Isobel Bishop (1902-88), how she imagined Austen at work, a drawing
In Mary Poppins’s books, Mary’s birthday is referred to as “the Birthday.” I have wracked my brains to say something new about Austen for her birthday, or offer an appropriate poem, some tribute as yet not well known as I have done previous years, as how “How she loved to dance” (clips and music); her poem written on her birthday (it seems) to her friend, Mrs Lefroy who died on that day four years before; and what she said about Tudor Queens, especially Katherine Parr (her attitude and remarks not well known). And finally I’ve come up with two, last night I remembered an unassuming ironic commentary, and this morning discovered a new chamber music style opera of Mansfield Park.
When Dora Carrington (1893-1932) designed and decorated Lytton Strachey’s library in their second home together in southern England, Ham Spray, she painted an extra unused door — going nowhere as sometimes happens in endlessly renovated houses where there is not quite enough money literally to alter the structure of the room (vestigial elements). She disguised it as a bookcase, complete with projecting spines from imaginary books. She carefully titled these imaginary books: A Catastrophe, by Tiberius (her cat); Oeuvres by Le Conte Lytoff (Lytton Strachey); The Empty Room by Virginia Woolf; Deception by Jane Austen; and False Appearances by Dora Wood, her own alias.
Each of these titles serves as a ironic summing up comment on some aspect of these authors’ lives or works (as seen by Carrington). For Tiberius: cats knock things over? end up victims? And however, tongue-in-cheek Carrington places herself as a woman artist between two writers she evidently regarded as supreme (after all they got to be in Lytton’s library, close at hand). In a note she wrote to her great friend and sometime lover, Gerald Brenan, she coupled Austen with “Emily Bronte and her sisters [Charlotte, Anne] and Sappho.
Again Carrington, imagining an 18th century woman playing music, tinsel on glass (Lytton was a lover of 18th century literature and Carrington may have read or had read to her Julie de Lespinasse and Madame Du Deffand’s letters)
We know Jane Austen loved to dance and so what better picture than this contemporary picturesque (gussied up) illustration of Manydowne, one of the wealthy people’s houses where she regularly danced, and she could have been mistress of had she accepted the marriage offer of its heir, Harris Bigg-Wither, but then we would not be remembering her birthday or have her powerful fiction.
Music and Manydowne, a large country house, doubtless not far from the size of Mansfield Park, can segue us into the other offering I can make for Austen’s birthday: Douglas Murray’s essay, just published in Persuasions On-Line, Fanny Goes to the Opera: Jonathan Dove and Alisdair Middleton’s Mansfield Park.
Douglas says the opera he saw was performed for the first time in the Indianapolis Opera in March 2016. The perspective is one commensurate with an ensemble structure, with Fanny (to quote Douglas) “a part of the complex community known as Mansfield Park, only one in a multiplicity of cacophonous voices: “the opera thus creates a musical/dramatic analogue to Austen’s characteristic narrative technique: her ability to display simultaneous narrative consciousnesses within a narrative context.” The opera uses a post-modern outlook: critical irony, distance; it also has a section which might be called “operatic epistolarity” (as in filmic epistolarity). I have argued that Mansfield Park is a much revised pushing together of two draft MPs: one about a play (written first in 1797 or so) and another a semi-epistolary story whose central focus is Fanny’s visit to Portsmouth where she writes to her frenemy Mary Crawford.
From the 1983 BBC mini-series (scripted Ken Taylor), the young Fanny writing to her brother William (at sea?), and the older Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel) reading a letter (from Mary Crawford?) while in Portsmouth
I’ve a hunch my favorite moments would still be those coming out of Fanny, her abjection, her painful solitude, her uneasy re-integration: it is out of her point of view that the subversive perspective and questioning of her society and its people comes.
Indeed the way many people read Austen (it seems to me) is to take seriously her surface Deception, endorsed by those of her characters who lived unexamined lives. This would be the way I read Carrington’s retitling of Austen.