Monday July 22 2019

‘I’m now reading Emma to sooth [sic] myself,’ Britten confided to Pears in June 1944, emphasising that Jane Austen’s trademark humour and mastery of narrative offered some relief, albeit temporary, from the horrors of war. In 1946 Britten and Pears turned to Austen as potential source material for a new opera, the unrealised Letters to William, in which Fanny Price recounts to her brother the goings-on in Mansfield Park. Marked for Glyndebourne, the adaptation was eventually supplanted by Albert Herring, but not before some serious preliminary planning had been undertaken. A libretto for Act One by Ronald Duncan was penned, and a list of names scribbled into Pears’ edition of the novel suggests that the role of Fanny would have been written with Kathleen Ferrier’s voice in mind. It was even hoped that a role could have been set aside for Mrs Audrey Christie’s pug—an important consideration for the dog-loving Britten.

Music-making and occasions when music is made are sometimes used as important backdrops to interviews or pivotal interactions between Austen’s characters. Not lacking in talent herself when it came to performing music, Austen often points out in her novels that the ability to play the pianoforte well is an accomplishment that is not shared by all. Elinor Dashwood is certainly able to display a command of the keyboard and Elizabeth Bennet is also a competent musician. On the other hand, much can be read into Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s pronouncement on her lack of facility with the instrument.

“If you are speaking of music…it is of all subjects my delight. There are few people in England I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient. And so would Anne [Lady Catherine’s daughter], if her health would have allowed her to apply. I am confident that she would have performed delightfully.”

Mistress of irony, wit, social commentary, good sense (and the semi-colon), Austen takes an honourable place in Britten and Pears’ book collection. Her novels gained a practical use when, in 1975 they were consulted for an Aldeburgh Festival Programme Miss Jane Austen at Home to mark the author’s 200th anniversary. Readings by actors Anna Carteret, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Richard Pascoe were interspersed with songs of the period by Haydn, Clementi, Shield, Dibdin and Coke performed by Pears and soprano Mary Clarkson to fortepiano accompaniment by Mary Verney.

Clockwise from left, Peter Pears, Anna Carteret, Jenni Wake-Walker, Mary Clarkson, Richard Pascoe, Barbara Leigh-Hunt (Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the 1995 BBC television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) in the Library, June 1975. Photograph: Nigel Luckhurst, © Britten–Pears Foundation.

The tradition of celebrating Austen at The Red House continues with what will be a highly entertaining performance of Sense and Sensibility by local thespians The Pantaloons on the 18 July. With that in mind here are two volumes from the collection that are July’s book(s) of the month.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, with an introduction by Austin Dobson, illustrated by Charles E. Brock. London: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1926, inscribed ‘Luard Pears’.

Charles E. Brock’s line drawings, following the tradition of another Austen illustrator Hugh Thomson, complement the action and accuracy of the text. Indeed, these and Thomson’s illustrations will be familiar to many who inherited family collections of Austen or who sought out these wonderful editions from second-hand booksellers. Brock often spent a great deal of time in Cambridge University libraries undertaking research on the period (in this case the Regency) in which his author worked. In this scene Brock captures Elizabeth Bennet’s spirited response to Mr Darcy’s appreciation of her command of the pianoforte.

Pride and Prejudice

The Novels of Jane Austen, The Text based on Collation of the Early Editions by R.W. Chapman. Volume I, Sense and Sensibility. London: Oxford University Press, rpt., 1960 (annotated).

The moving and frequently amusing chronicle of Elinor and Marianne Dashwoods’ search for love appears in one of the volumes used for the Aldeburgh Festival concert, Miss Jane Austen at Home (performed in the Jubilee Hall on 23 June, 1975). A mixture of spoken word and song, Henry Jenkyns’s programme note stated that music making was ‘treated as a natural and familiar accompaniment to social and family life in the houses of which [Austen] wrote. […] Jane’s attitude to music was devoted and industrious (much copying and, at one time, daily practice) but neither rapturous nor reverential.’

Sense and Sensibility