The type of woman who appears in Claribel's ballads, and indeed in all drawing-room ballads, tends to be a representative of bourgeois values in the form of 'perfect lady' or honest country maiden, simply because this kind of woman can be portrayed with less hypocrisy than the working-class woman, whose life points to the contradictions in those values. On the rare occasions when the plight of poor working-class men and women finds its way into these songs, then it comes in a package heavy with sentiment. Women are generally depicted as romantic objects, or placed in the context of the family. A woman is associated with the role of home-maker. Nothing in the words of 'Home, Sweet Home!' necessarily implies that the gender of the singer should be female, but it is the combination of female voice with its homesick melancholy which gives it potency:
The mem'ries of that night of bliss,
Will never from me part,
She sang a song of'Home sweet home',
The song that reach'd my heart.
(from The Song That Reached My Heart, words and music by J. Jordan)
Women appear in many songs as mother: for example, 'The Emigrant Mother', 'A Mother's Song' and 'The Mother's Dream' (dates, writers and composers may be found in the Song Index). An important aspect of the maternal role is the opportunity it gives to minister to loved ones, one of the highest duties of a woman. Some songs are concerned with the sorrow felt by men when death has [77/78] robbed them of a mother's loving care for their moral and physical well-being: for example, 'The Old Arm Chair' and 'I'm Lonely Since My Mother Died'. Grandmother occasionally appears, as in 'Grannie's Story' and 'Grandmother's Chair'; so too does the maiden aunt, who invariably possesses a crotchety character arising from her disappointment at having been deprived of the blessings of marriage and motherhood. F. E. Weatherly offers rare sympathy when in 'Auntie' (music by A. H. Behrend) he includes the lines,
Old maids have hearts, my darling,
Whatever the world may say.
Songs about boys far outnumber those about girls, and the latter are portrayed as extremely vulnerable when outside the setting of a 'normal' home: for example, the lonely girl in 'Ora Pro Nobis'(Performance and 'The Children's Home'. If girls are working, they are usually doing something associated with female domesticity, as in, for example, 'Knitting'. Boys can demonstrate spirited independence, as do 'The Little Hero' (Performance by present author) and 'Little Drummer'. In general, songs about the deaths of children concern boys: for example, 'Close the Shutters, Willie's Dead' and 'Put My Little Shoes Away'. A dead baby may be of unspecified sex, as in 'The Empty Cradle'.
Women as romantic objects are often pictured in Victorian literature and the visual arts as angelic characters or as temptresses; very few sirens, however, find their way into drawing-room ballads. Songs suitable for the parlour or drawing room were wholesome entertainment for family and friends: music-making here was a celebration of home and family life. Suggestive songs were the province of music-hall (for example, 'Saucy Betsy Gay', or 'It's Naughty But It's Nice'); in the drawing room only the barest hint of disruptive female sexuality was tolerated, in songs such as 'Florence Vane' and 'The Picture with Its Face Turned to the Wall'. Young women are either serenaded, as in 'Come into the Garden, Maud' and 'The Bloom Is on the Rye', or they are the subject of tearful partings, as in 'Goodbye!' (performance by author) Older women either appear as wives, as in 'Darby and Joan', or widows, as in 'She Wore a Wreath of Roses', or mothers (already referred to above). If a young wife appears in a ballad, she is almost certain to be married to a sailor, as is 'Nancy Lee'. A woman who is the subject of a passionate love song is often dead, as in 'Alice, Where Art Thou?', 'Looking Back', and 'The Fisher'. Because the woman is dead, ruling sex out of the question, a more uninhibited quality is permissible than in the case of songs about living women: there, tasteful restraint is necessary, unless the lovers are parting for ever. There are few examples of songs concerning a woman losing a husband or sweetheart, as occurs in 'She Wandered Down the Mountainside', but there are plenty of songs about mothers losing sons. When Felix McGlennon attempts to describe the nature of true love, in his song 'That Is Love', his first example is of mother and son:
See a mother gazing on her baby boy,
With ecstatic eyes and heart that fills with joy,
He to her is purest gold without alloy,
For him how she prays to Heav'n above. [78/70]
How she guides his footsteps through this vale of strife,
Watches o'er his bedside when infection's rife,
Risking for her baby boy her health, her life,
That is love, that is love! [78/79]
It was sentiments like these that enabled McGlennon to invade the middle-class parlour, in spite of his being a music-hall performer. Not only could songs of love pierce class barriers, but they acknowledged within themselves the possibility of love's breaking down class distinctions. It ought to be noted, however, that it is invariably the woman who belongs to the subordinate class in this type of song, as in 'The Beggar Maid'. The poor artless maid who wins the heart of a nobleman is really used as a critique of urban sophistication rather than an advertisement for marriage between the classes.
It should be borne in mind, while considering the limited roles allotted to women in drawing-room ballads, that women as pianists in the home also learned pieces which endorsed these roles: for example, 'The Maiden's Prayer' by Thekia Badarzewska; 'The Fairy Wedding Waltz' by J. W. Turner; and 'The Bridal Polka' by Charles D'Albert. Just as Badarzewska, a young woman composer, acquiesced in the stereotype of the praying maiden when she gave a title to her theme and variations for piano, women ballad composers and authors also portrayed the same stereotypes as are found in ballads by men. Furthermore, these stereotypes remain constant irrespective of which side of the Atlantic the ballad originates; indeed, some of the examples given above are of American ballads.
The favourite subjects chosen by women composers fall into four main categories: religious songs, jilt songs, genteel love songs, and songs about children. Religious songs were accorded such respect that a woman composer had no qualms about using her married name on the sheet music, rather than using her maiden name or adopting a pseudonym. Maria Lindsay proudly announces herself to be Mrs J. Worthington Bliss on ballads like 'Absalom'. A certain delicacy arises with genteel love songs, since, no matter how polite their style, the possibility of arousing the erotic interest of men in their female creators always remains. Jilt songs are safer terrain, although, when Lord Arthur Hill heard 'In the Gloaming', he boasted he would marry its female composer; and so he did. More often than in men's songs about children, in women's songs the singer is cast in the role of mother, as in 'Destiny' or 'Alone'. Women composers in the 1860s and 70s see themselves, in the main, as providing songs for women; this is an attitude which begins to change only with the arrival of the 'new woman' of the 1880s. There is a dearth of music by women, for instance, written for the low male voice; Sheard's largely retrospective Baritone's Song Folio of 1903 contains not a single song by a woman composer. In the 1860s women composers were something of a novelty with which to stimulate the market and appeal to its many female consumers; in the middle of the next decade there seems to have been a slackening of interest, and songs by women were given no special promotion. Nevertheless, in the late Victorian and Edwardian period women again come to the fore, with such names as Hope Temple, Guy D'Hartelot, Maude Valeric White, Liza [79/80] Lehmann, Teresa Del Riego, and Amy Woodforde-Finden. There are few alterations to female stereotyping in Edwardian ballads, however: for example, 'The English Rose' contains references to 'the perfect English rose' which recall the early Victorian ideal of the 'perfect lady'. Even in the year the Edwardian period closes, Liza Lehman's ballad 'Daddy's Sweetheart' carries a familiar warning to women of independent disposition:
Mary Jane told me this morning
Something which made me afraid;
She said I'd have to marry a man
Or be a cross old maid.
Last modified 12 June 2012