The chapters dealing with the private theatricals at Mansfield Park are one of my favourite in any of Jane Austen’s novels. Her attitude towards private theatricals and the theatre has long been debated as a result of her seemingly contradictory writings, and I’ve added my little part to the debate here. But what that intriguing episode in Mansfield Park most certainly did, without doubt, was to reflect the real “itch for acting‘ that seemed to consume polite society in England and Wales from 1780-1820.
There were many many instances of private theatricals performed in country and town houses and in some cases in specially built theatres attached to country houses, during this period. The Earl of Barrymore, shown below performing in his production of the Beaux’ Stratagem, acted on the public stage and also constructed his very own and elaborate private opera house in the grounds at his estate at Wargrave in Berkshire where he also performed. Finished in 1792, it cost the (amazing for then!) sum of £60,000.
He employed Mr Cox, the carpenter from Covent Garden, to ensure everything was constructed to the highest specifications and was truly authentic. Mrs Lybbe Powys, Jane Austen’s kinswoman by marriage and friend to the Leigh Perrots, Jane’s aunt and uncle, attended one of the performances there, and thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle.
The Duke of Richmond had a theatre constructed in his town home, Richmond House, in Whitehall. The aristocrats who performed on stage there were coached by Elizabeth Farren, depicted below by Sir Thomas Lawrence.
She was one of the most famous actresses of the era, and she eventually married one of the aristocraic performers she met there, the Earl of Derby. The screen painter at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and John Downman the portrait painter were employed as scene painters. King George III and Queen Charlotte and the whole troupe of royal princesses even attended performances.
One of the most intriguing series of private theatricals were those staged by the Margravine of Anspach, at her home, Brandenburgh House at Hammersmith, then a village separate from London, in Surrey near the Thames.
The Margravine was an interesting character to say the very least. Born Elizabeth Berkeley
shown above, painted by Ozias Humphrey, she had first married the 6th Baron Carven ( pictured below) and was mother to his children, including his heir who became the first Earl of Craven, and who was of course
a kinsman and patron of the Fowle family at Kintbury. They became estranged after both began a series of extra marital affairs and then always lived apart until his death.
Sybil Rosenfeld in her magical book, Temples of Thespis describes Elizabeth’s extraordinary private life after separating from Baron Craven:
She travelled about Europe for some years until she finally settled at the court of the Margrave of Anspach in 1787 as his “adopted sister”. In 1791 only a month after she heard of the death of her husband she married the Margrave in Lisbon and persuaded him to give up the ruling of his principality and retire with her and his fortune to England. Her precipitancy was considered indecent and, on her return, she found herself cold-shouldered by the court and high society. The Margrave, a stolid German who seems only to have wished for a peaceful life, purchased Brandenburgh House a country villa on the bank of the Thames at Hammersmith and spent the rest of his days there. His wife built a theatre in the grounds where she coud entertain him and at the same time indulge in her favourite past time of taking the centre stage….
The Margravine, socially under a cloud and not visited by the more rigid and respectable members of high society, threw herself into organising her theatricals:
The Margravine was a vain and egotistical creature with a strong streak of exhibtionism in her nature, who yet was capavle , where her happines was involved, of showing detemination and strength of character…..
(Tempels of Thespis,as above page 53)
The theatricals performed at Brandenburg House were lavish and extravagant -the theatre fantastically built in the manner of Horace Walpole’s’ Strawberry Hill as a faux castle ( plainly to be seen in the scan of my print of the theatre and house taken from my copy of The Beauties of England and Wales 1801, above). Here is an image of the interior of the theatre:
The Margravine’s theatricals were expensively and lavishly produced. The Margravine was heavily involved in all aspects of the productions, and was naturally, most often to be found centre stage. The goings on at Hammersmith caught the eye of Gillray who satirised poor plump Lady Buckingham, one of the members of the company, below:
One of the more famous of the Margravine’s productions took place in 1803. It was a three act comedy called Nourjad, adapted from Frances Sheridan’s novel, The History of Nourjad. The production was created in celebration of the Margrave’s birthday and was not performed in the lavish theatre but in the great gallery adjoining the dining room of Brandenburg House. A temporary stage was erected at one end of the gallery and green baize served for the side screens. Shades of Mansfield Park indeed.
If you would like to experience this type of private theatrical, indeed this particular production, then you will be enchanted to note that, for one night only, you will have the chance to do so. The Margravine’s 1803 staging of Nourjad will be re created at Chawton House on 10th December under the direction of Professor Judith Hawley of Royal Holloway College, University of London:
Professor Hawley and Dr McGirr are leading a network of scholars, literary critics, theatre practitioners and stake holders in the heritage industry to investigate the history and contemporary possibilities of this form of entertainment. Central to their investigation is a practical exploration and on 10 December the great hall and kitchen of Chawton House in Alton, Hampshire will be transformed into a make-shift theatre to evoke an event which took place on 24 February 1803 at Brandenburgh House, Hammersmith. On that night, the theatre-mad Elizabeth Craven, Margravine of Anspach, staged her adaptation of Frances Sheridan’s Oriental fantasy, ‘Nourjahad’ as a birthday entertainment for her husband. Chawton House, once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, is both a magnificently preserved Elizabethan manor house and a centre for the study of early women’s writing.
Professor Hawley said: “Theatre history has concentrated almost exclusively on the public theatres but there is a fascinating aspect of private life waiting to be uncovered. The possibilities for the transformation of space and self were so appealing that hundreds of upper class families got in on the act, while others decried the liberties so taken. We are very grateful to Royal Holloway for supporting this endeavour which is intended as a pilot for a more extensive project.”
“Students from the Drama Department will perform their interpretation of Lady Craven’s elaborate entertainment as a play within a play, to explore the ways in which texts were tailored to particular spaces and performers. Recapturing the spirit of amateur drama, this performance will bring both history and the house itself back to life”, explains Professor Hawley.
This sounds a fascinating experiment, and one I’d love to attend. Further details of the project are available here. A symposium is also being held and details can be obtained by contacting Professor Hawley by email on
replacing the dots etc with the usual punctuation.
This is a once in a life time opportunity to time travel and to experience the sort of private theatricals that play such a prominent part in Mansfield Park…I do wish I could go.