Notes from the past: A harp played by Jane Austen’s relative
A harp with a historical connection to Jane Austen, dating back 250 years, has been restored and brought back to the author's hometown for a special performance. The instrument, described as "beautifully ornate," belonged to Austen's cousin Eliza, whose lively and flirtatious personality, as well as her musical talent, served as inspiration for the character Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.
The harp was located and refurbished by Mike Parker, a historical musicologist, who played it, along with some of Eliza's own compositions, at an intimate recital in Chawton over the weekend. Parker embarked on a quest that took him from east London to Belgium in search of the instrument, which had been gathering dust for over two centuries.
"When I acquired it, it was in a rather derelict and grimy state," remarked the 58-year-old Parker. "It had endured 150 years of nicotine buildup. The neck was badly damaged and needed repair. However, once I tuned it and brought it up to pitch, I was greeted by a beautiful and delightful sound. It was like a voice from the past—a sound that modern instruments simply don't possess. It sang in a different world."
According to Parker, Eliza's harp is the oldest known pedal harp still in working condition in the United Kingdom.
The story of the Holtzman instrument begins in Paris in 1777 when it was crafted and first learned to be played by Eliza. Born as Eliza Hancock in India to an upper-class English family, she was Austen's cousin and 14 years her senior. Eliza eventually became Austen's sister-in-law after marrying Jean-François Capot de Feuillide, a captain in the French army, who later became a comte, or 'count.'
As Eliza's love for music grew, she amassed an impressive collection of manuscripts. During the French Revolution, Eliza, her husband, and her mother fled to England via Belgium, where the harp remained. Tragically, her husband returned to Paris and was executed by guillotine in 1794 for supporting the monarchy.
Settling in England and frequently spending time at Chawton House, Eliza went on to marry Austen's brother Henry in 1797, effectively becoming part of the Austen family. Although Eliza's cherished Holtzman harp did not accompany her to England, she continued to pursue her passion for playing the instrument. Eliza passed away in 1813 at the age of 51, with Austen by her side.
It is widely believed that Eliza served as a significant source of inspiration for Austen, influencing several of her characters. In Mansfield Park, the character Mary Crawford, a captivating harpist, is said to have been inspired by Eliza, enchanting men with her performances. Austen wrote in the novel: "Miss Crawford's attractions did not diminish. The harp arrived and only added to her beauty, wit, and good humor; she played with great obligingness, exhibiting a unique expression and taste that suited her well."
Parker's serendipitous discovery of the Holtzman harp took him from his residence in east London to Belgium. While researching Eliza's manuscript collection, he stumbled upon the existence of the harp. During a visit to a collector, he received a tip that Eliza's harp had miraculously survived and was available for purchase from one of her descendants. Determined, Parker traveled to Belgium and acquired the instrument, subsequently breathing new life into its strings through meticulous restoration work.
"Eliza was an incredibly fascinating individual," he remarked. "Although I was somewhat familiar with her due to her connection to Jane Austen,I didn't know much about her or her circumstances, so I delved deep into researching her life. I developed a profound respect for her resilience and determination. As a young widow, she navigated her way through the Austen family until she found love again with Henry, as far as my understanding goes."
Describing Eliza's single-action pedal harp, Parker explained that it measures 5 feet 1 inch, while modern double-action harps are typically 6 feet 6 inches in size. He added, "It produces a very bright, silvery sound and plays two octaves lighter. Its gentle tones were meant for intimate settings, such as salons and French drawing rooms, rather than large halls."
During his recital on Saturday evening at Chawton Village Hall, which aimed to raise funds for the stroke charity Headway, Parker showcased three other historical harps and managed to raise £420 for the cause.
Reflecting on the performance, he admitted, "As an artist, one tends to focus on the mistakes, and I felt like I played poorly, but everyone else seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. At one point, a pheasant even chimed in with its own tune. The weather was scorching, adding to the nerves. Just before I began, I had to retune one of the strings due to the humidity. Despite the heat and an unexpected invasion of pollen when we opened the door, it turned out to be a delightful evening. People showed genuine interest in Eliza, who often gets overshadowed by Jane Austen, so it was gratifying to shine a light on her."
Richard Desmond, a specialist in the conservation of historic gardens, had a front-row seat at the concert to witness the mesmerizing harps. Sharing his enthusiasm, he remarked, "It was a tremendous success. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The atmosphere was joyful, and the harps were exquisite. I didn't quite know what to expect, but it was a marvelous experience. It was truly fascinating."
The restoration and revival of Eliza's harp have breathed new life into an instrument with deep historical significance. Through Parker's dedication and expertise, the instrument has once again resonated with the melodies that captivated audiences in centuries past. Eliza's legacy, intertwined with the inspiration she provided to Jane Austen, continues to flourish, allowing us to appreciate the profound influence music had on the lives of these remarkable women.