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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Eliza's harp

Jane Austen’s extended family was largely composed of respectable clergymen, naval officers, and landowners, along with their equally respectable wives--much solid good citizenship, not a lot of glamor.

And then there was Austen’s first cousin, the beautiful and lively Eliza de Feuillide: rumored to be the product of her mother’s adulterous liaison with a famous man, pursued by not one but two besotted Austen brothers, married young to a slightly disreputable French aristocrat, widowed by La Guillotine . . . Eliza had glamor to burn.

She also played the harp—just like the beautiful, lively, and glamorous Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, as critics inclined to put stock in biographical inspirations have been pointing out for years.

I’m not one of those biographically-minded critics, but I’m nevertheless intrigued by an event happening this weekend: a concert in Chawton, the English village where Jane Austen spent the last years of her life, featuring a performance on the very harp that Eliza owned.

Harpist Mike Parker, a historical musicologist, bought Eliza’s 250-year-old instrument, said to be the oldest known working harp of its kind in the UK, from a collateral descendant. At Saturday’s concert at 7:30 pm in Chawton Village Hall, Parker will be performing period music, some of it drawn from Eliza’s own manuscript music book, on both her instrument and a smaller portable Irish harp.

Signup is required, but tickets are free--except for the plane fare required to get to Chawton if, like me, you’re currently on the wrong side of the ocean.


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