Ravenna 2.2




The Discordant Melody of Change: Giacomo Puccini, George Egerton, and Orchestrations of the New Woman in Fin de Siècle London

by David Fettig

In 1893 Giacomo Puccini premiered Manon Lescaut in Turin, a work that established his fame and launched his career. In addition, in its realistic depiction of how women were treated in a patriarchal society, Manon displayed the growing influence of the verismo technique that would come to define his oeuvre (Verismo, or Realism, was the attempt to bring to the operatic stage the same naturalist sensibilities brought to literature by the likes of Zola and Ibsen). Also in 1893, George Egerton published Keynotes in London, a first collection of short stories that garnered much attention for its realistic depiction of women in society. One year later, Manon debuted at London’s Covent Garden and Egerton published her musically-tinged follow-up of stories, Discords, a book that further shocked the conservative sensibilities of many Londoners. Egerton’s stories, of course, were written at the dawn of the New Woman phenomenon in England and likewise helped define the very concept. The simultaneous production of Puccini’s Manon, though, suggests that these ideas were being played out in other art forms and, in this case, imported for domestic consumption.

That Manon, Keynotes and Discords appeared on the London scene at the same time may be coincidental, but their interrelated theme of female agency—as well as Egerton’s musical references—suggests an artistic bond fired, in part, by the times; this is especially true of Discords, which is the focus of this paper’s analysis. As Paul Robinson states in his historical review of the link between opera and Western society, Opera and Ideas, historians and musicologists would agree that music is connected “with the other intellectual and cultural artifacts that make up our history … but [historians and musicologists] have not spoken with much precision about the nature of the connection” (1). This paper will attempt to do just that: speak with precision about the connection between Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and the stories of George Egerton, especially in regard to the changing attitudes about women in British society. Opera provides a unique opportunity to make such connections, as it is a musical form with a literary text; indeed, such texts, or libretti, are often based on novels and plays, as is the case with Manon Lescaut. As for Egerton’s stories, they provide a fruitful artistic corollary, as they are overtly musical (the collections’ titles and inclusion of musical notation in Discords are the obvious examples) and covertly operatic, as this paper hopes to show. After briefly describing the plot of Puccini’s opera, this paper will discuss Manon’s connection to the New Woman phenomenon of 1890s England, followed by an analysis of the musical and operatic qualities of two stories in Egerton’s Discords, as well as a discussion of the significance of Discords’ two notated chords. Much literature could rightly be described as operatic, with its emphasis on character development and narrative arc that often ends in cathartic release (frequently tragic), but the case for Discords is Egerton’s intentional musical references and the operatic composition of her stories, the latter likely unintentional but no less relevant.

Puccini’s Operatic New Woman

Many opera plots are notoriously difficult to describe in brief, and Manon Lescaut is no exception; likewise, this summary will necessarily leave out much nuance: To begin, a young Manon abandons plans to enter a convent and impulsively rushes off with a young man, Des Grieux. She is seemingly madly in love. That same night, a wealthy old lecherous gentleman, Geronte, has plans to entrap Manon and make her his own possession. At the beginning of Act II, we indeed find Manon in the home of Geronte, happily living in the lap of luxury after having abandoned Des Grieux. However, she leaves Geronte to go back with Des Grieux, only to be apprehended and suffer deportation as a fallen woman. She is sent off to America in shame with other abandoned mistresses or prostitutes. Des Grieux follows, unbidden, like a loyal puppy, and in the final scene Manon dies in Des Grieux’s arms after a lengthy march through the American South. This is not the verismo of La Boheme, with its poor bohemian artists struggling to find their place in Paris; rather, it’s the realism of human emotions laid bare, of motivations and intentions—not always honorable—but nonetheless truthful, of one woman’s decision-making in the face of tremendous patriarchal pressure—from religion, from family, from lovers and from society.

This story, staged at a time when female independence and agency were of increasing prominence, would have had particular resonance. Puccini’s Manon Lescaut was based on a 1731 French novel, L’Histoire du Chevalier des Gieux et de Manon Lescaut, by Abbe Prevost, and premiered about ten years after Massenet’s French version of the same story. [i] Commenting on the proximity of their two works, Puccini said, “Why shouldn’t there be two operas about her? A woman like Manon can have more than one lover” (Goulding 258). This comment, however flippant, may be telling in terms of the subject matter of Manon and the moralistic response some critics would have to Puccini’s work. It would seem that Puccini would be dismissive of such criticism and would certainly not feel constrained to avoid the subject of a woman who changes lovers for love and money. For that was certainly the case in Puccini’s opera. Phil G. Goulding, in his Ticket to the Opera, describes the character of Puccini’s Manon,

It’s not the most important aspect of the work, but Manon sets an opera record here for rapid bed jumping. Although her romantic relationships involve only two men, she leaves the stage to live with one at the end of Act I and shows up at the beginning of Act II in her luxurious boudoir in the home of another […] Puccini, hot-blooded Italian and scarcely an objective commentator, compared the two versions this way: “Massenet has felt the subject as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets […] I feel it as an Italian, with despairing passion.” (258)

Manon’s bed-hopping may not be the most important aspect of the work, but it is certainly not inconsequential in light of the New Woman phenomenon, and would not have been missed by a London audience in 1894. Manon’s willful abandonment of lovers, whether for love or money, and the freedom with which she exhibited such agency with the men in her life, must have had resonance with London opera-goers in 1894. This doesn’t mean that Manon would necessarily qualify as a modern feminist icon. Too vain, flighty if not petty, too much the gold-digger, she has many qualities to cause contemporary eyes to roll. But we do her a disservice to judge her with our modern sensibilities. In many respects, with her desire for status and wealth and her willingness to be ‘kept’ to achieve those ends, she was a woman of her times; but she was a kept woman only insofar as it brought her pleasure, and it is an open question in Puccini’s opera whether Manon’s older patron/lover is really keeping her, or if he is being kept by Manon.

In its broad outlines, then, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut reads like New Woman fiction, which in large part was concerned with the duty-bound relationships between men and women and the inequalities that these contractual obligations forced upon women.[ii] This was a time when the institution of marriage was very much in question, and New Woman writers were unsparing in their examination of matrimony. Ella Hepworth Dixon described the ambiguities that resulted, “At present, however, we are in a transition stage, and at present there is a certain amount of misunderstanding nowadays between the sexes which make marrying and giving in marriage a somewhat hazardous exercise” (84). Still others were happy to suggest that there was no ambiguity when it came to marriage, that the institution was, in fact, dead and they were happy to write its obituary, as we see here from Mona Caird, “We come then to the conclusion that the present form of marriage—exactly in proportion to its conformity with orthodox ideas—is a vexatious failure” (79).

What was at stake? In large part, individual freedom; the liberty to extract oneself from the strictures of a legal bond that was less a partnership and more a dressed-up form of ownership, Dixon writes, “Before, and up to as late as, the mid-Victorian era, the recognized wifely pose was one of blind adoration (84)”, “It will be readily seen that we have changed our ideals […] indiscriminate marrying has, to a certain extent, gone out” (85). Women were taking control of their lives. They were taking control of their relationships with men, and they were doing so, in part, by leaving those men and those relationships. They were breaking contracts, formal or informal, and changing the rules of the game. These societal changes were reflected in the arts, and not just in literature, but also in a very real way on the operatic stage. Bizet’s Carmen (1875), with her overt sexuality and shameless willingness to use her allure to get what she wanted—at the expense of men—had scandalized opera-goers long before the literary aesthetes of the fin de siècle plied their wares. Susan Rutherford tells us that Carmen and Manon, and later Tosca (1900) and Salome (1905), among others of the same period, were operatic characters who exhibited a realism that was associated with rebellion (268). And the very element of theatrical performance that makes it so powerful—that it is acted by real people in real time—only served to magnify this sense of rebellion, as singers felt empowered to push boundaries and challenge notions of the “feminine ideal” (266). In other words, it wasn’t just the characters who were pushing boundaries, it was the performers who appropriated the characters. These singers embraced and suggested a sort of “knowingness,” Rutherford says, that flew in the face of cultural norms and expectations,

If distracted innocence represented absolute femininity, “knowingness” in female performance was regarded as unwomanly and an implicit sign of the whore. (266) […] “Knowingness” in female performance thus signified not only the possession of sensual knowledge, but (in an obvious echo of the siren) the conscious use of such knowledge to seduce or entrap men. (267)

These characters were women with power, and they were willing to get what they wanted, regardless of societal expectations. Indeed, they played those very expectations against a British operatic society that was feeling a sense of loss or uncertainty, according to Eric Walter White (106). For England, 19th century opera was dominated by morally upright stories arranged to solid but often uninspiring music. The most famous and most heralded British operatic composer of the 19th century was Michael William Balfe, a name largely forgotten today. White quotes a contemporary critic, “On the stage Balfe was by predilection a moral teacher. There is no sensuous swim in his music, no association with doubtful actions, or connection with the words equivocation, to carry the soul to regions of impurity. All is honest, tender, manly, straightforward, and true” (106). Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the first time Queen Victoria went in state to the theater, it was at her “special desire” to attend a production of Balfe’s opera Siege of Rochelle, which debuted two years earlier in October 1835 (92).

Operas with such themes perfectly reflected the England that the good queen wished to see, and perhaps what she intended for her subjects. For women, this meant special treatment. Female characters in such productions were treated in wholly symbolic ways. Despite depictions of fragility and their constant need to be rescued by a father figure, women were considered to be “unseparable from British moral strength,” according to Claire Mabilat (227). Puccini’s Manon, like Bizet’s Carmen before her, does not fit this bill, and this likely explains, in part, why the opera was not well received by the general public and had a relatively brief run. Critics of the day remarked on the moral slipperiness of Puccini’s Manon. The unnamed critic in The Speaker wrote after Manon’s premiere at Covent Garden in May 1894 that anyone familiar with the story of Manon surely could not like it: “A young girl who, instead of entering the convent for which she was intended, elopes with an impecunious student, and, as soon as his money has run out, leaves him to accept the luxurious life offered to her by a rich old profligate, has scarcely in her the makings of a romantic heroine” (541). The critic goes on to call characters “feeble-minded,” “card-sharping” and “depraved,” and then holds his nose to conclude his description of the plot with the following lines,

To complete the picture of vice, Sergeant Lescaut is exhibited as the willing and eager vendor of his sister’s charms to anyone who will purchase them and give him a liberal commission on the transaction. Manon Lescaut is, in short, a Marguerite Gautier without passion and without heart. (541)

Marguerite Gautier is a character in an Alexandre Dumas story—based on his lover, Marie Duplessis—who became the basis for plays, movies and one very famous opera, La Traviata, by Verdi. Clearly the critic was doing more than just commenting on the artistic value of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut; rather, he was making moral judgments upon its leading character. He clearly did not appreciate Manon’s “knowingness.” Puccini faced such moral criticism for Manon Lescaut in other venues besides London (Roman 18); he faced more rebukes in this regard than Massenet, whose version featured a less manipulative and passionate Manon.

Not all London critics disliked Puccini’s Manon, though. George Bernard Shaw had this to say, “‘[I]n Manon Lescaut the domain of Italian opera is enlarged by annexation of German territory.’ … ‘Puccini looks to me more like the heir of Verdi than any of his rivals’” (Budden 106-107). To have Shaw equating an Italian composer with the much-loved Germans would have had resonance with fin de siècle aesthetes. Regardless, with two operas conceived in less than a decade on the same subject, and with the more provocative one storming the opera houses of Europe in the middle of the 1890s, it is not unreasonable to assume that writers and thinkers who were considering the rights and roles of women in general, as George Egerton was doing, would have “connected the thematic dots” between Manon and the New Woman. If, indeed, there was a certain “knowingness” when it came to female sexual empowerment at the time, as Rutherford maintains, who else but the aesthetes to recognize such a phenomenon; who else, in other words, would possibly know? These aesthetes would have “heard” the connection between Egerton’s Discords and Puccini’s Manon.

Egerton’s New Divas of Fiction

If we can accept Puccini’s Manon as an Operatic New Woman, can we then accept Egerton’s heroines as New Divas of Fiction? I think so, and while it’s true that we could perform a similar musical reading of other literary works of the time that deal with women’s issues in a realistic manner, Egerton’s stories are special—as suggested earlier—owing to their direct musical references and indirect operatic nature. The following musical reading of Egerton’s works will focus on Discords because of its more overt musical connections. The purpose here is to accept Robinson’s challenge to connect music with other artworks that are swept up in the same cultural current, and the coincident timing of Manon and Discords on the London scene is cause enough for analysis.

Before conducting a musical reading of Discords, though, let’s review how Egerton’s stories were received at the time, as this cultural appraisal parallels, in part, the reception of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Egerton’s heroines, as described by Sally Ledger in her introduction to Keynotes and Discords, were “athletic, cigarette-smoking, independent and sexually free” (xi), right in keeping with operatic divas of the time, including Manon. It’s that last part of the criticism, “sexually free,” that particularly riled things up among the British reading public. In her introduction to a different edition of Keynotes and Discords, Martha Vicinus firmly establishes the degree to which many critics focused on “the unseemly display of sexual feeling on the part of women writers” (vii). If these same conservative critics were the same ones who attended Puccini’s Manon premiere at Covent Garden, or who otherwise were familiar with the opera by reputation, then it is no wonder it had a short run.

It was one thing for male authors like Thomas Hardy to push the boundaries of decency and patriarchy, but quite another for female writers. As Vicinus notes, “Women were revolting against their traditional role with utter disdain for male opinion” (viii). This attitude seems to describe Manon perfectly. Cultural critics of the day would have had little regard for a bed-hopping diva, no matter how lovely her voice or how beautiful the music to which she was singing, just as their eyes were blinded to Egerton’s literary qualities from having stared too long into the bright sun of her sexuality.

Of course, these critics missed the point. Writers like Egerton were not liberating females in order to render them as wanton sexual fiends, writes A.R. Cunningham in “The ‘New Woman’ Fiction of the 1890s”, but rather to save them from having become enslaved sexual objects by the Victorian men who would protect them. Cunningham writes, “By emphasizing the sexual side of the female character they opened up vast new areas of feminine psychology which could be explored only in a freer atmosphere than Victorian society was willing to provide. Those writers who confronted sexuality squarely […] were the ones most able to lift women from their traditional role of the sex object and to provide more rounded and potentially more honest characterization than had ever before been possible” (179). Women’s cause was not only aided by “those writers who confronted sexuality squarely,” but also by other artists, including operatic composers, however unintentionally. And it’s well within the realm of plausibility to assume that Puccini would fall into this camp and that he evinced at least some sympathy—if not empathy—for such ideas; not only are his operas full of realistic depictions of romantic relationships, many illicit or otherwise morally questionable, but in his own life he experienced the trauma that comes from choosing love over social decorum: at age 26 he traumatized his family by eloping with the wife of a former friend. As Mosco Carner describes the situation, “Puccini’s elopement with Elvira, with whom he was now ‘living in sin’, created, as was expected, a scandal of the first order in provincial Lucca. His relatives were up in arms against him, accusing him of having brought shame and disgrace on the honourable name of the Puccinis” (45). Had Egerton ever met Puccini she may have discovered a kindred soul, and very possibly a New Man.

The Opening Chord of Discords

This first chord, appearing on the opening page of “A Psychological Moment at Three Periods,” is virtually unplayable by a single person, at least by anyone I consulted (including more than one piano player). The spread of the treble clef chord, from a low B-flat to a D, two octaves higher—without even considering the placement of the middle three fingers—was barely possible to reach and completely impossible to play. The base clef chord, extending from a D to an E, two octaves higher, was reachable but still a stretch. When you add the fact that Egerton has called for double fortissimo (ff) in her dynamic signature, it becomes even more difficult to play as written. To stretch one’s fingers, and then to contort the remaining three of the right hand to play the proper notes, and then to bring both hands down to play a confident and clear ff does not seem possible at all.

However, let’s assume an accomplished player can answer Egerton’s notation and play the music as demanded (I played the chords with the aid of another), what do we have? We have a very loud and dissonant opening to Discords and also the first story, “A Psychological Moment at Three Periods.” The sound grates; it is harsh and it is challenging. It is unresolved, inasmuch as it does not answer the listener’s psychological craving for a closing “home” chord, which is appropriate for a musical (and literary) opening. It is not only demanding for the player but also for the listener. This is Egerton’s opening musical leitmotif, as it were, and she’s letting us know that there is trouble ahead. Indeed, as we will see below, this motif becomes literary and repeats itself throughout the first story of Discords, much like a Puccini motif (and Wagner before him) signals key moments in an opera.

The Operatic Structure of “A Psychological Moment”

That this musical motif should be paired with “A Psychological Moment at Three Periods” is significant considering that the story looks and reads like a musical construction, with its three movements and its parallel structure of particular moments in a girl/woman’s life that tie the whole piece together—a literary theme and variations. The brief opening movement introduces this motif,

“No, mumsy, I didn’t! It’s not that way—I am tired in me. Does everybody think, I mean, ask about things, in one? I want to know so many things—I think such a lot, and”—with a half sob—“oh, oh, I wish I didn’t!” (5)

And so we have a lead voice in our story, let’s call her our soprano. And we have her motif: she is tormented by her thoughts, so much so that she can’t imagine that others suffer like she does. She is special, and her suffering makes her so. In the second movement, this motif is reintroduced and made more complicated as our soprano has grown and become more introspective.

“They don’t see, they don’t see,” she cries to herself. “I alone see. My God, is that to be my fatal dowry, to go through life and always see? Oh, how I hate it! Made in God’s likeness, that poor, half-bestial thing with the lolling tongue and misshapen frame? Or that German with the bulbous nose and sensual lips who owns him, and perhaps uses the whip to goad him on!” (18)

Here our comparison between the narrator and an operatic soprano begins to take hold as the narrator engages in an aria-like soliloquy. Very much like soliloquies, arias in opera are not only distinguishable as songs, but also because they stop time. Arias break the flow of action and stop the action of the drama in time and space for the purpose, most generally, of describing a particular feeling experienced by the singer. In the above example, the narrator engages in self-reflection—actually talking to herself—at a key point in the story. This interior monologue or aria, which is externally ‘sung’ to the reader, helps us to better understand the narrator’s affliction. Egerton needs this aria to describe to us what is going on inside the head of her soprano. Egerton’s writing is full of such stop-time musings. These literary arias are similar to Manon’s own introspective songs, such as when she sings about the difficult choices she faces as regards love and money.

In the third movement from “A Psychological Moment,” we find that our soprano’s psychological self-awareness, expressed in these arias, is everywhere evident and suggestive. Musically, this is very appropriate, as by now we would expect our composer to be weaving the main themes in and out of the long last movement, both to remind the listener of these musical ideas but also to build tension toward the conclusion. Here, at this moment in the third part of Egerton’s story, one imagines a particularly discordant musical orchestration of the main motif,

She cannot shake off the dread feeling of an evil destiny drawing near to punish her for the pride in herself that has kept her steps light to carry her over the muddy places. (25)

All of her life she has known that she is somehow special, or if not special, then somehow cursed to experience life differently from other people, to feel so deeply that she suffers for those other people. This lifelong affliction is now coming to a head in the third act, and we expect—as listeners/readers—for the words/music to intensify.

Soon, a duet begins between our narrator/soprano and the man she is with, let’s call him our tenor. And it’s hard to imagine how this duet could be more operatic. We have a man and woman suffering from unrequited love because of a contract, marriage, that the man has with his wife. And yet, and yet […] they sing of their lovelorn misfortunes, like doomed operatic characters,

“I am all right, if you would but let me be.”

“And that is just what I can’t do; I want you, little woman, I want you more than anything else in the whole world; I’d let everything else slide for a soft word from you.”

“Which you have no right either to give or demand.”

“Oh, for the Lord’s sake, don’t harp on that string again […]” (26)

One character, the woman, sings that she would be fine if he would leave her alone, and he replies that to do that is impossible—he is doomed. It is not hard to imagine this as an operatic duet where, after the initial dialogue is sung, the composer has the singers repeat the main lines over and over (“Let me be” and “I want you”) as their melismatic lines overlap and the orchestration swells. This is a moment where time would stop and song would reinforce the theme. Let us also consider here the allusion to a musical instrument. That it’s a harp, as opposed to another instrument, does not strike me as consequential, only that it allows Egerton to employ a commonly used phrase and make something more of it. Still, it is there. And it seems that we have encountered one of those discordant notes that are foreshadowed in the collection’s title. Here is a note that rings with dissonance in the tenor’s ear, that he can’t bear to hear, just one note plucked on a harp. Later in their duet, another musical note is sounded when our soprano “checks him by the passionate ring in her voice, with its singularly clear enunciation” (27). She continues and speaks (sings?) to him with “stinging contempt in her tone” (27). And then comes the hurdy-gurdy, whose music causes our soprano to knit “her brows in vain endeavour to find what the tune brings back to her” (29). This lengthy duet climaxes with a discussion of death and suicide (30) that recalls the final scene of Manon Lescaut, when Manon and Des Grieux sing about Manon’s pending death, Des Grieux’s desire to join her, and Manon’s insistence that he not do so, that she must die alone. Finally, Egerton’s duet ends with a return to the hurdy-gurdy, “And the hurdy-gurdy grinds on white-footed Polly’s polka” (31). Again, the tune fades away as the scene draws to a close.

There are many aria-like moments in this third movement to Egerton’s “A Psychological Moment,” including our soprano’s meditation on dress and beauty (32), her wonderfully operatic meditation on her own Gethsemane (37), and her “Endure, simply endure” aria (58), among many others. I will end this examination of the musical/operatic qualities of “A Psychological Moment” with one more aria because it is directly suggestive of the Puccini’s Manon.

It is an unwritten law of society that the woman who strays from the narrow path assigned to her shall never walk again in the way of honour. And if nowadays she has no scarlet letter tacked to her gown to mark her from her sisters she is none the less doomed. Doomed to choose between two roads. Either she must be a hypocrite and play the penitent Magdalen and be driven to despair by the sanctimonious pity of zealous women of second-rate virtues and untempted honour or … Believe me, the Magdalen at Christ’s feet had an easy road to repentance. (60)

Here, Egerton seems to be channeling Manon. This is Manon’s lament. It is Manon’s fallen nature—fallen from society but not her own personal values—that dooms her to death, though it is a heroine’s death, a death on her own terms. Here is a young woman with beauty, a beauty that she comes to realize is a commodity; she can get what she wants through negotiation. However, as with every trade, with every negotiation, there are trade-offs. For Manon, the choices she makes are essentially between certain men and the lives that those men offer; her choices are bound by the patriarchal order in which she lives, much like Egerton’s protagonist who, if she chooses to stray “from the narrow path”, will lose much.

The Daring Diva of “The Virgin Soil”

As suggested earlier, it is not implausible to assume that critics and opera-goers of 1894 London would have seen elements of the New Woman in Manon’s character. Manon’s willful leaving of the men in her life is very much in keeping with the 1890s English debate about the state of marriage. The next section of this paper will focus on Manon and Florence, the protagonist of Egerton’s “The Virgin Soil,” who defiantly decides to leave her husband, as archetypal New Women, and also on the similarities between Florence and Manon as operatic divas. To begin, here is an excerpt near the beginning of Act II of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, where Manon describes her departure from her “true love,” Des Grieux.

MANON. Without a kiss or word of goodbye
I left him.

It’s hard to be more heartless than that, more in control, more dismissive of a relationship. While Manon did not leave Des Grieux for some high-minded principle (rather, she wanted a taste of the good life), she left him nonetheless and she did so to please herself. Likewise, when she abandons Geronte to return to Des Grieux, she is mindful of all the riches and luxury that she is leaving and of the threats of Geronte if she should decide to abandon him. But she leaves anyway, and she does so—once again—of her own accord,

MANON. What a pity!
All these splendors,
all these treasures.
Alas! We must leave!
And all this enchantment
that I love so much
I must forsake
and leave behind!

And leave she does. She does love Des Grieux, and her decisions are influenced by that love, but she is definitely in the driver’s seat when it comes to that relationship, and it is Des Grieux who finds his fate tied up in hers, and not the other way around. It is Manon, the woman, who makes the key decisions in this story, and it is the men who suffer the consequences. Here is an excerpt from the 18-minute duet from the final Act, the death scene that closes the opera, and a duet replete with musical motifs that are lost to the page but that are essential for establishing the audience’s emotional connection to the narrative,

DES GRIEUX. Without you, I am lost,
I will follow you.

MANON. (with her last strength, imperiously)
I do not wish that!
Farewell […]

All we have here is a simple declarative sentence, with five one-syllable words, beginning with the pronoun “I.” That’s how you leave a man. We see similar efficiency of words in Egerton’s “Virgin Soil,” which deals directly with the question of power/leaving in marriage. In this case, a married daughter, Florence, visits her mother to announce her decision to leave her philandering husband. There are many operatic passages to quote from this story; however, I offer the following redaction of the key duet in the story,

[Florence:] “I have done with it. I am not going back.”

If a bomb had exploded in the quiet, pretty room the effect could not have been more startling than her almost cheerful statement. […]

“Florence, Florence, my dear, you can’t mean to desert your husband. Oh, think of the disgrace, the scandal, what will people say, the”—with an uncertain quaver—“the sin. You took a solemn vow, you know, and you are going to break it—”

“My dear mother, the ceremony had no meaning for me, I simply did not know what I was signing my name to, or what I was vowing to do. […] my life must be my own. […] No, I am not going back.”

“But men are different, Florence; you can’t refuse a husband, you might cause him to commit sin.”

“Bosh, mother, he is responsible for his own sins, we are not bound to dry-nurse his morality. Man is what we have made him, his very faults are of our making. No wife is bound to set aside the demands of her individual soul for the sake of imbecile obedience. I am going to have some more tea.” (154-155)

Florence makes this perfectly brilliant observation about the fault of women in shaping men’s morality in perverse ways, and she—in an almost Manon-like manner—calmly says that she is now going to have some more tea. He she expresses herself with self confidence, with control, with diva-like certainty.

In this passage we find an almost perfect crystallization of the shaky state of marriage in the fin de siècle. Florence says, “I have done with it. I am not going back.” Ten little words, none more than two syllables, aligned into two sentences, each beginning with the personal pronoun, “I.” I imagine these short sentences, combined with the closing line of the previous excerpt, lyrics of an aria,

I have done with it.
I am not going back.
I am going to have some more tea.

This is all an operatic composer needs to craft a powerful song—just a few strong words, the music does the rest. Leonard Bernstein, in his “The Joy of Music,” describes the transformative power of music over text, “In opera, the music expands the text to such a degree, emotionally, in time, and in many other ways, that the words must be almost rudimentary in their function. The characters must be boldly carved, uncomplicated, and easy to recognize. The emotional patterns must be equally fundamental.” (278). Such is Florence, and her statements echo the direct lyrics of Manon’s “I do not wish that!” At one point in “Virgin Soil,” Florence says, “My life must be my own” (154). Again, she makes a simple and powerful statement that echoes Manon. Here is the whole of the issue, the entirety of the question of contract and rights. Florence is offering a first principle, a primary right in a New Women Bill of Rights—my life must be my own. Upon close reading, the two possessive pronouns stand out, bridged by another “m” word, “must,” and suddenly we see the alliteration that is spaced evenly throughout the sentence and rhythmically—if not lyrically—affirming Florence’s independence.

The Final Chord

Before concluding, just a brief commentary on the second musical notation that Egerton includes in Discords, the chord appearing before part two of “The Regeneration of Two.” We needn’t even concern ourselves with the story to gain an understanding of what Egerton is trying to say in part two of “The Regeneration.” All we have to do is play the music. Like a composer who establishes the opening theme of final movement, she is signaling to us what to expect and how we should feel. If, as readers, we gloss over this musical notation without considering why it is there and what Egerton is trying to say through its addition, we are missing something important. The first element to note here is that rather than ff, our dynamic signature is a double pianissimo (pp), which is to be played very softly. At this point we are coming to our musical denouement. After pages of literary music meant to challenge and shake our assumptions in a Discord-ant fashion, the author/composer is going to send us home on a quiet note and in a lovely minor key. This last chord plays more easily (by one player on both the bass and treble clef), and is easy on the ears. It has a wistfulness, a sense of wonder with a touch of melancholy. I would describe the feeling as hopeful but wary. Again, this is key to understanding the piece. Egerton included the musical notation, and placed it where she did, for a reason. According to my musical reading of the stories and of the included chords, Egerton’s compositional choice is in keeping with the second section of “The Regeneration of Two” and maybe, in the end, with the combined effect of all the stories in Discords. These stories are mostly minor in key and often discordant and challenging; however, we are left feeling hopeful about the future, almost utopian, and I say almost because Egerton has left us with a feeling of hopeful unease, of watchful wariness, and it’s all in the music.


“Music is part of Western civilization,” Paul Robinson writes, “connected in numerous ways with the other intellectual and cultural artifacts that make up our history. […] We may feel, for example, that Beethoven’s music is somehow of a piece with what the poets, painters, and philosophers of the early nineteenth century were doing in their respective realms. But we don’t know how to specify that connection or to say how it works” (1). This paper is an attempt to clarify that connection, to verbalize that feeling that we know exists between music and, in this case, literature. Puccini did not set out to write a figurative story about the New Woman when he composed Manon Lescaut, and Egerton certainly did not construct her stories as libretti. Even so, these artifacts—appearing in the same place and time, and under the same cultural influences—make up our history, as Robinson suggests, and the connections are there to see and hear.

  • David Fettig is Vice President, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Minneapolis, Minn., and a graduate student in English Literature at St. Thomas University, St. Paul, Minn. He also holds undergraduate degrees in English literature and Economics from Rockhurst University, Kansas City, Mo.


Return to Table of Contents back Return to our home page https://oscholars.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/ravenna_logo.jpg


Bernstein, Leonard (1963) The Joy of Music, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Budden, Julian (2002) Puccini: His Life and Works, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Caird, Mona (2000) The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, ed. by Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carner, Mosco (1959) Puccini: A Critical Biography, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Cunningham, A.R. “The ‘New Woman Fiction’ of the 1890s.” , Victorian Studies, 17.2 (1973): 177-186.

Dixon, Ella Hepworth (2000) The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History, c. 1880-1900, ed. by Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Egerton, George (1983) Discords, London: Virago.

Goulding, Phil G. (1996) Ticket to the Opera: Discovering and Exploring 100 Famous Works, History, Lore, and Singers, with Recommended Recordings, New York: Fawcett Books.

Huebner, Steven (1999) French Opera at the Fin de Siècle: Wagnerism, Nationalism, and Style, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ledger, Sally, ed. (2003) Introduction, in Egerton, George Keynotes and Discords, Edgbaston, Birmingham: Birmingham University Press.

Mabilat, Claire (2006) “Empire and ‘Orient’ in Opera Libretti set by Sir Henry Bishop and Edward Solomon”, in Europe, Empire, and Spectacle in Nineteenth-Century British Music, eds. Rachel Cowgill and Julian Rushton, Hants, England: Ashgate Publishing.

Marras, Mowbray, trans. (1893) Manon Lescaut: A Lyric Opera in Four Acts, New York: G. Ricordi & Co. Inc.

Robinson, Paul (1985) Opera and Ideas: From Mozart to Strauss, New York: Harper & Row.

Roman, Zoltan “Italian Opera Premieres [sic] and Revivals in the Hungarian Press, 1864-1894”, Periodica Musica, VI (1988): 16-20.

Rutherford, Susan (2006) The Prima Donna and Opera: 1815-1930, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Segal, Naomi (1986) The Unintended Reader: Feminism and Manon Lescaut, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Speaker, The “Literature, etc.” 9 (1894: May) 541.

Vicinus, Martha, ed. (1983) Introduction, in Egerton, George Keynotes and Discords, London: Virago Press.

White, Eric Walter (1951) The Rise of English Opera, London: John Lehmann.

Return to the Table of Contents  – Return to our hub page  – To top of page


The author would like to thank Dr. Alexis Easley for helpful comments and counsel.

1 It is interesting to note, according to Naomi Segal in The Unintended Reader: Feminism and Manon Lescaut, that Prevost’s novel was not intended for a female audience, given that it is narrated by men and most of its primary characters are male; this fact, along with the rugged masculinity of the text, suggests an intended male audience (xii-xiii). Prevost would likely not have recognized Puccini’s rendering of his story, with its Manon-driven and Manon-focused plot.

2 The term New Woman was only introduced in 1894 (Ledger 75) and was likely not en vogue when Puccini’s Manon debuted, so we should not expect to see the term applied to the opera in contemporary criticism. Rather, Manon, along with pre-1894 ‘feminist’ literature, could be thought of as proto-New Woman, in that it exhibits qualities that would, ex post, come to be described as New Woman.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s