I’ve been meaning to find the lyrics of Robin Adair when I stumbled across a paper by Alexander (1988) titled ‘Robin Adair’ as a Musical Clue in Jane Austen’s Emma. My dear friend Sitta obtained the electronic paper for me; hence I can post this article (thanks a lot Sitta!).
As Emma readers are aware of, Robin Adair was a song Jane Fairfax played in Miss Bates’ house, observed among others by Frank Churchill and Emma Woodhouse. Frank behaved as if he and Jane had nothing to do with each other, though actually he and Jane were secretly engaged. In my earlier post about ‘breadcrumbs’ in Emma, I suggested that Frank Churchill (and Mr. Dixon as well) was actually the representation of Tom Lefroy, and that Jane Fairfax was a bit of Jane Austen herself (not unlike Anne Elliot in Persuasion). With this assumption, I look back again at the conversations between Emma and Frank Churchill in Vol. II Chapter 10, where Frank just returned from Jane who was playing the pianoforte, teasing her about the married Irishman Mr. Dixon. Emma felt rather uncomfortable for teasing Jane about the possible flirtation between the governess and Mr. Dixon.
Emma: “But really, I am half ashamed, and wish I had never taken up the idea.”
Frank: “I am very glad you did, and that you communicated it to me. I have now a key to all her odd looks and ways. Leave shame to her. If she does wrong, she ought to feel it.”
Emma: “She is not entirely without it, I think.”
Frank: “I do not see much sign of it. She is playing Robin Adair at the moment – his favourite.”
The Penguin edition of Emma (2003 edition) notes that Robin Adair was a popular 18th century Irish song, though sometimes referred to a Scottish song as well. The song was found in the first volume of the Irish Melodies under the title ‘Eileen Aroon’, very popular in Gaelic Scotland and
They went through a book of canzonets for two voices by Mr. Jackson of
In his paper, Alexander suggested that Jane Austen’s insertion of Robin Adair was unlikely gratuitous. In page 85, Alexander wrote:
Music is central to the unravelling of the mystery in Emma, that mystery whose solution has been called 'the crucial symbolic fact in the novel': the gift of the expensive piano and the mystery surrounding Jane's benefactor is the first unmistakeable sign to the other characters that there is more to Jane Fairfax than meets the eye. In addition, however, 'Robin Adair' draws our attention in part because though we are often assured that Jane is very highly cultivated, virtually the only element of this cultivation displayed for us is her musicianship; in part we take notice of it because though Jane plays several pieces, this is the only one named in the novel. It is arguable that Austen intends us to see the song as particularly significant, music having the importance it has for the novel in general, and the figure of Jane Fairfax in particular. It is worth noting that J. E. Austen-Leigh recalled Austen herself sometimes singing, in the evening, what he terms 'old songs' to her own piano accompaniment ; there is no reason to doubt that 'Robin Adair' was among them and her reference to that song in particular here is unlikely to prove gratuitous. [bolded sentence by Icha]
This is the lyric of Robin Adair from Alexander’s paper:
W'hat's this dull town to me?
Robin's not near.
W'hat was't I wish'd to see?
W'hat wish'd to hear?
Where's all the joy and mirth
Made this town a heav'n on earth?
Oh! they're all fled with thee,
What made th'assembly shine?
What made the ball so fine?
Robin was there.
What, when the play was o'er,
What made my heart so sore?
Oh! it was parting with
But now thou'rt cold to me,
But now thou'rt cold to me,
Yet him I lov'd so well
Still in my heart shall dwell;
Oh! I can ne'er forget
What made th'assembly shine? Robin Adair: An Irishman that had left the lamenting girl alone. Of course, it’s easy to recall that Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy, an Irishman, danced several times during village assemblies. And because in 1814/15 Jane had lost communication with Tom, she would think Tom as ‘cold’ to her. Yet, she can never forget him, her own ‘Robin Adair’.
Peter Alexander closed the short but interesting paper with:
It is wholly characteristic of the care which Austen lavished on Emma that not even so small a detail as this should be wasted. Had Jane Fairfax sung the song at the point in the novel when she feels herself forced to dissolve the engagement with Frank, the reference to 'Robin Adair' would have seemed to some readers almost crudely obvious; placed as early as it is, however, it becomes just one more thread in the gossamer, and one so fine as to be easily overlooked.
Although Alexander 'only' referred to Robin Adair as the song performed by Jane Fairfax, and hence his analysis focused solely on Jane Fairfax's love story with Frank Churchill, I agree with him in the notion that Jane Austen was a sheer genius; she inserted her own references inside her novel, so subtle that it would be easily missed. Only to me, the Robin Adair reference does not only involve Miss Fairfax and Mr. Churchill; it also refers to Jane Austen and Tom Lefroy.
Ashton, H. 1968, Parson Austen's Daughter, Collins, London.
Austen, J. 1815, Emma (2003 edition), Penguin, London.
Pic 2: Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Emma (1996), from Boots and Bonnets
Pic 3: Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax dancing, Amicus Productions Canada
Pic 4: Robin Adair musical sheet (acknowledged as a Scottish music) from the guitarnut.com