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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 October 2015

Worcester College, Oxford
Worcester College, Oxford, ox1


The entrance of women into the male-dominated spheres of the professions and the arts has been a major theme of women's and gender history in nineteenth-century Britain. In general, historians have located this development primarily in the second half of the century and depicted it as an important corollary to the political aims of the wider women's movement. In contrast, this article contends that an overlooked earlier context for the formation and emergence of ideas of female professionalism and artistry were the debates surrounding female singers in the press between c. 1820 and 1850. In this era, writers in newly emerging specialist music periodicals increasingly advocated a view of female singers as both professionals and artists. Such views did not dominate discourse, however. There remained a great deal of ambivalence even in specialist publications about just how far female singers should pursue the lifestyle of the professional artist, while in the mainstream press very different attitudes towards female singers prevailed. Although female musical professionalism and artistry therefore remained contested concepts, this article highlights the significance of these debates about female singers as an important source for the new ideas about women's professional and artistic work emerging in nineteenth-century British society.

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I am grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the research upon which this article is based. I would also like to thank Bob Harris, Kathryn Gleadle, and the editors and anonymous reviewers of the Historical Journal for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.


1 See Tim Blanning, The triumph of music: composers, musicians and their audiences, 1700 to the present (London, 2008), ch. 1; Simon McVeigh, ‘“An audience for high-class music”: concert promoters and entrepreneurs in late nineteenth-century London’, in William Weber, ed., The musician as entrepreneur, 1700–1914: managers, charlatans, and idealists (Bloomington, IN, 2004), pp. 166–77.

2 See Cyril Ehrlich, The music profession in Britain since the eighteenth century: a social history (Oxford, 1985); Deborah Rohr, The careers of British musicians, 1750–1850: a profession of artisans (Cambridge, 2001).

3 Margaret Homans, Women writers and poetic identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson (Princeton, NJ, 1980), pp. 13–40; Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Victorian women artists (London, 1987), pp. 15–26; Christine Battersby, Gender and genius: towards a feminist aesthetics (London, 1989), especially pp. 3–6 and ch. 4; Nancy B. Reich, ‘Women as musicians: a question of class’, in Ruth A. Solie, ed., Musicology and difference: gender and sexuality in music scholarship (Berkeley, CA, 1993), pp. 133–4.

4 Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class, 1780–1850 (London, 1987), especially part one.

5 Penelope J. Corfield, Power and the professions in Britain, 1700–1850 (London, 1995), pp. 33–6, 188, and 213.

6 de Bellaigue, Christina, ‘The development of teaching as a profession for women before 1870’, Historical Journal, 44 (2001), pp. 963–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Barbara Onslow, Women of the press in nineteenth-century Britain (Basingstoke, 2000), especially ch. 2; Linda M. Lewis, Germaine de Staël, George Sand, and the Victorian woman artist (Columbia, MO, 2003), especially ch. 2; Deborah Cherry, Painting women: Victorian women artists (London, 1993), pp. 9–10 and 78–86.

7 Sara M. Dodd, ‘Art education for women in the 1860s: a decade of debate’, in Clarissa Campbell Orr, ed., Women in the Victorian art world (Manchester, 1995), pp. 189–90, 195.

8 Paula Gillett, Musical women in England, 1870–1914: ‘Encroaching on all man's privileges’ (Basingstoke, 2000), pp. 23–5.

9 Deborah Cherry, ‘Women artists and the politics of feminism, 1850–1900’, and Pam Hirsch, ‘Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: artist and activist’, in Campbell Orr, ed., Women in the Victorian art world, pp. 49–69 and 167–86.

10 Patricia Zakreski, Representing female artistic labour, 1848–1890: refining work for the middle-class woman (Aldershot, 2006), pp. 15, 185–7.

11 Ellen Jordan, The women's movement and women's employment in nineteenth-century Britain (London, 1999), ch. 5 and pp. 112–14.

12 Jane Rendall, The origins of modern feminism: women in Britain, France and the United States, 1780–1860 (Basingstoke, 1985); Kathryn Gleadle, The early feminists: radical unitarians and the emergence of the women's rights movement, 1831–1851 (Basingstoke, 1995).

13 De Bellaigue, ‘Teaching as a profession for women’, pp. 965–6, 968–9, 978–9; Eva Gamarnikow, ‘Nurse or woman: gender and professionalism in reformed nursing, 1860–1923’, in Pat Holden and Jenny Littlewood, eds., Anthropology and nursing (London, 1991), pp. 110–11, 123–9.

14 Linda H. Peterson, Traditions of Victorian women's autobiography: the poetics and politics of life writing (Charlottesville, VA, 1999), pp. 155–6.

15 Felicity Nussbaum, Rival queens: actresses, performance and the eighteenth-century British theater (Philadelphia, PA, 2010), pp. 280–4; Gill Perry, ‘Ambiguity and desire: metaphors of sexuality in late eighteenth-century representations of the actress’, in Robyn Asleson, ed., Notorious muse: the actress in British art and culture, 1776–1812 (New Haven, CT, 2003), pp. 57–62 and 66.

16 Rohr, The careers of British musicians, especially ch. 10.

17 De Bellaigue, ‘Teaching as a profession for women’, p. 965. De Bellaigue cites Magali Sarfatti Larson, The rise of professionalism: a sociological analysis (Berkeley, CA, 1977), and Rolf Torstendahl, ‘Essential properties, strategic aims and historical development: three approaches to theories of professionalism’, in Michael Burrage and Rolf Torstendahl, eds., Professions in theory and history: rethinking the study of the professions (London, 1990), pp. 44–61.

18 Frederick Corder, A history of the Royal Academy of Music from 1822 to 1922 (London, 1922), pp. 2–3, 8–11; Rohr, The careers of British musicians, pp. 84–5.

19 Rohr, Deborah, ‘Women and the music profession in Victorian England: The Royal Society of Female Musicians, 1839–1866’, Journal of Musicological Research, 18 (1999), pp. 307–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Some of this work has been undertaken elsewhere: David Kennerley, ‘“Flippant dolls” and “serious artists”: professional female singers in Britain, c. 1760–1850’ (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford, 2014), chs. 3–5.

21 Leanne Langley, ‘The English musical journal in the early nineteenth century’ (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1983), pp. xx–xxi, 18–31, and Langley, Leanne, ‘The musical press in nineteenth-century England’, Notes, 46 (1990), pp. 583–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially pp. 587–8, and note 16.

22 Leanne Langley, ‘Musical press’, in Iain McCalman, ed., An Oxford companion to the Romantic age: British culture, 1776–1832 (Oxford, 1999), p. 615.

23 Langley, ‘The English musical journal’, pp. xx–xxi, 51, 219–20.

24 Ibid., pp. 169, 171–2, 185–6, and 190.

25 Langley, ‘The musical press in nineteenth-century England’, pp. 585–7; Leanne Langley, ‘Victorian periodicals and the arts: music’, in Rosemary VanArsdel and J. Don Vann, eds., Victorian periodicals and Victorian society (Aldershot, 1994), p. 103.

26 Bacon wrote a regular column entitled ‘Report on music’ for the London Magazine from 1820 to 1825, Ayrton contributed to the Morning Chronicle between 1813 and 1826 and the Examiner from 1837 to 1851, and Davison held the post of music critic at The Times between 1846 and 1879, as well as writing for several other newspapers.

27 See, for example, Partem, Audi Alteram, ‘To the editor’, QMMR, 7/27 (1825), pp. 288–92Google Scholar; A hint to singers’, Musical World, 1/3 (1 Apr. 1836), pp. 41–4Google Scholar; and On musical expression’, Harmonicon, 2/19 (July 1824), pp. 128–9Google Scholar.

28 Audi Alteram Partem, ‘To the editor’, p. 289.

29 Vetus, To the editor’, QMMR, 4/13 (1822), p. 1Google Scholar.

30 On the differences in the singing of professors and amateurs’, QMMR, 6/23 (1824), pp. 318–23Google Scholar.

31 Cohen, Michèle, ‘Language and meaning in a documentary source: girls' curriculum from the late eighteenth century to the Schools Inquiry Commission, 1868’, History of Education, 34 (2005), pp. 7793CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially pp. 80, 87–92.

32 Ibid., pp. 89–92; Richard Leppert, Music and image: domesticity, ideology and socio-cultural formation in eighteenth-century England (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 28–45, 147–68; Kennerley, ‘Professional female singers’, ch. 1.

33 Hannah More, Essays on various subjects, principally designed for young ladies (London, 1777), p. 135. Five new editions were published between 1810 and 1850.

34 Mrs [Hester] Chapone, Letters on the improvement of the mind, addressed to a young lady (2 vols., London, 1773), ii, pp. 43–4. Seventeen new editions appeared between 1810 and 1850.

35 Erasmus Darwin, A plan for the conduct of female education, in boarding schools (Derby, 1797), p. 12.

36 Mrs [Sarah Stickney] Ellis, The daughters of England, their position in society, character & responsibilities (London, 1842), pp. 106–7.

37 Ibid., pp. 233–4.

38 Ibid., p. 238.

39 Ibid., p. 244.

40 As is pointed out by Mechling, Jay, ‘Advice to historians on advice to mothers’, Journal of Social History, 9 (1975), pp. 4463CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Jordan, Women's employment, ch. 5 (especially pp. 92–8), pp. 112–14 and 147.

42 Vetus, To the editor’, QMMR, 1/4 (1818), p. 421Google Scholar.

43 Miscellaneous’, Musical Examiner, 2/74 (30 Mar. 1844), p. 502Google Scholar.

44 The King's Theatre’, QMMR, 10/38 (1828), pp. 269–70Google Scholar.

45 [Editorial], Musical World, 12/95 (24 Oct. 1839), p. 398Google Scholar.

46 Sketch of the state of music in London’, QMMR, 3/11 (1821), p. 385Google Scholar.

47 For other examples, see Madame Mara nee [sic.] Schmelling’, QMMR, 1/2 (1818), pp. 171–2Google Scholar; Sketch of the state of music in London’, QMMR, 9/33 (1827), p. 52Google Scholar; Strand theatre’, Musical Magazine, 1/3 (Mar. 1835), p. 46Google Scholar; Choral Harmonic Society’, Musical Journal, 1/5 (4 Feb. 1840), pp. 74–5Google Scholar; Sacred Harmonic Society’, Musical Journal, 1/14 (7 Apr. 1840), p. 222Google Scholar.

48 [Editorial], Musical World, 11/65 (28 Mar. 1839), p. 189Google Scholar.

49 Webbe, Egerton, ‘Our musical wants. No. III’, Musical World, 6/73 (4 Aug. 1837), p. 114Google Scholar.

50 Rohr, The careers of British musicians, pp. 109–12.

51 ‘English’ and ‘Italian’ are here used (following the conventions of contemporary debate) to refer to all singers from the British Isles and all foreign singers at the Italian opera, respectively.

52 Anglicus, On the differences between Italian and English manner of singing. To the editor’, QMMR, 4/16 (1822), p. 401Google Scholar.

53 See, for instance, Analysis, On style. To the editor’, QMMR, 3/12 (1821), pp. 411–12Google Scholar; Englishman, An, ‘Foreign instruction & English judgment. To the editor’, QMMR, 8/32 (1826), pp. 409–11Google Scholar.

54 Miss Stephens’, QMMR, 3/9 (1821), pp. 60–1Google Scholar.

55 Ibid., p. 62.

56 See, for instance, Madame Pasta’, QMMR, 6/22 (1824), pp. 217–18Google Scholar; Sketch of the state of music in London’, QMMR, 10/37 (1828)Google Scholar, footnote to p. 70.

57 Miss Travis’, QMMR, 1/4 (1818), p. 471Google Scholar.

58 See, for instance, Madame Camporese’, QMMR, 3/12 (1821), p. 459Google Scholar; Mademoiselle Sontag’, QMMR, 9/36 (1827), pp. 483–4; Anglicus, ‘To the editor’, p. 402Google Scholar.

59 Miss Paton’, QMMR, 5/18 (1823), p. 192Google Scholar.

60 Anglicus, ‘To the editor’, p. 402.

61 Mediator, Gran gusto. To the editor’, QMMR, 7/27 (1825), pp. 286–7Google Scholar.

62 Anglicus, ‘To the editor’, p. 407.

63 [Editorial], Musical World, 11/65 (28 Mar. 1839), p. 191Google Scholar. 6/5 and 9/4 are musical time signatures; the first is theoretically impossible and the second is very unusual.

64 Langley, ‘The musical press in nineteenth-century England’, p. 588.

65 Miss Paton’, QMMR, 5/18 (1823), p. 192Google Scholar.

66 ‘The King's Theatre’, p. 269.

67 The advocacy of female violin-playing in the specialist periodicals was even more striking in this regard. Traditionally, the posture required for violin-playing was considered too ungraceful for women, but the Musical World defended female violinists by stating: ‘The grace which belongs to violin-playing is audible rather than visible, residing in the effect more than in the means; nor ought we to be such cormorants of pleasure, as to demand that the person who is filling our ears with rapture shall, at the same time, be enchanting to the utmost our eyes’ (‘Female performers on the violin’, Musical World, 12/72 (16 May 1839), pp. 34–5)Google Scholar. See also Mara, Billington and Catalani’, QMMR, 1/2 (1818)Google Scholar, footnote to p. 171.

68 Miss Stephens’, The Drama: Or, Theatrical Pocket Magazine, 1/3 (July 1821), pp. 108–9Google Scholar.

69 Miss Stephens’, British Stage and Literary Cabinet, 1/1 (Jan. 1817), p. 4Google Scholar.

70 History of Henrietta Sontag’, Athenaeum, 24 (15 Apr. 1828), p. 375Google Scholar.

71 D♭, Concert audiences’, Musical World, 4/41 (23 Dec. 1836), p. 13Google Scholar.

72 See Punch, or the London Charivari, 4 (1843), pp. 126, 146, 156Google Scholar.

73 J. W. D. [James William Davison], An amateur critic’, Musical World, 19/50 (12 Dec. 1844), p. 404Google Scholar.

74 Morning Post, 3 Apr. 1844.

75 Jenkins again’, Musical Examiner, 2/92 (3 Aug. 1844), p. 711Google Scholar.

76 Ibid., p. 712.

77 Miscellaneous’, Musical World, 19/33 (15 Aug. 1844), p. 272Google Scholar.

78 Anticipatory criticisms on the debut of Signora Vietti at Her Majesty's Theatre in two morning papers’, Musical World, 22/16 (17 Apr. 1847), p. 247Google Scholar.

79 Jordan, Women's employment, ch. 5, especially pp. 92–8, and pp. 112–14 and 147.

80 Ibid., ch. 8.

81 George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, ed. Graham Handley (Oxford, 1984), especially chs. xxiii, li, and liii. For discussion of Eliot's depiction of female singers, see Susan Rutherford, ‘The voice of freedom: images of the prima donna’, in Viv Gardner and Susan Rutherford, eds., The New Woman and her sisters: feminism and the theatre 1850–1914 (New York, NY, 1992), pp. 100–3.