When music and literature meet – The Wanderer by Fanny Burney

Apologies for the lack of blog post over the past few days. It has been a rather hectic week as I finish my research fellowship here at Chawton. I had the pleasure of presenting some of my findings to the other visiting fellows, Gillian Dow, Kim Simpson and Darren Bevin. Some of my findings I have already discussed on here, but what was really exciting was how much my work is tying up with the work of the other fellows who are all literary scholars, rather than scholars of music. However, music seems to have a lot more social baggage than other forms of female education. Acting like marmite, it falls between two camps – those who believe education is important for their daughters and those who think it is an unnecessary pursuit. Then again, if we look to the literature, memoirs and letters; musical life was so important to social intercourse and I wonder if ladies who knew nothing about music struggle to navigate polite society. Probably not is answer, since much like today, women with no musical interest would have most likely associated with others with no musical interest.


My research has turned up an area I didn’t fully think about before I came. I am interested in the relationship between student and teacher – but, I had always thought of the teacher figure as a man. This may be a classic fault, since many of the scholarly discussions also focus on the male teacher during this period. Yet, the literary accounts (as you might have read in previous posts) are based on the female perspective including the female music educator. More often than not, she will be a governess of some sort, or an aspiring governess/teacher who uses music instruction as the main way to obtain employment. These accounts are so true-to-life, I can only imagine that most of the authors had some experience of being musically educated, if not the music educator!


One of the most vivid accounts is from the novel The Wanderer by Fanny Burney, who was the daughter of the famous 18th-century music academic Charles Burney.  The protagonist, who turns up in England after the terror in France conceals her identity. In the first instance, she makes money working as a music teacher –not musician as is noted on the Wikipedia site. I mention this, because it is an important distinction. As a music teacher, the character, who is calling herself Ellis at this point in the novel, can be among with polite society and maintain a level of status as a music teacher without showcasing her talents publically or revealing her identity and this is important in the plot of novel.

Miss Arbe quickly becomes an eager student of Ellis’, but her fault is that she was keen to show off no matter the subject. Her interests being so diverse meant that she was only superficially accomplished in all the arts rather than being great in one or two. Because of this, Ellis notes that she became distressed in private practice as she tried to pick up the art of playing the harp too quickly and without care taken to finesse her technique. Despite this, Ellis is patient and gains the respect of Miss Arbe who becomes her patroness, securing her other students in her circle.

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Acting as her patroness, Miss Arbe takes it upon herself to arrange Ellis’ lessons, apartment, and even clothing to give the right impression to those students coming in, much to Ellis’ distress.  This is an in-depth account of how the patron system worked during this period, and it is interesting that the experience is depicting in an unflattering light. Miss Arbe has the best of intentions but is almost playing the role of pimp over Ellis who is obliged to do exactly as she is told. And while Miss Arbe congratulates herself on obtaining pupils and apparent success, no thought is given to Ellis herself or the quality of student being sent to her.

This is an account that I plan to return to many times, and frame it within the wider context of 18th and early 19th-century society. Musicians at this point were so reliant on the patronage system and yet it can be difficult to grasp the positive and negative aspects this had on their lives, particularly if they were a teacher. An intriguing novel, made even more interesting as it was written by the daughter of a musician who may have had experience teaching music herself!


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