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Last night I was very privileged to attend the first performance of Jonathon Dove’s chamber opera, Mansfield Park, based on Jane Austen’s novel. The first performance was held at Boughton House in Northamptonshire, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleugh who were also present and were very kind hosts.

For once the English weather was kind and we arrived at Boughton on a beautifully still, warm evening.

Boughton House is, in my humble opinion, one of the most beautiful buildings in England, and is also in Northamptonshire, making it the perfectly appropriate place to stage an opera which is also set in that county. The Duke of Buccleuch writing in the programme noted:

Mansfield Park is coming home to its original Northamptonshire setting and although Boughton was sleeping during the regency period it is just the sort of place which might have witnessed the landscape gardening, amateur theatricals, balls and arranged marriages which Jane Austen describes with such fluency in this most moving of her novels.

I’ve waxed lyrical about Boughtons gardens before, when writing about one of the estate villages, Weekly, which was one of the locations for Pride and Prejudice (2005)( It served as Mr Collins’ Hunsford Rectory). It certainly looked stunning last night, and, prior to the performance, we were treated to drinks and canapes on the west terrace, then during the interval to more drinks in the serenely beautiful Fountain Court, with its white flowers scenting the air.

The audience was small-about 70 people – and the opera was staged in the Great Hall, the stage projecting into the audience from in front of the fireplace.

The set was simple but effective. The back drop was a white sheet printed with the opening page of Mansfield Park taken from the first edition. This material then continued onto the floor of the stage itself. The props were few- some chairs and a desk painted white- but the chairs wer also upholstered in the material printed with Jane Austen’s prose. The accompanying music was provided by one piano and four hands. Perfect for a travelling opera company and not too overwhelming in a small setting.

Heritage Opera which comissioned and performed the piece is a small opera company that specialises in performing operas in intimate settings. This is perfect for Mansfield Park, for it has always had a slightly claustrophobic atmosphere to my mind. The Bertram girls are desperate to fly the nest and the restraints  of Sir Thomas’s manner of parenting, and poor Fanny Price is effectively enslaved and has no choice where she is to reside, be it at Portsmouth or Northamptonshire.

The opera was of two acts: the scenes in Act One, or rather Volume One are set out below

and the scenes in Volume 2, here

The opera libretto very carefully  concentrated on the love story between Fanny and Edmund and the machinations of the Crawfords. As a result of time constraints some character were inevitably lost- notably William Price and Tom Bertram ( and the Portsmouth episode was omitted completely).And though Mr Yates did not appear(which was sad for meas he is one of my favourites) Julia did elope with him carrying a large Gladstone bag…. I have to say that to distill this very complex novel into  a performance of just over 2 hours in length and to address many of the important points in the novels was something I didn’t think could be done. But it was achieved last night with some aplomb and style.

I loved some of the arias for all the company, my favourite being Chapter Four, Landscape Gardening, where it was made very clear that  these changes to ye fallen avenues at Southerton were going to be made “because they could”, and the aria in Chapter Eleven,  A View of a Wedding” was very witty. The lyrics written by Alasdair Middleton, reflecting the short shrift Jane Austen gave to descriptions of weddings in her novels, reflecting her class’s dislike of parade and show :

Splendid wedding, splendid wedding: goodbye, goodbye!

The final aria “Chapter the Last” was exquisitly beautiful, a rather elegant but wistful setting of the opening of the final chapter of the book:

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

Indeed, it was a joy to recognise many, many passages from the novel quoted verbatim. I do love it when Jane Austen’s matchless prose is not destroyed , as has been very much the case with many of the latter TV and film adaptations of her works. Here, instead, it was glorified and relished. It was also a relief  to realise that all concerned in this production were not going to inflict the heritage bonnets and breeches vision of Jane Austen upon us.  The composer Jonathon Dove in his address to the audience before the performance, made it very clear that in this novel-as we Janeites are aware- nearly everyone acts very badly most of the time. As the director Michael McCaffery writes in the programmes:

The world of Jane Austen has become a world of cliches, nice behaviour and quiet moderate manners.What we tend to forget is that her books were about real people who breathed and existed at the time,rather than remote historical figures….

I could not agree more.

And of course the internalized dialogues of Fanny Price are simply crying out to be translated into arias when she can address us, her audience, with some passion about the dreadful goings on around her, and her heart  being ripped apart, bombarded as it is with tons of strong emotions:  unrequited love, frustration and jealously. Serena Wagner who portrayed Fanny last night  was the best Miss Price I have seen on stage of film.  Not odd, or a misfit, she is the one true moral point in the whole of the machinations unfolding about her. Ms Wagner portrayed her beautifully.

John Rawnley was a wonderful Sir Thomas but my highest praise goes to Sarah Helsby Hughes as the fascinating Miss Crawford. She was a real seductress- poor Edmund hardly stood a chance once she decided she  was going to make him her target. But eventually he- played admirably by Thomas Eaglem- came to his senses. Without needing to be shaken rather hard, which is always the temptation I have with this particular character….;)

The supporting cast were rather wonderful too- Darren Clarke made a very sympathetic and amusing Mr Rushworth in his pink satin cloak. Eloise Routledge was a rather aptly vicious Maria Bertrram and Paloma Bruce a more sympathetic Julia( just as it should be). Sadly, Mrs Norris was not very prominent, and Fanny’s childhood was rather glossed over, so we had no opportunity for her evil ways to manifest themselves. But then in a performance of just over 2 hours, something had to give….

On the whole I adored this lively and bravura performance. It is on tour in the north of England for the next few weeks and if you have the chance to go- do. For you will not regret it. I hope a recoding or a DVD will be available for us all to enjoy it.

Oh, and for fans of “Pug”, rest assured he made his appearance. Almost constantly in the arms of Lady Bertram during Act One…in the shape of a stuffed plush toy!

If you go here you can listen to some extracts from the opera in an interview with the composer, Jonathon Dove, as given to BBC Radio 4’s Front Rowprogramme. The Mansfield Park piece begins about 6 minutes in, and so …enjoy!

It became clear on reading some of the comments posted to my last article on Burghley House and Pride and Prejudice that the concept of the Ha-ha was something of a conundrum to a few of us, and so I’ve written this post to clarify what is meant by one.

Basically it was a hidden boundary, a sunken fence, separating park from garden on an estate. This is the very large one at Grimsthorpe Castle, which has since had its retaining wall raised a little for the safety requirements of the 20 and 21st centuries.

As you can clearly see, the installation of a ha-ah prevented the livestock in the park -cattle, deer, sheep- from encroaching on the more elegant and refined part of your estate. It kept nature at a respectful distance, if you like. You could still view your beautifully landscaped rolling acres from your house, but the inhabitants of that park would not bother you in your part of the garden, nor would they leave any evidence of their existence for you to tread in while wearing your  expensive shoes,and offend your delicate sensibilities

The ha-ah is mentioned by Jane Austen, notably in Mansfield Park, during the chapters which deal with the revealing trip to Southerton. She uses the formal wilderness and its retaining ha-ha as a recurring liet motiv of restraint for the women in the novel, notably Fanny Price, who is forced to stay confined in that part of the garden within its retaining walls,

A few steps farther brought them out at the bottom of the very walk they had been talking of; and standing back, well shaded and sheltered, and looking over a ha–ha into the park, was a comfortable–sized bench, on which they all sat down.

Chapter 9

…watching the goings-on of the two pairs of would-be lovers, Miss Crawford and Edmund Bertram

After sitting a little while Miss Crawford was up again. “I must move,” said she; “resting fatigues me. I have looked across the ha–ha till I am weary. I must go and look through that iron gate at the same view, without being able to see it so well.
Chapter 9

and then Maria Rushworth and Mr Crawford,who, had he been a Deb’s Delight in the 1920s, would no doubt have been dubbed  N.S.O.K. ( Not Safe On Knolls)

Yes, certainly, the sun shines, and the park looks very cheerful. But unluckily that iron gate, that ha–ha, give me a feeling of restraint and hardship. ‘I cannot get out,’ as the starling said.” As she spoke, and it was with expression, she walked to the gate: he followed her. “Mr. Rushworth is so long fetching this key!”
Chapter 10

It is an ingenious device precisely because  it is virtually undetectable from the house.

This is the view from Boughton House in Northamptonshire looking towards a very large sunken fence or ha-ha. Can you spot it? I thought not.

If you care to look at this photograph above showing the view from one of the ha-has at Cottsebrooke Hall, the one which separates an old wilderness from the modern formal garden, you can see that, at close quarters, the ditch is noticeable but if you compare it with the Boughton picture, you can see that effect lessens the closer you are to the house. I confess was delighted when I found this ha-ha overlooking a formally planted wilderness because it seemed to reflect the state of affairs as described by Jane Austen at Southerton, and some people are of the opinion that Cottesbrooke was her inspiration for Mansfield Park itself. Of course my speculations were all dashed when I realised this  ha-ha was a relatively modern creation and did not exist when Jane Austen was writing Mansfield Park in the early 19th century. Ah,well…..back to reality.

Do notice that the ditch gradient  is constructed in such a way as to prevent the livestock being able to breech the gap between the park and the retaining wall, and therefore they are prevented from grazing near to the house.

This clever drawing by Felix Kelly of a side section of the construction of an ha-ha shows how the ground is scooped away from the retaining wall. The ground is then levelled off to be the same height as the retaining wall and, at a distance, the gap becomes less noticeable.  And to  some unobservant walkers, it must have come as something of a surprise, hence its  name.

Before the introduction of the ha-ha, the only method of keeping livestock in the park separate from the gardens was by visually intrusive means of control, that is, fences and walls. But the beauty of the ha-ha, the almost invisible boundary ditch, is that looking out onto the gardens and further into the park surrounding a grand house you simply cannot notice it. It is not at all visually intrusive but it is totally effective in keeping the park animals away at a safe distance .

This is another much older ha-ha at Cottesbrooke Hall, and it separates the pleasure gardens surrounding the house from the park. Below is the view from the ha-ha looking out toward the park and surrounding village in the distance (please ignore the fabuous plant fair taking place in the foreground)!

Horace Walpole in his essay On Modern Gardening (1770) patriotically attributed the introduction of the ha-ha as a garden features to the English landscape to the famous gardener, Charles Bridgeman, partner of the equally famous Henry Wise (although the French might have something to say in dispute here: there is an example of an ha-ha at Versailles that predates Charles Bridgeman. It was also used elsewhere in landscape gardens in Europe) :

But the capital stroke, the leading step to all that followed was (I believe the first though was Bridgeman’s) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses- an attempt then deemed so astonishing , that the common people called them Ha! Has! to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk.

One of the first gardens planted in this simple though still formal style was my father’s at Houghton. It was laid out by Mr Eyre, an imitator of Bridgeman…I call a sunk fence the leading step for these reasons. No sooner was this simple enchantment made, than levelling, mowing and rolling followed. The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonised with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without. The sunk fence ascertained the specific garden, but that it might not draw too obvious a line of distinction between the neat and the rude, the contiguous outlying parts came to be included in a kind of general design: and when nature was taken into the plan, under improvements, every step that was made pointed out new beauties and inspired new ideas….

You could, of course  see it -the retaining wall was very noticeable- if you were walking in the park looking towards it (and the house) for the ground sloped sharply away from it as you can see in these photographs of the ha-ha at Burghley House .

Note this  is not faced in red brick as at Cottesbrooke, but in the locally quarried limestone. Below is a close up of the wall, which was recently (and expensively ) renovated

Here you can see that the ha-ha at Burghley is  curved

and that the ditch slopes dramatically away from the retaining wall, but then rises to its height…

The further away from the ditch you are, the less noticeable is the gap.

So you see, by adding an ha-ha to the landscape, the eye could rove freely beyond the immediate garden to the park onto the surrounding countryside,whilst keeping the animals away from the house and its pleasure gardens.


The exterior shots of Mr Collins’ church in the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice were shot not at St Peter Brooke, in Rutland which provided the interiors shots, but some 20 miles away in Northamptonshire at the village of Weekly, which is to be found just outside the town of Kettering. This village is part of the Boughton Estate which is owned by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury.

The parish church at Weekly, St Mary’s shown above, was used for the exterior of Mr Collins’ church.

It was appropriate that this village was chosen ( and if this choice was intentional or not, I’m not sure) because we know from our old post that St Peter Brooke is interesting as it is a rare relict, an Anglican church of the Elizabethan era. The building that served as  Hunsford Rectory ties in with the 17th century theme, as it was built in 1631 to serve as a set of almshouses.

Known as Montague’s Hospital-named after the  member of the Montague family (the owners of Boughton) who founded it-  was  a place where poor old people could be housed and cared for in their dotage.

(Do remember you can enlarge all the illustrations here by clicking on them: do enlarge the photograph above as it is fascinating to see the painted detail and the stonework on the entrance to the building)

In the Northamptonshire edition of The Beauties of England and Wales by John Britton and Edward Waylake Bailey (1802) the following description of the village is given:

Weekly Church,about half a mile north-east of Warkton in the hundred of Orlingbury, contains a few old monuments to the Montagues of Boughton. At the east end of the north aisle is an altar tomb, with two stone effigies of Sir Edward Montague, Knight who died Jan.26 16021; and Elizabeth his wife, who died May 10th 1618. Another tomb, with a marble statue is raised to the memory of Edward Montague who died in 1556. Other slabs and flat stones contain inscriptions, some much mutilated, to other persons of the Montague family. Near the south side of the church is an hospital for seven poor men;and at the extremity of the village are traces of a moat &c, where an old cassellated manor-house is supposed to have formerly stood. In this parish is a spring of petrifying water, from which an incrusted skull has been taken and is preserved as a curiosity in Sydney College, Cambridge.


Here we see Lizzie Bennet (Kiera Knightly) arriving at Hunsford Rectory with the church in the background,and Charlotte waiting to greet her.

In reality, she has not come from  the road from Westerham, but from the rear of the Hunsford Rectory itself. The building is now a private residence leased from the Boughton estate, so we can’t see the lovely simple internal corridor with it’s still life of apples

but we can see the room- which has windows on two sides, which was Charlotte’s sitting room and the rom where Lizzie had various meetings with Mr Darcy

The classical obelisk seen in the film, in front of the church,  was in fact….

the village war memorial, cleverly disguised.

This would not have been in situ in the early 19th century, most British war memorials date from the 20th century. Hence the disguise, which worked well, I think.

You can see last year’s Poppy Wreath, laid there on Memorial Sunday ,the Sunday nearest 11th November…

The gates just to the right of the church lead to Weekly Park which in turn leads to Boughton House…

..the English Versailles. It is magnificent and well worth a visit ( but do check before you go:  it is opened very rarely and usually only during the month of August) And though it wasn’t included in the film, I’m writing about it here because the garden is a rare survivor: an example of a mid 18th century formal landscape garden, of the type that disappeared during the latter part of the 18th century.

When you wander round the magnificent 18th century landscape garden,which is being restored, you catch glimpses of Weekly church , though the trees.

Long avenues of lime trees dominate, as do great formal stretches of water…canals and ponds….and all are being restored to their marvellous 18th century formality, as designed probably by Charles Bridgeman for the 2nd Duke of Montague in the 1720s. Here is the plan of the garden as it was in the 1740s

(© The Boughton Estate)

The plans, as you can see, included a monumental Mount (restored in 2007) from which to oversee the rest of the formal gardens, and rejoice in the patterns it created.  A fantastic modern addition to the garden,a tribute to the formal style, has been made recently. Called Orpheus and completed in 2009, it is an inverted mount dug into the landscape with a reflecting pool at  the bottom.

In this picture, you can see the 18th century Mount behind it, and the sloping path that leads to the pool at the bottom of the earth work designed by Kim Wilkie.

This is the view from the bottom to the top: the scale is difficult to gauge by these photographs,but it takes a good five minute, steady walk to reach the pool at the bottom! It truly is monumental-and breathtakingly beautiful in its severity.

I do hope you have enjoyed this jaunt around Weekly and the diversion to Boughton with all its treasures.

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