After reading a recent article in Persuasions, I have been dwelling on the role the harp plays in Austen’s novels and thought it would be fun to share the results of my musings today. The essay points to the instrument as an indicator of social status, as only the quite wealthy had both the leisure to learn and the ability to afford one. I was further struck by how Austen, with remarkably playful precision, utilizes this stature accorded to the harp to highlight the inequalities of Regency society. It’s very scarcity in the novels marks it as elite. Only a handful of characters can play: Georgiana Darcy, Mary Crawford, at least one of the Misses Musgroves, and a Miss Beaufort in the unfinished novel Sanditon. Mary Crawford is the only one whose performance is part of the plot, and her knowledge of the harp illustrates the vast gulf of difference that lays between Miss Crawford and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, both socially and morally. The harp was at the cutting edge of fashion: the perfect accessory for the classical greek and roman silhouettes then in vogue. Mary, performing in a carefully draped empire gown, undoubtedly resembled one of the many fashion plates of the era featuring the harp. It was a rather sensual look, as the harp hugs the figure and accentuates bare arms, evoking images of loosely clad nymphs, muses, and sirens. As Austen notes, “A young woman, pretty, lively, with a harp as elegant as herself, and both placed near a window, cut down to the ground, and opening on a little lawn, surrounded by shrubs in the rich foliage of summer, was enough to catch any man’s heart.” Fanny, on the other hand, has never even heard a harp played, let alone thought about how to pose with one to advantage. She has spent almost her entire life in seclusion at Mansfield, while Mary epitomizes urbane sophistication.
In Sanditon, which Austen was working on until illness interfered in the last months of her life, the harp presents an appearance of affluence, and as every sharp reader of Austen knows, appearances can deceive. The story is set in a fictional seaside resort promoted by a local gentleman named Mr. Parker, who has heavily invested in making Sanditon “the favourite spot of all that are to be found along the coast of Sussex—the most favoured by nature, and promising to be the most chosen by man.” As he and his wife escort the story’s heroine to their home, where she is to spend her summer, the sound of a harp, along with other indicators, are pointed out as heralds of his venture’s success:
The original village contained little more than cottages; but the spirit of the day had been caught, as Mr. Parker observed with delight to Charlotte, and two or three of the best of them were smartened up with a white curtain and “Lodgings to let,” and farther on, in the little green court of an old farm house, two females in elegant white were actually to be seen with their books and camp stools; and in turning the corner of the baker’s shop, the sound of a harp might be heard through the upper casement.
Such sights and sounds were highly blissful to Mr. Parker. Not that he had any personal concern in the success of the village itself; for considering it as too remote from the beach, he had done nothing there; but it was a most valuable proof of the increasing fashion of the place altogether. If the village could attract, the hill might be nearly full. He anticipated an amazing season.
Amongst those (not quite) flocking to Sanditon are the Misses Beauforts and Miss Lambe, three young ladies in the charge of Mrs. Griffiths, “a very well-behaved, genteel kind of woman, who supported herself by receiving such great girls and young ladies as wanted either masters for finishing their education or a home for beginning their displays.” The following description of the Misses Beauforts is magnificently derisive, much in the manner of Austen’s earliest work:
The other girls, two Miss Beauforts, were just such young ladies as may be met with, in at least one family out of three, throughout the kingdom. They had tolerable complections, showy figures, an upright decided carriage and an assured look; they were very accomplished and very ignorant, their time being divided between such pursuits as might attract admiration, and those labours and expedients of dexterous ingenuity by which they could dress in a style much beyond what they ought to have afforded; they were some of the first in every change of fashion. And the object of all was to captivate some man of much better fortune than their own.
Mrs. Griffiths had preferred a small, retired place like Sanditon on Miss Lambe’s account; and the Miss Beauforts, though naturally preferring anything to smallness and retirement, having in the course of the spring been involved in the inevitable expense of six new dresses each for a three-days visit, were constrained to be satisfied with Sanditon also till their circumstances were retrieved. There, with the hire of a harp for one and the purchase of some drawing paper for the other, and all the finery they could already command, they meant to be very economical, very elegant and very secluded; with the hope, on Miss Beaufort’s side, of praise and celebrity from all who walked within the sound of her instrument, and on Miss Letitia’s, of curiosity and rapture in all who came near her while she sketched; and to both, the consolation of meaning to be the most stylish girls in the place. The particular introduction of Mrs. Griffiths to Miss Diana Parker secured them immediately an acquaintance with the Trafalgar House family and with the Denhams; and the Miss Beauforts were soon satisfied with “the circle in which they moved in Sanditon,” to use a proper phrase, for everybody must now “move in a circle” to the prevalence of which rotatory motion is perhaps to be attributed the giddiness and false steps of many.
I could easily write an entire post digging through those two paragraphs alone, as they contain so much social commentary, but let’s just focus on the harp’s role. It’s hire (as well as the purchased drawing-paper) was no cheap feat, undermining the professed economy just as much as the over-abundant wardrobes. Even more than Miss Crawford sitting in her window frame, Miss Beaufort is literally playing the siren, using her music to lure (preferably wealthy) gentlemen to her. Like so many of the “feminine accomplishments” we see in Austen, the harp is used as bait to catch a wealthy husband. Their performances on the pianoforte help mark Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, and Jane Fairfax as worthy of social elevation, why should the more alluring harp not function similarly for Miss Beaufort? All I can say is that it didn’t end up working out so well for Miss Crawford. Perhaps the staid pianoforte makes a better impression, after all.
Emma Woodhouse says to Mr. Knightley when he arrives at a party in a carriage, “‘This is coming as you should do,’ said she; ‘like a gentleman,'” and chides him when he fails to do so. She would not need to so admonish Austen’s harps. When they ride, they ride in style, even supplanting Louisa Musgrove’s place in her family carriage. Louisa’s willingness to walk the short distance to Uppercross cottage might seem merely accommodating to a modern reader, but think of how offended Mary Musgrove would be were such a suggestion made to her. For those concerned with precedence, as most at the time were, the harp riding in Louisa’s stead is a very real insult to her dignity. Miss Crawford’s harp is afforded even greater status, for it is not force to crowd into a family coach: “Henry, who is good-nature itself, has offered to fetch it in his barouche. Will it not be honourably conveyed?” The method of transport may be honorable, but for all it’s glamorous trappings (or maybe because of them), Austen seems uncertain of the harp’s respectability. All the women in her novels who are associated with the harp are morally problematic except for Miss Darcy (unless you hold Wickham against her), but much more attention is paid to her ability on the piano. That she plays is only ever mentioned by Miss Bingley, just before she rattles off her list of qualifications to be considered an accomplished lady. Of our other harpists, it can be said that Miss Beaufort is vapid and grasping, the Misses Musgroves are giddy to the point of imprudence, and Miss Crawford possesses, to use Edmund Bertram’s words, “a dash of evil.” The very sophistication that makes Mary and her brother so appealing is also what taints their characters, and Fanny’s insular purity triumphs over them both.
There you have the gist of my thoughts, or at least those coherent enough to share. Please enjoy some Regency harp music as I bid you goodbye (the small instrument beside the musician is a harp lute). It’s really very lovely and not all wicked and debauched. Sorry. Until next month!