Florence Foster Jenkins portrait

Profile: Florence Foster Jenkins, the singer who couldn’t sing

The eruption on social media since the results of the EU referendum came out has quite frankly exhausted my sense of opinion, which is a tad difficult since writing reviews requires one to – astonishingly – have opinions, so I’d like to take this opportunity to report on something completely random and different; the legacy of a singer who couldn’t sing.

“Florence Foster Jenkins was an American socialite and amateur operatic soprano who was known and ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, pitch, and tone, her aberrant pronunciation, and her generally poor singing ability.” Wikipedia may waste no time in condemning her singing, but it is not her voice we should find inspirational, but rather her character.

An attempt at a condensed life story which ultimately ended up a lot less condensed than initially intended: born in 1868 in Pennsylvania, Florence took piano lessons from a young age and quickly became a child prodigy, being asked to perform at the White House during President Hayes’ administration. She would have continued her study of music after secondary school had her father not refused to fund her, and reacting against her father she eloped with and married a Dr Frank Jenkins, from whom she contracted syphilis. The disease damaged her nerve endings and is thought to be the reason she could not perceive the extreme unmusicality of her singing, and after their marriage ended shortly after she was forced to earn a living off giving piano lessons. An injury to her arm saw the end of her teaching career and she lived in near poverty until meeting St Clair Bayfield, an English actor who managed her newly-founded singing career and with whom she had a “common-law”, or non-sexual, relationship until her death in 1944.

Undoubtedly her life was interesting, but not off the walls finding-a-magic-bean-in-your-salad remarkable. The most interesting, and wonderful, aspect of her life, is that despite her atrocious voice, Florence enjoyed giving concerts at the many clubs and halls she was patroness of. Either she was unaware or didn’t care that her voice was not totally tip-top, but she continued to sing anyway, following her passion amidst throngs of audience gigglers. Granted, these events were always by invitation only and the audience consisted of her friends, notably lacking in newspaper critics to condemn her lack of talent, but you have to admire her gung-ho give-it-a-welly I-don’t-care-what-they-say attitude.

Success is often highly overrated in my opinion, and I promise I am not saying that because I recognise myself in her constrained oblivion to her overconfident ear-wrenching warbles. I may not be the most tuneful singer, but why should that stop me belting out some whoppers in the karaoke of the kitchen? The suffering of my friends is relative to the whales of enjoyment I get out of singing, although perhaps they would disagree on how proportionate this remark is. In all seriousness though life should be enjoyed, and it is scientifically proven singing makes you feel happier by releasing endorphins in the brain, the so-called “feel good” chemical.

As a teenager, I would also like to point out that her attitude is highly admirable in accepting, or disregarding, her own faults so that she appeared less affected by other people’s judgements. Everyone knows the teenage years are the least confident; a spotty, stuttering attempt to find a personality which you might be surprised to discover you possess, and cannot fathom the idea of ever being comfortable with. Why is it so easy to find faults in ourselves and in others? No matter how much we might like to say other people’s opinions of us should not matter, ultimately they do – how many times have you glowed with so much pride as to make an irrational sunbeam of yourself, or wallowed in the pits of despair all because someone said something about you? Florence was aware of the crushing effect of people’s negative opinions, and she monitored the audiences and newspaper reviews as a result, which in some ways can be seen as vain censorship, but also as a wise form of self-protection through the protection of her image.

In fact, her performances did often feature in the papers, though were described delightfully ambiguously, “Her singing at its finest suggests the untrammeled swoop of some great bird” and these reviews were written by her friends. A somewhat backwards lesson in showing the importance of making the right friends, I suppose. Florence became popular owing to her entertainment value rather than singing ability, and her only public performance, a dream of hers to perform at the impressive Carnegie Hall, sold out days in advance. Many famous musicians and actors of the time attended, and although the spirit of the performance was greatly enjoyed, it received devastating reviews by the newspapers. She suffered a heart attack a few days later, and owing to her already weak health died a month after.

“People may say I can’t sing,” she said, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.” If this article were a fairytale, I’d argue that the moral would be to try and be comfortable in your own skin, regardless of faults and ability. A fault is a perception and not necessarily a fact, and too much of our personality is driven by what others think of us rather than our own enjoyment. Of course, there are limits, and I’m certainly not saying one should pursue anything that makes one happy – there are some strange people and hobbies out there – but simply not to floor yourself if something turns out to be less successful than hoped.

Florence is exemplary as you can hardly call her a failure; her singing may have been detrimental to the ears but certainly not to the community, as her performances were an occasion to celebrate and meet up and enjoy. These performances would never have happened had she set too much store by the depreciations of others on her singing ability, and it was her passion for music, regardless of her own musicality, that gave her a reason to defy illness and live far longer than was expected.

Be inspired and pursue the dream, people.

The film Florence Foster Jenkins is available to pre-order in stores.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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Fiona Brewis

FORMER ARTS EDITOR -- Fiona Brewis, 18, is currently studying German with Chinese at the University of Warwick, where she manages her degree alongside her duties as Arts Editor of Young Perspective and President of German society. Her love for writing stemmed from an insatiable thirst for reading as a child, and she hopes to one day publish a novel. Fiona’s creative work has also been published in various Young Writers collections and she has additionally published two articles for the Herald newspaper. She first found out about Young Perspective when studying English at school with Editor Isaac Callan and was attracted by its presence on social media to begin writing for it.

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