The music collection of novelist Jane Austen and her family is being made freely available to access online as part of a University of Southampton digital library project.
The Austen Family Music Books is a collection of 18 albums of music containing around 600 pieces that belonged to the 19th century writer and her relations. The imaging of the books was carried out at the University of Southampton's Hartley Library in its state-of-the-art digitisation unit.
Professor of Music at Southampton Jeanice Brooks, who led the project, says, “Jane Austen’s novels are full of musical scenes, and this collection will help literature scholars and Austen fans to better understand the real musical environment that fed the novelist's imagination. Just as importantly, the collection provides music historians with a unique glimpse of the musical life of an extended gentry family in the years around 1800.”
Like many gentry women, Austen herself played the piano and sang throughout most of her life. She and her family also carefully copied music by hand into personal albums, and collected the sheet music that poured from London presses during her lifetime.
These albums of individually copied or purchased sheet music items, bound together, show the personal tastes of their owners – just as a digital music collection on a mobile phone or MP3 device would today. In addition to Austen herself, other women in the Austen family, including her sisters-in-law and nieces, all contributed material to the collection.
The late 1990s saw the books professionally photographed for the first time: a programme of photography arranged by Dr Miriam Hart from Ohio University in partnership with the Museum. Between 2003 and 2005 the books were extensively conserved, funded by donations from the Jane Austen Society of North America. In 2011 the books were put on deposit at Hampshire Record Office for an initial period of 20 years.
This digitisation project is a collaboration between researchers at the University of Southampton and the books' current owners. It features albums held by Jane Austen's House Museum and the private collections of two Austen descendants, Professor Richard Jenkyns and Mr Richard Knight.
The Austen Family Music Books Archive can be seen here.