Skip to content

Response to Review of Mary Gladstone and the Victorian Salon: Music, Literature, Liberalism

Mary Gladstone and the Victorian Salon: Music, Literature, Liberalism is the first book-length study of music and liberalism, of any period or place. Until now, statesmen and men of letters have been the focus of books about high Victorian liberals; my monograph presents how top-drawer music-making, led by a particularly prominent woman, interacts with this known trajectory. Emily Jones’s consideration of how my book unwraps Mary Gladstone’s salon world – Thursday Breakfasts – and the centrality of music is very welcome. My treatment of the topic of ‘aesthetic liberalism’ (p. 6) is not in itself intended to be ‘earth-shattering’ as she suggests, but rather to introduce discussions of music and liberalism to each other. It is therefore relevant that the book appears in Cambridge’s New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism series, which ‘explores the conceptual framework that shapes the ways in which we understand music and its history’ and ‘elaborate[s] structures of explanation, interpretation, commentary and criticism that make music intelligible and that provide a basis for argument about judgments of value’.(1) The American Musicological Society considers the topic to be of such significance that it sponsored its first special session on ‘Music and the Discourses of Liberalism’ at the 2017 meeting in Rochester, New York.

The monograph is structured in two halves. Part one is an intellectual history that begins to redress three major lacunae in scholarship on 1870s and 1880s Britain: women and liberalism, elite London salon culture, and music and liberalism. I appreciate Jones’s assessment of the monograph as a feminist historical retelling of Gladstonian liberalism. As she nicely summarizes, Mary Gladstone was a central figure within late Victorian political circles who adroitly made use of soft politics and – notably – wielded that power on her own terms. Jones’s review concentrates wholly on part one (first narrating my findings and then critiquing), thereby missing vital aspects of my argument and methods that occur in the second half. Part two comprises a set of case studies that fit the subtitle of the book: Music, Literature, Liberalism. Closely examining life writing, poetic recitation, and modes of aesthetic criticism in listening to music and reading fiction, this second half reconceptualizes how we currently understand London political salon culture in order to prioritize music and literature. This approach grows from my study of canonical literature, musical scores, phonograph recordings, descendent interviews and manuscript life writing (some previously unseen by scholars).

The book therefore participates in musicological discussions, of which Jones – a self-described historian of ‘C/conservatism’ – seems unaware. Such lack of understanding about another discipline is entirely understandable and supports all the more the need for scholarship that introduces musical practices into wider considerations of 19th-century Britain. For over a quarter of a century, musicologists have been investigating music as more than notes in relation to each other (formalism), biographies of genius composers, or a cataloguing of repertoire and archives. Today’s conversation explores encoded behaviors, reception histories, performance practices, listening practices, and music as interactive with other cultural discourses, such as science or literature.

Rather than focusing on a particular composer’s life and works, Mary Gladstone and the Victorian Salon recovers what the ruling class thought music to mean (elite amateur music-making has been an area of some neglect). Jones’s discussion of Wagner therefore amplifies what is a relatively small point in my book. Rather, Mary’s diary – one of my main sources – reveals a musical analysis so astute that her perspicuity led George Grove to request her input on programming at the Crystal Palace and in making faculty appointments at the fledgling Royal College of Music. Sharing a love of music could indeed become a form of diplomacy among otherwise heated political opponents (listening together to gorgeous music could side-step incendiary topics), but the same listeners regarded the social utility of beauty very differently. As of the 1870s and 1880s, those who seemed ‘liberal’, understood salon music-making as uniting a private practice with public good, while conservatives such as Arthur Balfour and Robert Cecil (third marquess of Salisbury) did not. Thus Balfour later argued in an address on ‘Aesthetic Values’ at the University of Glasgow that aesthetic contemplation existed apart from the world; it did not spur on the beholder to the social activism of the extended Gladstone family.(2)

My point is to recover a complex interweaving of belief structures that were understood as liberal at the time. I am hardly alone in identifying certain liberal traits, as seen in the writings of J. S. Mill, Matthew Arnold and, more recently, Elaine Hadley.(3) Such definitions fit how Mary’s extended musico-political circle understood the differing belief systems as practiced among the upper ten thousand; while friends and families learned to exist together, there were undoubtedly factions. Mary’s friend, the composer and politically-Liberal C. Hubert H. Parry, for one, found his brothers-in-law and their friends to operate under a creed of pleasure: ‘They despise anything intellectual’, Parry found in 1873.

Music is naturally utterly contemned. The tone of their ideas is so inconceivably low as to be almost beyond belief […] The advance of morality, + the liberalization of thought + the enlargement of ideas are subjects unknown to them, or if known looked upon with contempt.(4)

In particular, George Herbert and Sidney Herbert (the 13th and 14th earls of Pembroke, and 10th and 11th earls of Montgomery) ‘will never do anything for a lofty motive or for a disinterested one’.(5) We more familiarly identify Parry’s way of engaging with the world with John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, first published in 1859 and revised in 1873: ‘liberal education and liberal pursuits are exercises of mind, of reason, of reflection’, whereby ‘education […] implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; […] a state or condition of mind’.(6)

Thankfully, Jones argues that if intellectual history ‘has stood for anything over the last 50 years, it is for understanding past thought on its own terms as opposed to ours.’ I agree with her. Regarding liberalism ‘as an analytical category for Victorian Britain’ (Jones), it is key that 19th-century men and women believed that liberalism would get them far and that music-making played a newly dynamic role as of the 1870s in how they actualized this belief. Rather than my (or their) taking such assertions at face value, a hallmark of Victorian liberals is their self-scrutiny and their concern to address social problems.(7) Mary’s life writing is one of my most significant sources for primary material; she held herself, others and the arts accountable in her diaries and correspondence. While the same character attributes and actualizations may have been freely open to all, as Jones contends, the proof is in the pudding. I know of no other Victorian family who established an orphanage across the yard from the front doors to their country home and founded the only free convalescent home (for the London Hospital’s East End patients) – these were Mrs. Catherine Gladstone’s initiatives. The Gladstone clan walked the talk.

My discussion illuminates – cumulatively – what it meant to live as a liberal, and this includes the family’s high churchmanship. It’s a crucial point to make since most scholars follow traditional associations of Victorian liberalism with disestablishment and proceduralism. But the Gladstones understood their lived liberalism to include a complex mix that – together – spelled liberalism. Actualizing liberalism – for the extended Gladstone family – included ways of interacting with the world that we associate with traditional liberalism, Anglo-Catholicism, and progressive musical practices that occurred within salon performances. Thinking within a longer history of the continental salon, the book describes a ‘triangulated aesthetic criticism’ (my term) in 1870s Britain, whereby two people contemplate an art object, while one observes the other person. Thus, a thing of beauty becomes part of social life.

Such an observation has importance for understanding the role of art as more than a private study; rather, it interacted with liberal political thought and approaches to life. Mary’s repeated scrutiny of George Eliot’s most musical novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), for example, gains in resonance when we realize how she and her companions went to Eliot’s novels for ‘problems of life and thought’. These are the words of Mary’s close friend, the great Liberal historian Lord John Acton, who wrote to Mary that Eliot was one of the ‘eighteen or twenty writers by whom I am conscious that my mind has been formed […] Of course I mean ways not conclusions’.(8)

Similarly, W. E. Gladstone was so inspired by Tennyson’s salon performance as to begin working through the political problems of the day (the Eastern Question) through poetic recitation; the embodied sound was itself part of his thought process. Thus my case study of Tennyson rethinks how we approach Victorian poetry; instead of emphasizing the printed condition of sonority – as literary scholars have for a quarter century – my study of poetic recitation recovers traces of an audible meaning, often quite different from what is found on the page. This poetry chapter is bolstered by an open access website ( which makes available materials and arguments, including reproductions and recordings of Emily Tennyson’s musical settings, which the laureate’s family understood as a sort of recording of her husband’s recitations. It is the first digital resource to use sound on an International Image Interoperability Framework (the new standard in text and image digitization for leading institutions worldwide,

The book focuses on the daughter of the great Liberal prime minister as a personification of late Victorian beliefs in her own right, from how she behaved as an influential woman at the center of the Liberal first family to how culture was produced through reading and group music-making. In this sense, the book is a sort of cultural biography. Mary was a trail-blazer, as when she had to convince her father and J. A. Godley, the principal private secretary, to give her the position of prime ministerial private secretary – a result that made ‘Mr Godley’s hair stand on end’.(9) She was far more than Papa’s ‘ear’ (pp. 63, 122), his ecclesiastical secretary or his political hostess. After W. E. Gladstone’s death, Mary’s influence continued, albeit in a different form. She continued to discuss the political matters of the day with influential friends and family (brother Herbert was Home Secretary under Asquith and then Governor-General of the Union of South Africa from 1910 to 1914). Mary wrote books on liberal subjects and almost single-handedly preserved her father’s documents – a considerable historic legacy. And she and her husband were champions of local education and subsidized the first street lights in Buckley, a mining community in North Wales. Traditional liberalism requires private sector support, from the advocacy that occurred through salon networking to the improvement of community infrastructure. Clearly, Mary not only walked the talk, but she also frequently took the lead, especially when it came to actualizing liberal beliefs through music-making.


  1. About new perspectives in music history and criticism’, Cambridge University Press <> [accessed 10 July 2018].Back to (1)
  2. Anon., ‘Emotion and belief: Mr. Balfour on aesthetic values, third Gifford Lecture’, The Times (17 January 1914), 5, reprinted in Arthur J. Balfour, Theism and Humanism: The Book that Influenced C. S. Lewis, with letters by C.S. Lewis, ed. Michael W. Perry (Seattle, 2000), pp. 39, 40.Back to (2)
  3. Elaine Hadley, Living Liberalism: Practical Citizenship in Mid-Victorian Britain (Chicago, IL, 2010), p. 71.Back to (3)
  4. C. Hubert H. Parry, 17 December 1873, Diary, pp. 175–6. Shulbrede Priory, Lynchmere, Sussex.Back to (4)
  5. Ibid, p. 177.Back to (5)
  6. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Haven, CT, 1996), pp. 81, 85.Back to (6)
  7. Chris Otter, The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800–1910 (Chicago, IL, 2008), p. 11.Back to (7)
  8. John Acton to Mary Gladstone, 27 December 1880, Mary Gladstone Papers, Add MS 46239, f. 55. The British Library.Back to (8)
  9. Mary Gladstone to Lavinia Talbot, 27 October 1881, Mary Gladstone Papers, Add MS 46236, f. 116. The British Library.Back to (9)