by Sarah Hajkowski
Emma Donoghue’s eighth novel Frog Music uses musical lyrics and chapter titles to deepen the reader’s sense of her novel’s world and its characters. Central characters, Blanche Beunon and Jenny Bonnet, embody questions about the nature of womanness, sexuality, truth, and memory in the historical fiction of an unsolved murder.
“Music is the voice that tells us that the human race is greater than it knows.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
‘Interdisciplinary’ is a descriptor that often pops up in modern discussions of literature, referring to the wide net of interactions between a text, its audiences, and the greater world of other texts and text-makers to which it belongs. It’s sometimes applied when one avenue of study (visual art, for example) is interwoven with another (such as English literature).
A familiar integration of this applies to the secondary school poster projects many of us completed with varying degrees of effort to depict some scene or other from a class-assigned novel. More broadly, interdisciplinarity alludes to the rich possibilities for one work of art. Be it a book, song, play, wearable art, etc., interdisciplinary oeuvre cultivate relationships with one or more others.
This is one of the many reading pleasures offered by Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. In particular, the element of music – included as lyrics, fragments, ambience – functions in the novel such that Donoghue’s songful chapter titles intrigue her readers and foreshadow her action, while lyrical passages and contexts fill out the world that her major female characters inhabit, and confront the expectations of gender, language, and more that these ladies are subjected to.
Chapter One: ‘Darlin,’ or the New River Train
Chapter One is the opening volley of Frog Music, and the murky potentials it sets up (endearment, violence, chance encounter) lay groundwork for the novel to dazzle and devastate us like one of protagonist Blanche’s burlesque dances. The chapter’s premier scenes juxtapose the central incident of Jenny Bonnet’s murder with the dreamy bonne vie (good life) lived by her companion Blanche Beunon prior to their meeting.
The stealthy snipeshot at San Miguel Station which starts us off is hardly a “darling” scene. Donoghue lays out details piecemeal so that Blanche, Jenny, and their environment are for readers to draw their own conclusions about. Some shabby place called The Eight Mile House, bedtime, barking dogs of San Miguel. A stubborn old gaiter boot that won’t come off in the tired, stuffy hours. But all leads to blood, as it turns out.
So quickly, so surreal, the scene turns over from Blanche and Jenny trading song lyrics from their motherland of Gay Paree, to Jenny shot and Blanche saturated in scarlet. But who are these people? How do we become invested in their stories? Frog Music reverbs just out of hearing, with the entrance of a new setting: the House of Mirrors Saloon in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one month earlier (p. 6).
Blanche is in a saloon skirt dance to "Darlin'", sometimes known as the “New River Train Song.” Her lyrics are salacious. We immediately understand this is a cultivated business undertaking for Blanche and the fuel of a thousand fantasies for her clientele, red-faced and almost comically excited in anonymous rows of audience seating.
The theme of a ménage (a trois or more) arises first here – reflected latterly in the dynamic between Blanche and her kept men Arthur Deneve and Ernest Girard – but more on them later. Blanche teases,
“You can’t love but one and have any fun,
Oh darling, you can’t love one.
You can’t love two and your little heart be true
No, darlin', you can't love two”
The incorporation of "Darlin’" is a tone-setter for the novel in multiple ways. First, Donoghue’s is not a stuffy novel about the Victorian era, populated by society’s upper echelon, trading handkerchiefs and handclasps. She is writing instead about ordinary people, whose not-so ordinary lives regularly include desire and sex, hunger and empty pockets, shabby rooms and dark corners. Even the image of a burlesque house might be imagined with some oddly sexless, old-timey charm.
Not so in this particular House of Mirrors – a symbolic shorthand not only for the link between Blanche and Jenny, who have led mildly mirrored lives, but also for Jenny’s association of this Blanche with her departed sister, and for the revelations soon to come in Blanche’s life. Here the seedy, needy truth of what it is to be somebody’s ‘Darlin’’ for Blanche is spelled out in raunchy euphemisms “you can’t love five/and eat honey from my hive,” being just one example, while Blanche’s hands suggestively rove her own body.
Leaving the “unseen crowd of thrusting incubi,” (p. 10) Blanche takes a job in her line of sex work with a micheton client at the nearby International Hotel, not without its pleasures but not more than business, either.
This is the state of the world for Blanche Beunon, Blanche la Danseuse, as Jenny teases shortly after fate throws them into one another over the handlebars of Jenny’s stolen bicycle. Blanche goes about it according to her own rules several years established. She is appalled at Jenny’s dressing “the part of a man” and picking a fight, she is landlord of the apartment building on Sacramento Street, and angel and nymph both to the aforementioned Arthur Deneve and Ernest Girard, her kept men. Deneve and Girard are often Blanche’s blindspots, they remain so due to Blanche’s love and sexual appetite. She is their “Darlin'.’”
Time moves in a series of fluid directions in Frog Music, however. We are no sooner introduced to Deneve and Girard in mid-August than we flash back to a time nearer Blanche’s present in early-mid September, following Jenny’s mysterious murder. You can’t love two, like perhaps Deneve and Girard, and your little heart be true. By breaking so many of Blanche’s rules, by endearing herself to Blanche with her own personal music so quickly, Jenny disrupts the usual rhythms of Blanche’s life.
Blanche is rammed unceremoniously in the shin with Jenny’s bicycle. Their first meeting is itself an emblem for the intrusion of a newer, shrewder, perhaps more woman-dominated world on all the charm and underpinnings of the way things have always been done. Jenny initiates weighty questions about Blanche’s money, her sense of self, and most immediately her infant son P’tit.
Chapter Four: ‘Somebody’s Watching’
"Somebody's watching and waiting for him,
Yearning to hold him again to her breast…
Pale are the lips of most delicate mold,
Somebody's darling is dying now."
Chapter Four of Frog Music borrows its title from the text of “a poem for a dead soldier, generally attributed to French immigrant Marie Ravenal de la Coste… At least seven different people set it to music during the 1860s…[including] John Hill Hewitt, the New York-born ‘Bard of the Confederacy’” (p. 392, ’Song Notes’). The song both foreshadows Ernest Girard’s reappearance to Blanche in the present and eulogizes his and Arthur’s meaning in her past life.
Toward the former, Chapter Four sees Blanche reflecting on the strained breakdown of her ménage as her friendship with Jenny intensified, juxtaposed against Blanche’s furtive return to Chinatown the afternoon after Jenny’s murder. In her memories are the frequent reminders of a Girard with hackles always raised at Blanche, never a forgiving or understanding moment between the two as their tug-of-war rope Arthur languishes with smallpox.
All of Donoghue’s Chapter titles, it may be said, lull readers into complacency–or at least I consistently become so engrossed in her prose that I flip back to remember each title.
Just like Blanche, it’s easy to forget in Chapter Four that “Somebody’s Watching” as she goes up the steps to the Sacramento Street building which Arthur has sold out from under her, and into the apartment he fled for New York. This, with the buildup of knowing Girard’s antipathy for Blanche makes his reveal from the shadows of their now-empty apartment all the more suspenseful.
On the other hand, “Somebody’s Watching” is one of many songs that Frog Music’s Blanche catches a stanza of in transit from place to place. It’s part of the sound pollution of bustling 1870s Chinatown that should blend into the background. But as Blanche strolls a short way with Jenny and P’tit, she’s struck, moved by its “maudlin lament” (171).
In terms of structure, ‘Somebody’s Watching’ falls just about in the middle of the book; it is also the longest of all eight chapters, sixty-four pages in length to the average forty or fifty. In this way, it is the novel’s froggy belly and the center of key motivations for Blanche. Inside we find the act of watching as thematic to Chapter Four, so too mourning. We sing for what we’ve witnessed, and what we’ve lost.
Blanche correctly identifies that it is not she who is watching over her mac Deneve as he toils under the effects of smallpox, but Girard. Crucially, Blanche is not vigilant enough to keep custody of her little P’tit — is this simple inexperience? The dreaded truth of unfit mothering? Fear? A subconscious grasp for freedom? — in any case she’s estranged from him now.
Finally, in her cocked-cap, sly sort of way, perhaps Jenny is watching over Blanche also. Her music, one of Blanche’s most reliable remembrances of her friend, is worming its way into her head. The impression she’s made is indelible, like music we have one chorus or line of, even after death Jenny echoes in Blanche’s memory.
Chapter Eight: ‘When the Train Comes Along,’ & Afterword
The world of Frog Music reinforces for readers that life is so rarely tidy. Like intersecting shapes seen through a kaleidoscope, Blanche’s actions in early September (leaving Deneve, Girard, and the House of Mirrors behind) vault over and around her harsh reality post-Jenny’s murder later in the month.
Colloquially someone’s "train coming along" can refer to a visit with the consequences of what they’ve done, a karmic bill coming due, or more hopefully a new start opening itself wide. A bit of all of this may be found in the novel’s final chapter, a host of tyings-up including the identity of Jenny’s murderer, Blanche’s reunion with P’tit to Girard’s dismay, and Blanche’s flight to a new life under a new name.
The arrival of one’s personal train at the station constitutes something else as well: a pivotal temporal moment. After a month of swirling intrigue and self-discovery, Blanche may either choose to catch her (figurative and literal) train or forever face the consequences.
She never hated the life she led before meeting Jenny Bonnet, and there are some more symphonious passages of it that she’ll miss. Amusingly, her internal monologue takes in the fresh circumstances, some new maturity on the horizon: “Blanche will always like her drink, but she’ll try to make big decisions…sober….She’ll probably always require a good deal of fucking, but from now on she’s going to hold on to her independence,” (p. 371).
Jenny’s true legacy, not some platitude of justice or truth for posterity, not a bicycle drowned in a frog pond, but her Frog Music has turned Blanche’s head in the direction of an exciting, albeit uncertain future.
The questions she left, Jenny’s upbringing, her frolics outside and around period-conventional gender and sexuality, what it means to be a woman, a mother, a friend, ring in the air with the novel’s last scene. Blanche sings to herself the words that were on Jenny’s lips as she died.
As the fiction which Donoghue has expertly crafted draws to a close, for the nerdier among readers (myself included), the author provides an efficient index of her source materials and inspirations. This is as much a part of the novel’s music as so many lyrics and tunes. Across history, Donoghue has caught the melody of these human stories – Jenny “(or Jennie/Jeanne/ Jeannie)” Bonnet, Adéle Louise “Blanche” Beunon, and their supporting cast in snatches, as from a few streets or lifetimes over.
The Afterword dissects Frog Music into its elemental parts. A strain of song is made up of principles like tempo and timbre. The novel’s effectiveness is likewise in the specificity and richness of its voice. Like Blanche, Donoghue is clear about her dance with the biographical truth, stating her interpretation of events for the novel is “only an educated hunch,” (p. 377).
Readers like myself have already enjoyed the fruits of Frog Music’s extensive base of research, not only toward avoiding melodic anachronisms, but too developing her full picture of nineteenth century Chinatown in its shifting contours of demographic, language, gender, and more. Now we are supplied with the underbody which makes the novel such a nutritious read: a kind of supplemental stanza to the enchanting chorus.
In search of historical fiction that weaves together questions of womanhood, sex and sensuality, truth and legacy, and the meaningful themes we pick up from those we chance encounter, readers should absolutely pick up Frog Music. If this novel refuses to leave your head as it has mine, there is Donoghue’s bibliography to devour, including her most recent work of historical fiction Haven, published in August 2022.
Donoghue, Emma. “’Darlin’ ; ’Somebody’s Watching’ ; ’When the Train Comes Along’ ;
‘Song Notes.’” Frog Music, Rock Island Public Library, Rock Island, Il, 2018.
Julien Mussard: @jlnmsd (Instagram)
Jefferson Gomes: @daluz_jef (Instagram)
Ron Lach: on Pexels.com
Alexander Zvir: @alexanderr_zvir (Instagram)
About the Writer
Sarah Hajkowski is a freelance writer based in Western NC. In alignment with Erato, Sarah believes in the power of the written word to change the world, and is invested in mining the human experience both for the depth and pure, fun chaos of it. In her downtime, she will be storytelling with fellow creatives, baking, or listening to music.
Find out more at www.sarahhajkowski.com or reach out on social media.