The voice, the breath and the soul: song and poverty in Thyrza, Mary Barton, Alton Locke and A Child of the Jago

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The chapter examines the idea of divine power being carried on the breath with reference to the four novels in the title. There is a general discussion of the singing voice’s unique musical position in being able to merge different worlds of meaning: self-authority, human emotion, and the soul. In acting as carrier for both the singing voice and the soul, the breath conveys the individual soul beyond the physical world to the world of the spirit, opening up a glimpse of the divine.
Thyrza and Margaret (in Mary Barton) are uneducated and sing with unschooled voices; their voices distinguish them from their peers and open up social possibilities and responsibilities beyond those to which they were born. Both women pursue the higher paths revealed by their voices, but their bodies to break down, as if unable to bear the burden of what they have invoked. Spirituality is contrasted with religion per se, as it is in the two other novels examined: in Alton Locke, the protagonist lacks the physical means to ‘sing’, and in A Child of the Jago, a reported act of singing suggests that a spiritual experience has taken place during a gap in the narrative.
In none of the novels does singing grant the satisfactions or achievements that are held out in promise. Perhaps the singers are punished for making transgressions from their own culture; more likely, music positions them in exile of one sort or another: they make the choice to be stranded in the middle of the physical and spiritual worlds.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Idea of Music in Victorian Fiction
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 2004

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