This dissertation focuses on portrayals of music in 19th century British literature and culture, and the way that it reveals expectations and assumptions regarding gender roles and behavior. Through this study of accounts of musical performance, in sources such as fictional representations, performance reviews in periodicals, as well as diaries and letters, I bring out a series of paradoxical conflicts between certain problematic aspects of gender and social expectations, centering around the figure of the diva as celebrated emblem of transportative, ethereal beauty, and simultaneously reviled as an object of uncomfortably revealing physical display, inspiring fear and paranoia. This diva focus brings to the fore questions of uncertainty regarding the balance of power in gendered relations, as well as the “naturalness” of gendered behavior. I consider the way that the dynamic, commanding presence of the diva that gained prominence late in the 18th century radically changes in the Victorian era. Drawing inspiration from Keats and the Romantic poets, who use the nightingale to symbolize the artistic ideal, Victorian prima donnas end up becoming this nightingale. Jenny Lind’s reputation (and wild success) as the “Swedish Nightingale” is the most direct application of this development. Discomforts with the realities that the traditional diva’s presence brings into view end up leaking out into other areas, echoing the questions raised by her ghostly absence. The chapters of this work focus on four specific areas where this rift is tangible. I consider Shelley’s poetry about music from early in the century, as it attempts to erase the body from music entirely, and gender difference along with it in the first chapter. Shelley writes at roughly the same time as the Jane Austen, though Austen’s works illuminate the function of music in a somewhat more practical manner. Austen repeatedly pinpoints a curious phenomenon surrounding musical drawing room performance for women, in which otherwise invisible women, often of reduced means, are able to exert a sort of power by physically claiming the space in which they move through music. This often parlays into positions of further control in society, which develops into a much more high-profile manipulation of control in novelistic depictions further into the century. The third chapter considers the development of perceived danger of women in musically inflated positions of power. I consider the situations of Clara Schumann’s long career, and DuMaurier’s fin-de-siècle heroine Trilby; in both of these cases outside forces are believed to control the power inherent in these women’s musical performance. The final chapter moves on to the late century musical comedies of Gilbert and Sullivan, in which the low voice characters in particular question conceptions of the naturalness of gender and the way that separation of spheres functions in late Victorian society.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2017. Major: English. Advisor: Andrew Elfenbein. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 213 pages.
Sound, Gender, Individual Will, and the Body in Nineteenth-Century British Literature.
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