In Search of Home, Sweet Home, ca. 1871

In Search of Home, Sweet Home, ca. 1871

Lecturer in Music, Jo Hicks, discusses a famous nineteenth-century song and its links to Victorian idea of home.

Few songs of the British nineteenth century have had the staying power of “Home, Sweet Home.” With music by Henry Bishop and words by John Howard Payne, it first appeared in Clari; or, the Maid of Milan (1823) at London’s Covent Garden. The song remained in the repertory well into the twentieth century and is still a point of reference in the twenty-first. In the initial dramatic context, it was a solo vehicle for the titular heroine, a means of expressing Clari’s longing to return to her “humble” home. Once the number became a breakout hit, the opera’s narrative details ceded significance to a vaguer international vogue for nostalgic sentiment.

As the decades wore on, however, the song’s invocation of home acquired a distinctive national accent. By the mid-Victorian period “Home, Sweet Home” had come to anchor an ideology of British exceptionalism. To perform or attend to this song in 1871 was to partake in a quasi-ritualistic affirmation of the doctrine of the hearth. This was partly bound up with the specious claim that other languages lacked an adequate word for home, but it was also connected to a shift in the geography of belonging. In lieu of the Romantic yearning for a distant homeland, this new Victorian nostalgia fixated on the heteronormative family home and the promise of shelter from both the trials of urban modernity and the vices of foreign politics.

Jo explored these ideas as a speaker at the 2022 conference of the North American British Music Studies Association.

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