Cytherea spared further victimization at the hands of her evil husband.
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I conclude with a happier tale of sound and seduction at the organ. In Under the Greenwood Tree, the reader is led to believe that unlike Clara Talboys, Fancy Day does not really want to play the organ in Mellstock Church and thus replace the instrumental gallery choir but was pressured into it. But Fancy later tells Dick Dewey, ‘I have always felt that I should like to play in a church, but I never wished to turn you and your choir out, and I never even said that I could play until I was asked.’ [III Summer Ch. 2: 98]
As Parson Maybold explains to a delegation from the choir, ‘a player has been brought under – I may say pressed upon – my notice several times by one of the churchwardens. And as the organ I brought with me is here waiting’ (pointing to a cabinet-organ standing in his study), ‘there is no reason for longer delay.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 65] The churchwarden is none other than Farmer Shinar, who competes with the vicar and Dick for Fancy’s attention. ‘I see that violins are good, and that an organ is good,’ Maybold told the choir members, ‘and when we introduce the organ, it will not be that fiddles were bad, but that an organ was better.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 68] But Michael Mail, who plays second violin in the choir, sees the situation differently: ‘Then the music is second to the woman, the other churchwarden is second to Shinar, the pa’[r]son is second to the churchwardens, and God A’[l]mighty is nowhere at all.’ [II Spring Ch. 5: 70]
The choir members, who harbor no animosity toward Fancy, request only that they be allowed to go out respectably ‘glorious with a bit of a flourish at Christmas, … and not dwindle away at some nameless paltry second-Sunday-after or Sunday-next-before something, that’s got no name of his own.’ [II Spring Ch. 4: 66] Then they will make way for the next generation. [II Spring Ch. 5: 67] Parson Maybold, who thinks the request of no importance, gives them until Michaelmas at the end of September.
The organ is first played for services at the time of the autumn Harvest Thanksgiving. [IV Autumn Ch. 5] It is not so much that Fancy is organist or even what she plays that suggests socially unconventional behavior, but rather the priority she gives to her appearance over the music or the setting, and the unholy feelings engendered in at least three of the novel’s main characters when Fancy is on the organ bench – Dick Dewey is away at a funeral that Sunday.
Fueled in part by jealousy because Dick had danced with another woman at a party to which she had not been invited, Fancy is in a tizzy, because she wants to look her best and social convention dictates that she carry her schoolmarm look into her role as church organist as well. ‘And through keeping this miserable school I mustn’t wear my hair in curls! But I will; I don’t care if I leave the school and go home, I will wear my curls! ‘ she declares. [III Summer Ch. 3: 103]
Thus it is not surprising that on the first Sunday that Fancy is to play for the church service, we are told,
If ever a woman looked a divinity, Fancy Day appeared one that morning as she floated down those school steps, in a form of a nebulous collection of colours inkling to blue. With an audacity unparalleled in the whole history of village-schoolmistresses at this date she had actually donned a hat and feather and lowered her hitherto plainly looped-up hair, which now fell about her shoulders in a profusion of curls. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 132]
When Fancy takes her place on the organ stool in full view of the vicar in his pulpit and the congregation in their pews, her appearance elicits mixed reactions. The lovesick Mr Maybold is not at all angry about her appearance – Fancy’s proximity is a strange delight to him, and ‘he gloried in her musical success that morning in a spirit quite beyond a mere cleric’s glory at the inauguration of a new order of things’. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 134] Indeed, he loved her during that sermon-time as he had never loved a woman before. [IV Autumn Ch 5]
But members of the congregation are not equally impressed. ‘”Good heavens – disgraceful! Curls and a hat and feathers!” said the daughters of the small gentry, who had either only curly hair without a hat and feather, or a hat and feather without curly hair. “A bonnet for church always!” said sober matrons. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 172]
Hardy tells us,
After a few timid notes and uncertain touches her playing became markedly correct, and towards the end full and free. But, whether from prejudice or unbiased judgment, the venerable body of [choir] musicians could not help thinking that the simpler notes they had been wont to bring forth were more in keeping with the simplicity of their old church than the crowded chords and interludes it was her pleasure to produce. [IV Autumn Ch. 5: 134]
* * * * *
it is not so much what Fancy was playing but rather the impression she made in church that suggests socially unconventional – even transgressive – behavior. But Fancy does not hold the monopoly on indecorum. Mrs Penny, wife of a choir member, fancies she’d seen Mr Maybold ‘look across at Miss Day in a warmer way than Christianity required’. [II Spring Ch. 2: 56] Turner argues that to Fancy, ‘music was a form of sexual display, which duly made the vicar fall in love with her’. 12 We can only guess at Farmer Shinar’s thoughts about Fancy during the service; Hardy does not mention him in that context.
Unlike Clara Talboys, Fancy is described by Dick Dewey as decidedly feminine: ‘An easy bend of neck and graceful set of head, full and wavy bundles of dark-brown hair, light fall of little feet, pretty devices on the skirt of the dress, clear deep eyes; in short, a bunch of sweets: it was Fancy!’ [III Summer Ch. 1: 93] When Hardy wrote Under the Greenwood Tree, the Oxford Movement and Cambridge-based Ecclesiological Movement, through which the Anglican religious revival found its musical voice, were still influencing churches throughout England. Concomitant with changes made in worship was a continued adherence to the teachings of Saint Paul about women, namely, that they should be seen but not heard in church. That rural churches relied heavily on women organists was a fact documented in newspapers and music journals. But that did not give them free license to flaunt their femininity in plain view of the congregation. As late as 1895, a female correspondent to the Church Musician, who asked what she should wear while playing the organ in church, was told to wear ‘Her ordinary quiet, ladylike costume, of course, attracting as little attention as possible.’ 13
As Dick Dewy discovers after much serious meditation, Fancy is better known for her ability to turn heads than for her ability as a musician. Dick now understands that ‘she was, if not a flirt, a woman who had no end of admirers; a girl most certainly too anxious about her frocks; a girl, whose feelings, though warm, were not deep; a girl who cared a great deal too much about how she appeared in the eyes of other men’. [IV Autumn Ch. 1: 113]
At the wrong place and time, such behavior could be transgressive, especially when it seduces others into an unholy frame of mind during a church service. That her male admirers are willing captives of her charm does not condone such behavior socially for any of those involved.
Is Fancy aware of the effect her organ playing might have on those assembled at Mellstock Church? Of course, given her excessive attention to hair and clothing prior to her musical debut. Is her seduction through sound and sensation intentional? That is a harder question to answer.
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Sound and seduction in tales of organists in nineteenth-century British novels were made even more effective by the introduction of a third element into the story plot: these organists have at least one secret that influences their music making. For Clara, it is the masculine iron will and determination that lie beneath the decorous feminine behavior displayed at home in the presence of her father. For Aeneas Manston it is the wife hidden away in another town whose existence does not influence his attempt to seduce and ultimately marry an innocent young woman. And for Fancy Day it is – well – still a secret. After their wedding, Dick asks Fancy, ‘We’ll have no secrets from each other, darling, will we ever? – no secret at all.’ Fancy, with feminine guile, replies, ‘None from to-day.’ [Italics mine] She then hears a bird singing. ‘O, ‘tis the nightingale,’ murmured she, and thought of a secret she should never tell.’ [V Conclusion Ch. 2: 159]
1 Phyllis Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction 1860–1900: Representations of Music, Science and Gender in the Leisured Home (Ashgate, 2000; Routledge, 2016), 65.
2 ‘A New Musical Instrument’ Punch 5 (Jul–Dec 1843): 168.
3 F.B. Pinion, A Hardy Companion: A guide to the works of Thomas Hardy and their background (Macmillan and St Martin’s, 1968), 21.
4 Richard Purdy and Michael Millgate, eds, The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, vol. 1 1840–1892 (Clarendon, 1978), 4.
5 Herbert G. Klein, ‘Strong Women and Feeble Men: Upsetting Gender Stereotypes in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret’, Atenea 28 (1) (1 Jun 2008): 161–74.
6 Nicole P. Fisk, ‘Lady Audley as Sacrifice: Curing Female Disadvantage in Lady Audley’s Secret’, Victorian Newsletter No. 105 (Spring 2004): 25.
7 From ‘The Princess’ (1847). According to son Hallam Tennyson, the verse depicts the effect that the organ in Trinity College Cambridge, Tennyson’s alma mater, had on his father. See Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir, By His Son, vol. 2 (Macmillan, 1897), 152; and Alfred Tennyson, ed. Adam Roberts (Oxford University Press, 2000), 141.
8 From ‘Ode – The Morning of the Day Appointed for a General Thanksgiving, January 18, 1816’ after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars.
9 Weliver, Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 113; Nancy B. Reich, ‘Women as Musicians: A Question of Class’, in Ruth A. Solie, Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship (University of California Press, 1993), 143.
10 ‘A Particular Reality’, Review of Desperate Remedies by Thomas Hardy, The Guardian, 14 May 1889, available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/mar/01/fromthearchives.thomashardy.
11 Irving Howe, Thomas Hardy (Macmillan, 1967), 34.
12 Paul Turner, The Life of Thomas Hardy: A Critical Biography (Blackwell, 1998), 29.
13 ‘A lady asks’, Church Musician 5 (1895): 2.