Phyllis Weliver. Mary Gladstone and the Victorian Salon: Music, Literature, Liberalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xviii + 305 pp. £75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-18480-0.
Phyllis Weliver is a truly interdisciplinary scholar, who has deftly brought together musicology and literary studies, as well as other disciplines, to provide fascinating new understandings of Victorian society and culture. Her earlier publications include Women Musicians in Victorian Fiction, 1860–1900 (Aldershot, 2000) and The Musical Crowd in English Fiction, 1840–1910: Class, Culture and Nation (Basingstoke, 2006) as well as the important edited collections of essays The Figure of Music in Nïneteenth-Century British Poetry (Aldershot, 2005) and (with Katharine Ellis) Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2013). In her latest monograph, Weliver turns her attention to the under-explored phenomenon of the Victorian salon. Her focus is on the particular role in salon culture played by Mary Gladstone, daughter of the Liberal leader and prime minister William Gladstone, and the part played by musical performances at the Gladstone salons in promoting liberal political ideas.
Mary Gladstone (1847–1927) is an intriguing woman. One of eight children born to Catherine and William Gladstone, she was a talented pianist and avid music lover, as well as serving as one of her father's five private secretaries (from 1881) during his second period as Prime Minister. ... she was her father's Secretary of Ecclesiastical Affairs (which meant advising her father on ecclesiastical appointments), had her own office at Downing Street, and was widely known in political circles to be a person of influence with her father.
Mary Gladstone also frequently acted as her father's hostess. ...
In the first part of this book, Weliver adroitly lays out her central arguments, that the high Victorian salon played a central, if these days overlooked, role in Britain's cultural and intellectual history as a 'site of sociability' and that examining the Gladstone salon, and Mary's role in it, demonstrates the part played by the arts, and particularly music, 'as a means to perform and advance liberal ideas' (p. 3). ...
As Weliver rightly points out, the Victorian musical salon remains a largely unknown and certainly misunderstood event. These events were rarely termed 'salons' but rather At Homes', parties, or, as in the Gladstone case, 'Breakfasts'. ... In many ways, the Gladstone salons, perhaps particularly the Thursday breakfasts which are Weliver's main focus, are distinguished from other salons of the period by the political interests and experiences of both hosts and guests. Weliver's compelling view of this very particular salon and the role that music played in this site of sociability and hotbed of liberal ideas might have been thrown into sharper relief had it been compared to other, less political salons such as those of society hosts such as Mabel Batten (1856–1916) or Angelina Goetz (c.1831–1901).
Goetz had been born Angelina Levy to a London Jewish family and is just one example of the many Jewish music lovers and amateur musicians who played important roles in later Victorian salon culture and London musical life, including key figures of German Jewish origins such as the banker Edward Speyer (1839–1934). Another, slightly younger host from a German Jewish family, Frank Leo Schuster (1852–1927), was also set apart from the musical and political mainstream by his homosexuality. While Weliver's reading of the Gladstone salon provides a fascinating insight into the role played by music for the political and social elite, London salon culture also provided a space for those set, in a variety of ways such as race or sexuality, outside the mainstream of musical culture.
In the second part of the book, Weliver provides three absorbing case studies using Mary Gladstone and her salon as starting points for exploring a variety of ideas and concepts: a study of Victorian life writing through Mary's diary and letters, focusing on the founding of the Royal College of Music; Tennyson's recitation of his poetry as vividly compelling performances leading to deeper understanding of his work; a skilful exploration of one of Mary Gladstone's favourite novels, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and through this a theory of triangulated aesthetic criticism with regard to listening to music and reading fiction....
Weliver encourages her reader to visit her website 'Sounding Tennyson' (soundingtennyson.org/—part of a wider 'Sounding Victorian' project), which explores the sound of Tennyson's poetry and includes performances of musical settings composed by his wife Emily that go some way towards encapsulating the recitations given by the poet himself.
In Mary Gladstone and the Victorian Salon, Weliver has provided an absorbing and eloquent exploration of a very particular Victorian salon, through which one of Victorian London's most dynamic hosts and remarkable women can be seen to have used the power and beauty of music to further the liberal beliefs and ideology that were so important to her and her family Unlike many other society hosts of the time, Mary Gladstone has left a vivid record of her activities in the form of her diaries and correspondence, which are supported by the vast amount of source material concerning her important political family and friends. Uncovering the work of other hosts and their guests may be more difficult but, in this significant monograph, Weliver has paved the way for further explorations of the Victorian musical salon, a vibrant performance space undoubtedly long overdue for reconsideration.