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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!

Peterborough Cathedral was the place where Edmund Bertram sealed his fate, for it was here  that  he was ordained as a minister in the Church of England.  Mansfield Park was placed by Jane Austen in Northamptonshire, and then as now, the main part of Northamptonshire is part of the Peterborough Diocese, hence the reason why Edmund Bertram was ordained there, in his home cathedral.

Edmund was at this time particularly full of cares: his mind being deeply occupied in the consideration of two important events now at hand, which were to fix his fate in life—ordination and matrimony—events of such a serious character as to make the ball, which would be very quickly followed by one of them, appear of less moment in his eyes than in those of any other person in the house. On the 23rd he was going to a friend near Peterborough, in the same situation as himself, and they were to receive ordination in the course of the Christmas week.

Mansfield Park Chapter 26

And, of course, in so doing he forever alienated Miss Crawford who viewed his career choice with some disdain for she so very much wanted him to do something smarter, and with possibly a less strong moral code, as their conversation in Chapter 9 very clearly indicates:

So you are to be a clergyman, Mr. Bertram. This is rather a surprise to me.”

“Why should it surprise you? You must suppose me designed for some profession, and might perceive that I am neither a lawyer, nor a soldier, nor a sailor.”

and

For what is to be done in the church? Men love to distinguish themselves, and in either of the other lines distinction may be gained, but not in the church. A clergyman is nothing.

Interestingly , as we have noted the main action in Mansfield Park, takes place in Northamptonshire and Portsmouth.  While Jane Austen was familiar with Portsmouth, having lived at nearby Southampton and having two bothers in the navy, Northamptonshire was very much another matter.   It is virtually certain that Jane Austen had no perosnal knowledge of the county or of its cathedral.  It is clear from her letters seeking clarification on the appearance of the county while composing Mansfield Park, that she was wholly unfamiliar with it.  The only opportunity she had of visiting the county was in the summer of 1806 during her only documented journey north, to visit her Cooper cousins at Hamstall Ridware in Staffordshire. However, on both journeys, north and south, she managed to avoid it completely. She travelled northwards through Gloucestershire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire and returned to Hampshire via Warwickshire Oxfordshire and Berkshire.  At no point did she travel through Northamptonshire, though she passed nearby.

Therefore, unless she had seen prints of the Cathedral, she had no personal experience of the place that was so important for the course of Edmund Bertram’s life. Interesting. However , she may have approved of it for many reasons, not the least being that it is old, ancient, and not at all like the Palladian calm of Southerton’s chapel:

They entered. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”

Chapter 9

And if the presence of a Scottish monarch and banners are necessary to satisfy Fanny Price and her creator’s taste in places of worship,then Peterborugh Cathdral fits the bill ( well, almost….) We are better placed than Jane Austen and indeed Fanny, and can visit Peterborough quite easily here today, though in a virtual and digital manner ;) Shall we begin our tour?

The West front of the Cathedral is magnificent, as you can clearly see,  and was built between 1118 and 1238 A.D. The origins of the Cathedral can be traced back to King Peada of the Middle Angles who founded the first monastery on the site of the present Cathedral in 655AD. This monastic settlement was almost entirely destroyed by a Viking attack in 870 and was rebuilt as a Benedictine Abbey between 960 and 970. The Abbey church then survived another attack by Hereward the Wake in 1069, and remained intact until an accidental fire destroyed the second Abbey in 1116. It was rebuilt between 1118 and 1238.

It became the Cathedral of the new Diocese of Peterborough in 1541 during the reforms after the break from the Roman Catholic Church and it is now known as the Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew.

The Nave is both severe and serenely beautiful. This is the view from the West Door towards the high altar.

This, below, is the view from the choir stalls down the Nave, looking towards the West Door

The wooden painted ceiling in the Nave dates from 1230-1250 but has sadly been damaged twice by fire.

It is now fully and beautifully restored, and if you click on the photograph( as you can do with all the illustrations in this post) you can examine the exquisite detail.

The Victorian heating system is surprisingly effective (and very decorative,and similar to the system in Chester Cathedral, if my memory serves me correctly)

The choir stalls were not here when Edmund Bertram was ordained in the early 19th century. They were installed in the late 19th century but are magnificently carved, as you can see.

This slightly wobbly picture shows the view from the choir stalls to the Sanctuary and the High Altar.

Just above the north transept is the resting place of Queen Katherine of Aragon, King Henry VIII’s first wife,who after her vigorous contesting of her sad and inevitable divorce, was sent to live at nearby Kimbolton Castle and that is where she died in January 1536.

The grave was in a forgotten and unadorned state until the early 20th century, when it was visited by Queen Mary, the wife of George V and a fellow Queen Consort (and grandmother of the present Queen). Apparrently saddended that a Queen Consort’s grave could be neglated in this way Queen Mary ordered that the symbols of Queenship, which included the royal banners of England, below,

and Spain, below,  should be hung above Katherine’s grave.

Queen Katherine’s grave still attracts many vistors, who pay homage to her, and in my picture below you can see the remnants of a bunch of flowers that had been laid on her grave.

The Eastern Buildings of the Cathedral, dating from 1500, are famed for this magnificent fan vaulted ceiling.

The marble High Altar in the Sanctuary  was not in situ whenEdmund Bertam was ordained there…

but the wooden painted and guilded ceiling, below, which is medieval,would have been in place.

Opposite the site of Queen Katherine of Aragon’s burial place, we reach the first resting place of the body of Mary, Queen of Scots…

who was beheaded at nearby Fotheringhay Castle, that “sacred place” as Jane Austen termed it in her History of England. This is all that remains of the castle at Fotheringhay.

She, too, is honoured by the presence of banners: of the Scottish national flag-the Saltaire–  the Cross of St Andrew

and the royal standard of the Scottish monarchs, below.

Though she was buried here after her execution- 9 months after to be precise – she is no longer buried at Peterborough. Her son, James, became King of England in 1603, and arranged for his mother’s remains  to be removed to   Westminster Abbey in 1612.

I can’t help but think that Jane Austen who was so attached to the Stuarts and to Mary Queen of Scots- that bewtiching Princess as she called her in her History of England- would have been moved by this first resting place of her heroine.

The cathedral is set in a large and peacful close…

with the entrance to the Bishop’s Palace to the left, above…

and just the other side of the  gates is the busy shopping centre of modern Peterborough: it is an amazing place of calm and peace amidst much bustle.

So, there you have it: a visit to the scene of Edmund Bertram’s ordination. I do hope you have enjoyed it.

In our last post we looked at some of the interiors of Kirby Hall which were used in the 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, starring Jonny Lee Miller.

Let’s continue our tour with a look at  the rooms, some on the  on the upper floors which were very cleverly adapted for use in the film..

When Fanny first arrives at Mansfield we see a fleeting glance from a window in the Great Stair down into the ruins of what was the West Lodgings and the Long Gallery…

This is now a completely ruined space, the floors long gone….

We then see the room that becomes Fanny’s sanctuary….

Time passes and we next see the young Fanny transfigured into the feisty Fanny we all have difficulty recognising…

These scenes were filmed in the Bedchamber/Billiard room on the ground floor of the Hall, and this is one of the rooms in the Hall that has been recently restored to how it would have appeared in the late 18th century.

The bay windows of the rooms on the South Front of the house are a most wonderful architectural feature, both inside and out…

Sir Thomas’s study was a film set created within a room, and had sliding doors,a very unlikely feature in a 17th century house.

The room adapted for use by the production staff appears to have been the Great Chamber,which is to be found on the first floor of the Hall.

It is as you can see a very large space and is in a totally restored state.

As I understand it the set was a free standing room created within this room, rather like an inner skin, a technique also used for the formal drawing-room at Mansfield, see below.

The Secondary Stair was used for Fanny’s rencontres with Henry Crawford,and the distinctive carved handrail is still to be seen…

The formal drawing room was created by again making a room within a room, this time in another of the Bedchambers on the ground floor.

This was extremely cleverly done,  the columns were tromp l’oeil paint effects, and were painted onto the skin of the room…

The designers managed to incorporate the marble fireplace which is still extant in the room.

Though I did not enjoy the film, I have to say that the work of the production designers and staff was very cleverly done, not harming the fabric of the Hall at all, but by using certain architectural features within the Hall, they managed to crate a magnificent stage set, don’t you think?

Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire is a magnificent relict of a past age, owned and maintained by English Heritage. It is now half-ruined, having been abandoned by its owners in the early 18th century, and by the 19th it was in a ruinous state. This continued until 15 years ago when the gardens and some interiors were restored. It was used by Patricia Rozema in the 1999 film of Mansfield Park to represent the house owned by Sir Thomas Bertram that is so central to the book.

I ought to say, from the outset, that the 1999 version of Mansfield Park is not my favourite of any of the adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels.By a long way… It failed to hit its targets, and accordingly the film failed for me on so many levels. Fanny was depicted as a strange combination of the young Jane Austen and one of the Pankhursts, Sir Thomas was a depraved monster,Lady Bertram as a drug addict and  the slavery allusions were conveyed in a less than subtle manner….and, as ever, the multilayered meaning of the original novel was lost, and it all boiled down to a sort of strange love story.  For me the film never set alight  despite having  a rather stella cast.

And I never, ever imagined Mansfield itself as being ruined, as it was portrayed in the film. Nor being that old, for Mansfield is described as a

a spacious modern–built house,

in chapter 5 of the novel, by Mary Crawford, a woman who knew about these things. As you can clearly see from the plan below, Kirby would clearly not qualify on that score.

(Plan of Kirby Hall, ©English Heritage)

In fact the only thing that was correct about the choice of Kirby Hall as Mansfield was that it is to be found in Northamptonshire where  the novel was mainly set. But….as you can see, Kirby Hall is incomparably beautiful, and I thought you  might be interested to see it. Today  and in the next post I’ll deal with the interiors and finally I’ll write about the exteriors as used in the film.

First,  a little about the history of the Hall. It was rebuilt by Sir Humphrey  Stafford in 1570, but was completed by Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite of Elizabeth I, in the hope she would visit so magnificent a mansion…sadly, she never came. For some years it was thought that the great Elizabethan architect, John Thorpe ( no, not that John Thorpe) was the architect of the Hall, due to an early plan of the house on which a John Thorpe has written

I layed  ye first stone AD 1570″

However, it has since been realised that John Thorpe was only then about 7 years old, and it was most probably his father,Thomas Thorpe a master mason who came from the nearby village of Kings Cliffe , who was most likely to be the man who oversaw the building of the mansion.  His son, John, most probably laid the foundation stone as  was a common practise during the Elizabethan era.

To the film….

The Great Hall was used as one of the main drawing rooms of the house.

Though we are not shown it, the east end of this room has a minstrels gallery, for the Great Hall was used as the main dining room for the grand Elizabethan household…

The ceiling is very beautiful…

And the door in the west wall leads to the Great Stair….

We first see The Great Stair when the young Fanny first arrives at Mansfield.

The Great Stair was meant to impress and leads upwards to the Grand State Rooms in the floors above

 

A feature of Kirby are the handrails of the staircases,which are carved from stone and set into the walls…

It is a rather wonderful space…bathed in the most beautiful light…

And the leaded lights throw interesting shadows onto the walls

And the very tactile handrails….In my next post I will describe the rooms used on the first floor. Do join me, even if this is not your favourite adaptation, as the rooms on the first floor are fascinating.


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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