A Note on Content: Caroline Norton’s "Juanita" and Feminism

My posts so far have all focused on the programming and design decisions I’ve made for Songs of the Victorians and Augmented Notes, and while these subjects will certainly comprise the vast majority of the content on my blog, this post will actually address the content of my site.  
I mentioned a few weeks ago in my post introducing my projects that Songs of the Victorians would focus on four songs for its first incarnation: two versions of  “Come into the Garden, Maud” (one by Michael William Balfe, the other by Sir Arthur Somervell), “The Lost Chord” by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and “Juanita” by Caroline Norton.  Since my sneak-peek release in a few weeks will contain my argument on “Juanita,” this blog is the perfect forum to provide an introduction to the song and to my claims about it.
Caroline Norton’s song “Juanita” (1853), designed for performance in Victorian middle-class parlors, tells a simple tale of unrequited love for a young woman, and its catchy, easily sung melody that imitates a traditional Spanish air contributed to its popularity.  Derek Scott argues that writing such “foreign airs” enabled women composers to avoid accusations of impropriety for pursuing the supposedly masculine enterprise of composing music.  Building from Scott’s work, I examine the surprisingly transgressive subject matter that the song’s conventional characteristics cloak: since “Juanita” is written in a soprano’s range, this song allowed women to sing of their desire for other women and to adopt the role of the pursuer instead of the passively pursued.  The song’s melody also critiques traditional gender roles and the Victorian institution of marriage through an allusion to the aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo, converting this song of love to a song of imprisonment and pain. This song’s historical importance also casts it as a vital force for feminism:  the royalties from sales of “Juanita” would have made Norton extremely wealthy had laws not prohibited women from owning money or property after marriage.  When her estranged husband sued her in the year of “Juanita’s” publication, Norton began her activism that ultimately led to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870.
By examining this seemingly simple tune that middle class women played extensively during their leisure hours, we can better understand the song, the complex interweaving of the sentimental and socially acceptable with the transgressive, and its connections with a women’s rights movement that led to fundamental changes in the British legal system.
You can see this argument in full both in the upcoming sneak-peek release and at my presentation for INCS in mid-March.  
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One thought on “A Note on Content: Caroline Norton’s "Juanita" and Feminism

  1. So now I totally need to research the details of the introduction/moving/passage of those two acts in parliament. Thanks for sharing this!

    Like

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