Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 3: The mystery revealed


Image: Internet Archive

Volume 3: The mystery revealed

In the previous volume Harriet Byron had been brought to confess her love for Sir Charles Grandison to his sisters, Lady L. and Charlotte. But although they assure Harriet that they are in favor of the match, they hint to her that Sir Charles may have an attachment to "some foreign lady" (see Volume 2: The confession).

"A Series of Letters Published from the Originals." I haven't yet commented extensively on the epistolary form of Sir Charles Grandison, but it's a crucial aspect of the novel. As in Richardson's earlier novels, in Sir Charles Grandison he maintains the fiction that he is merely the collator and editor of genuine letters that have come into his possession, rather than the author of the letters himself.

Although no one was fooled, Richardson thought the pretense heightened the illusion of immediacy and the emotional engagement of readers. He claimed that he was presenting "a species of writing. . .that may be called new," which involved "every one putting him and herself into the character they read, and judging of it by their own sensibilities." Women readers in particular were intended to identify strongly with women characters "writing of and in the midst of present distresses! How much more lively and affecting, for that reason, must her style be." [1] 

And he was not wrong. His first novel Pamela (1740) became a huge hit: "Fashionable ladies displayed copies in public places, and held fans painted with pictures of its best-loved scenes. Pamela became a play, an opera, even a waxwork" [2]. It is said that in one village where the novel was being read aloud in the village square to the rapt inhabitants, when the end of the final volume was reached and Pamela and Mr. B. were married, the audience "were so delighted as to raise a great shout, and procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells ringing." [3]

Clarissa (1747-48) also gripped readers; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu reported weeping over scenes that reminded her of her own father's attempt to coerce her into marriage with a man she detested. "This Richardson is a strange fellow. I heartily despise him and eagerly read him, nay, sob over his works in a most scandalous manner. The 2 first Tomes of Clarissa touch'd me as being very ressembling to my Maiden Days." [4]


Portrait of Samuel Richardson, "Author of Clarissa," by Joseph Highmore, 1750 (detail). Image: Wikimedia Commons

And copies of Sir Charles Grandison were jealously guarded by their owners; Richardson's friend Elizabeth Carter wrote him that she didn't dare share with her acquaintances a pre-publication set that he had sent her because "I apprehend there would be so much scratching & clawing that it would be impossible to keep him in my possession & he would run some hazard of being scattered to the four winds of heaven." [5]

Richardson's influence lasted for decades after the first publication of his books. It can be traced in later writers such as Fanny Burney (see Jane Austen's favorite novelist) and Jane Austen (see Volume 1: The abduction), both of whom adopted the epistolary form and elements of his plots when writing their first novels. [6]

The social network. It is a contradiction of letters that they are personal and intimate, but also intended for someone else's eyes; they are social, as well as private, documents. They are the spontaneous productions of the moment that are "the very soul of Nature," candid and unreserved, but are written with an eye to the effect on their reader(s). [7] And in Sir Charles Grandison, each correspondent writes in the knowledge that their letters will be read not only by the recipient, but by their friends and relations as well (or at least read to them). In her letters to Lucy Selby, Harriet even includes joking asides intended for her uncle, Lucy's father. (Of course, the reader of the novel becomes a part of this community of sharing as well, which also heightens engagement.)

This sharing has significant effects. Harriet's letters to Lucy about her abduction by Sir Hargrave Pollexfen are shared not only with all of her own relatives, but with Lord and Lady L., Charlotte Grandison, Sir Charles's mentor Dr. Bartlett, and Sir Charles himself. By allowing her relatives and acquaintances to vicariously experience her terror and desperate courage, Harriet cements her place in their affections.

But sharing letters can not only be a way of tying readers more intimately together, but of distancing them. Sir Charles, we suspect, is not blind to Harriet's growing feelings for him. One of the running jokes in the novel is that Harriet believes that she has succeeded in concealing her secret love, while to everyone else (including the reader) it is utterly apparent. After he reads Harriet's letters about her abduction and its aftermath, Sir Charles shares the letters he wrote to Dr. Bartlett about the trip to Italy from which he has recently returned. Does this gesture contain a message for Harriet?


Map of Bologna (detail) by Johannes Blaeu, 1640. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Sir Charles in Italy. In Sir Charles' letters from Italy we learn of his encounters with the noble della Porretta family. One of the sons of the family, Jeronymo, lives a dissolute life. He is attacked by hired assassins as he is travelling through the woods (the favors of "a Lady, less celebrated for virtue than beauty" are the point of contention between Jeronymo and a rival [8]). Sir Charles happens to be passing by, chases off the assassins, and transports the wounded Jeronymo to a nearby town where he can be treated. In gratitude, the family invites Sir Charles back to the family estate in Bologna while Jeronymo recovers there.

Lady Clementina. While staying at the della Porretta palazzo, Sir Charles begins giving English lessons to the family members—including the beautiful daughter, Clementina. The inevitable happens: after many turns about the garden in the company of her maidservant Camilla, Clementina is slowly (very slowly) brought to confess that she has fallen in love with her handsome English tutor.


"Ay, now you come with your beseeches again: but if you love me, Camilla, leave me."
Illustration engraved by Blake from a drawing by Stothard

And, although he does not make a like declaration, Sir Charles has also fallen in love with her. But there are two obstacles. The first, seemingly insuperable one, is that she is Catholic, and he Protestant, and neither is willing to convert. The second obstacle is the men of the family (except the grateful Jeronymo), who are appalled that Clementina would fall in love with a foreigner and a heretic. The family is closely tied to the Catholic church—one of Clementina's three brothers is a bishop—and an alliance with a Protestant is unthinkable.


"She turned her face toward me as I drew near her; and, seeing who it was, stopt."
Illustration engraved by Heath from a drawing by Stothard (1783).

"Her rage and despair." Sir Charles, conscious of Lady Clementina's own objections and her family's implacable opposition, decides that it would be best for him to leave Bologna, and ultimately returns to England. His absence, and Lady Clementina's recognition of the insurmountable barriers between them, throws her into a crisis. When Sir Charles' friend Mrs. Beaumont goes to visit her, she finds her "in a deplorable way: Sometimes raving, sometimes gloomy; and in bonds—Twice had she given them apprehensions of fatal attempts: They therefore confined her hands. . .When they knew you were actually gone from Bologna, they told her so. Camilla shocked me with the description of her rage and despair, on the communication. This was followed by fits of silence, and the deepest melancholy." [9] Like Clarissa, Clementina also begins to starve herself: "She is so loth to take nourishment, and when she does, it is so very abstemious, that the regimen is hardly necessary." [10] Everyone fears for Clementina's sanity, and even her very survival.

Well, perhaps not everyone. Clementina's widowed aunt Lady Juliana Sforza and her daughter Laurana think that the family is being too soft on Clementina. As Mrs. Beaumont reports, "Lady Juliana de Sforza is earnest to have her with her at Urbino, or at Milan, where she also has a noble palace; but I hope it will not be granted. That Lady professes to love her; but she cannot be persuaded out of her notion of harsh methods which will never do with Clementina." [11] As we will learn, Lady Sforza has ulterior motives for wanting Clementina treated like a madwoman or confined to a nunnery.

The invitation. The della Porrettas did not allow Clementina to have a farewell interview with Sir Charles, but some members of the family begin to think that Sir Charles should be invited back to meet with her.
"Her head runs more than ever upon seeing her tutor, her friend, her Chevalier, once more. . .Could she but once more see him, she says, and let him know the cruelty she has been treated with, she should be satisfied. He would pity her, she is sure, though nobody else will.
"The bishop has written to beg, that Sir Charles would pay them one more visit at Bologna. . .It is but within these few days past that this new request has been made to him, in a direct manner. The question was before put, If such a request should be made, would he comply?" [12]
Is the della Porretta family's opposition to the marriage of Lady Clementina and Sir Charles weakening? Will Sir Charles return to Italy to see her and perhaps renew his offers of marriage, crushing Harriet's own romantic hopes?

Lady Olivia. Complicating matters is Lady Olivia, a noblewoman from Florence. She first sees Sir Charles at the opera, where he defends a woman being persecuted by a rejected lover. Twice thereafter he meets her in company at invited gatherings, and soon she (like seemingly every woman who encounters Sir Charles) has conceived a fierce passion for him. But Lady Olivia is "violent and imperious in her temper"; she makes an open declaration to Sir Charles, which he rebuffs as gently as he can.
I could not have been happy with her, had she been queen of the globe. I had the mortification of being obliged to declare myself to the Lady's face: It was a mortifi­cation to me, as much for her sake as my own. I was obliged to leave Florence upon it, for some time; having been apprized, that the spirit of revenge had taken place of a gentler passion, and that I was in danger from it. [13]
This is not the last we will see of the fiery Lady Olivia.

The machinations of Mrs. Jervois. Meanwhile, in England Sir Charles is beset by the troublesome mother of his ward Emily Jervois. Mrs. Jervois turns up repeatedly, demanding to see her daughter. With such a woman nothing can be taken at face value, even maternal love, and indeed it becomes clear that her plan is to marry Emily against her will to one of Mrs. Jervois' confederates in order to seize control of her wealth. That wealth is astonishing: Emily will be mistress of £50,000 inherited from her father (and currently held in trust by Sir Charles). Mrs Jervois enlists two men in her plan: her supposed new husband, the supposed Major O-Hara, and his supposed brother-in-law, the supposed Captain Salmonet.

Mrs. Jervois and her companions insist on seeing Sir Charles and issue high-handed threats to sue him over custody of Emily. When Sir Charles shows them to the door, the hot-headed Salmonet draws his sword and threatens Sir Charles in his own house. It does not end well for the intruders.


"I drew, put by Salmonet’s sword, closed with him, disarmed him, and, by the same effort, laid him on the floor."
Illustration engraved by Blake from a drawing by Stothard (1782)

Salmonet has his sword taken from him and finds himself on the floor hors de combat; the Major is also soon swordless. Seeing the defeat of her champions Mrs. Jervois flees in terror, and her two belligerent companions are unceremoniously ejected.

As is turns out, Mrs. Jervois and her husband are dependent upon an allowance set up by Emily's father that Sir Charles also controls. He has the power to pay her £100 or more annually, and lets her know in no uncertain terms that any further trouble from her will result in the reduction of her allowance to the minimum. But we wonder whether that threat will be sufficient to end her scheming.

"Eyes swimming in tears." Emily's emotional turmoil is not limited to her justified fear of her mother. Harriet suspects that she is in love with her guardian:
. . .Emily is cherishing (perhaps unknown to herself) a flame that will devour her peace. . .I watch the countenance, the words, the air of the girl, when he is spoken of. And with pity I see, that he cannot be named, but her eyes sparkle. . .So young a creature—Yet how can one caution the poor thing? [14]
Harriet finds a way. She comes to Emily's room as she is about to go to bed, dismisses the servants for the night, and then turns the conversation to their favorite subject, Sir Charles. After confirming what she already knows—that Emily shows all the symptoms of first love—Harriet confesses that she too "greatly esteems" him. Emily teases her: "Esteem! Is that the word? Is that the ladies’ word for love?" [15]

This exchange of confidances is not only an acknowledgment of the growing intimacy between the two, but also intended by Harriet as a warning to Emily about the necessity of guarding her feelings (just as Harriet receives that warning when she learns of Sir Charles' prior attachment to Lady Clementina).

After Harriet's confession, Emily sweetly tells Harriet, "I wish my guardian to be the happiest man in the world; I wish you, madam, to be the happiest woman: And how can either be so, but in one another? Upon my word, I wish no one in the world, but you, to be lady Grandison." [16]

Is Emily really as guileless as she appears? And is she entirely unconscious of the effect of her blossoming beauty? At times it even seems that she is intent on seducing Harriet:
And then the poor girl threw her arms about my neck, smothering me with her kisses, and calling me by all the tender names that terror and mingled gratitude could suggest to her. [17]
But her eyes swimming in tears, her earnest looks, her throbbing bosom, her hands now clasped about me, now one another, added such graces to what she said, that it is impossible to do justice to it. [18]
O madam—(flinging her arms about me, and hiding her face in my bosom) Have I not cause to sigh? [19]
Emily's tears, sighs, kisses, ardent embraces and throbbing bosom are brought to bear in an extraordinary scene that immediately follows Harriet's confession. Emily, clinging to Harriet, asks her to intercede on her behalf with Sir Charles after their marriage:
I have but one fear—

And what’s that?

That my guardian won’t love me so well, when he marries, as he does now. . .he would not take my hand so kindly as now he does: he would not look in my face with pleasure, and with pity on my mother’s account, as he does now: he would not call me his Emily: he would not bespeak every one’s regard for his ward.

My dear, you are now almost a woman. He will, if he remains a single man, soon draw back into his heart that kindness and love for you, which, while you are a girl, he suffers to dwell upon his lips. You must expect this change of behaviour soon, from his prudence. You, yourself, my love, will set him the example: you will grow more reserved in your outward behaviour, than hitherto there was reason to be—

O, madam! never tell me that!. . .Would you, madam, were you Lady Grandison (now, tell me, would you) grudge me these instances of his favour and affection?

Indeed, my dear, I would not: if I know my own heart, I would not.

And would you permit me to live with you?—Now it is out—Will you permit me to live with my guardian and you?—This is a question I wanted to put to you; but was both ashamed and afraid, till you thus kindly emboldened me.

Indeed I would, if your guardian had no objection.

That don’t satisfy me, madam. Would you be my earnest, my sincere advocate, and plead for me? He would not deny you any thing. . .—Dear, dear madam! you are moved in my favour—Who could have forborn being affected by her tender prattle? and she threw her arms about me; I see you are moved in my favour!—. . .

I could not bear this.
No more, no more, my lovely girl, my innocent, my generous, my irresistible girl!—. . .I folded her to my heart, as she hung about my neck. . . [20]
Emily has turned Harriet's admonishment about her too-visible signs of emotional attachment to Sir Charles into permission for her to continue to seek "instances of his favour and affection." She has also enlisted Harriet as her advocate in her campaign to live with the couple, should they marry. Harriet seems remarkably sanguine about the prospect of sharing her future home with a beautiful young woman who has all but declared her passion for her husband-to-be.

Harriet does not seem to recognize that she has made all the concessions in this encounter. And whatever the conventions of 18th-century romantic friendships between women, the end of their intimate tête-à-tête sounds like nothing so much as the parting of two lovers:
I must leave you, Emily.

Say then my Emily.

I must leave you, my and more than my Emily.—You have cured me of sleepiness for this night!

O then I am sorry—

No, don’t be sorry. You have given me pain, ’tis true; but I think it is the sweetest pain that ever entered into a human heart. Such goodness! such innocence! such generosity!—I thank God, my love, that there is in my knowledge so worthy a young heart as yours.

Now, how good this is! (and again she wrapped her arms about me) And will you go?

I must, I must, my dear!—I can stay no longer. But take this assurance, that my Emily shall have a first place in my heart for ever. I will study to promote your happiness; and your wishes shall be the leaders of mine.

Then I am sure I shall live with my guardian and you for ever, as I may say: and God grant, and down on her knees she dropped, with her arms wrapped about mine, that you may be the happiest of women, and that soon, for my sake, as well as your own, in marriage with the best of men—my guardian!. . .

I struggled from her.—O my sweet girl! I cannot bear you!—I hastened out at the door, to go to my chamber.

You are not angry, madam? following me, and taking my hand, and kissing it with eagerness. Say you are not displeased with me. I will not leave you till you do.

Angry! my love! who can be angry? How you have distressed me by your sweet goodness of heart!. . .

And I kissed her once, twice, thrice, with fervor; and away she tript: but stopt at the door, courtesying low, as I, delighted, yet painfully delighted, looked after her. [21]
Is Emily really all sweetness and innocence? Or—child of a conniving mother—is she playing a deep game?


  1. Quoted in Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa, University of Minnesota, 1982, pp. 25-26.
  2. Mark Kinkead-Weekes, Introduction to Pamela, Everyman, 1966, p. v, quoted in Eagleton, p. 5.
  3. Stephanie Fyshe, The Works of Samuel Richardson, University of Delaware Press, 1997, p. 60. 
  4. Letter of 22 September 1755 from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to her daughter Lady Bute. From Montagu, Selected Letters, edited by Isobel Grundy, Penguin, 1997, p. 415.
  5. Quoted in Eagleton, pp. 28-29. 
  6. Burney's Evelina (1778) is a series of letters featuring the misadventures of a young heroine who, like Pamela, Clarissa, and Harriet Byron, is persecuted by harassing suitors. Austen's Lady Susan (written in 1794, when Austen was 19), Elinor and Marianne (the first version of Sense and Sensibility, written in 1795), and probably First Impressions (the first version of Pride and Prejudice, written in 1796-97), were also written in epistolary form; the first wasn't published in Austen's lifetime, while the latter two were rewritten as narratives before publication.
  7. Eagleton, p. 45. 
  8. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 3, Letter XX. Miss BYRON[, to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation.
  9. Volume 3, Letter XXXII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  10. Volume 3, Letter XXXII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  11. Volume 3, Letter XXXII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  12. Volume 3, Letter XXXII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  13. Volume 3, Letter XX. Miss BYRON[, to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation.
  14. Volume 3, Letter III. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  15. Volume 3, Letter VII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY. 
  16. Volume 3, Letter VII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.  
  17. Volume 3, Letter V. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  18. Volume 3, Letter V. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  19. Volume 3, Letter VII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  20. Volume 3, Letter VII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  21. Volume 3, Letter VII. Miss BYRON, to Miss SELBY.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

In memoriam: Anner Bylsma


Anner Bylsma. Image: Medici.tv

I learned today from Anthony Tommasini's obituary in the New York Times that Anner Bylsma, the renowned Dutch cellist, died in Amsterdam on July 25.

Bylsma was a champion of performing 17th- and 18th-century music on the instruments of the time. While this is now common, he was a period-instrument pioneer, first playing historical instruments in the 1950s. I was introduced to him through his 1999 recording of Vivaldi's six Sonatas for Violoncello (published in 1740, but probably composed earlier). On that recording Bylsma played a violoncello built by Matteo Goffriller in Venice in 1693. It took some time for my ears to adjust to the sound of Bylsma's cello, whose gut strings produced a sound both softer-grained in tone and softer in volume than modern steel-stringed cellos. But once I had learned to hear the warmth of the instrument and the lyricism of Bylsma's playing, I was won over.

Here is his performance of the first movement of Vivaldi's Sonata for Violoncello No. 3 in A Minor, RV 43; the continuo is played by Francesco Galligioni (violoncello), Ivano Zanenghi (archlute), and Andrea Marcon (harpischord):



I soon sought out his other recordings of cello music by Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, Boccherini, and Mozart. All are wonderfully rewarding, but I think my favorite is his second recording of Bach's Suites for Solo Violoncello, done in 1992 (he had made a previous recording of the suites in 1979). Pablo Casals' historic first recordings of these pieces in the 1930s set a standard that few musicians have approached since; in my view, Bylsma's 1992 recording is one of the few that can stand comparison with Casals'. To hear the two cellists performing different movements of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, please see my post on Eric Siblin's book The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the search for a Baroque Masterpiece.

Here is Bylsma's performance of the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, played on the "Servais" violoncello built by Antonio Stradivarius in 1701 and now housed in the Smithsonian Institution:


If you are interested in more details of Bylsma's life, please see Tommasini's "Anner Bylsma, Eminent Cellist With an Ear for the Past, Dies at 85" in the New York Times.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 2: The confession



Volume 2: The confession

When we last left Harriet and Sir Charles, she was beginning to acknowledge her esteem for him, and he had been challenged to a duel by Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, whom he had injured when he prevented Sir Hargrave's attempt to abduct, forcibly marry and rape Harriet (see Volume 1: The abduction).

The duel. Sir Charles goes to Sir Hargrave's house by himself, and in the presence of two of Sir Hargrave's friends reasons with him with such manly honor about their dispute that the two friends wind up taking Sir Charles' side. An exasperated Sir Hargrave invites Sir Charles into the garden and draws his sword, but Sir Charles is able to prevent the duel from proceeding further by stepping inside his guard and firmly grasping his arms.


"Sir Charles, who was on his guard, immediately laid hold of it, and seemed to say something mildly to him."
Illustration engraved by Heath from a drawing by Stothard, 1782. Image: Internet Archive

Defeated, Sir Hargrave returns to the house with Sir Charles, but insists on visiting Harriet.
Sir Har. . . .I will see if she has no pardon, no pity for me. She knows, she very well knows, that I was the most honorable of men to her, when she was in my power. By all that's sacred, I only intended to make her Lady Pollexfen. . .

Sir Ch. . . .I think she ought not to be yours; nor ought you, either for your own sake or hers, to desire it. . .

Sir Har. And you have no view to yourself in the advice you give?—Tell me that—I insist upon your telling me that.

Sir Ch. Whenever I pretend to give advice, I should abhor myself, if I did not wholly consider the good of the person who consulted me; and if I had any retrospection to myself, which might in the least affect that person.
Sir Har. . . .By G—, Sir, you have carried the matter very triumphantly. . .Curse me, if I can bear my own littleness! [1]
This kind of scene recurs throughout the novel. Sir Charles will meet with someone who is furiously opposed to him and win them over thanks to his calm reasoning and generosity of spirit and purse. Almost invariably he and his opponent wind up embracing in friendship (although Sir Hargrave doesn't quite go that far). This, of course, is exactly how things always work out in real life, where everywhere one sees the triumph of good sense, fairness and generosity.

"Extravagant to profusion": Sir Thomas Grandison. As a sign of their growing intimacy, Sir Charles' sisters Lady L. and Charlotte tell Harriet the story of their family. The Grandisons' father, Sir Thomas, was handsome and charming, but had "a great notion of magnificence in living" and was "extravagant to profusion." Their mother was "the most excellent of women. . .Her eye and ear had certainly misled her" in her choice of husband. [2] The children are raised by the wise and discreet Lady Grandison to honor their father, but they rarely see him. Sir Thomas spends half his time sampling the pleasures of the town without his wife and children, and the other half making the rounds of the hunts near his country seat.

After the death of Lady Grandison, the 17-year-old Sir Charles is sent abroad, and Sir Thomas brings the widow of an old companion of his revels to act as the governess of his 19- and 16-year-old daughters. In a short time Mrs. Oldham becomes Sir Thomas's mistress, and winds up bearing him two children. Sir Thomas has another mistress in town, Mrs. Farnborough. As Lady L. says to Harriet, "The Love of pleasure, as it is called, was wrought in to his habit. He was a slave to it, and to what he called freedom." [3]

Ashamed of how his conduct is likely to be regarded by his children, Sir Thomas forbids the sisters and Sir Charles to write one another. He also insists that Sir Charles remain abroad, because "his son's morals and his own were so different, that he should not be able to bear his own consciousness, if he consented to his return to England." [4]

The marriage of Lady L. Lord L., who met Sir Charles while travelling abroad, pays a lengthy visit to Grandison Hall. He soon falls in love with Caroline, Sir Thomas's eldest daughter, and she with him. Sir Thomas is unalterably opposed to this match. He tells Lord L., "I have not quitted the world so entirely, nor think I ought, as to look upon myself as the necessary tool of my children, to promote their happiness at the expense of my own." [5]

The marriage of a daughter involved her family paying a dowry to her husband, supposedly to compensate him for the expense of supporting her throughout her life, and to provide her with a small income (pin money) for personal items. Sir Thomas is reluctant to cut into his own income to provide dowries for his daughters. He demands that they marry only the men he approves, namely men who will feel socially elevated by the match and are so rich that they will accept a small or nonexistent dowry.  [6]

Lord L. has told Sir Thomas that he will rely on his "generosity" in the matter of a dowry, but Sir Thomas is not mollified. He dismisses Lord L. and forbids Caroline to see or correspond with him. In a confrontation with his tearful daughters he demands their obedience in the matter of their marriage partners, or he will disown them. Caroline goes so far as to say "I will never be Lord L.'s, without your consent. I only beg of you, Sir, not to propose to me any other man." [7]


"'Am I forgiven, sir?' said I. 'Dear sir, forgive your Charlotte.'"
Illustration engraved by Hubert from a drawing by Marillier. Image: Internet Archive

Shortly afterwards Sir Thomas is stricken by a fever and dies "in dreadful agonies." Sir Charles, who has been abroad for eight or nine years, had been sent for but cannot arrive in time. When he does come he settles his father's outstanding obligations (both licit and illicit) with generosity, approves the union between Lord L. and his sister, and provides both of the sisters with dowries of £10,000.

The suitors of Charlotte Grandison. But Sir Thomas's tyrannizing of his daughters has had unintended consequences. Charlotte has two suitors, the foppish Sir Walter Watkyns and the unexceptionable but rather insipid Lord G. But, spurning both, she confesses to Sir Charles that she has become involved with a handsome adventurer named Captain Anderson, who is twice her age.
Sir Charles rose from his seat; and taking one of his sister's hands between his, Worthy sister! Amiable Charlotte!. . .If you think Captain Anderson is worthy of your heart, he shall have a place in mine; and I will use my interest with Lord and Lady L. to allow of his relation to them. . .

Miss. Gr. O Sir, what shall I say? You add to my difficulties by your goodness. I have told you how I entangled myself. Captain Anderson's address began with hopes of a great fortune, which he imagined a daughter of Sir Thomas Grandison could not fail, first or last, to have. That this was his principle motive, has been, on many occasions (too many for his advantage) visible to me.  My allowance of his address, as I have hinted, was owing to my apprehensions, that I should not be a fortune worthy of a more generous man. At that time, our life was a confined one; and I girlishly wished for Liberty—MATRIMONY and LIBERTY—Girlish connexion! as I have since thought. [8]
Charlotte is the most subversive character in Sir Charles Grandison. Serving a function a bit like Lovelace in Clarissa, she uses her wit to call the values of the social system upheld by the "good" characters into question—such as the way a woman literally embodies her dowry ("I should not be a fortune worthy of a more generous man"), or how for women, marriage is simply exchanging the tyranny of a father for that of a husband ("MATRIMONY and LIBERTY—Girlish connexion!").

But Charlotte has unwisely promised Captain Anderson in writing that while he remains single she will not marry without his consent. Captain Anderson now insists that Charlotte must either marry him, or at the least keep her promise. Sir Charles must once again pay a visit to a man predisposed to take offense, and in the presence of his friends, dissuade him from a course of action to which he feels entitled. And once again the affair is settled amicably.

All's well that ends well? Given that we still have five and half volumes to go, the answer is obvious.

Miss Emily Jervois.  In Volume 2 we are introduced to Emily Jervois, Sir Charles' ward. Her Italian father on his deathbed bequeathed Emily to the care of his friend. (That it seems appropriate to everyone that a 14-year-old girl is the ward of a single 26-year-old man is remarkable, although Emily did not travel with Sir Charles and lives with a respectable widow and her daughters.) Charlotte describes Emily's English mother as being "one of the most abandoned of women." She is "a termagant, a swearer, a drinker, unchaste" who wants to insinuate herself back into her daughter's life in order to extort a share of her daughter's "great fortune." [9]

Emily is "amiable" and "lovely," and—no surprise—has a huge crush on Sir Charles. As Harriet writes Lucy:
My godfather [Dr. Bartlett] will have it, that he sees a young passion in Miss Jervois for her guardian!—God forbid!—A young Love may be conquered, I believe; but who shall caution the innocent girl? She must have a sweet pleasure in it, creeping, stealing, upon her. How can so unexperienced an heart, the object so meritorious, resist or reject the indulgence? But, O my Emily! sweet girl! do not let your Love get the better of your gratitude, lest it make you unhappy! [10]
But as Harriet quickly recognizes, Emily's case is her own.

"Entangled in a hopeless passion." Over the course of Volume 2, Harriet is slowly (very slowly) brought to hint to Lucy Selby something that has been apparent to everyone (including the reader) for several hundred pages: she has fallen in love with her handsome, manly, wealthy, and virtuous rescuer.

Lucy reads the letters she receives from Harriet to her parents, and the perceptive Mrs. Selby becomes alarmed at what she detects of Harriet's feelings. Not only does she fear that Harriet's first experience of love will be heartbreaking, but as long as Harriet lives in hope of Sir Charles returning her love she will refuse offers from other worthy men. As Mrs. Selby writes Harriet,
You have laid me under a difficulty with respect to Lady D. . . .I have not written to her [refusing her son's suit], tho' you desired I would; since, in truth, we all think, that her proposals deserve consideration; and because we are afraid, that a greater happiness will never be yours and ours. It is impossible, my dear, to imagine, that such a man as Sir Charles Grandison should not have seen the woman whom he could love, before he saw you. . . [11]
Mrs. Selby is very wise.

The confession. Harriet still doesn't know know if Sir Charles returns her romantic feelings, but the signs are not good. The families of two noblewomen, the Lady N. and Lady Anne S., have approached Sir Charles with the object of matrimony. Both women are vastly wealthy and both of them have a much higher social position than Harriet.

But there may be another rival as well. Lady L. and Charlotte report to Harriet a conversation they had with Sir Charles in which he said that "If [Lady Anne] honours me with a preferable esteem, it is not in my power to return it." Harriet at first thinks that this may be a hopeful sign; perhaps he cannot return Lady Anne's esteem because he is in love with Harriet? But Charlotte suggests another possibility: "We are afraid, that some foreign lady—"


"I threw one of my arms, as I sat between them, round Lady L's neck, the other round Miss Grandison's."
Illustration engraved by Heath from a drawing by Stothard, 1782. Image: Internet Archive

Under the sisters' gentle but insistent probing, Harriet is brought to confess her feelings.
I desired their pity. They assured me of their love; and called upon me as I valued their friendship, to open my whole heart to them.

I paused. I hesitated. For words did not immediately offer themselves. But at last, I said, ". . .I will own, that the man, who by so signal an instance of his bravery and goodness engaged my gratitude, has possession of my whole heart."
And then, almost unknowing what I did, I threw one of my arms, as I sat between them, round Lady L's neck, the other round Miss Grandison's; my glowing face seeking to hide itself in Lady L's bosom.
. . .I was very earnest to know, since my eyes had been such tell tales, if their brother had any suspicion of my regard for him. They could not, they said, either from his words or behaviour, gather that he had. [12]
Both sisters assure her that they want to see her married to their brother, but the obstacles—including what may be an involvement with "some foreign lady"—seem formidable.

Next time: Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 3: The mystery revealed


  1. Samuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, S. Richardson, 1753. Vol. II, Letter IV. Miss HARRIET BYRON to Miss LUCY SELBY. 
  2. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XI. Miss HARRIET BYRON to Miss LUCY SELBY.
  3. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XIII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.
  4. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XIII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.
  5. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter IX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.
  6. See Maria Grace's "Show Me the Money: Marriage Settlements in the Regency Era"
  7. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XVII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.
  8. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XXIX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation. 
  9. Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter I and Letter XXV. Miss HARRIET BYRON, to Miss LUCY SELBY.
  10. Sir Charles Grandison, Letter XXXIII. Miss HARRIET BYRON, to Miss SELBY.
  11. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter VIII. Mrs. SELBY, to Miss BYRON.
  12. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison, Vol. II, Letter XXX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY], In Continuation.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 1: The abduction

The History of Sir Charles Grandison volume 1 title page
'Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? —I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume.'
'It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining.'
'Do you indeed! —you surprize me; I thought it had not been readable.'
—Isabella Thorpe speaking to Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey [1]
Isabella Thorpe was not the only one who thought Samuel Richardson's The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753) unreadable. Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Richardson's, said that "if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself." [2] Sir Charles Grandison is one of the longest novels in English (although it is exceeded by Richardson's own Clarissa), but its length is not the result of its grand historical or temporal sweep. Instead, it is largely the minute relation of the daily thoughts and feelings of Harriet Byron—a young woman who comes to know Sir Charles and his family intimately through circumstances that will soon be made clear—over the period of a few months.

In its epic length and slow pace Sir Charles Grandison seems very unlike the works of Jane Austen, and yet it was one of her favorite novels. Fifty years after Austen's death, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh remembered that "Every circumstance narrated in Sir Charles Grandison, all that was ever said or done in the cedar parlour, was familiar to her; and the wedding days of Lady L. and Lady G. were as well remembered as if they had been living friends." [3] Austen may have even written a play based on the novel for family performance. [4]


Title page of A Memoir of Jane Austen. Image: Internet Archive

In the "Biographical Notice of the Author" that appeared with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), her brother Henry wrote, "Richardson's power of creating, and preserving the consistency of his characters, as particularly exemplified in 'Sir Charles Grandison,' gratified the natural discrimination of her mind, whilst her taste secured her from the errors of his prolix style and tedious narrative." [5]


Frontispiece portraying "Mr. S. Richardson" from the 1770 edition of Sir Charles Grandison. Image: The Frame Blog

Many writers have looked for traces of Sir Charles in Austen's heroes. Fortunately those traces are few. Sir Charles is a paragon of manly virtue, and although he self-deprecatingly invokes his many failings, we rarely see any of them. Sir Charles' major self-confessed flaw, as it is for Austen's Mr. Darcy, is pride. The situation of Sense and Sensibility's Edward Ferrars parallels that of Sir Charles in a significant way, for reasons that will later be revealed. And like Sir Charles, Emma's Mr. Knightley is seemingly always right.

But generally Austen's heroes (Mr. Darcy and Edward Ferrars included) are much more fallible than Sir Charles, and as a result, much more believable. As Sir Walter Scott wrote of Austen's characters in his review of Emma, they "conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. . .All [of her characters'] entanglements bring on only a train of mistakes and embarrassing situations. . .in which the author displays her peculiar powers of humor and knowledge of human life." [6]


Sir Walter Scott's review of Emma in the Quarterly Review. Image: British Library

What Jane Austen took from Richardson was his ability to involve the reader deeply in the emotional lives of his heroines. Like Harriet Byron, Sense and Sensibility's Elinor Dashwood and Persuasion's Anne Elliot exercise their calm good judgment on behalf of everyone around them. Like Harriet as well, they and Mansfield Park's Fanny Price find themselves unable to express the true depth of their feelings to the man they love. They are all also exquisitely sensitive to other people's feelings, Fanny so much so that she is almost paralyzed with indecision when she must choose between gifts from two different people when selecting a necklace to wear to a party at which they will both be present. Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet in her confrontations with Mr. Darcy and with Lady Catherine de Bourgh has Harriet's admirable frankness and firmness of purpose, and, in her intimate discussions with her sister Jane, some of Harriet's self-described "sauciness" as well. [7]

I began reading Sir Charles Grandison shortly after finishing Clarissa a few years ago (see Clarissa on a smartphone), but paused after the first volume. I've recently taken it up again, and thought I would use this blog as something of a reading diary as I continue with the book. I will be writing about each volume as I finish it, although this idea didn't occur to me until I was midway through the fourth volume. But my intention is to share my thoughts about the book more-or-less as they occur. We'll see if I can make it to the end without either this writer or his readers wanting to hang themselves.

Volume 1: The abduction

Harriet Byron. When we are introduced to Harriet Byron through a letter from her constant correspondent, her cousin Lucy Selby, we learn that she has just recently come to London with her older cousins Mr. and Mrs. Reeves. Harriet is beautiful, youthful (she has just turned 20), orphaned and will be rich: she is the heiress of £15,000, good for an annual income of about £750.

The inducements of Harriet's person and fortune have attracted several would-be lovers: the vain and combative rivals Mr. Fenwick and Mr. Greville, the unassuming Mr. Orme, the "unexceptionable" Mr. Fowler. None of them have made any impression on Harriet's heart.

Sir Hargrave Pollexfen. At a dinner party she meets the self-regarding, affected, blustering Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, who immediately fixes his matrimonial ambitions on her.


"Sir Hargrave Pollexfen took an empty glass, and with it humorously rapped his knuckles and was silent."
Illustration engraved by Angus from a drawing by Stothard, 1782. Image: Internet Archive

A few days later he pays a call on her to make her an offer of marriage, but the interview does not go well:
Pray, Sir Hargrave—
And pray, Miss Byron—
I have never yet seen the man who is to be my husband.
By G— said the wretch, fiercely (almost in the language of Mr. Greville on the like occasion) but you have—And if you are not engaged in your affections, the man is before you.
. . .I would fain have parted civilly. He would not permit me to do so. Though he was on his knees, he mingled passion, and even indirect menaces, with his supplications. I was forced to declare, that I never more would receive his visits.
This declaration he vowed would make him desperate, and he cared not what became of him.
. . .And you forbid my future visits, madam, said he, with a face of malice.
I do, Sir; and that for both our sakes. You have greatly discomposed me.
Next time, madam, I have the honour of attending you, it will be, I hope—[He stopt for a moment, but still looking fiercely] to an happier purpose. And away he went.
. . .You will now, therefore, hear very little farther in my letters of this Sir Hargrave Pollexfen. [8]
A prediction that, alas for Harriet, does not come true.

The next night, in the company of the Reeves, she attends a masquerade ball dressed as an Arcadian princess. (Her "sparkling" costume "falls not in with any of my notions of the Pastoral dress of Arcadia"; nonetheless, she can't help wondering "how many Pretty-fellows. . .will be slain." [9]) On leaving the ball, Harriet is directed to a strange chair by a new servant in the household, one Wilson. When the Reeves arrive home, having taken a later chair, Harriet is nowhere to be found.

The abduction. Wilson and the chairmen, it turns out, have been bribed by Sir Hargrave. He has had Harriet carried to a house in the wilds of Paddington (then a village amid fields on the western outskirts of London). There he intends to force her to undergo a marriage ceremony performed by a corrupt priest, and then rape her.


"Sir Hargrave took my struggling hand; and then I saw another ill-looking man enter the room." 
Illustration engraved by Walker from a drawing by Stothard, 1783. Image: Internet Archive

However, when Harriet's frantic resistance prevents this from happening, the next morning Sir Hargrave takes her blindfolded and gagged in his carriage, accompanied by armed servants on horseback, galloping down the road to his estate in Windsor. There on his isolated estate, surrounded by his own servants, he will see his plan through. These, no doubt, are the scenes that Isabella Thorpe considers "amazing horrid."

But on the narrow road crossing Hounslow Heath outside Windsor Sir Hargrave's carriage meets another one going the opposite direction, towards London. Both coaches are forced to stop, and as they are maneuvering around each other a resourceful Harriet is able to free herself from her gag and scream for help.

Sir Charles Grandison. The man in the other carriage is Sir Charles Grandison. On hearing Harriet's screams he orders his servants to block Sir Hargrave's way, and insists on speaking to the woman who has cried out. As Sir Charles approaches, Sir Hargrave, enraged by his interference, lunges at him with his sword. As Sir Charles later recounts it:
'I opened the chariot-door. Sir Hargrave made a pass at me. Take that, and be damn'd to you, for your insolence, scoundrel! said he.

'I was aware of his thrust, and put it by; but his sword a little raked my shoulder. . .I seized him by the collar before he could recover himself from the pass he had made at me, and with a jerk, and a kind of twist, laid him under the hind-wheel of his chariot.

'I wrench'd his sword from him, and snapp'd it, and flung the two pieces over my head. . .Your lovely cousin, the moment I returned to the chariot-door, instead of accepting of my offered hand, threw herself into my arms.—O save me! save me!—she was ready to faint. She could not, I believe, have stood. [10]

"Your lovely cousin. . .instead of taking my offered hand, threw herself into my arms." 
Illustration by R. Vinkeles, 1797. Image: Internet Archive

The rescue. Sir Hargrave laid low, Sir Charles carries the agitated Harriet to his carriage and takes her to the nearby house of his brother-in-law Lord L. in Colnebrooke, where Sir Charles and his sister Charlotte are staying. After Harriet has recovered she is reunited with the Reeves, and forms fast friendships with Charlotte, as well as with Sir Charles' other sister, Lady L., and her husband. Sir Charles tells Harriet that he looks on her as a third sister, which Harriet finds both delightful (to be admitted so quickly to such intimacy) and distressing (only a sister?). Charlotte drops hints to Harriet that Sir Charles is harboring a secret; is she warning Harriet not to fall in love with him?

If so, her warning may be too late. Harriet's aunt Mrs. Selby, reading between the lines of her letters to Lucy, tells her that she fears she is "entangled in a hopeless passion" for Sir Charles. She urges Harriet instead to consider a proposal made on behalf of Lord D. by his mother, the Countess Dowager of D. Harriet responds to her aunt, "since I have seen and known Sir Charles Grandison, I have not only (as before) an indifference, but a dislike, to all other men." [11]

The challenge. Meanwhile, Sir Hargrave refuses to be foiled in his marriage machinations. He issues a challenge to Sir Charles. Harriet receives a letter from Sir Hargrave's second implying that if she agrees to become Sir Hargrave's wife, he will urge Sir Hargrave to call off the duel. Harriet is torn; the prospect of marrying Sir Hargrave is abhorrent, but if she does not, Sir Charles' life may be in danger, and she will be the cause.

However, Sir Charles refuses the duel: "I have ever refused. . .to draw my sword upon a set and formal challenge. Yet I have reason to think, from the skill I pretend to have in the weapons, that in declining to do so, I consult my conscience rather than my safety. . .My sword is a sword of defence, not of offence." [12] Sir Hargrave is not appeased by this letter, and demands satisfaction; Sir Charles not only refuses again, but tells Sir Hargrave that he should be begging the pardon of Harriet on his knees. This will not sit well with Sir Hargrave, who will certainly want to take revenge. . .

Next time: Sir Charles Grandison, Volume 2: The confession


  1. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, John Murray, 1818 [published December 1817], Vol. I, Ch. VI.
  2. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 480. 
  3. J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, Second edition, Bentley & Son, 1871, Ch. V: Description of Jane Austen's Person, Character, and Tastes.
  4. The play was published as Jane Austen's "Sir Charles Grandison," transcribed and edited by Brian Southam, Oxford University Press, 1981. The extent of Austen's contribution to the play, which family tradition ascribed to her niece Anna, has been questioned by Marilyn Butler in the London Review of Books, Vol. 3, No. 9, 21 May 1981: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v03/n09/marilyn-butler/jane-austens-latest (subscription required).
  5. Henry Austen, "A Biographical Notice of the Author," Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, John Murray, 1818.
  6. [Walter Scott] "Art. IX. Emma, A Novel" [review]. The Quarterly Review, Vol. XIV, No. XXVII, October, 1815, p. 188-201. http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/review-of-emma-in-the-quarterly-review-1815
  7. In writing the first version of this post I flattered myself that this was my insight, but later discovered that in his study The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson, University of Minnesota Press, 1982, Terry Eagleton observed, "Jane Austen. . .put Harriet Byrons rather than Sir Charles Grandisons at the centre of her works" (p. 99).
  8. Samuel Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, S. Richardson, 1753. Vol. I, Letter XXII. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation. 
  9. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Vol. I, Letter XXII. Miss BYRON. In Continuation. 
  10. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Quoted in Vol. I, Letter XXVII. From Mr. REEVES, To George SELBY, Esq In Continuation.
  11. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Vol. I, Letter XLIV. Miss BYRON to Mrs. SELBY.
  12. Richardson, Sir Charles Grandison. Quoted in Vol. I, Letter XXXIX. Miss BYRON [to Miss SELBY]. In Continuation.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Three books on music, part 3: Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music

Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Anna Beer, Oneworld Publications, 2016, 370 pp.


On the cover: Portrait of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy, 1704 or earlier. Image: Readings

In Sounds and Sweet Airs British writer Anna Beer highlights eight women composers, from Francesca Caccini in the early 17th century through Elizabeth Maconchy in the 20th. If you're thinking "Who?" that's precisely Beer's point. Although not all of the composers featured in the book are forgotten women, as the subtitle has it—there are dozens of recordings of works by Barbara Strozzi, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann currently available, to name just three of Beer's subjects—they are all under-performed and under-recorded with respect to their male contemporaries.

They also faced far greater barriers to success. Marriage and motherhood meant that women were expected to place needs of spouses and children ahead of their own. Alma Schindler had composed more than a hundred lieder before becoming the wife of Gustav Mahler; a few months before their marriage he wrote to her a notorious letter that is worth quoting at greater length than does Beer:
[H]ow do you picture the married life of a husband and wife who are both composers? Have you any idea how ridiculous and, in time, how degrading for both of us such a peculiarly competitive relationship would become?. . .You have only one profession from now on: to make me happy!. . .The role of "composer," the "worker's" role falls to me, yours is that of loving companion and understanding partner. . .You must give yourself to me unconditionally, shape your future life, in every detail, entirely in accordance with my needs, and desire nothing in return save my love! [1]
Fortunately some husbands, such as those of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, actively supported their wives' musical activities. Still, the burdens of raising children and managing the household fell disproportionately on women. The marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann was an artistic companionship in theory; in practice Robert monopolized the piano, while Clara was frequently pregnant and regularly needed to embark on gruelling concert tours to bring in money.

Remaining unmarried might provide women with the freedom to compose, but it had its own dangers: it could expose them to salacious gossip and social rejection. Marianna Martines (born in Vienna in 1744) never married and for respectability's sake lived with two of her brothers and the elderly librettist Pietro Metastasio, for whom she was a caregiver.


Portrait of Marianna Martines by Anton von Maron, ca. 1773. Image: Wikimedia Commons

As a young woman Martines received music lessons from a teenaged Joseph Haydn, who at the time was living in the attic of her family home, and from Nicola Porpora, who may also have been living with the family. She held musical salons at which she played keyboard duets with one Wolfgang Mozart (she was doing him the favor; he was trying to gain entry into Viennese society). She received invitations to visit Naples and Bologna, other important centers of musical activity, but declined them and remained in the city of her birth.

Because it would not have been seemly for a woman of her social position, she never wrote an opera. We have some idea of what a Martines opera might have sounded like, though, from her cantatas with orchestral accompaniment. Anna Bonitatibus singing Martines' setting of Metastasio's "Orgoglioso fiumicello" with La Floridiana led by Nicoleta Paraschivescu:



Martines hosted private musical evenings because it was not befitting for a woman of her social station to give public concerts. This was also true of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (born 1805), the older sister of Felix Mendelssohn.


Fanny Mendelssohn by William Hensel, 1829. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although Fanny received the same musical training as Felix, she was not granted the same opportunities. Fanny's father Abraham wrote her, "Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the root of your being and action. . .You must. . .prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean the state of a housewife." When their mother urged Felix to help Fanny publish her music, he wrote her that to do this "is contrary to my views and to my convictions." [2]

Felix was generally supportive of Fanny's composing, but he did not think it fitting for his sister to place herself in the public eye by publishing her works under her own name. Instead he published six of her songs under his name in his Opus 8 and Opus 9. Here is one of those songs, "Sehnsucht" (Longing, based on a poem by Johann Gustav Droysen), performed by Barbara Bonney with accompanist Geoffrey Parsons:




SEHNSUCHT

Fern und ferner schallt der Reigen.
Wohl mir! um mich her ist Schweigen
Auf der Flur.
Zu dem vollen Herzen nur
Will nicht Ruh' sich neigen.

LONGING

Fainter and fainter is the sound of the dancing.
I'm thankful that silence surrounds me
In the halls.
To my full heart
peace will not descend.

Horch! die Nacht schwebt durch die Räume.
Ihr Gewand durchrauscht die Bäume
Lispelnd leis'.
Ach, so schweifen liebeheiß
Meine Wünsch' und Träume.
Listen! The night wafts through the rooms.
Its robes rustle through the trees,
Softly whispering.
Just as, burning with love, wander
My wishes and dreams.

For women composers the difficulty of getting work published meant that it could be misattributed (as in the case of "Sehnsucht"), neglected for decades, or lost entirely. The music Francesca Caccini (born 1587) wrote for the stage, for example, has largely vanished. Only one opera has survived in a performable state: La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall' Isola d'Alcina (Ruggiero's Liberation from Alcina's Island, 1625). She also wrote hundreds of secular and sacred songs, only a few of which have been preserved.

Caccini's "Dolce Maria," performed by Shannon Mercer with Luc Beauséjour (organ and harpischord), Amanda Keesmaat (cello) and Sylvain Bergeron (theorbo):



Until relatively recently women were largely excluded from professional positions at court, in cathedrals and at conservatories, which meant that they often could not support themselves through nor find ready outlets for their art. They were passed over for prizes and fellowships, and their work was infrequently programmed in the concert hall or on the radio.

This was the case for Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy (born 1907), the subject of one of the most interesting chapters of Sounds and Sweet Airs. Her father, a solictor, died of tuberculosis when she was 15, and her mother moved the family from Ireland to London after Elizabeth won admission to the Royal College of Music the next year. She became a student of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and in 1928 applied for the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship. She did not receive it, however, being told by the head of the RCM that "if we'd given it to you, you'd only have gotten married and never written another note!" [3]

"Ophelia's Song," composed by 19-year-old Maconchy while at the RCM in 1926, performed by Caroline MacPhie with accompanist Joseph Middleton; the words are from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act IV Scene 5:




OPHELIA'S SONG

How should I your true love know
  From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
  And his sandal shoon.

He is dead and gone, lady,
  He is dead and gone,
At his head a grass-green turf,
  At his heels a stone.

White his shroud as the mountain snow
  Larded with sweet flowers,
Which bewept to the grave did go
  With true-love showers.

Maconchy did get married in 1930, and kept right on composing (when she wasn't debilitated by bouts of tuberculosis). Fortunately in the 1930s three women in the London music scene—the conductor Iris Lemare, the violinist Anne Macnaghten, and the composer Elisabeth Luytens—established a concert series to present music by composers whose work wasn't being performed elsewhere. Maconchy wound up being the most-performed composer in the Macnaghten-Lemare Concerts, ahead of another young unknown named Benjamin Britten.

After World War II Maconchy received a bit more recognition. Hers was the winning entry in the London Council's competition for a Coronation Overture for Elizabeth II (Proud Thames, 1952), and in 1959 she became the first woman to chair the Composers' Guild of Great Britain. She received a CBE appointment in 1977, the year of Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, and a decade later was made Dame Commander. But despite these honors, she remains relatively little known and rarely performed. I did not know her name and had never heard her music before I read Beer's book.

From Maconchy's Symphony for Double String Orchestra (1952-53), the second movement (Lento) performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Odaline de la Martinez:



In Sounds and Sweet Airs Beer necessarily focusses on a few composers and tries to generalize from their experiences to the difficulties faced by many other musical women. Every composer she profiles deserves more attention, so it feels a bit churlish to complain about those who are not represented. There are no composers from the medieval period, so abbess Hildegard of Bingen and the trobairitz Countess of Dia are absent (although the latter provides the book's epigram). And Beer neglects to include any composer from the church. That's odd because not only is sacred music a huge part of the classical tradition, the church often offered greater opportunities for women to compose than did the stage or the concert hall (the 17th-century nun Chiara Margarita Cozzolani might have made a good subject).

When in her chronological survey Beer reaches the late 19th century, she does not mention Ethel Smyth; in the 20th, Americans Ruth Crawford Seeger and Mary Lou Williams are absent. In the chapter on Maconchy, Beer tantalizingly quotes from the delightfully entertaining writings of fellow composer Elisabeth Lutyens, the daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens (designer of much of New Dehli), who seems like a highly engaging subject in her own right. We can only hope that Beer is planning a second volume.

Other books in this series:

  1. Letter from Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler, 19 December 1901. Quoted in Julia Moore, "Alma Mahler, or The Art of Being Loved" [review]. Notes, Second Series, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Mar., 1993), pp. 972-977. https://www.jstor.org/stable/898934
  2. Quoted in Carol Neuls-Bates, Women in Music: An Anthology of Source Readings from the Middle Ages to the Present. Northeastern University Press, 1996, pp. 144-148. 
  3. Quoted in Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music, Oneworld Publications, 2016, p. 294.