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The news that reading Jane Austen is physical good for you – for it exercises areas of the brain not touched by other leisure activities- has been doing the rounds on the internet for some time. Today on BBC Radio 4′s bookshelf programme, Mariella Frostrup, above, discussed just how valuable it truly is to read Jane Austen, and what benefits we can derive from it with Professor Natalie Phillips, who has undertaken all this fascinating research via the use of brain scans by Michigan State University.
This extract from the programme’s blurb explains all:
What exactly is the human brain doing when we are enjoying the magical experience of reading a good book – and what difference does it make if we are reading for pleasure, or for study? Assistant Professor of Literature at Michigan State University Professor Natalie Philips undertook to find out exactly that by asking her students to read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in a MRI scanner in a series of experiments at America’s Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging. We discuss what the latest developments in literary neuroscience could mean for the way in which society as a whole evaluates the study of humanities and the liberal arts
This is a fascinating project, and the results thus far are stunning and very exciting. As someone who took part in developing the first MRI scanners in Cambridge (as a patient not a scientist, I hasten to add!) I find this such an interesting way to use the technology . Go here to listen again to the programme: the article about Jane Austen appears approximately 12 minutes 40 seconds in from the commencement of the programme.This will be repeated on Thursday at 15.30, but is available to “listen again ” to for a year.
To my shame I failed to review some very interesting books which were published last year, and so, before we begin our Pride and Prejudice adventure, do allow me to make amends.
The first book I wish to recommend to you this week is a biography of Uvedale Price by Charles Watkins and Ben Cowell, published by The Boydell Press, as part of their garden and landscape history series. This is a series which is overseen by the doyen of British landscape history, Professor Tom Williamson of the University of East Anglia, whose books I admire very much, so we can be assured that the books in this series are going to be interesting and worthwhile
Attentive readers of Jane Austen’s works will note that she appears to have been very interested in the debate that raged in polite society during the 1790s regarding the “picturesque” as a result of a pamphlet war between Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight and Humphrey Repton. Conversations on this topic were often included in her works, illuminating aspects of her characters’ attitudes not only to landscape and beauty but to life in general. In Northanger Abbey , written between 1798-9, Henry and Eleanor Tilney speak the painterly language of the picturesque and of the adherents of William Gilpin while accompanying the wonderingly practical Catherine Morland on a walk around Beechen Cliff near Bath. Edward Ferrars and Marianne Dashwood disagree as to the usefulness of a straight, well-grown tree as opposed to an old twisted tree looming on the landscape. And in Mansfield Park the relentless improvers are certainly not to be admired. Mr Rushworth ( who intends to employ Humphrey Repton like his friend, Mr Smith) is opposed in his schemes for Sotherton by the almost silent horror of Fanny Price:
“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? ‘Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.’”
Edmund Bertram is resolutely practical in the face of Henry Crawford’s relentless plans for the improvement of his rectory at Thornton Lacy:
“And I have two or three ideas also,” said Edmund, “and one of them is, that very little of your plan for Thornton Lacey will ever be put in practice. I must be satisfied with rather less ornament and beauty. I think the house and premises may be made comfortable, and given the air of a gentleman’s residence, without any very heavy expense, and that must suffice me; and, I hope, may suffice all who care about me.
To understand the background to Jane Austen’s feelings and to those of her characters, it is not only necessary therefore to read the works of William Gilpin, and to understand why she was enamoured (ahem!)of him, but also to understand the debate that raged between Uvedale Price and Humphrey Repton in the 1790s. This book will amply reward any reading, especially if it is done with Mansfield Park in mind. It is the first biography of Uvedale Price to appear in print, and is fascinating.
Uvedale Price was born at Foxley, in the parish of Yazor, Herefordshire, where he was baptized on 14 April 1747. He was the eldest son of Robert Price, a gentleman artist, and his wife, Sarah. His work on his estate formed his ideas on landscape . He absolutely detested the work of Capability Brown, (and his imitators) whom he considered had inflicted a dire and unfortunate uniformity on the 250 plus estates he had “improved” by utilising the same landscaping elements -smooth lawns around the house, sweeping away ancient gardens; installing serpentine lakes; decorating this new landscape with similar types of clumps of trees- wherever the estates were throughout the country.
Price was convinced that an estate could be considered beautiful in all its parts, not merely the pleasure grounds around the main house, but also that the working parts- the farms, the woodlands etc. – could not only be domesticated, populous and productive parts of the landscape, but could also be attractive and beautiful. A notion Jane Austen appears to allow her character, Emma to espouse. See this scene from Chapter 42, when Emma surveys the beautiful but practical landscape of the Donwell estate in all its glory:
It was hot; and after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds. It led to nothing; nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty. The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood, gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.
It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive
This book is fascinating, explaining in great detail the nature of these esoteric arguments which were taken up by polite circles in the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th century. Reading it sets in context Jane Austen’s attitude to landscape and estates and furthermore explains her attitudes towards certain of her characters and why, to her, improvers and Humphrey Repton are never quite “the thing”. And again proves that, despite being the relatively impoverished daughter of a clergyman, living an apparently quiet, domestic life, she routinely involved herself and her characters in the famous debates of the day, allowing them and herself to take part and immortalise them. Reading this book is an illuminating experience for any admirer of Jane Austen.
I did promise to write about the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk a few weeks ago when I wrote about performances of Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s fascinating novel, Mansfield Park and of Mrs Inchbald’s Lover’s Vows...so here we are. Never say I renege on my promises…
The reason this theatre is interesting to anyone interested in Jane Austen, is that it is a rare survivor, an example of the type of provincial theatre she would have known. She visited the theatres in Bath and in Southampton as well as the lager London theatres, and so this type of building would have been very familiar to her. But for us, used to larger Victorian, Edwardian or modern auditoria, a Regency theatre is a very different space, and the experience for the audience was and is so very different from that which we experience today.
Being able to visit a Georgian or a regency theatre in the UK is a rare experience, for the theatre at Bury St Edmunds is the only Regency theatre still in existence and open for business. The only other working theatre of this type in England of which I am aware is the Georgian Theatre in Richmond, Yorkshire which was built in 1788. There is one in Scotland , the Theatre Royal, Dumfries, which was first built in 1792, and accordingly the Bury St. Edmunds theatre is the third oldest working theatre in the United Kingdom.
The theatre was built 1819 by the architect, William Wilkins for use by his own theatre company, the “Norwich Comedians”. Wilkins, born in Norwich in neighbouring Norfolk, was the son of a very successful builder, William Wilkins senior, who was a partner to Humphry Repton between 1785 and 1796. Wilkins senior established an independent practice designing houses in the neo-Gothic and neo-classical styles, most notably Donington Park, in Leicestershire and Pentillie Castle in Cornwall. He also owned a series of theatres in East Anglia. His son, educated at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, became an architect of some merit, and designed the newly established Downing College in Cambridge in 1804. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states of his career:
Besides the prestigious East India House, however, he had recently finished the new St George’s Hospital at Hyde Park Corner, London (1825–8; now redeveloped as the Lanesborough Hotel). He was also supervising realization of his impressive classical edifice for University College on Gower Street (1825–32), in which he was assisted by J. P. Gandy,
and transforming a proposal to convert the old Royal Mews in Trafalgar Square into a design for a combined National Gallery and Royal Academy. Each of these commissions reflected the enlargement of Wilkins’s understanding of architectural function and of the social space in which it operated, which had been stimulated by reading the works of John Howard, Jeremy Bentham, and continental Enlightenment authors.
In 1815 Wilkins and his sisters inherited their father’s chain of East Anglian theatres. Wilkins junior re-designed many himself but sadly most of these- in Cambridge, Great Yarmouth,Colchester and Norwich- no longer exist, having been either demolished or, in the case of Norwich, burnt down( a fate shared by many theatres of this era). Four years later he obtained backing from the local brewer in Bury St Edmunds, Benjamin Greene, to build a theatre at Bury St Edmunds Greene loaned Wilkins £5000, an amazing sum. The intention was that the theatre would be patronised by the local gentry.
The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds opened on the 11th October, 1819. Amazingly the fabric and design of the theatre remained true to its Regency origins, with very few alterations, until it closed in 1903. In 1906 it re-opened after alterations were made to the structure by Bertie Crewe, but in 1920 it was taken back into ownership by the local brewery, now Greene King, a combination of the Greene and the King family breweries, who still owned the land that surrounded the theatre site. The theatre closed again in 1925, and was effectively “put in mothballs” and used by the Brewery as a barrel store. Eventually in the 1960s some restoration was undertaken after support for a re-opening was generated by a local group led by Air Vice-Marshall Stanley Vincent, and it was re opened in 1965.
Since 1975, ownership of the theatre has vested in the National Trust on a 999 year lease and it is operated as an independent working theatre by the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Management Ltd. It is used for theatre performances throughout the year, and there is always a production of an annual Christmas pantomime. As you may already know the theatre has also been promoting the performance of Georgian plays which are no longer part of the repertoire. Its Restoring the Repertoire programme has enabled us to see, for the first time, forgotten plays which were very familiar to Jane Austen, Lovers Vows being only one example. And importantly we have been able to see them in their natural habitat: these intimate theatres.
The Theatre’s website explains why it is important to restore these plays in an appropriate setting:
Due to the disappearance of all other Regency theatres in this country and their unique stages, the repertoire that was written for them in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has lain dormant for over a hundred and fifty years.
The repertoire depends for its success on the combination of the physical circumstances which only the Georgian stage can offer. There are literally thousands of plays, many of which are fine examples of the literary and theatrical tradition of the period, and which offer a real opportunity to add a significant body of knowledge about the early nineteenth century English drama repertoire which has hitherto been overlooked.
So you can see that in this type of theatre, actors and audience were not separated by light, or rather dark, or space. An intimate space was created, perfect for exchanges between audience and actors. The lawyer and diarist, Henry Crabb Robinson, who visited the theatre during the first week it was opened, remarked:
“It is a handsome tho’ small house. There is from the upper boxes a cheerful breadth and airiness that is quite exhilarating contrasted with the pent-up chicken coops of most theatrical boxes…
This photograph, above, taken from the rear of the central box, gives you some idea of the intimate nature of the theatre. The boxes, which were the most expensive type of seating in this type of theatre, were arranged in a semi-circle , or horseshoe shape around the stage, almost level with it, and this type of seating was known as the Dress Circle.
This photograph, above, taken from one of the stage-right side boxes, shows you the stage, and you can clearly see just how close the audience is to the performers. The bench seats in the stalls, or The Pit as it was known then, slope down towards the stage, below the level of the boxes in the Dress Circle. You can just see the entrance to these types of seats, under the stage to the right of the photograph, as the steps go down from the pit under the stage to the exit.
This rather poor picture of mine, above, gives you some idea of the size of the auditorium, which you can gauge by the presence of some people. The theatre originally held 800 people, and they would have been squashed together in the pit and the gallery (which is as you can see in the photographs below was above the boxes in the Dress Circle and the Upper Circle.) Modern standards for health, safety and comfort have reduced that capacity to 350.
To give you some idea of the sweep of the semi-circle of boxes in the Dress Circle, here is a photograph of the entrance to the boxes and the semi-circular stone-flagged corridor that runs around them.
This is the view from the stage left boxes in the Dress Circle, showing the audience in the Upper Circle , sitting above:
The cheapest seats were to be found in the Gallery, which was above the Upper Circle, and you can see the audience sitting in the gallery in the central uppermost part of the photograph, below:
This amazing photograph also gives you some idea of just how small the theatre is: by my reckoning, there are only eleven people sitting in the front row of the pit.
Here is the same view, taken from the stage, but without the audience being present. It allows you to see the spaces they would occupy, in order: Pit, Dress Circle, Upper Circle and Gallery.
The first playhouses in England were open to the elements: think of Shakespeare’s great wooden”O’, the Globe:
Wilkins’ theatre was enclosed but paid homage to the open sky by having a painted one:
This wonderful photograph shows the sky painted on the ceiling looking upwards from the pit.
Do note that the entrance for the actors onto the stage is not from “the slips” but from a pair of wooden doors providing access from backstage.
This is my photograph, again rather poor quality, of the stage, taken from the viewpoint of the central box in the Dress Circle, which shows the doors set before the proscenium arch, and which allow access and egress to the stage.
And finally let’s compare this with an example of a real regency theatre.This picture. below, is a scan of a Regency theatre from my copy of Pierce Egan’s 1825 book, The Life of An Actor:
I’m afraid it is not of a very high-resolution and for this I apologise. ***
To resume….this images shows two actors on stage. To stage-right is a door allowing access to the stage, as at Bury St Edmunds. You can clearly see the Pit, ( this is a badly attended production, it has to be said!), and the Dress Circle of boxes with its solitary well-heeled on-looker. These boxes are at a slightly higher level than with the stage, note as at Bury St, Edmunds. Above the Dress Circle is the Upper Circle. The Gallery would have been above that level, no doubt. The similarities between this print and the theatre at Bury St Edmunds are remarkable don’t you think?
So, if you want to experience the theatre as Jane Austen would have known it, you now have the opportunity to do so by visiting the theatre at Bury St Edmunds. Not only can you see productions of Georgian plays there, which are not performed anywhere else, the modern 20 and 21st repertoire having no place for them, but you can also take backstage tours. I’ve not done this yet, but it is on my to do list for next year.
I should like to than the staff at the theatre for all their assistance in preparing this article, and for their extreme kindness in supplying me with theses wonderful photographs of the theatre’s exterior and interior. I only hope my description has done them justice.
*** The reason why I have resorted to doing this is that I have had problems recently with unscrupulous authors and publishers using my images for commercial purposes without my permission. I’m afraid that, from now on , my old images taken from my collection of 18th and early 19th century books and engraving will be published here but only at low resolution. A practice which will not affect your enjoyment of them but which will, hopefully, stop the theft of my images. I do hope you will understand why I have reluctantly had to take this step.
On Saturday, at their premises in Dublin, Whyte’s auctioneers will be auctioning a complete set of Richard Bentley’s 1833 edition of Jane Austen’s novels in five volumes: four single volumes each containing one novel, that is, of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma, and one volume containing the full text of both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.
These books were the first edition of Jane Austen’s works to appear in the format of one volume per novel and to be illustrated. According to the publishing history of these books given in David Gilson’s Bibliography of Jane Austen, the publication of the novels was overseen by Jane Austen’s sister, Cassandra and her brother, Henry. Jane Austen had, of course, died in 1817 and did not live to see these editions. In a letter dated 20th May 1831 written to John Murray, who was Jane Austen’s publisher at her death, Cassandra Austen
…makes it clear that she was then thinking of reissuing JA’s novels. Cassandra says that she does not wish to sell the copyrights, but asks about the size of the proposed edition, the number of volumes, price per set and date of publication; she also asks if Murray has approached the executors of Thomas Edgerton for PP. Since we hear no more of this, we must assume that Cassandra and John Murray could not come to terms( perhaps the latter insisted on buying the copyrights) Richard Bentley, a year later was more fortunate.
( Page xxxiv)
David Gilson also gives us the fascinating tale of the copyright of these novels:
No English reissue of JA’s novels is known after 1818 until in 1832. Richard Bentley decided to include them in his series of Standard Novels. …a letter to Bentley from Henry Austen dated 24th July 1832, accepting on behalf of his sister, Cassandra and himself Bentley’s offer of £250 for the copyrights of SS, MP,E and NA&P ( plus two copies of “the work”) but pointing out that for the copyright of PP Bentley should apply to the executors of Thomas Egerton. The private printed List of Bentley publications for the year 1833 give the payment to Henry and Cassandra ( for the copyrights-jfw) as £210, made on 20th September 1832… Mr. Francis Pinkney, Egerton’s executor was paid as late as 17 October 1833 a total of £40 for the remainder of the copyright of PP; Bentley presumably reduced the sum paid to Henry and Cassandra Austen by that amount. The Bentley list also states that the copyrights of SS, PP, and MP were for 28 years, expiring in 1839, 1841 and 1842 respectively, while those of E and NA&P, expiring in 1857 and 1860.
(Gilson, as above, page 211)
Here is the auctioneer’s description of Lot 531:
AUSTEN ( Jane ). Sense and Sensibility [with :] Emma. [and :] Mansfield Park. [and :] Northanger Abbey [and, Persuasion] [and :] Pride and Prejudice. Richard Bentley … (Bentley’s Standard Novels 23, 25, 27, 28 and 30), 1833FIRST ILLUSTRATED AND FIRST ONE-VOLUME EDITIONS, each volume with additional engraved title-page, engraved frontispiece and printed series title-page, 5 vols, small 8vo, contemporary deep olive green morocco, gilt, fully gilt and lettered spines, top edges gilt : light endpaper foxing and just a little elsewhere, the bindings just lightly rubbed but still attractive, and otherwise a very good set, rarely found complete. Complete sets of the five Jane Austen vols in this series have become notably rare.
They give an estimate of € 1500-1800….*sighs longingly* I should like to thank my good friend, Katherine Cahill of Mrs Delany’s Menus Medicine and Manners fame for sharing this tempting information with me. She will be attending the auction, has offered to act as my agent( Temptress!) and I’m sure she will be able to let us know the result of the sale.
Before we get back to posting about the Lefroys and Ashe, I thought you might like to know that the play adapted by Tim Luscombe from Jane Austen’s novel, and which is currently touring southern England in a Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds production, is now available to purchase. It has been published by Oberon Books in paperback form and it is also available on Kindle as an E-Book.
In addition to the text of the adaptation, the book includes details of the cast and crew, a note on the production by the director, Colin Blumenau, and a note on the process of adapting Jane Austen’s most complex novel by Tim Luscombe.
If you cannot get to see this production, you might care to read it, as a substitute. I’m sure you are all imaginative enough to be able to join the dots….;)
Last Monday I was very lucky to see a performance of Elizabeth Inchbald’s play 1798, Lover’s Vows, at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds. What made this performance very special was the cast: the actors were the members of the same cast which is currently appearing in the touring production of Mansfield Park, which I reviewed, here. As a result we saw Edmund play Anhalt, Mary Crawford play Amelia, Maria Bertram play Agatha, Fanny Price playing the Cottager’s Wife, Henry Crawford playing Frederick, and Mr Rushworth as Count Cassell. I am a firm believer that plays are better understood when seen rather than when merely read, and so it was with this production.
It was, I hasten to add, a Script in Hand performance: one where the actors had had one read-though, then performed the play on stage, script in hand without benefit of costumes or scenery . I’ve seen an amateur performance of this play, but it was revelatory to see it acted by good hardened real professionals. In addition seeing it performed in the tiny Regency theatre at Bury St Edmunds was wonderful: the theatre is very intimate and suits this type of play-where there are many asides made directly to the audience. Another joy was that the theatre was kept illuminated during the performance, just as Georgian theatres were.We are all- actors ands audience, on view. A further layer of appropriateness was that Mrs Inchbald was born in a small village only five miles away from the town: she was born Elizabeth Simpson at Standingfield on October 15th 1753, and she knew Bury St Edmunds well. Her plays, along with most of the Georgian repertoire are very rarely performed these days. However, the restored Theatre Royal has established a very noble tradition, since its restoration in 2007, of performing these forgotten plays and attempting to “restoring them to the repertoire”. They have performed many of Mrs Inchbald’s plays, which is very appropriate given the local connection, and it is obvious that Colin Blumenau , the director of these two plays and once artistic director of the Theatre Royal, is a strong supporter and admirer of her works.
The play is, to modern eyes and ears, and odd mix of high drama and low comedy. And it is clear that the subject matter- the fate of a fallen woman who had given birth to an illegitimate son, and who was cast off by a noble family, combined with the love story of a young noble girl for her priest- is not at all suitable to be played by the unmarried and engaged Bertram daughters and Mary Crawford. It is really no surprise that Edmund is initially aghast to discover that this particular play was the one the Mansfield Players decided upon:
I cannot, before Mr. Yates, speak what I feel as to this play, without reflecting on his friends at Ecclesford; but I must now, my dear Maria, tell you, that I think it exceedingly unfit for private representation, and that I hope you will give it up. I cannot but suppose youwill when you have read it carefully over. Read only the first act aloud to either your mother or aunt, and see how you can approve it. It will not be necessary to send you to yourfather’s judgment, I am convinced.”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 15
If you would like to read the play you can, by clicking here. After the play had been performed, a question and answer session with the actors and the director, Colin Blumenau was fascinating.Their insights into the technique needed to successfully portray scenes where the actors are requited to switch abruptly from tragedy to comedy were compelling.
Since seeing the play, I’ve had the opportunity to consider it and how Jane Austen used it in Mansfield Park. It is clear that she was very well acquainted with it. As a woman who was very interested in the theatre, she no doubt followed the news of its great success ( it was performed 45 times at its initial presentation at Covent Garden in London) and the controversy surrounding its translation from the German playwright, Auguste von Kotzebue’s play, The Natural Son. She many even have seen it performed, though she does not mention this in her letters. She did have the opportunity, for it was performed at least five times while she lived in Bath, IIRC. For her purposes it was the perfect vehicle for the young people at Mansfield. From its first performance it was a controversial play- with its themes of illegitimacy, inappropriate love,and the decency of the lower orders as opposed to the arrogance and cruelty of the upper classes – and it suited her purposes not only to have the young people act in defiance of Sir Thomas’ strong sense of decorum but for them also to choose to perform the most unsuitable play that they possibly could. Its plot lines also gave them many opportunities to “act out’ their own secret passions and desires, to use the play for their own purposes.
But it goes deeper than that; by casting the play as she did, she subverted and even satirised her own characters. Let’s consider a few examples. Mr Rushworth, the dim but rich cuckold, is transformed into a boastful man about town, Count Cassell,who had made “vows of love to so many women that on his marriage with (Amelia) a hundred hearts will at least be broken. Maria, the adulterous wife who lived openly in sin with Henry Crawford and eventually is cast off by her family to live with Mrs Norris in
an establishment being formed for them in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment,
Mansfield Park, Chapter 48
plays Agatha, who is welcomed back into the bosom of her lovers family with great pomp and circumstance, having previously been abandoned to shift for herself and her son. Fanny- who was finally coerced into agreeing to play the Cottagers Wife, though Sir Thomas’ return prevented it, is meek and kind but relatively powerless to do good until she is exiled to Porstmouth, when her little store of money provides food and intellectual stimulation for her siblings: the Cottager Wife is kind, taking Agatha into her home when no one would help, but sensible enough to eventually take the financial reward offered by Anhalt on Count Wildenheim’s behalf despite the protests of her husband. The Butler, Verdun, is a long comic role: his rambling poetic speeches with concluding morals( which were not written wholly by Mrs. Inchbald but by her friend and college, John Taylor) ramble on: in Mansfield Park , the Butler,Baddeley has only two speeches, and of these the second is of vast significant for it indicates the extent to which the odious Mrs Norris is held in contempt below stairs at Mansfield Park:
Mrs. Norris called out, “Stay, stay, Fanny! what are you about? where are you going? don’t be in such a hurry. Depend upon it, it is not you who are wanted; depend upon it, it is me” (looking at the butler); “but you are so very eager to put yourself forward. What should Sir Thomas want you for? It is me, Baddeley, you mean; I am coming this moment. You mean me, Baddeley, I am sure; Sir Thomas wants me, not Miss Price.”
But Baddeley was stout. “No, ma’am, it is Miss Price; I am certain of its being Miss Price.” And there was a half–smile with the words, which meant, “I do not think you would answer the purpose at all.”
Mansfield Park, Chapter 32.
Mary Crawford, a woman of strong opinions which are fatally and morally flawed, played Ameila , a girl of strong opinions, who was seen as outrageously forward by some sections of its 18th century audience, but who is truly moral and kind, and prepared to marry and love a clergyman, which Mary Crawford, most definitely, was not.
The most striking contrast is found in the attitudes of the head of the households, Baron Wildenhaim, as opposed to Sir Thomas. The Baron,who had been forced by his parents to abandon the low-born Agatha and their son, Frederick, and despite having married and become a widower, regrets ever having to take such a drastic course of action. He assures his daughter, Amelia, that she would never be forced to marry without affection. Once he discovers the true nature of Count Cassell’s sexual offences and bragging, he forbids her to marry him, and eventually consents to her marrying his Chaplain, Anhalt, whose strong moral advice has allowed him to recover Agatha and his natural son Frederick and, also, to give them respectable positions in society, as his son and wife. Sir Thomas, though he offers to allow Maria an escape route from the marriage with Rushworth, failed to allow Fanny the same advantage and punishes her for her “inexplicable” rejection of Henry Crawford, a morally flawed man,who can offer riches and status and, through his connection the Admiral, has arranged for the promotion of her brother, William. There are many more parallels…but I’ll stop here.
As you can see, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play and I now wonder how influential Lover’s Vows was in sowing the germ of the idea for Mansfield Park in Jane Austen’s head. I used to think she merely inserted it as an (in)appropriate play in the private theatrical section of the book, but now…I think the evidence is that its influence is much stronger and deeper with her than that. I do thank the Theatre Royal, its Restoring the Repertoire programme, and the cast of Lover’s Vows for their inspiring performance.
Last night I had a wonderful experience: I attended an intelligently adapted and wonderfully acted version of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in the only remaining working Regency theatre in England.
Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Mansfield Park is fast-paced, intelligent and witty, retaining the best of the dialogue and action from Jane Austen’s novel. Mr Luscombe has good form regarding Jane Austen. He has previously adapted Northanger Abbey and Persuasion and is an avowed admirer of her. As he writes in the play’s Programme Notes ( which include the full text of his adaptation) it is very difficult to omit characters and scenes :
Its hard cutting Jane Austen. I adapt her because I love her work. And so anything that goes is a little death, but a play is a very practical thing. It costs money. It can’t be so long that the audience miss the last bus home, and there is always a limit on the number of actors you can expect a theatre to employ…
Some characters were retained but never appeared, living their lives off-stage: Dr and Mrs Grant and Lady Bertram were relegated in this way. A pity, especially as I’m sure Mr Lucsombe would have had some fun with Lady Bertram’s languorous but occasionally lucid character. However, the constant refrain that “Mother is upstairs with a light headache‘ was very amusing, and I don’t think I was alone, last night, in wanting to join in the oft-repeated phrase. The roles of Julia and Mr Yates were omitted completely.
Geoff Arnold, above, who played Tom Bertram, William Price and Mr Rushworth, was excellent. Each character was completely different, in both speech and posture. His Mr Rushworth was a complete triumph, and took over Mr Yates’ role in one of my favourite scenes from the novel, where he is found “ranting ” on the “stage” in Sir Thomas’ study.
Henry and Mary Crawford were excellent; sophisticated beings causing havoc in the rural backwater of rich but repressed Mansfield. The gasp of horror from the audience when Henry announced that he wanted to make a tiny hole in Fanny Prices’ heart was wonderful to behold. Many in the audience seemed to have fallen for Henry’s charms…up to that point. Which is, I suppose exactly as Jane Austen would have wanted it to be.
Fion Jolly was a great Fanny. Her reactions to the goings on around her were fabulously portrayed. But the award for best performance, to my mind at least, must be made to Pete Ashmore as Edmund. Edmund is, as you know, a tricky role for anyone to play. The urge to slap him, when reading the book, is often never far away. He can be kind but annoying, and an actor not attuned to playing him as a flawed but genuine and serious human, not as a paragon, will lose our sympathy very quickly. Last night we saw a manly, kind, upright but ever-so-slightly flawed Edmund. I didn’t want to slap him very often, if at all. Which in a theatre so intimate as at Bury was probably for the good of all concerned. Tim Luscombe’s direction in the notes to the play probably helped:
Edmund isn’t witty but mustn’t be a “formal ,solemn, lecturer”, either.
He really wasn’t.
Richard Heap as Sir Thomas and Mr. Price was marvellous ( it’s almost like the Captain Hook/Mr Darling role reversal in “Peter Pan” isn’t it?) managing to successfully convey to us some of Sir Thomas’ wry humour, which is present in the novel but hardly ever portrayed in film or on stage in my experience.
The set was simple but clever: Town, Portsmouth and Mansfield were depicted on gauzes printed with Regency engravings behind a simple Repton-esque arcade:
The clatter of the Portsmouth scene, compared to the elegance and calm of Mansfield was very cleverly done, most of the cast suddenly appearing as the unruly Price brood, cavorting around the stage.
This is a long novel, and trying to cram all its content into a production lasting only two and a half hours seems an impossible task. But last night the cast and crew at Bury St Edmunds succeeded in portraying the majority of the action, and moreover, retaining many important moments which I did think might be omitted. The themes of the abolition, the slave trade, education of women, the politics of landscaping etc were only alluded to: the interaction between the lovers and the consequences of their misplaced affections was the main business of the evening. But I’m not complaining, for to manage to portray the main themes of the novels in an economical but exciting a manner was a triumph.
The director, Colin Blumenau is also an admirer of Jane Austen and his past championing of the lost 18th century theatrical repertoire makes him the perfect director of this intimate production, in a theatre with which he is wholly familiar: he was the Artistic Directory at the Bury theatre for 15 years. His knowledge of the theatre of the era was evident in small but telling details: for example, Maria’s gestures when acting out a scene in Lovers Vows were taken directly from Henry Siddons’ Rhetorical Gestures and Actions or so it seemed to me. These tiny references to 18th century life and its theatre were delicious bonuses for a knowledgeable audience but didn’t detract for one minute from the fast pace of the tale. As Mr. Blumenau writes in the plays’ programme:
How fabulous once again, to find myself in the hands of an incomparable writer whose command of our English language makes it a joy to work with- to speak and to hear. The fact that her major works are in novel form only gives rise to regret that she didn’t persevere with her attempts at dramatic writing…and once again how gratifying to know that you are working with the work of a woman. Disenfranchisement and disempowerment did nothing to stifle her voice in the literature of the period. Once again following a long tradition of great women writers the like of Wollstonecraft, Inchbald Cowley and Centlivre, we find a unique female voice is out-writing so many men. I like that a lot.
So do I. And if you want to see this really inspired production, clearly created with much love, affection and, above all, intelligence, then you have your chance. It is still playing at Bury ( a prefect venue given its size and age) till the end of this week, and then it goes on tour, dates and locations here. I would urge you to go. You will not, I think, regret it.
I found these videos yesterday, and I thought you might like to see them. As you know I’m off to see Tim Luscombe’s new adaptation of Mansfield Park on Saturday at Bury St Edmunds. (FX:Excited squeal) The theatre has recently put up two videos featuring the cast on its site. First, an interview with the actors who play Mary and Henry Crawford, Kristin Atherton and Samuel Collings:
I have to say I’m not sure if I agree with all of Samuel’s assessments of Henry Crawford’s character (!) but it makes for interesting viewing.
Here is an interview with Pete Ashmore who plays Edmund Bertram:
Mary Crawford as Beyoncé? I think I know just what he means :)
The third video is of the cast rehearsing dances, presumably for Fanny’s coming out ball:
I will only add that, in the words of the late and very lamented Eric Morecambe, someone in the cast is a lovely little mover…..
You may be interested to note that a new adaptation of Mansfield Park is to tour English theatres in the autumn. It will premiere at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, on the 13th September. This is a highly appropriate venue as the theatre is the only surviving Regency theatre in England. It was built in 1819 by William Wilkins, who was also the architect of the National Gallery in London. It is a very rare survivor of the Georgian era and is one of only eight Grade I listed theatres in England. As usual in these cases, it is a very intimate theatre and seats only 350.
The National Trust is the current custodian of the theatre and from its re-opening after its restoration in 2007 until recently its artistic director was Colin Blumenau who, in a very inspired way during his tenure, reintroduced to the modern repertoire many Georgian plays with which Jane Austen would have been familiar. These plays- virtually unknown and unseen since the Victorian era- were staples of the 18th century repertoire -but are rarely performed today. In particular he concentrated in reviving plays written by Suffolk’s famous theatrical daughter, Mrs Inchbald. His Restoring the Repertoire series has been wonderful to follow over the years. He is directing the new production of Mansfield Park
The adaptor is Tim Luscombe .You will no doubt be familiar with his other adaptations of Jane Austen’s works: Northanger Abbey
I was lucky enough to see Northanger Abbey in York some years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. His version of Persuasion I have only read, and I do wish I had had the chance to see it on stage. I am of course, going to see Mansfield Park for not only is it now, most probably, my second favourite of Jane Austen’s novels, but this is being performed in my “patch” as it were ;) I shall be reporting back to you , of course.
In addition to staging Mansfield Park, in a really intelligent display of joined-up-thinking, the cast will also be performing a reading of Lover’s Vows adapted by Mrs Inchbald from Kotzebue’s original play, on the 24th September. This is the “play within the novel” that was nearly the undoing of the young people at Mansfield, and which was carefully chosen by Jane Austen for the way in which the plot of the play neatly amplified the secret desires of the performers. I’m hoping to see this too- I have my tickets- but it depends on my schedule on the day as to wherever I can actually attend. Fingers crossed.
If you would like to book tickets then go here for all the details of the theatres where Mansfield park will be touring this autumn.
at Sotheby’s this afternoon for £ 126,000 (plus buyers premium of 20%, making a total purchase piece of £152,450) to a bidder, identity currently unknown, who was bidding by telephone.
An announcement was made prior to the sale to the effect that tests have revealed that the stone in the ring is in fact a natural turquoise, and not odontolite as previously thought.
The first edition of Pride and Prejudice sold for £ 18,000:
The first edition of Mansfield Park sold for £4,200
The first edition of Emma was unsold, and bids up to £7,500 were received for it.
The first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion sold for £3,200
The Trafalgar Sea Chest sold for £15,000.
Some other lots were unsold, notably a collection of letters written by William IV.Hmm…..
Post Script: Some of you have wondered if I was there, and the answer is no, I simply watched the auction online. Some of the comments made by the auctioneer were priceless. He seemed to be fascinated by internet bids, informing internet bidders that it is “against you, Mightly Internet” or “Internet , it is between you and your mouse”. One of the Jane Austen first editions had “some gatherings proud”, and he thought this was an entirely poetic way to describe a Jane Austen novel. Priceless. I can highly recommend watching these auctions online via Sotheby’s website.
Last week, Persuasion…this week, Mansfield Park.
BBC Radio 4 Extra are broadcasting a really lovely adaptation of Jane Austen’s most controversial novel, Mansfield Park this week.
Episode One has already been broadcast and is available to Listen Again to ,here, for the next seven days: Episode 2 is just finishing as I write and is available here, again for seven days. The third episode will be accessible via the adaptations main page, tomorrow.
As in last weeks case, this can be listened to wherever you are in the world and access is not limited to those of us who live in the UK. If you want to keep it, it can be downloaded for £7.49 here. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 in 2007.
It has a fabulous cast: Hannah Gordon is Jane Austen, the late and very lamented Michael Williams is Sir Thomas and Robert Glennister ( sigh) is Edmund. Fanny is played by Amanda Root ( who was the best Anne Elliot ever!)
Some of you may recall that last July I was lucky enough to be able to attend Heritage Opera’s premiere performance of Mansfield Park, the Opera written by Jonathan Dove with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton at Boughton House in Northamptonshire.
Last week the opera had two performances at the Royal Academy of Music by students attending the academy. Their website has an extract from the Times review of the 21st May:
‘…in John Ramster’s pacey, elegant staging, a fine cast of Royal Academy of Music students proved that this opera can fizz as charmingly in a small theatre as in a Regency ballroom… Who would have thought this line ”this gate is locked” could carry such a torrent of sexual frustration as Tereza Gevorgyan‘s Maria invested in it! Excellent performances, too, from Rupert Charlesworth, mincing like an upmarket rent-boy as Rushworth, Aoife Miskelly as brilliant, brittle, amoral Mary Crawford, and Rachel Kelly as steadfast Fanny. With Lionel Friend conducting there were no weak links. Let’s hope for a swift revival.’
Sadly, I was unable to attend either performance, but I thought you might like to see some more photographs of the event, here, and read another review by David Karlin on Bachtrack.com
I am so pleased that this ingenious opera is getting more performances. I’d love to see it performed at Chawton House which would be a perfect setting. One day, perhaps….
You may recall a scene in Patricia Rozeman’s adaptation of Mansfield Park where we see Julia and Maira Bertram playing a strange instrument for the entertainment of the family . Here is a scene cap from the film showing them at work:
They were, in fact, playing a glass harmonica.
This is a fascinating instrument which was invented by the American polymath, Benjamin Frankin in 1761 while he was living in London. He had heard Edward Delaval , a Fellow of the Royal Society, play on his set of musical glasses in 1759. This was an idea with which we are more familiar, I think , as we can still see these types of glasses played today by some variety artists. In fact these glasses -wine glasses filled to different levels with water which were played by rubbing wetted fingers along the rims- seems to have been the brain child of a Mr Puckeridge of Ireland, but he and his glasses perished in a fire. Edward Delaval was fascinated by the properties of glass and he studied the specific gravities of several metals and their colors when bonded with glass, and also how to use it in the manufacture of artificial gems, hence his interest in this instrument. Benjamin Franklin improved upon his idea- of the rows of glasses fitted in a cabinet, by creating a very different instrument. Here is his design from the modern exponent, Thomas Bloch’s fascinating website:
You can see that it is quite radically different: scores of glass bowls are nested within each other, strung centrally on a spindle that spins, and which is turned by means of a treadle. Here, below, is a late 18th century version in its wooden cabinet, with a handle to turn the glass bowls, not a treadle:
Here is a photograph of Thomas Bloch’s own glass harmonica, which shows the position of the players hands when operating the harmonica :
Frnaklin’s instrument was so improved that it transformed the performance aspects of the harmonica. Now duets could be played,as in the adaptation of Mansfield Park, and individual players could now play chords .If you go here you can see the example in London Horniman Musuem which was used in the linked BBC Radio 3 programme below.
This was not an instrument that could be enjoyed by everyone: it was very expensive to produce and buy and needed very specifically trained teachers. Mozart was a fan and wrote some beautiful music for it. It was used by Mesmer as part of his electronic experiments, to soothe his patients. But this reputation for celestial soothing music was not long lived. One of its most famous exponents was the blind German-born woman, Marianne Kirchgessner, and she was famous for giving concerts on the instrument throughout Europe. She was rumoured to have been driven mad by playing the instrument, but this was probably not due to its strange sound( which I confess I can only listen to for very small intervals as it makes me grind my teeth!) but to lead poisoning. Playing with whetted fingers on glass that had high lead content most probably contributed to her demise.
Modern composers have use the instrument to great effect- in film scores and in rock music; Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, for example. If you would like to know more of the history of this fascinating instrument you might care to listen to this fabulous BBC Radio 3 programme, presented by Dame Eveyln Glennie, one of our most distinguished percussion players, shown below.
If Chimes Could Whisper is a short (45 minutes long) but totally enthralling history of the Glass Harmonica and contains a lot of examples of the instrument being played- pieces of music which date from the 18th century to the present day.
If you click on the link above you should be able to access the webpage linking got the programme which is available to “listen again” for another five days.
Alternatively here, above, is a video of Thomas Bloch playing his fabulous glass harmonica, which I’m sure you will enjoy. It is a very evocative sound. How appropriate that the Miss Bertrams were portrayed playing such an instrument; expensive, exclusive, seemingly celestial but with hidden dangers ;)
Last night the BBC aired its latest edition of the Antiques Roadshow filmed last summer at the wonderful Stanway House, near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire which has always been one of my favourite places in England to visit , with its magical garden, originally planned by Charles Bridgeman in the 18th century,and which, since the 1980s, has undergone a process of extensive restoration.
At one point in the show we were treated to a Jane Austen fest. A lady who possessed some old looking editions of Jane Austen novels appeared. She owned rather tatty copies of Pride and Prejudice,Mansfield Park and Emma. She wanted to know if they were first editions and if it was worth having them rebound. She had inherited them from her father who had, in turn, inherited them from a godmother.
They were in pretty poor condition, as they had lived for 25 years in a suitcase in her attic.
However on closer inspection, and in my opinion, the binding shows them to have been originally owned by an earl, looking closely at the coronet on the bindings. An English earl is entitled to wear a coronet which has eight strawberry leaves (four are visible in depictions of it) and eight silver balls (or pearls) around the rim (of which five are visible in depictions).The bindings are also marked with the cypher “A. R.” .
I do hope the owner does some research into the original owner before she replaces the original bindings.
She was assured that they really were first editions and was delighted with this discovery. Some slightly dubious comments were made by the expert about anonymity, as to why Jane Austen didn’t put her name to her works, but I’ll gloss over that. He advised that all three novels( three volumes each, making 9 volumes in all) were worth being rebound, at a probable cost of £1000…
for he estimated their worth at £5000 each, a low estimate he hastened to add. I would say very low, frankly in the current market. But it was lovely to hear that the owner was a Janeite, almost word-perfect on the novels, and she was delighted to realise that she had in her possession, three (THREE!!!) first editions of books written by her favourite author. Good luck to her!
If you are able to access the BBC iPlayer, the programme is availabe to view for the next 6 days, and the item under discussion appeared approximately 40 minutes into the programme.
The National Portrait Gallery in London’s new exhibit, The First Actresses opens tomorrow and runs until the 8th January 2012. I hope I will be going to see it soon. I will ,of course, then let you know my impressions of it( you would be hard pressed to restrain me!). But today I thought you might like to read about the book that accompanies the exhibition, and you might consider purchasing it, especially if you cannot visit the exhibit in London in person.
The exhibition seeks to examine how these first actresses were portrayed, not only in the large-scale portrait but in caricatures, in prints and on such diverse goods as china figures and tin glazed tiles, and how perceptions of their reputations changed as a result. The book contains interesting essays on the lives of these early actresses. Of course, it has to be remembered that it was only after the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (my hero!) in 1660 that women were allowed to become professional actress and appear on the stage. The way in which their reputations, good or ill, have been portrayed by artists is certainly an intriguing subject to examine in detail. Many actresses were associated with lax morals and, indeed, outright prostitution. During Jane Austen’s era Sarah Siddons sought to establish a more serious, responsible and respectable persona for the female branch of the profession. But, of course, she shared the stage with actresses like Mary Robinson, shown above on the cover of the book, who was The Prince of Wales’ mistress, and Dorothea Jordan, shown below in a portrait by John Russell dating from 1801. She was famous for her marvellous pair of legs, revealed to the adoring public in “breeches roles” where cross dressing was allowed, even encouraged. She was also the long term mistress of the Duke of Clarence, the Prince of Wales’ brother, who pretty swiftly disposed of her servicesin the race to produce a legitimate hero to the throne after the death of George IV’s only legitimate child, Princess Charlotte in November 1817, but only after she had bourne him ten children and supported him financially.
The great serious portrait , executed by an aspiring or famous artist and exhibited in public was one way in which actresses sought to convince the public that they were to be taken seriously. John Hoppner’s portrait of Mrs Jordan as the Comic Muse, below, failed miserably in this regard as the attitude in which she was painted was thought to be too salacious and many hostile reviews resulted. The great portrait was, for both parties involved, a two-way street. If it worked, not only did the actress enhance her reputation but the artist gained fame and possibly more commissions as a result of portraying a celebrity successfully. Plus ca change….
The book contains potted biographies of the sitters included in the exhibition. The portrait of Mrs Inchblad, below, attributed to John Hoppner, is new to me and I think it is fabulous. She was, of course, not only an author in her own right but was also the translator of Kotzebue’s play, Lover’s Vows, which Jane Austen used to spectacular and revealing dramatic effect in the Private Theatricals episode in Mansfield Park.
The Chapter entitled Star Systems Then and Now written by Gill Perry is perhaps my favourite section of the book. As well as considering actresses now and how they are portrayed by artists and photographers, Gill Perry examines how non-professionals who took part in The Itch for Acting- private theatricals – an itch which infected the society in which Jane Austen lived, were portrayed by artists and the media of the day.
The painting by Daniel Gardner of The Three Witches from Macbeth, shows Elizabeth, Vicountess Melbourne, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and Anne Seymour Damer, as they appeared at the Richmond House private theatricals which were hosted by the Duke of Richmond at his London home in a specially built theatre, and where its aristocratic cast were coached by the professional actress Elizabeth Farren. She went on to marry one of them, the Earl of Derby.
Jane Austen loved the theatre and was an acute critic of performances she attended in London and in Southampton.She would have enjoyed this book tremendously I’m sure, casting her critical eye over the many portraits, making caustic comments on them no doubt.
You ought to know that the NPG is currently offering the book at a reduced price currently: here is a link to the website should you wish to buy it from them directly, and take advantage of this offer. If you are interested in the theatre of Jane Austen’s era, then I am sure you will want to do so.
The quest to explain to you exactly what the effect of an Ha-ha looks like continues. I posted about the history of Ha-ha some time ago, here, and on the Ha-ha at Stowe, here but earlier this week one of my correspondents emailed to ask me to explain again as he had not quite grasped the concept, and had difficulty envisaging one when he recently re-read Mansfield Park. I am happy to oblige….
I visited Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, above, a few weeks ago. This is the magnificent Adam designed home of the Curzons now owned by the National Trust and the images of the ha-ha that exists there might finally do the trick. So here goes…
The ha-ha runs around the whole of the house and its pleasure grounds, creating a sort of island within the parkland.
As we know, the ha-ha is a sunken fence, one that very importantly prevents livestock from entering the formal gardens of the great house. It is a ditch, sunk beyond a retaining wall, and the great advantage of this type of border enclosure is that, visually, the view from the house is uninterrupted by walls fences or hedges. This allows the owner or visitor to the house to gaze over the acres of parkland, in the safe and secure knowledge that the livestock -cattle, deer and sheep- are being prevented from grazing close to the house.
At the formal entrance to Kedleston there is an ironwork fence attached to the retaining we all of the ha-ha, which you can see above
But this, as you can see from this picture take from the entrance to the house, is not particularly visually intrusive. Note the sheep are firmly kept the other side of the ha-ha.
The Ha-ha continues around the pleasure gardens, and from this point on does not have the additional railings found a t the formal entrance facade.
This, above, and below is part of the retaining wall beyond the stables.
You can clearly see how the land has been cut away from the retaining wall: the bench on the right is almost level with the top of the retaining wall.
The rear of the house has views over lawns to the rising hills of the parkland…
You can see the ha-ah- but only by noticing the difference in the grass colour. The cultivated lawns as opposed to the less well tended parkland (complete with sheep) are of a slightly different hue .
But this difference lessens the further away from the ha-ha you are, as you can see from this photograph:
A small summer-house has been built upon the ha-ha at one point in the garden.
This is a delightful building, and when you enter it, you can, by looking through the windows,see the slope of the ha-ha falling away dramatically from the retaining wall :
You can see how dramatically the parkland falls away from the wall: this prevents any animals in the park begin able to jump over the retaining wall and enter the pleasure gardens.
And of course, it is really the view from the house that is important: this view is of the lawns at the rear of the house, leading towards the ha-ha onto the rising hills of the parkland
I do hope this helps you visualise exactly what is the effect of the ha-ha on the landscape,and how ingenious it was.
I’ve been doing some research on musical projected that involve Mansfield Park since I went to see Heritage Opera’s version written by Jonathan Dove, earlier this summer.
The most interesting and intriguing nugget of information I have found is that Benjamin Britten contemplated writing a version of Jane Austen’s novel in the 1940s.
Apparently, circa 1946, it was while Britten was working at the Sussex country house opera company, Glyndebourne, on his opera, The Rape of Lucretia that John Christie, the owner, suggested that he might like to write a new chamber opera for the company which could be performed there the following year. Initially Britten and the librettist with whom he had worked on Lucretia, Ronald Duncan, were interested in writing an operatic version of the history of the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, or of Chaucer’s classics,The CanterburyTales, but they soon realised that neither subjects were suitable for the chamber opera format.
Benjamin Britten also wanted to write a work that would have been suitable for the English contralto Kathleen Ferrier,
but it was to another singer, the soprano Joan Cross, shown below in Britten’s opera about Elizabeth I, Gloriana,
to whom Britten was eventually indebted, for she suggested that Mansfield Parkmight make a suitable vehicle for them all, with Kathleen Ferrier perfect for the role of Fanny .
Indeed, she went to nearby Brighton to buy a copy of the novel for Ronald Duncan to read and work upon. In Letters From a Life : The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten, the librettist noted that:
As usual Ben (Britten-jfw) was excited by the idea especially because the story was suitable for Kathleen with a good part for Joan too. They were both anxious to get Jane Austen’s elegant urbanity onto the operatic stage..
A hint about the form of the opera is given in its title Letters to William- which surely would indicate that the opera would be dominated by Fanny writing to William of her experiences at Mansfield Park and Portsmouth, in a scene that would probably have as much impact as that of Tatyana’s famous later writing scene in Tchaikovsky’s opera, Eugene Onegin. In November 1946 it was suggested to Benjamin Britten that John Betjeman, the poet, would be just thepersons to collaborate with on this project. Nothing came of this,,…and in factnothing came of the project at all.
Benjamin Britten wrote a synopsis of his vision of the opera and Ducnan produced a hand written libretto of Act One of Letters to William. However, Duncan was dismayed to discover that Britten had dropped the project, apparently without thinking to tell his librettist:
A couple of months later I went to London on some other business and Marion Sten told me the t Ben was already working on another opera, Albert Herring with Eric Crozier…I was dumfounded…I confronted Ben. He admitted the position, looked sheepish but gave no explanation.
A copy of Mansfield Park is still in the archive of the Britten-Pears Foundation. It is the Macmillan edition of 1926 and apparently is from a set owned by Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten’s partner and collaborator.
It contains some annotations on the characters written by Pears, and this interesting cast list written by Britten, suggesting that Britten did take the project seriously at one point:
Sr Thomas Bertram : Owen Brannigan
Lady B : Mabel Ritchie
Mrs Norris : Joan Cross
Mary C : Nancy Evans
Henry C : ?
Fanny : Kathleen Ferrier
Maria : Anna Pollak
Edmund : Peter Pears
Rushworth : ?
And so the opera never materialised. Which is sad, as with that cast and withBritten talents it would surely have been a fascinating addition to the repertoire.
One last interesting snippet. The relationship between John Christie and Benjamin Britten was awkward for while John Christie was impressed by his talents, he did not approve of Britten’s homosexualtiy. John Christie’s wife, Audrey was on more cordial terms with Britten, and was reported to have been absolutely delighted when he told her, in the first flush of enthusiasm for theobject that her beloved pug would be appearing in the opera as LadyBertram’s gender confused pet!
I’ve just heard from the Divine Sarah Helsby Hughes of Heritage Opera, who is a most entrancing Miss Crawford in their production of Mansfield Park, that they will be perfroming the opera -with lyrics by Alasdair Middleton and music by Jonathon Dove – on Monday 15th August – this Monday- at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston, North London. Tickets are available from the theatre’s box office now.
This is a marvellus opportunity for those of you in the South to go and see this very enjoyable and intelligent version of Jane Austen’s most complex novel. Do go if you possibly can- you will not regret it. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Serena Wagner as Fanny Price was being filmed at Townley Hall, Burnley by Amanda Vickery’s production company for her forthcoming documentary for the BBC on Jane Austen which will air, most probalby, in December this year.
You can see the first page of chapter one of the first edition of Mansfield Park printed on the backcloth, the plain white chairs upholstered with the same fabric, and poor Miss Price in unbearable dispair.