Music and Instruments
This square pianoforte (right) dates from c. 1810-1822, and was crafted by Astor & Company of London. George Astor (1752-1813) established his musical instrument business after moving from Germany to England, where he sold instruments and other musical merchandise from his shop.
Mary Bennet would have spent countless hours practicing on an instrument like this one in Pride and Prejudice (1813). Despite Mary's relentless dedication to perfecting her pianoforte skills, Austen favours a less pedantic, obsessive approach.
Mary's elder sister Elizabeth - the main protagonist in the novel - practices irregularly, yet her musical performances are much more vibrant. While Austen seems to support accomplishments as part of a good education, she uses Mary Bennet's social failings to warn against becoming too invested in improving one's skills.
Fairly well-off families like the Bennets would endeavour to have a pianoforte in the house for entertainment and pedagogical purposes such as a lady's education. Particularly wealthy landowners and aristocrats tended to own larger, more splendid instruments like the one Mr. Darcy's sister, Georgiana, practices daily at Pemberley.
Playing an instrument was one of the fundamental accomplishments of a well-bred lady in the gentry class, as a musical proficiency demonstrated domestic talents and feminine appeal to a gentleman looking to entertain his guests in the country estate or a London drawing-room.
Harp (and Harpy)
Another popular instrument favoured by upper-class Regency women was the harp, also capable of being played and sung to when entertaining guests. Miss Mary Crawford (Mansfield Park, 1814) is the most notable harp player in Austen's novels, using her musical gift to evoke Edmund Bertram's awe and admiration.
"Edmund was at the Parsonage every day, to be indulged with his favourite instrument ... A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man's heart."
In spite of Miss Crawford's prowess on the instrument, Austen refrains from equating her musical accomplishments to a strong moral character. Mary Crawford represents one of Jane Austen's typical immoral characters who are initially attractive but ultimately unsuitable for marriage. When Edmund's elder brother Tom falls ill, Mary's callous interest in the Bertram fortune alienates her from Edmund, who is disgusted by her lack of concern for his brother.
Manufactured in Paris, this thirty-eight stringed harp (left) has mechanical hook pedals. The visual design of the harp lends itself to an elegant aesthetic when being played for guests or at social gatherings. Just as women learned to play the pianoforte, the skill of performing on the harp was specifically designed for a domestic setting, reflecting women's marital role in the Regency period.