British Women Organists – 10 Oct 2021

Tales of Sound and Seduction:
Organists in Nineteenth-Century British Novels

Part 1

Unlike its sister keyboard instrument the piano, the organ has not been the focus of research on music making in nineteenth-century British novels. A reader need only delve into the pages of a William Thackeray or Jane Austen novel or their latter-day scholarly exegeses to uncover layers of social meaning associated with the purchase of, performance on and prattling about the piano or its forerunner the pianoforte. Its ubiquitous presence in the home – as an instrument of courtship as well as of music – serves as the linchpin about which the various character relationships revolve and evolve. In Vanity Fair (Thackeray 1848), for example, the striking contrast between the genteel but recently impoverished Amelia Sedley and the rich West Indian heiress Rhoda Swartz, both love interests of George Osborne, is drawn at the piano. In Emma (Austen 1815) the anonymous gift of a small piano to the musically talented Jane Fairfax, Eliza Bennet’s realization of her limitations as a pianist and sister Mary’s blindness to her own musical shortcomings all serve to propel the plot to its ultimate denouement. But the discourse engendered by the ivory keys is not limited to the piano. The organ, too, speaks volumes to readers attuned to its pipes and pistons about music and society in nineteenth-century Britain and about the fictional characters who play upon it. Just as the piano stool was the contested site of debates about conformity to and noncompliance with cultural norms for some authors, the organ bench served a similar purpose in the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Thomas Hardy.

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. As in Thackeray’s two pianistic rivals, Braddon’s Clara Talboys and Hardy’s Fancy Day offer a study of contrasts in how female characters – both organists in this case – approached their music making and the ends their behaviour achieved. I maintain that in each of the three novels, organ playing was an act of both sound and seduction, admirably illustrated in organist Aeneas Manston’s seduction of Cytherea Greye in Desperate Remedies. Though not necessarily sexual in nature, these seductive episodes on the organ bench all reveal tantalizing elements of transgression both within and outside the church setting, causing the scholarly reader to view the role of organists in nineteenth-century British novels in a novel way.

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The presence of organs and organists in nineteenth-century British novels is not as rare as one might think, though in most cases the instrument and its player are mentioned only in passing to set a tone of sound and sensation. Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch (Eliot 1874) is glad that Mr Casaubon, the clergyman to whom she is engaged, is not fond of the piano, for she has little regard for domestic music. She does enjoy the grander forms of music, worthy to accompany solemn celebrations, however, and recalls: ‘When we were coming home from Lausanne, my uncle took us to hear the great organ at Freiberg, and it made me sob.’ [Ch. 7: 91]

When in Vanity Fair (Thackeray 1848) Lady Steyne hears Becky Sharp play and sing religious songs of Mozart at the piano, it brings back fond memories of her childhood forty years ago in her convent garden. ‘The chapel organ had pealed the same tones; the organist, the sister whom she loved best of the community, had taught them to her in those early happy days. She was a girl once more, and the brief period of her happiness bloomed out again for an hour.’ [Ch. 49: 554]

Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Hardy 1891) returns to church one Sunday morning, pregnant and shamed after being seduced by Alec Stokes, who had falsely taken the name of D’Urberville. She formerly had liked ’to hear the chanting – such as it was – and the old Psalms, and to join in the Morning Hymn. That innate love of melody, which she had inherited from her ballad-singing mother, gave the simplest music a power over her which could well nigh drag her heart out of her bosom at times.’ [Ch. 13: 84] But the chants provide little comfort now – even one of her favourites, the double chant “Langdon”.‘ [Ch. 33: 84] Tess eventually is noticed in her seat under the gallery, and the whispering begins. ‘She knew what their whispers were about, grew sick at heart, and felt that she could come to church no more.’ [Ch. 13: 85]

The tone set by the organ could be one of gloom or of gladness. In The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Dickens 1870) when all became gray, murky and sepulchral during evensong in Cloisterham Cathedral,

the cracked monotonous mutter went on like a dying voice, until the organ and the choir burst forth, and drowned it in a sea of music. Then, the sea fell, and the dying voice made another feeble effort, and then the sea rose high, and beat its life out, and lashed the roof, and surged among the arches, and pierced the heights of the great tower; and then the sea was dry, and all was still. [Ch. 9: 89]

When the eponymous Jude the Obscure (Hardy 1895) is dying, alone in his room in Christminster, the powerful notes of the Remembrance Day concert at the college outside his window reach his ears, ‘and it was about this time that his cough began again and awakened him’. He begs repeatedly for water, but ‘No water came, and the organ notes, faint as a bee’s hum, rolled in as before.’ [VI Ch. 11: 320]

The same organ notes, faint as a bee’s hum, issuing forth from Cloisterham Cathedral bring the Reverend Canon Septimus Crisparkle (Edwin Drood), sitting at breakfast in Minor Canon Corner, a blessed air of tranquility more than absolute silence would have done [Ch. 6] and work magic on the food provisions in his dining-room closet, with its portrait of Handel beaming down upon it, ‘until those venerable bees had made sublimated honey of everything in store; … which seemed to have undergone a saccharine transfiguration‘. [Ch. 10: 96]

In two cases the author uses the sound of the instrument as a tangible reflection of the mood of the character doing the playing. Both Dick Dewey in Under the Greenwood Tree and the eponymous Jude the Obscure play – or at least play at – the harmonium.

Dick arrives at Fancy Day’s sitting room around two o’clock with the thought of going ‘nutting’ with her, but Fancy is in the lengthy process of altering a dress with scissors, needle and thread. In his three hours of waiting, Dick examines all the furniture, sounds a few notes on the harmonium, looks inside all of Fancy’s books, studies everything in the scullery, watches the cabbages and potatoes in her garden grow, ruins his walking stick by peeling off the rind and returns to the harmonium, from which he now ‘produced hideous discords’. [IV Autumn Ch. 1]

Jude, who initially intended to become an ordained minister through self-study but lowered his sights to become a licensed preacher instead, shows more focus when he ‘hired a harmonium, set it up in his lodging, and practised chants thereon, single and double.’ [III Ch. 1]

We do not know if Lucy Morris in Eustace Diamonds (Trollope 1870) actually played the organ, only that she took lessons – which could have been on piano instead – from the organist of Bobsborough Cathedral. Lady Fawn had expressed willingness to take Lucy into her house as governess on the condition that she teach music up to a certain point. ‘Then it’s all over,’ Lucy says to her uncle, dean of the cathedral. ‘It’s not over at all,’ he replies. ‘You’ve got four months. Our organist is about as good a teacher as there is in England. You are clever and quick, and he shall teach you.’ [Ch. 3: 23]

Likewise, John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood is identified as choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, not as its organist, though he likely plays the organ as well. We know he is a pianist and in that role tries to win over Rosa Bud, with whom he is secretly in love, from her fiancé Edwin Drood, when he accompanies her singing. His methods are musically seductive:

It was a consequence of his playing the accompaniment without notes, and of her being a heedless little creature, very apt to go wrong, that he followed her lips most attentively, with his eyes as well as hands; carefully and softly hinting the key-note from time to time. … [Ch. 7: 65]

The song went on. … As Jasper watched the pretty lips, and ever and again hinted the one note, as though it were a low whisper from himself, the voice became less steady, until all at once the singer broke into a burst of tears, and shrieked out, with her hands over her eyes: ‘I can’t bear this! I am frightened! Take me away!’ [Ch. 7: 64]

But in three novels Aeneas Manston, Clara Talboys and Fancy Day all play the organ, and their roles as organist deserve closer examination. It is to these novels that I now turn, giving first a brief summary of each.

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When in Lady Audley’s Secret Helen Talboys reinvents herself as Lucy Graham who marries Sir Michael Audley, she leaves her husband George behind as presumed dead in Australia. George, who is very much alive, returns to England to a less than cordial homecoming when his wife tries to murder him and thinks she has succeeded. As nephew Robert Audley, a barrister, unravels the untimely disappearance of his friend, he meets George’s organist sister Clara, who urges him forward in his quest and whom he later marries. George, who escaped the attempted drowning, reappears after Lady Audley has been confined to an insane asylum on the Continent.

Cytherea Greye, lady’s companion to Miss Aldclyffe in Desperate Remedies, first meets the steward Aeneas Manston when he tries to seduce her with his organ playing at his home. The scheming Aldclyffe wants to see Cytherea, child of the man she loved but couldn’t marry, united with Manston, her child by a man she didn’t love or marry. Because her true love Edward Springrove is engaged to his cousin, Cytherea is pressured to wed Manston against her better judgment, only to learn that he is already married. Manston is found guilty of murdering his first wife and is hanged. Cytherea reunites with Edward, who has since been jilted by his cousin.

In Under the Greenwod Tree Dick Dewey, a member of the Mellstock Church gallery choir – a band of sting instruments – falls in love with the village’s new schoolmistress Fancy Day. The new vicar Parson Maybold’s request that Fancy play the new cabinet organ he has brought with him to the church for services spells the end of the choir, but not the end of Dewey’s courtship. Dewey must compete with Parson Maybold and the churchwarden Farmer Shiner for Fancy’s hand but is victorious. Fancy and Dick eventually overcome the objection of her father and marry.

Book Editions Consulted:

Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) Oxford University Press, 1987

Charles Dickens
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) Pantheon, 1980

George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)
Middlemarch (1871–1872) Knopf, Random House, 1991

Thomas Hardy
Desperate Remedies (1872) St Martin’s, 1960
Jude the Obscure (1895) Knopf, Random House, 1992
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) Knopf, 1991
Under the Greenwood Tree (1872). Macmillan and St Martin’s Press, 1966

William Thackeray
Vanity Fair (1848)  Dodd, Mead, 1943.

Anthony Trollope
Eustace Diamonds (1870) Knopf, Random Hose, 1992

To be continued



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