Music in the Domestic Sphere: Musical Women in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Music’s Influence on the Domestic

Author: Maija Drezins

Sub-editor: Charlotte Allan

Music was a vital part of the lives of women in the nineteenth century, as it was played and practiced in the homes of middle-class women throughout the century. Music was used both in courtship and for personal entertainment, and was recommended as a form of female education which reflected the wanted characteristics found in an ideal woman. These characteristics and qualities were demonstrated through various mediums of literature which all worked to represent the woman and her place in society in its own way. Such forms include conduct literature, Lady’s magazines, and fiction novels. One such novel is Jane Austen’s Emma, with its representation of music and musical women in the act of courtship and the freedom that music allows to its player. As in the novel, the Lady’s magazines also contained short fictions about the ways in which music can be used to seduce a man. Conduct literature, on the other hand, as the name suggests, focused on the education of women, therefore any mentions of music are tied into the prescribed actions of the “perfect” nineteenth century woman. Music allowed women to express their thoughts and feelings and allowed them a little more freedom in the oppressive domestic sphere in which they resided throughout the century. Some women began to push against the rigid divide of the public and private, as both female composers and novelists blurred the boundaries between these spheres as their works began to enter the public domain.

There are many types of literature during the nineteenth century that include and reference music in the lives of women; chief among them being the magazines and periodicals, conduct literature, as well as the domestic novel. All three forms of literature are in some way reflective of society, some more explicitly than others. The purpose of a lady’s magazine or periodical during the nineteenth century was for ‘instruction and entertainment,’ a way to educate women in the ways of the home. It would contain works such as travel accounts, essays, and biographies, all meant for the entertainment of the household, as well as stories, serialised novels, and further essays all encoded to explore the proper conduct and morals of the nineteenth-century woman. Two such magazines are the Lady’s Magazine which began in 1770, and Godey’s Lady’s Book, an American monthly magazine from 1830-1898. Both of these publications included music as a predominant topic of their writings; each printing a new set of sheet music or song with every publication. The Lady’s Magazine was widely influential in London and, at its highest point, had fifteen thousand subscribers, coming close to that of the Gentleman’s Magazine. It was made up of so-called “polite literature,” which were works deemed appropriate for the woman and for home display, such as ‘chaste love songs,’ and ‘favo[u]rite airs and duets from English Operas.’ The careful selection of music that was included indicates that they are seen as influential to their audience, and were picked to reflect the morals of the period. Women should not be exposed to all types of music, but rather those of a polite and sensible tone. This ‘magazine music’ is not a new phenomenon, but was seen as early as the periodicals published well before the eighteenth century, indicating that music had long been linked to the education and presentation of women.

As well as the monthly sheet music of the Godey’s Lady’s Book, music was also presented through fictious stories and letters, as well as in non-fiction articles. Music was often coded in these magazines as feminine, with short stories writing of music as a ‘young-lady-like acquirement’ and ‘charmingly feminine,’ thus making music intrinsic to the women of the nineteenth century. Further, within the fictions published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, one stand out feature is the relationship between music and the courtship plot. A woman’s main focus in life was to become a good wife, and ‘the link between music and courtship meant that music was [a] serious business’ in the lives of young ladies because of this ultimate goal.  Music was a great way to show off admirable skills and be noticed by potential suitors, without breaking the social distinctions between man and woman. Women were able to draw attention to themselves through performance but were prohibited from being the pursuers in the relationship, that being the role of the man, and women were meant to be passive. Contradictorily, performances in the domestic space by women were not always seen as a positive trait of a future wife. Godey’s also contained columns criticising ‘amateur music making’:

A party retires to the parlo[u]r to have a pleasant chat. In comes some idiot who thinks she can play, and has waited her opportunity for an audience. Down she sits and commences to drum, interfering with conversation, giving no pleasure, and simply inspiring disgust.

This exemplifies the fine line for musical women in the nineteenth century; one should aim to please with her playing, but if it is not of high enough quality, then she is ridiculed. Not only do women need to practice in order to please their guests, but she must not practice too much as to distract from her domestic duties and drift into the realm of virtuosity.

 In the nineteenth century, the primary musical instrument relating to women was the piano. Unlike the harpsichord, the new technologies of the piano, such as the ability to easily change dynamics, allowed for more expression even for the amateur musician. The piano was seen as the woman’s instrument; it allowed for modesty, as there were no body movements and the woman was seated, no facial distortions were required, and the only part of the body that touched the instrument were the very tips of her finger and toes. In relation to the way female piano playing is represented in the literature of the time, Professor Elizabeth Morgan draws a link between conduct literature and the keyboard etudes. Conduct literature as a genre is meant to educate women and ‘regulate every element of female education.’ This form of literature is not defined by a single medium, it can appear as handbooks or even and fiction novels, yet the end goal is always the same; to educate women for a life of confinement within the domestic sphere ‘under the guise of enriching and even empowering them.’ Morgan argues that keyboard etudes work in the same way, both have a goal of education with physical control as one of the main objectives. However, as established earlier, musical woman walk on a double-edged sword, they must be accomplished enough that their music is pleasing to the ear, thus the need for etudes and studies. Parents, teachers, and education literature all pushed for the woman to be proficient at the instrument, which led to many acquiring a high level of skill. Yet conduct books also cautioned against ‘studying overly complex works as well as physically demanding ones,’ which would stray into keyboard virtuosity. Women, in order to maintain the distinction between the public and the private, should not continue their learning to the point of mastery, which would pull them towards the public and masculine sphere, therefore leaving the ‘easy, private, amateur and feminine sphere.’ This anxiety within the conduct books represents the societal need to keep women within the home. One such example is Alexis Soyer’s The Modern Housewife or, Ménagère which opens with a dialogue between two women about housework. When the husband is asked about his wife, he responds that ‘she speaks two or three languages tolerably well, and, as an amateur, is rather proficient in music’ yet more importantly, her parents ‘made her first acquainted with the keys of the store-room before those of the piano,’ indicating a common belief about female musicianship in the period; music and practice should not come before managing the household.

Another popular method of female music making is singing, which, along with the piano, are both explored in the domestic novel Emma (1815)by Jane Austen.Singing, like the piano, was a form of entertainment in the drawing rooms of nineteenth-century homes and was also a method of attracting attention for courtship. In Emma, the characters appear at numerous dinner parties at various homes, and at each one they withdraw to the drawing room after dinner. These scenes are always filled with music, as both Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax are proficient at the piano. The fine line of musical talent is also expressed in the drawing room scene of Chapter Twenty-Six, as Emma carefully chooses her repertoire to entertain as ‘she knew the limitations of her own powers too well to attempt more than she could perform with credit.’ However, Emma also expresses her envy at the talent of Jane Fairfax and her ability to grab the attention of Mr. Knightly. Emma expresses her resignation at Jane’s ‘infinitely superior’ performance to her own, leading to ‘mixed feelings’ of both admiration for her talent as well as envy. The courtship element of music is also expressed in this novel, like those in the fictions of Godey’s Lady’s Book. Mrs. Weston gossips to Emma of Mr. Knightley’s admiration for Jane’s performances:

I have heard him express himself so warmly on those points! Such an admirer of her performance on the pianoforte and her voice! I have heard him say that he could listen to her for ever.

This exemplifies the importance of music to a courtship, the way it can attract a man’s attention and perhaps initiate a romantic interest, though this is not the ultimate end in Emma. These descriptions of music throughout the novel act as a representation of the real world’s view on the role of women in society and music’s importance to it. ‘Domestic music of the early nineteenth century reflected the characters of those who played it, much as novels mirrored the values of their readers,’ writes Elizabeth Morgan.

The reflection of society in the novel extends outwards to include the author, and in turn – in relation to music – the female composer. Both of these figures have similarities that marry not only their works but their views and position in society. Many of the authors of domestic novels in the nineteenth century were women, and the music played by their heroines was the dominant market for female composers. Both Victorian female novelists and composers drew on their immediate surroundings for their inspiration, therefore female authors predominantly wrote the domestic novel – fiction interacting with the home and its place in society – and female composers turned to the drawing room ballad, which ‘allowed women full participation in their own homes both as performers and creators.’ These women were also quite numerous; contemporaryDr. A.A. Harding stated that in 1900 there were ‘in existence four hundred and eighty-nine women composers’ though his information is not cited. In regards to female authors, nine of the eleven best-selling authors between 1800 and 1820, were women. This large group of women were entering the public sphere and breaking down the barriers of the domestic. No longer were they completely bound to their homes, thus changing their roles in society. This, however, was still not condoned for all women, only those that had to provide for their families were accepted at the time, and many female composers still found it difficult to get their works published. For example, Fanny Hensel, though a recognised talent was nonetheless discouraged from her publishing her works by her father and brother, believing she should still focus on her duties as a wife. These women were beginning to cross the boundary between the public and domestic spheres, yet still they came across difficulties and society still pushed them backwards into the home.

Women composers and musicians, however, could implement their music in order to express their own feelings of oppression and liberate themselves, if only for the moment of performance. Women were aware of their oppression and used music in order to voice their complaints. Another form of literature are the lyrics of the drawing room ballad, some of which were also written by women, thus allowing the ‘discontent felt by some women beneath the respectable Victorian veneer’ to be expressed. One such a case is of the lines written by Harriet Grote:

Full many a sorrowful and tragic tale
Enfolded lies beneath the semblance frail
Of wedded harmony and calm content.
How oft the heart in aching bosom pent,
And careworn thoughts are borne abroad unsees,
Veiled in the aspect of a cheerful mien.
By the sad mourner of a home unblest,
A faith dishonoured, and a life opprest.

These words perfectly exemplify the way music can fight back against societal expectations in this explicit fashion. The ‘semblance frail’ describes the many ways in which music is used to contain the woman, through her education and firm placement in the domestic setting alongside the piano. Though underneath this thin veneer is instead a ‘life opprest’ and a ‘home unblest.’ Music could also be a form of escapism, as contemporary Rev. H. R. Haweis wrote in his work Music and Morals. He states that the piano ‘has probably done more to sweeten existence…than all the homilies on the domestic virtues ever yet penned,’ and is able to lighten the ‘heavy burden’ of a young woman. Music does not only reflect society’s expectations of women, but also allows for the ‘liberation of countless women’ from their monotonous lives stuck in the domestic sphere’ through the performance of music.

Music is represented throughout the literature of the nineteenth century, expressing the role of music in education, as well as the musical woman and her place in the domestic and public spheres. Literature presenting these ideals included conduct literature, lady’s magazines and periodicals, as well the domestic novel and song lyrics. All of these forms explore the role and status of women in the nineteenth century and how music reinforces their positions and contradictorily also challenges them. Works such as keyboard etudes consolidate the instructional power of musical practice, and reinforces the messages of containment from the conduct literature. Lady’s magazines and the domestic novel both explore the nature of music in the woman’s goal of finding a husband through the courtship plot. These works and their authors and composers, while reinforcing the morals of women at the time, were simultaneously transgressing the boundaries between the domestic and public sphere through the publications of their works. Therefore, music in the domestic sphere engages with the roles of women, to both reinforce societal expectation and allows the women to simultaneously push back against the boundary of their containment.


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—–. “Pertinacious Industry: The Keyboard Etude and the Female Amateur in England, 1804-20.” In Crafting the Woman Professional in the Long Nineteenth Century: Artistry and Industry in Britain, edited by Kyriaki Hajifxendi and Patricia Zakreski, 69-87. Farnham: Taylor and Francis Group, 2013.

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Soyer, Alexis. The Modern Housewife or, Ménagère. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1850.

Feature Image Credit: Untitled. In “The Social History of Piano Teaching- Part 2” The Curious Piano Teachers.

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