Music Book in Jane Austen’s hand: “Juvinile Songs & Lessons”

Text by Jeanice Brooks, Professor of Music at the University of Southampton

In the mid- to late 1790s – when she was writing the early versions of her first published novels – Jane Austen also spent many hours at music.  Like many gentry women, she had been taught the rudiments of music by older female relatives from around 7 or 8 years old, the age that Catherine Morland begins her lessons in Northanger Abbey.  By 1796, the family had acquired a piano and she was taking lessons from the Winchester organist and composer George Chard.  Amateur performers often borrowed scores from friends and relations to copy into music albums that preserved a personal selection of favourite repertoire.  Blank music copybooks were popular gifts for young women, and Austen’s keyboard manuscript may have been a present from her musically accomplished cousin, Eliza de Feuillide; the first and third pieces are arrangements of French opera overtures that were apparently copied from Eliza’s own scores.

Though Austen’s piano and most of her printed music were sold when the family moved to Bath in 1801, she kept the copybooks that represented such personal associations and so many hours of labour; and during the Chawton years, when she once again had an instrument of her own, she practised the piano every day before breakfast. Her niece Caroline remembered that “much that she played from was manuscript, copied out by herself – and so neatly and correctly, that it was as easy to read as print.”  While Austen’s neatly copied albums have much in common with those made by other gentry women of her day, in the contents and construction of her keyboard manuscript we can detect something of her individual voice.  While most such books that survive today simply feature names and dates, Austen’s keyboard copybook includes the boldly inscribed title “Juvenile Songs & Lessons” – perhaps in the hand of the person who gave her the book – while underneath, in Austen’s own script, appears the ironic aside “for young beginners who don’t know enough to practise.”

 

In 2013-15 this music book and others from the Museum collection were digitised by the Library Digitisation Unit at the University of Southampton. You can find out more and see high res images of the books here: https://archive.org/details/austenfamilymusicbooks

Mini-documentary produced to accompany the exhibition Songs of Home at the Museum of Sydney (August-November 2019). 

For more films of the music being played in the House, follow this link: https://sound-heritage.ac.uk/content/songs-home-jane-austens-house-museum