An archive and analysis of parlor and art song settings of Victorian poems

Subversive Singing: Role Reversals in Caroline Norton's "Juanita"

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. Its catchy, easily sung melody, which imitates a traditional Spanish air, both contributed to its Victorian popularity and has led, despite its composer's fame, to its current critical neglect. Derek Scott argues that borrowing foreign airs enabled women composers to avoid accusations of impropriety for pursuing the supposedly masculine enterprise of composing music (Erotic to Demonic 49). Building from Scott's work, this article addresses the surprisingly transgressive subject matter that the song's conventional characteristics cloak: since Norton wrote "Juanita" for a soprano soloist, this song enabled women to sing of their desire for other women and to adopt the role of the pursuer instead of the passively pursued, while also critiquing traditional gender roles and the Victorian institution of marriage. By examining this seemingly simple tune that middle class women played extensively during their leisure hours, we can better understand the song, its complex interweaving of the sentimental and socially acceptable with the transgressive, and its involvement in a women's rights movement that led to fundamental changes in the British legal system.

Initially, the song seems unremarkable, an example of a simple, sentimental popular song: the straightforward harmonic progressions focus on tonic and dominant chords, with the occasional subdominant. The broken chords of the accompaniment, echoing a Spanish guitar's strumming, fit easily under beginners' fingers, while the melody line, spanning only an octave and a half, moves with easy leaps and small steps. Even the song's style seems ordinary for its mid-century moment: as Scott has remarked, Britain's involvement in the Peninsular War led to the wild popularity of pseudo-Spanish songs, an interest that continued until the mid 1850s (Singing Bourgeois 65) and that George Eliot may have recalled a decade later when writing her lyrics for The Spanish Gypsy. The song's understated "Spanish" style, palatable to even the most xenophobic Brit, sounds only in the strumming effect in the accompaniment, the ornamented turn on Juanita's name, and the grace notes in the piano interlude between verses. The lyrics appear equally simple, as they describe in traditional terms a man's attempt to woo a young Spanish woman: the words detail the Spanish landscape, Juanita's "dark eyes" (5), and the speaker's desire to linger with his sweetheart, and, in fact, to marry her:

Soft o'er the fountain,
Ling'ring falls the Southern moon:
Far o'er the mountain,
Breaks the day too soon!
In thy dark eyes' splendor
Where the warm light loves to dwell,
Weary looks yet tender
Speak their fond farewell!
Nita! Juanita!
Ask lhy soul if we should part?
Nita! Juanita!
Lean thou on my heart.
When in thy dreaming;
Moons like these shall shine again
And daylight beaming
Prove thy dreams are vain:
Wilt thou not relenting
For thine absent lover sigh
In thy heart consenting
To a pray'r gone by?
Nita! Juanita!
Let me linger by thy side!
Nita! Juanita!
Be my own fair bride!

Thematically, too, this work met the criteria for a parlor song, since as Scott has argued, "songs suitable for the parlour or drawing room were wholesome entertainment for family and friends . . . in the drawing room only the barest hint of disruptive female sexuality was tolerated" (78). The sentimental words and music helped the song become both lauded as "the first ballad by a woman composer to achieve massive sales" (Scott Singing Bourgeois 66) and damned as a piece of drivel (Disher 113). And yet, for all these concessions to Victorian convention, Norton's song actually subtly critiques restrictive gender roles and the institution of marriage by using its simple exterior to cloak a more subversive message; in dismissing it, we overlook its feminist message and its role in the struggle for women's rights.

Caroline Norton was well-known in England as a leading figure in the fight for greater rights for women, and an understanding of this song requires an understanding of her political involvement. In addition to her career as a poet, novelist, and composer of songs, she also famously had separated from her husband as a result of his abusive behavior and had campaigned to have her children returned to her, as English law at the time gave fathers custody over children in all cases. She published multiple pamphlets arguing for the right to her children, and advocated so successfully that when the Infants and Child Custody Bill passed in 1839, her detractors referred to it as "Mrs. Norton's Bill" (Prins 221). In 1853, the year Norton published "Juanita," her financial situation was dire. Her husband claimed all the money she earned from royalties for her musical and literary publications and refused to pay her the allowance he had promised her, claiming that as a married woman, she had no legal standing, so their contract was void (Chedzoy 232). She faced him in court, but her suit failed.1 When writing of the trial years later, she described it as

A mock-trial, in which I do not 'exist' for defence; a gross libel, in which I do not 'exist' for prosecution; a disposition of property, in which I do not 'exist' for my own rights or those of my children; a power of benefiting myself by literary labour, in which I do not 'exist' for the claim in my own copyrights. That, is the negative and neutralizing law, for married women in England. (qtd. Prins 220)

Since, at the time Norton published "Juanita," she considered marriage a crooked system that rendered women non-existent in the eyes of the law, this song's investment in marriage--shown in the singer's request for Juanita to "Be [his] own fair bride!" (24)--seems suspect. The emphasis on ownership in the words "my own," in light of Norton's views on matrimony, virtually declares that this marriage would convert the beloved from an independent being into the speaker's possession, and thus supports an entirely different, more subversive reading of the song.

The singer's gender can further encourage this subversive reading. For a woman to sing a song from the point of view of a man serenading a woman is not too unorthodox: other popular songs, such as "Come into the Garden, Maud" set by both Michael William Balfe and Sir Arthur Somervell, do the same. But men premiered both works. Although Norton initially wrote "Juanita" for her son to sing and perform on the guitar (Norton "Editor" 6), she published it for women's voice, and the first edition title page lists women, "Miss Poole" and "Miss Lascelles," as the singers who premiered the work. This deviation from tradition grants women greater voice and agency2 by reversing traditional gender roles: in both musical and literary traditions from the troubadours through Petrarch and Shakespeare, a man usually sings of his love and pursuit of a woman while the woman remains passive and silent. In "Juanita," the soprano can voice her desire for another and propose marriage: "Be my own fair bride!" (24). As parlor performances primarily enabled young women to prove their marriageability by performing their domesticity and talents, this song undermines that project: it lets a woman, while passively being pursued, become the pursuer.

This gender switch is part of Norton's larger political project, as she used this very technique in a pamphlet published in 1839 after her first court appearance. She responded to personal attacks against her in "A Plain Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Infant Custody Bill," but instead of publishing in her own name, she adopted the male pseudonym of Pearce Stevenson. In this pamphlet, she argues that, because of her status as a married woman with no legal authority, "she can make no defence, although hers is the character at issue" (qtd. Prins 221). By explicitly pointing out the hypocrisy of the law and the systematic silencing of women, Norton demonstrates the bitter truth that writing from a masculine point of view gives her greater authority than speaking as a woman, even about her own story. As Prins argues, "only by assuming a male pseudonym can Norton reconstruct her character and claim authority to narrate 'the real History' of the bill" (221). This song, then, continues this trajectory: like the pamphlet, it disguises its female speaker as a man to gain greater authority.

Although the female singer attains more agency than most women in parlor songs or real-life courtship, this agency appears less substantial when compared with other songs designed for a male speaker. In "Come into the Garden, Maud," the speaker breaks into Maud's garden to wait for her and sings of his certainty that he will win her, while in "Juanita," the speaker eschews such demands and certainty: she simply states her wish that they remain together and proposes marriage. The speaker even asks permission (albeit in a command) to stay with her ("Let me linger by thy side!" (22)) and puts the future of their relationship in Juanita's hands by telling her to decide their fate: "Ask thy soul if we should part" (10). Although we never hear Juanita's answer, the speaker seems to anticipate rejection: as the dawn breaks, signaling to the lovers that they must part, the speaker sings that her "Weary looks yet tender / Speak their fond farewell!" (7-8). While ostensibly these parting looks occur because they will separate merely for the day, the speaker's next question, "Ask thy soul if we should part?" conveys her fear that Juanita wishes them to part permanently. These deviations from tradition might seem to diminish the female singer's agency: although she can pursue Juanita, she is an uncharacteristically passive pursuer and her suit may not succeed. Instead, these changes highlight Juanita's power by giving her the option to refuse the speaker's proposal. Juanita's increased agency thus echoes the speaker's gender change, as both grant women greater voice.

In addition to augmenting women's voices, "Juanita" also demonstrates the importance of close female relationships through its paratextual material. The cover page provides us the first visible demonstration, as it prints the names of two women singers, when conventionally covers only list one singer and one accompanist. By mentioning two women with identical billing, "Sung by Miss Poole" and "Sung by Miss Lascelles," Norton presents them as equals in a musical relationship. Other editions of this song also make such musical relations explicit: the publishing company Chappell printed a duet version designed for two female voices singing the same words in harmony in addition to the original solo arrangement. This version might initially appear nonsensical: why have two women propose simultaneously to the same woman? Instead, this arrangement perfectly continues Norton's project as it simultaneously gives women greater voice (it doubles the number of women singing) and enacts the frequency with which women are pursued: by having the performers sing the same words, the song implies that many women have experienced situations like that of Juanita or have been enticed into unfortunate marriages. Norton, aware of the prevalence of her plight, wrote about her predicament in a letter to the Queen two years after the publication of this song: "I combine, with the fact of having suffered wrong, the power to comment on and explain the cause of that wrong; which few women are able to do" (qtd. Prins 224). Because of Norton's high social standing, she had a degree of privilege that enabled her to tell her story and to speak on behalf of less fortunate women throughout England. This song, then, musically exemplifies this ability: "Juanita" allows her to introduce a story much like her own, to imply that others have had similar experiences, and to tell of those experiences through a song.

Norton also uses the song's dedication to the Marchioness of Stafford to tell her story. While it again privileges the connections between women (in particular, between Norton and the Marchioness), it also has a more personal meaning. In 1836, when Norton's husband falsely sued her for infidelity, many aristocratic families deliberated over which side of the conflict to support. The Marchioness of Stafford, Harriet Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (better known later as the Duchess of Sutherland), helped save Norton's reputation and livelihood by publicly showing her support. According to Alice Acland, "the Duchess ordered her carriage and invited Caroline to go out driving with her. She chose to drive round Hyde Park at the most fashionable hour. Caroline sat at her right hand for everyone to see, and there is no doubt that this act of loyalty on the part of the generous-hearted young Duchess did much to ease Caroline's return into the world" (101). Caroline Norton had already dedicated her 1840 volume The Dream, and Other Poems to her friend, even writing an entire poem, called simply "Dedication," in which she explains the full extent of her gratitude:

But thou gav'st me, what woman seldom dares,
Belief--in spite of many a cold dissent--
When slandered and maligned, I stood apart,
From those whose bounded power, hath wrung, not crushed, my heart. (21-24)

Why, since this poem has already explained the circumstances surrounding their friendship, did Norton dedicate "Juanita" to the Duchess seventeen years later? To show the importance of female relationships: the Duchess's support helped Norton stand up to her husband and enabled her to continue writing and publishing without disgrace. As her earlier poem to the Duchess shows, she imagines their friendship in particularly gendered terms and comprehends the differences in power between men and woman and how horribly her story could have ended without her friend's intervention. This song, therefore, in forecasting a marriage that could end as disastrously as Norton's, pays tribute to the importance of female friendship and the feminist struggle that united both friends.

The song, in enabling a woman to sing a marriage proposal to another woman, also lends itself to expressing queer desire. Although in opera, women often performed as male characters in trouser roles, and therefore many auditors of these parlor songs might not have thought such declarations unusual, the fundamental difference between the parlor and the stage makes home performances more subversive. On stage, actors perform the identity of others rather than themselves, a difference which enables greater gender fluidity while also casting any declaration of love between actors of the same-sex as a mere performance.3 In the heteronormative space of the parlor when performing to attract a suitor, however, women adopt the role of idealized, docile versions of themselves. Singing this supposed love song in the parlor queers and alters the gender binary. By not following the expected script for gender roles in the parlor, the song subversively enables women to sing of love for other women while appearing to prove their love for men. Certainly, the vast majority of performers and auditors would not have thought of this song as expressing queer desire: the song would never have enjoyed such success had that been the predominant interpretation. However, for women who did experience queer desire or for anyone who felt limited by the gender expectations of the time and of the parlor, this song would have enabled them to give voice to these desires and to invert the gender expectations while still seeming to endorse them.

Norton did not limit this song's investment in feminism to the dedication, cover, and gender of the singer: she also incorporated such themes into the music itself. To critique the notion that marriage could lead to the bliss the speaker envisions, Norton added the occasional non-cadential 6-4 chord into her otherwise ordinary harmony. Conventional Western harmony from this period at its most basic (and overly simplified) level progresses from a tonic (the key of the piece) to a dominant chord (a chord built on the fifth note of the scale), and then back to the tonic again, with occasional modulations to other keys and departures to other chords. In a cadential 6-4 chord, a tonic triad in second inversion leads to the dominant and then to an authentic cadence. [] This suspension creates tension by delaying the resolution until the tonic fully concludes the phrase. A non-cadential 6-4 chord begins identically to a cadential 6-4 chord, but instead of leading to an authentic cadence, proceeds to a different chord and avoids the resolution. In "Juanita," we hear a non-cadential 6-4 chord on the first syllables of "fountain" (measure 10), "mountain" (measure 14),[] "dreaming" (measure 42), and "beaming" (measure 46) []. In each place, the accompaniment continues playing dominant chords instead of progressing to the cadence. This extension of the dominant and refusal to cadence stalls the harmonic progress and echoes the stagnation that Juanita might feel should she enter into marriage.

Norton provides another musical clue through her allusion to a well-known aria. The melody for the words "Nita! Juanita" and the ensuing two beats (or feet, for our literary readers) is a musical quotation from the soprano aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's opera Rinaldo (1711). In this song, a woman named Almirena, who has been imprisoned, laments her fate:

Lascia ch'io pianga
mia cruda sorte,
e che sospiri, la libertà.
Il duolo infranga queste ritorte
de'miei martiri sol per pietà. (2.4.1-5)
Let me weep
my cruel fate,
and sigh for liberty.
Have pity on me
As I lament my sorrow.[]

Initially, one might think that this allusion to a song about imprisonment and pain would encourage a sympathetic view of the speaker: after all, we hear the speaker's words, not Juanita's, so this melody might imply that the singer feels imprisoned by his (or her) passionate desire. The placement of this melody, however, invites a second interpretation: it occurs only on Juanita's name and the opening of the following measure. [] By including a musical quotation about imprisonment and pain on our titular character's name, Norton implies that being pursued (and, potentially, married) is like being imprisoned, and that Juanita, like Norton herself, wishes for freedom from a husband. With this quotation, Norton also makes a claim about the worth of parlor songs. She seamlessly incorporates a phrase from a famous Italian aria, well-known as a concert piece and therefore as "high art," into her parlor song, a form that was then (and, unfortunately, sometimes is still) considered "low art" produced by untalented women. Her allusion both demonstrates her skill and breaks down the false dichotomies between the traditionally masculine, "high-brow" opera and art song and the traditionally feminine, "low-brow" parlor song.

By examining the musical allusions, paratext, and historical context of "Juanita," we can better understand that many parlor songs are actually nuanced works that maintain their positions of social acceptability while subtly critiquing contemporary structures and institutions. Performing this sentimental love song in the domestic space of the parlor, supposedly to attract a suitor, could become a political act that subverts the very ideology of Victorian gender roles, courtship, and marriage. Only by attending to such subversive singing can we observe sentimental music's active involvement in the Victorian political and social world.

Works Cited

Acland, Alice. Caroline Norton. London: Constable, 1948.

Chedzoy, Alan. A Scandalous Woman: The Story of Caroline Norton. London: Allison & Busby, 1992.

Disher, Maurice Willson. Victorian Song From Dive to Drawing Room. London: Phoenix House, 1955.

Handel, George Frideric. Rinaldo. Georg Friedrich Händels Werke. Band 58.

Leipzig: Deutsche Händelgesellschaft, 1874.

Norton, Caroline. "Dedication." The Dream and Other Poems. London: H. Colburn, 1840.

---. "Juanita." London: Chappell, 1853.

---. "Juanita." In Praise of Woman: 150 Years of English Women Composers. Perf. Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) and Graham Johnson (piano). London: Hyperion Records, 1993. Cd.

---. "To the Editor of the Times." The Times. October 25, 1871: 6.

Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999

Scott, Derek B. From the Erotic to the Demonic: On Critical Musicology. OxfordL Oxford UP, 2003.

---. The Singing Bourgeois: Songs of the Victorian Drawing Room and Parlour. Second edition. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.