Victoria, here. December 16, 1775, was the birthday of Jane Austen.  We celebrate it every years with teas, luncheons, and assorted presentations.  The fact that our venues are all decorated for Christmas gives us an especially festive style, but of course, the real intent of the day has little to do with the holiday season and a lot to do with our regard for Jane Austen’s life and work.

Jeffrey Nigro, Regional Coordinator, and Debra Ann Miller, Program Chair,
 at JASNA-GCR’s Tea at the Fortnightly, Chicago.
Jeffrey’s talk was entitled Favorable to Tenderness and Sentiment: The Many Meanings of Mary Crawford’s Harp, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park.
Jeffrey brings the approach of a scholar and art historian to his love of Jane Austen.  And he presented several interpretations of the meaning of the harp and harp performance in the time of Jane Austen — approaches I had not considered.
George Romney, Lady Caroline Spencer, later Viscountess Clifden, and her Sister, Lady Elizabeth Spencer, 1786-92 The Huntington Library 
Young ladies of Jane Austen’s era were expected to have accomplishments, such as playing the fortepiano and singing.  They performed at gatherings of the ton where they were literally on display as part of the marriage mart.  The harp not only had a beautiful repertoire, it showed off a young lady’s lovely arms as she plucked the strings. 
Thus, it is an oft-repeated view of Mary Crawford as a siren playing the harp to attract Edmund Bertram by her seductive skills on the handsome instrument. Marie Antoirette, Queen of the French, was also known to play the harp, so in some eyes it was particularly associated with the ‘wicked’ French whose morals were not necessarily to be admired.
Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty
Marie-Antoinette jouant de la harpe dans sa chambre, 1777
Musée national du château, Versailles
But, as Jeffrey Nigro pointed out, there were other impressions of the harp, dissociated with the life of St. Cecelia, for example.  Might Edmund see Mary as a kind of St. Cecelia, patron saint of music,  at her harp?
John Singleton Copley, St. Cecilia, A Portrait
(Martha Crowninshield Derby), 1803
Mint Museum, Charlotte, NC

Equally possible was the identification of the harp with the Celtic heritage of the British Isles. And a corresponding movement to glorify nature and those pastorals who lived in close harmony with nature.  As Jeffrey Nigro made evident, in art and literature of the time, the harp was part of many  strands of culture with which can challenge the view of Mary Crawford at her harp as the seductress with an eye toward capturing the devotion of Edmund Bertram.

The Fortnightly’s lovely tree

Speaker Sara Bowen with Trish Vanderhoef and Kathy Fish at
JASNA-WI’s Birthday gala in Nashota, WI

Sara’s topic Fanny’s Future: Mary’s Nightmare: Jane Austen and the Clergy Wife examined another aspect of Mansfield Park and Mary Crawford — How Mary would have made a poor wife for Edmund once he becomes a parish rector and how Fanny Price will excel in the role she wins.

Liz Cooper, Cynthia Kartman, and Vivian Walburn
at the Red Circle Inn

Sara Bowen explained what was expected of a clergy wife in Jane Austen’s day, mainly a  woman of moral sense — in the words of George Herbert, author of “The Country Parson,” a clergymen should make his “choice of wife by ear not eye.”  She was expected to have discretion, though not necessarily more religious fervor than usual at church.

A Toast to Jane Austen in celebration of her birthday
Mary Crawford’s repeated questioning of Edmund on why he wanted to become ordained might be a challenge to Edmund. Was perhaps his intent on converting Mary part of her allure for him?  But we know her sharp tongue, sophisticated (maybe even cynical) eye and her self-admitted selfishness would make her life as a rural clergy-wife unbearable.  Fanny, however, with her clarity of moral purpose and her love of nature and country life was much better suited to the role.
The Red Circle’s lovely tree

Both birthday presentations enlightened us in our 200-year-old admiration of Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park.  Thank you Jeffry and Sara, and all the volunteers whose hard work makes JASNA so rewarding for its members.

Leave a Reply