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Sixteenth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.

I can’t wait to see “A Dangerous Intimacy: Behind the Scenes at Mansfield Park,” a play written by Diana Birchall and Syrie James for the JASNA AGM in Montreal. The play stars many people familiar to JASNA members, including several contributors to “An Invitation to Mansfield Park: Juliet McMaster, Natasha Duquette, Karen Doornebos, and Diana and Syrie themselves.

Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred EatonIf you’ve been following this series, you’ll remember Juliet’s post “Is Edmund right about anything?” from a few weeks ago. You’ll get to read the guest posts by Natasha, Syrie, and Karen this fall – Natasha’s writing about Fanny Price and “the heroism of principle,” Syrie’s writing about the scene in which Fanny resists Sir Thomas’s attempt to persuade her to accept Henry Crawford’s proposal, and Karen’s writing about the moment at which Fanny finds herself in want of a “cordial.” And today, I’m very pleased to share with you Diana Birchall’s take on the scene-painter who comes to Mansfield to assist in preparations for the performance of “Lovers’ Vows.”

Diana is a story analyst at Warner Bros., reading novels to see if they would make movies. She is also the author of a scholarly biography of her grandmother, the first Asian American novelist, Onoto Watanna (University of Illinois Press), and several “Austenesque” novels, including Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Mrs. Elton in America (Sourcebooks).

A couple of months ago, at the used book sale put on by Women for Music at the Halifax Forum, I picked up a collection called New Women: Short Stories by Canadian Women, 1900-1920, edited by Sandra Campbell and Lorraine McMullen, and was delighted to discover a story by Onoto Watanna (also known as Winnifred Eaton Reeve) alongside stories by L.M. Montgomery, Nellie McClung, and several others. I enjoyed reading the story of “Miss Lily and Miss Chrysanthemum,” two sisters reunited in Chicago after being brought up separately, Lily/Yuri in America by her father, and Chrysanthemum/Kiku in Japan by her mother. And after reading about the author’s friendship with Edith Wharton, one of my favourite writers, and her years of living in Alberta, one of my favourite places, I’m now even more keen to read Diana’s biography of her grandmother.

New Women: Short Stories by Canadian Women, 1900-1920Diana has also written and produced several Jane Austen-related comedy plays, and she blogs at www.lightbrightandsparkling.blogspot.com.

“The scene-painter was gone, having spoilt only the floor of one room, ruined all the coachman’s sponges, and made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied….”

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 20 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003)

"My father is come!"

“My father is come!” Illustration by Hugh Thomson.

For over forty years, longer than Jane Austen’s own lifespan, I have studied her works and her life: ardently, faithfully, and never getting to the bottom of her (so to speak). What have I learned? That there is ever more to learn; that deep acquaintance with one subject has its own deep rewards; and that in choosing to devote my life’s study to Jane Austen, I have chosen well.

Along the way, although not an academic, I have developed my own method of study. Probably many others have pursued the same path and it’s got a name, I just don’t know it. Rather than close reading, you might call it close writing. For me, it began in 1985 when I won a contest in Persuasions, imitating Jane Austen’s style. Obviously one can’t, but I had fun trying to “do” a bit of Miss Bates, and I was surprised to find that I had actually learned by doing this exercise … something about the elegant balance of her sentences. So I kept on, doing pastiche, sequels, continuations, whatever you like to call them. And with each one, I learned more. In writing about Mrs. Elton, I observed how deliberately Jane Austen framed her as a monster, while treating the erring Emma gently. Considering Lady Catherine, I became engrossed by how vastly different her aristocratic influences would have been, compared to those of the middle class characters – or to Austen’s own. Her very rotund, rolling speech announces her class.

This year being the year of Mansfield Park I have (heaven help me) been spending my time with Mrs. Norris. One of the nastiest of Austen’s characters (and I do seem to be attracted to the monsters, for what subconscious reasons I don’t want to know), she is for me one of the hardest to understand. What has embittered her? Does she import Fanny on the principle of a monstrous midlevel manager who wants an intern to bully? One thing is clear, she feels she has been cheated in life, and she doesn’t mean to let anyone else be happy if she can help it. I hope I can finally understand her by October, as I am to portray her in the staged reading of the play I wrote with Syrie James, “A Dangerous Intimacy: Behind the Scenes at Mansfield Park,” at the JASNA AGM in Montreal. But I fear it is too late now: her psychology remains a closed book to me.

It was while I was trawling around in the greenroom at Mansfield Park, a silent observer like Fanny, that I suddenly noticed the Scene-Painter, almost for the first time. He is the most minor of characters, mentioned in only two sentences, and yet such is Jane Austen’s skill that she paints him whole in just that space. He is a stranger and alien presence at Mansfield Park, a disruptive presence too, who in just a short time causes damage all out of proportion (almost like the Crawfords!), ruining the floor, the sponges, and the servants. What a story in microcosm! And what an unusual character for Jane Austen to introduce. Socially, what is he? He belongs to no world she has ever shown us before. It is the world of Bohemia, which we may have imagined would not be something Jane Austen knew anything about.

But the Scene-Painter is not gentry, nor a workman like the carpenter. He comes from London (“Entirely against his judgment, a scene-painter arrived from town, and was at work, much to the increase of the expenses, and, what was worse, of the eclat of their proceedings”) and imports attitudes and ideas that are indeed dangerous to servants in a country house. His very presence even introduces “éclat.” What were these attitudes? Who was this scene-painter, what was he? Would he have come from Covent Garden, center of artistic bohemian London; might Jane Austen have seen such louche folk, while on strolls near her brother’s house in Hans Place?

As usual, I could not find a way to know and understand this Austenian bohemian through lit crit, but only through fiction.

So here, then, is the first part of a story I have written, entitled (no surprise) “The Scene-Painter.”

Mr. Yates, illustration by C.E. Brock

“A ranting young man who appeared likely to knock him down backwards.” Illustration by C.E. Brock.

The scene-painter arrived, and Tom introduced him to the party, quite as if he were a gentleman.

“My friend Robert Sharp,” he said, and Yates greeted him familiarly, though the others held back, and gave uncertain nods.

He was a very handsome young man, wiry and active in make, with sparkling dark eyes and long hair worn in what Fanny thought of as the poetical fashion, as she had seen in engravings of the “Lyrical Ballads” poets. He did not look like a workman at all.

Mr. Sharp made his bow in form, and did not appear to be at all embarrassed.

“I had quite a job getting here, Tom,” he remarked, “that hackney coachman wanted an amazing price for the drive from Northampton.”

“Oh, all that sort of thing will be reimbursed, Sharp, as I told you,” said Tom carelessly. “Just keep a list of your expenditures. Sharp, here,” he told the company with a rueful laugh, “is almost as expensive as Mr. Repton himself; but you don’t get artistic quality for nothing.”

Edmund, who had been watching with as much surprise and alarm as Fanny herself, quietly reminded his brother of their resolution to keep the costs of the play low.

“Oh! As to that,” said Tom, irritated by his look of disapproval as much as by his words, “you can depend on me not to be extravagant. But you cannot have a play without scenes, and Sharp here is the rising young theatrical artist. He is all the ton, I do assure you.”

“It runs in my family,” said the newcomer easily. “My father was a Royal Academician, and I grew up in the studios of the famous. Spent a good deal of time with Turner at Petworth, you know. It’s why I didn’t take a degree; my leaning was all for art, not academe.”

“No, I should say you weren’t academic,” Tom chuckled, “any more than myself or Yates here; I never could stand all that cramming, and my father knew better than to expect me to prefer Oxford to Newmarket.”

“But we don’t want the backdrops to look like Turner paintings, Tom,” protested Maria.

“Miss Bertram is right,” said Henry Crawford, “we want something more figurative.”

“It is Lovers’ Vows, you know, Mr. – Mr. Sharp,” said Maria, “a play translated from the German. Do you know it?”

Fanny was surprised by her cousin’s boldness at speaking to the new arrival so freely, and by her addressing him as a gentleman, not a servant. Meeting Edmund’s eyes, she saw he thought the same, but she supposed that Maria was merely following Tom’s lead.

“Do I know it! I see as many plays as I can, during the season,” he assured her with animation. “Lovers’ Vows is so popular, and has been performed so often, I could hardly fail to miss it. And, if I am not mistaken, do I have the honour of addressing an Agatha?”

“You do, sir,” and Maria made a courtesy.

“That’s my eldest sister, Miss Bertram, Sharp,” said Tom, adding in his friend’s ear, “engaged to Rushworth of Sotherton – a regular prize.”

“And I am to be the pert Amelia,” said Mary Crawford, with a smile.

“Miss Julia was to take the part, but she declined,” put in Yates, with a meaning look at Julia, who tossed her head.

“I do think you have made an excellent choice,” Sharp proceeded. “Lovers’ Vows is sentimental to be sure, and perhaps a trifle risqué, but it is a radical play you know, with some very modern ideas. I compliment you, Bertram, on having such an open-minded company. Free speech, free love. Quite revolutionary. I do approve.”

Mrs. Norris could keep quiet no longer. “I hope we are as open-minded as the next set of people,” she said, “but we are ladies and gentlemen, and I told you, Tom, not to attempt any play that is too warm. Sir Thomas would not like it.”

Tom waved a hand airily. “Do not be concerned, my dear aunt. Every thing ends up very morally in Lovers’ Vows, and it is no more dangerous than any play on the London stage. Natural sons, and things of that sort, are mentioned everywhere in polite society, nowadays. Now, Sharp, what ideas did you conceive for your scenes?”

“I was hoping there might be cherubs,” put in Mr. Rushworth, who had only been half listening. “I am to be very fine, you know, Sharp, in a blue dress, and pink satin cloak. I thought a background with flying cherubs, in similar colors, might flatter my clothing, if not myself. I know I am nothing to look at,” he finished with a deprecating laugh.

Sharp looked at him intently, and then said, “Is this Mr. Rushworth? Yes. Well, cherubs might be possible for one or two of the scenes. Something in the mode of Boucher, or Frangonard, you were thinking?”

Edmund interrupted. “Good heavens, Tom, we can’t be supporting major works of art here. We are to have a small budget, and get the play over with quickly. Of what are you thinking?”

“It need not take long at all,” said Sharp easily, “I can run you up some very fine cherubs in just a few days, I do assure you.”

“I hope you will cover them up,” Lady Bertram’s languid voice floated to them from her sofa. “The backs, especially, I always think.”

Every thing was said to assure Lady Bertram that all standards of decency would be preserved.

“More practically, Tom,” said Mrs. Norris, “where is Sharp to be housed while this is going on? There is room in the stable block, or he can share lodgings with the carpenter’s boy.”

“No, no,” said Tom hastily, “I see I have not made myself clear. My friend Sharp must be lodged the same as any other gentleman, of course – an artist, you know, is something quite apart from a workman. No, I was thinking of the second attic, upstairs; the one next Fanny’s white attic.”

“You mean to put him in the yellow attic?” considered Mrs. Norris. “There are some boxes … only some old things of your mother’s that I have been storing, but I never consider myself, or my needs. Yes, I suppose it will do, that is, if you are determined to have him in this house,” she conceded ungraciously.

“Indeed I am; and the yellow attic has the advantage of having a sky-light, so that he can do some of his painting there, and disturb no one.”

“That is well thought of,” Maria praised. “But who will look after him?”

Tom looked significantly at two of the maids, chattering while stitching away on Mr. Rushworth’s fancy costume in the corner. “Sarah, there, can look after him, I daresay, with Ellen to lend a hand. You won’t mind, girls. My friend Sharp will be very little trouble.”

The girls were young and pretty, and Edmund looked concerned.

“Tom, I would like to speak to you for a moment,” he said abruptly.

Reluctantly Tom allowed himself to be taken aside. “What do you know about this man’s reputation?” Edmund demanded. “Your introducing him amongst us like this, as a gentleman, seems a rash move.”

“Why, he is a gentleman. He can’t help it if he is also an artist, and needs to make some money; not everyone is heir to a landed estate you know, and his father was perfectly respectable, I do assure you.”

“And what was his mother?”

“Now Edmund, don’t be old-fashioned. What does it matter what a person’s mother was? I believe she was an actress, but Sharp’s papa is in the stud-book, and I’m not treating my friend as a servant.”

“Where did you meet?” asked Edmund, tight-lipped.

“Oh, well, I was in town with my friend Peebles, you have heard me speak of Peebles, Edmund. He knows no end of actresses and artists and dancers and all that sort of cattle, and they are a regularly lively set, I can tell you. You would like them yourself. I will take you to Sharp’s lodgings some time – you never saw such pretty girls in your life.”

“Such circumstances would hardly befit a clergyman that is to be, may I remind you,” said Edmund indignantly. “I think it is my duty to warn you to be careful of such acquaintance. You are playing with fire.”

“Oh, please, Edmund. I know what I am doing, and I beg you to remember you are my younger brother, and that I am master of the house while my father is not here.”

“That is not the point, Tom,” said Edmund, trying to keep his temper. “To speak plainly, you must be aware that we are responsible for the safety and morality not only of our sisters, but of our young female servants.”

“Why, Sarah and Ellen are good girls,” said Tom with a shrug, “nothing to fear for them.”

“But Sharp? Is he really a gentleman when it comes to ladies, Tom? It does not sound so, from what you say about actresses.”

“Good God, Edmund, why such a bother about nothing? They’re only housemaids! Haven’t you ever dallied with one of the girls?” Catching sight of his brother’s face, he muttered, “well, no, I suppose you never have.”

Edmund ignored this. “And what concerns me perhaps most of all, is that you have put him in the room next Fanny.”

“Why, you can’t think she would be susceptible to his charms!” Tom laughed immoderately at the idea.

“Nonsense, Tom. I wish you would take a serious view of all this. How can you think it proper to have this unknown – gentleman, if you will – so near to our cousin? Fanny is timid, you know, and what if he did … well, what if she were to hear something that would embarrass her?”

Tom lost patience. “Fanny is always hearing something that embarrasses her,” he exclaimed. “I’ll thank you to mind your own affairs, and I will attend to my friend, and his work, and his morals too, if you insist.”

“Very well then.” And Edmund had done, hoping that he had at least planted some thoughts into Tom’s mind.

Read “The Scene-Painter, Part Two” here.

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Deborah Barnum, Laurel Ann Nattress, Lorrie Clark, and Elaine Bander. Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the Mansfield Park party!