A major prototype of the British rock icon or guitar God, I will contend, is British Romanticism’s most famous guitarist, Jane Williams (1798-1884). . .in 1822, Shelley bought her a guitar and presented it with a poem, “With a Guitar, to Jane”. . . that instrument’s connotations in early modern and Romantic-era Britain, now largely forgotten, eerily anticipates the early reception of rock.Rebecca Nesvet, Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, pp. 43, 45.
In chapter two of Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism, Rebecca Nesvet argues that Jane Williams, friend of Percy and Mary Shelley (the latter famous for being the author of Frankenstein), anticipates the modern figure of the rock guitarist. But perhaps that’s not the best way to say it. The modern figure of the rock guitarist wasn’t anticipated by early seventeenth- to nineteenth-century musicians. The modern figure of the rock guitarist, according to Nesvet’s chapter, in his (typically, but not so much anymore) rebellious, transgressive, dangerous public persona is a continuation of the figure of the guitarist from previous centuries.
The education of aristocratic women always included music — just watch any good Jane Austen adaptation, even the most recent one, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Emma. At some point competing young women will sit down and show their skills on the pianoforte. They’ll also demonstrate knowledge of French and German and have been taught to paint and draw. These forms of educated artistic expression all fell well within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British politesse.
But the guitar was another matter. Nesvet documents how as early as 1624 the guitar was associated with Proteus, the “disruptive god of change” (p. 45). It was “often associated with wanderers, vagabonds, and musicians who challenge or transcend not only physical boundaries but social ones” (p. 45). Wanderers and vagabonds — the rolling stone. But my favorite bit of Nesvet’s cultural archaeology is this: “Peter d’Urfey (1623-1673) complains in his play The Intrigues at Versailles . . . about a noxious, noisy ‘guitar-thrasher'” (p. 45) — seventeenth-century thrash guitar!
All of this means that Jane Williams taking on the role of the guitar player was highly transgressive. More than that, she took on the role of the vagabond as well.
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Williams left an abusive husband, which was acceptable to her mother and brother, but then eloped to Continental Europe with Edward Williams while she was still legally married to another man, which was not acceptable to anyone. She took his name and the couple presented themselves as married, but they never were, at least legally. During their travels, Edward and Jane met the Shelleys; Percy gifted Jane poems for use as lyrics for her original compositions and then gifted her a guitar with a poem attached, which you can read below.
With A Guitar, To Jane
Ariel to Miranda:– Take
This slave of music, for the sake
Of him who is the slave of thee;
And teach it all the harmony
In which thou canst, and only thou,
Make the delighted spirit glow,
Till joy denies itself again
And, too intense, is turned to pain.
For by permission and command
Of thine own Prince Ferdinand,
Poor Ariel sends this silent token
Of more than ever can be spoken;
Your guardian spirit, Ariel, who
From life to life must still pursue
Your happiness,– for thus alone
Can Ariel ever find his own.
From Prospero’s enchanted cell,
As the mighty verses tell,
To the throne of Naples he
Lit you o’er the trackless sea,
Flitting on, your prow before,
Like a living meteor.
When you die, the silent Moon
In her interlunar swoon
Is not sadder in her cell
Than deserted Ariel.
When you live again on earth,
Like an unseen Star of birth
Ariel guides you o’er the sea
Of life from your nativity.
Many changes have been run
Since Ferdinand and you begun
Your course of love, and Ariel still
Has tracked your steps and served your will.
Now in humbler, happier lot,
This is all remembered not;
And now, alas! the poor sprite is
Imprisoned for some fault of his
In a body like a grave —
From you he only dares to crave,
For his service and his sorrow,
A smile today, a song tomorrow.
The artist who this idol wrought
To echo all harmonious thought,
Felled a tree, while on the steep
The woods were in their winter sleep,
Rocked in that repose divine
On the wind-swept Apennine;
And dreaming, some of Autumn past,
And some of Spring approaching fast,
And some of April buds and showers,
And some of songs in July bowers,
And all of love; and so this tree,–
O that such our death may be!–
Died in sleep, and felt no pain,
To live in happier form again:
From which, beneath Heaven’s fairest star,
The artist wrought this loved Guitar;
And taught it justly to reply
To all who question skilfully
In language gentle as thine own;
Whispering in enamoured tone
Sweet oracles of woods and dells,
And summer winds in sylvan cells;
— For it had learnt all harmonies
Of the plains and of the skies,
Of the forests and the mountains,
And the many-voiced fountains;
The clearest echoes of the hills,
The softest notes of falling rills,
The melodies of birds and bees,
The murmuring of summer seas,
And pattering rain, and breathing dew,
And airs of evening; and it knew
That seldom-heard mysterious sound
Which, driven on its diurnal round,
As it floats through boundless day,
Our world enkindles on its way:
— All this it knows, but will not tell
To those who cannot question well
The Spirit that inhabits it;
It talks according to the wit
Of its companions; and no more
Is heard than has been felt before
By those who tempt it to betray
These secrets of an elder day.
But, sweetly as its answers will
Flatter hands of perfect skill,
It keeps its highest holiest tone
For one beloved Friend alone.
Needless to say, Percy was quite taken with Jane, and so was Mary after Percy’s untimely death at age 29. While until now Jane has largely been known as one of Shelley’s many muses, Nesvet’s chapter establishes Jane Williams as a key figure in preserving Percy’s legacy in his own time. Nesvet concludes by saying, “The critical tradition tends to reduce Jane Williams to a Shelley relic, but her biography, the history of the guitar in England, and the peculiar engineering of the Bottari guitar combine to suggest that we should recognize her as a very typical rolling stone; ergo, a Romantic cognate of British rock’s guitar gods” (p. 54).
On a side note, the engineering of the guitar is a special focus of Nesvet’s research, who is working with luthier Wes R. Schroeder and the Bodleian library to reconstruct a playable version of the original guitar, which is currently housed at the Bodleian. The original is a beautifully worked guitar: a leaf veneer surrounded by purfling (test photo to the left), a time-intensive process at the time requiring patience and multiple layers of glued wood.
Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She has published in journals including Nineteenth Century Studies, Victorian Popular Fictions Journal, Victorian Network, Notes and Queries, and others.
Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism
Women in Rock. Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2022) is the first book-length work exploring the interrelationships among contemporary women rock musicians and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art and literature, the literature of the Romantic era. LIMITED QUANTITIES ONLY available at a 37% discount.