Thursday, October 15, 2020

Streaming the Pride and Prejudice Musical

During the hard lockdown I only had very few, very precious hours to myself. I managed to luck into a couple when the Pride and Prejudice musical flopped hard with my husband and daughter, and I was abandoned to relish it alone. I didn't really mind. 

Justin Mortellitit and Mary Mattison as
Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet.

A product of Tony nominee Paul Gordon and directed by Robert Kelley of TheatreWorks, I thought the 20 euros I spent to buy the production (you can rent it for 5) a great bargain. I’m thankful for the opportunity to see it at all, as I suffer from a dearth of english language theater here in Switzerland. Furthermore, this is a pretty well filmed play. Not all of them are. It takes a lot to overcome the limitations of the lense and replicate a theatrical experience. I was pleased by the result. Check out this gorgeous promo video:

I really liked the show, but as indicated, I’m the only one in my family who did. My daughter proclaimed it unbearable and abandoned me within ten minutes. My husband thought that sufficient justification to also bow out. So I got to watch the bulk of it from my bathtub (can’t do that during a live performance!), and while I thought the beginning was a bit weak, it grew on me as the story progressed. The music was good, if not particularly memorable. It very much reminded me of something else, and I couldn’t decide if it was more Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Disney’s Descendants, oddly enough. I very much enjoyed the lyrics, and the dialogue, of course, was at its best when pure Austen. There are a few historical inaccuracies, but they are not the sort that would bother most viewers. I imagine a British audience might find the accents challenging, but from an American perspective, they are believable. The set also seems well-done, but I’m afraid this is one of the aspects of the theater that really suffers on film. It’s nearly impossible for the sets to achieve their full effect.

Mary Mattison as Elizabeth 
Bennet, in funny hoody thing 
(is that a zipper?!?!)

Regency lady or college student?

Before delving a bit into the individual performances, I must comment on the costuming. While I love everything about the theater (and have been known to force my family to sit through truly awful productions, just so I can soak in the atmosphere), my particular interest has always been costuming. It can make or break a show for me, and maybe the best part of streaming a production is being able to see the details in the garments all the better (why I usually spring for premium seats and bring opera glasses). I thought this production, in many ways, did a lovely job. With a period piece, costuming is pretty straightforward, or at least it should be. A thoughtful designer will either opt for historical accuracy or stylization. For the most part, costume director Jill Bowers and designer Fumiko Bielefeldt, adhere to the former aesthetic. Some of the designs are quite stunning, and bodices, sashes, and spencers are effectively utilized to alter looks between scenes. However, I did not like how they dressed Elizabeth (Mary Mattison). Her performance was great, and the costuming undermined it. It’s my biggest complaint about the show. I understand the desire for a designer to try and highlight their main character by using distinct colors and lines, thereby making them stand out from the rest of the cast, but the effect here, for me as a Janeite, was jarring. While everyone else is clothed in proper period prints and fabrics, Elizabeth’s two gowns both feature geometric designs, far more Art Deco than Georgian. The cut of her gowns is also strange, particularly the one from the first act, which has these very modern, unsupported panniers built into the sides. Oh, they bother me (you can see them much better in the video above than in my cruddy screenshots). I like the gown from act two much better, in no small part because it resembles a dress I have long owned and loved (not a costume, mind you – wouldn’t be caught dead trying to pass it off as period piece). I also adore the “cloak” she wears when walking to Neatherfield. It’s some kind of a cross between a redingote and a hoodie sweatshirt, and it’s AWESOME, just not on Lizzy Bennet. I attribute some of the responsibility to the 2005 film, which (in my opinion) made similar mistakes.

Mrs. Bennet and her daughters, from left to right:
Sharon Rietkerk, Mary Mattison, Melissa WolfKlain,
Chanel Tilghman, Tara Kostmayer, and Heather Orth.

Most of the characters, particularly Elizabeth, are modernized, again in a manor somewhat resembling the 2005 film. I have mixed feelings about it, even as I understand the choice. The goal is to make the character more relatable, but for me, it’s just a ruder version of Austen’s original. Like her costumes, I found these interludes distracting from Mattison’s excellent performance. I also did not like the first solo song she sings, in which she repeatedly celebrates “I’m headstrong!” It’s better later in the show, reprised after Elizabeth learns that it’s not always such a great quality. Jane is also mouthier than her original, but I still thought Sharon Rietkerk captured the spirit of the character beautifully.

Mary Mattison and Sharon Rietkerk
as Elizabeth and Jane Bennet.

Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortellitit) is more at ease than one might expect, and we hear his internal narrative, which is probably the play’s biggest deviation from the novel. Although his early revelations regarding his feelings for Elizabeth changes the story quite a bit, I must suppose most of the audience is familiar with the story, so it doesn’t prove much a spoiler. It also makes the character warmer, particularly in contrast to Wickham (Taylor Crousore), who is very handsome but not so charming or charismatic as the character in the book. While I thought Mortellitit an effective if not canonical Darcy (and much more my type than Crousore), I think a more boyishly roguish casting of Wickham would have made this dynamic work better. I even wonder if it might have been better with the casting reversed, at least visually. As it is, I was left wondering what Elizabeth ever saw in Wickham.

Justin Mortellitit as Mr. Darcy.

I get the impression that Paul Gordon has a pretty personal connection to Darcy. This is where his voice, rather than Austen’s, breaks through. Darcy’s role is much larger in this production than it is in the book, and Gordon clearly has a strong notion of who and what Mr. Darcy should be, all of which I find believable and supported by Austen’s text. This interpretive characterization is probably the most interesting part of the play.

Monique Hafen Adams and Travis Leland as Caroline
and Charles Bingley. My favorite gown in the show!

Mr. Bingley is very well captured by Travis Leland. He is portrayed as tongue-tied and shy, which threw me off at first, but it comes together in the end, setting up his proposal scene to be one of the best moments in the play (as it should be). I also thought that Monique Hafen Adams as quite convincing as Caroline Bingley (as is so often the case, poor Mrs. Hurst and her husband were cut from the tale). Of the Bennet sister’s, I especially liked Mary (Melissa WolfKlain), who helped maintain a comic atmosphere, which was much needed, as I thought all the humor entirely sapped from Mr. Collins (Brian Herndon) and Lady Catherine’s (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) characters. The former came off as predatory (maybe this is another nod to the contemporary world?), and the latter rather like Cruella De Vil. Maybe it was the jazzy song she sang. She did nail the imperiousness, but the comedy was missing from the script.

Melissa WolfKlain as Mary Bennet,
in fabulous day dress.

I think the very last line of the play, spoken by Elizabeth, reveals a lot about the spirit of this adaptation: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Still not true!”


Overall, I really enjoyed escaping into this version of Pride and also has the company’s earlier production of Gordon’s Emma available. That will be the subject of my next post. They are staging his new Sense and Sensibility in December. I could get hooked.

Here is a clip featuring some of the songs from the show and a few more screenshots (with commentary). Enjoy!

And from the back. Sorry for the blur.
I adore Miss Bingley’s gown.
My feelings about Miss Bennet’s
I won’t repeat.

Taylor Crousore and Mary Mattison

Gotta swoon for a great coat.

Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as Lady Catherine and company.

Brian Herndon, Lucinda Hitchcock Cone, and Christopher
Vettel as Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner and Mrs. Reynolds, apparently

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Strange Beauty Secrets from the Late 18th/Early 19th Centuries

When posting my Twisted Austen story I am Lady Catherine way back in 2017, I received a lot of comments regarding a reference to an 18th century beauty treatment called pigeon water. This is indeed a real thing, used by none other than Marie Antoinette, who was said to have bathed her face in it every day. I hunted down the recipe for its preparation in the 1832 text The Toilette of Health, Beauty, and Fashion (read it here). This comprehensive book covers a wide swath of topics, as indicated by its incredibly lengthy subtitle (see the image of the cover page – it’s WAY too long to reproduce). I imagine it was mainly marketed to lady’s maids and valets. I found the history provided of both beauty treatments and fashion very interesting, though I should warn the modern reader that many of the comments are decidedly lacking in political correctness. I was inspired by the interest in pigeon water (see the recipe for Denmark Lotion below) to transcribe a few of the more outlandish preparations for both your amusement and revulsion, many of which are virtually impossible to imagine producing without an army of servants and were certain to wreck havoc on the health. I doubt it needs be said but for forms sake, I ask that you please do not attempt any of these at home.

Note: a drachm is a liquid measurement once used by apothecaries, equal to one eighth of an ounce.

From Chapter VII: Of Hair Ointments, Powders, Oils, Waters, &c.

1.–Ointment for the Hair.

The editors of the “Dictionaire d’Industrie,” from which the following recipe is copied, assert that they have often witnessed the most surprising results from its use.

Take an ounce of beef marrow, to which add an ounce of grease skimmed from unsalted pot liquor, and boil them together in a pipkin. Strain this mixture, and add to it an ounce of the oil of ben. Let this be used occasionally, and the hair well combed and brushed, both before and after its use, to remove the previous scurf, and to work the preparation well into the roots of the hair, and along the tubes.

OBS.–Beef marrow applied moderately to the hair of the head nourishes it, and communicates to it a fine gloss, as may be frequently seen among butchers, who often apply it.  Whatever therefore nourishes, strengthens. The marrow also give it a disposition to curl. The oil of ben has long been entered into preparations for making the hair grow, and if a little of the essence of lemon, bergamot, or other other perfume were added, it would, at least, improve its fragrance, and preserve it against rancidity.

From Chapter VIII: Directions for Staining the Hair.

To stain Hair a light Chestnut Colour.

The hair is to be previously cleaned with dry bran, or warm water, in which alum has been dissolved. Then take two ounces of quick lime, which kill in the air; one ounce of litharge of gold, and half an ounce of lead ore. Reduce the hole to a powder, and sift it. Wet a small quantity of this powder with rose water ; rub the hair with it, and let it dry again in the air, and dry it with cloths a little warm. This powder does not stain the skin, like the wash made with aquafortis and assaying silver.

OBS.–It has been asserted that the hair may be stained black by impregnating it with lard, mixed with minium and lime ; but this composition, we apprehend, would produce only the chestnut colour of which we are here speaking. The hair may likewise be turned black by different vegetable substances boiled in wine, with which the hair is to be washed several times a day ; but this operation ought to be continued for some time. The substances usually preferred for the purpose are, leaves of the mulberry, myrtle, fig, senna, raspberry, arbutus, artichoke ; the roots of the caper tree ; the bark of the walnut and pomegranate ; the rinds of walnut, shumac, skins of beans, gall nuts, and cones of cypress. It is also necessary to use a leaden comb. The same object may be obtained by using a comb dipped in extract of lead.

From Chapter IX: On The Removal of Superfluous Hair

Depilatory of Ants Eggs.

A stronger depilatory is composed as follow: —

Take Gun of ivy, one once

Ants’ eggs }

Gum arabic } of each one drachm.

Orpiment }

Reduce these to a fine powder, and make it up into a liniment, with a sufficient quantity of vinegar. In pounding the materials, great precaution must be taken that the dust of the orpiment, which is a preparation of arsenic, be not inhaled.

OBS.–The formic acid, or acid of ants, may more easily be procured at the chemist’s, and will answer the purpose better than ants’ eggs, which are not to be had at all seasons.

To remove Hair from the Nostrils.

Take some very fine and clean wood ashes ; dilute them with a little water, and with the finger rub some of the mixture within the nostrils. The hair will be removed without causing the least pain.

OBS.– The hair of the nostrils, like those of the entrance to the ear, ought not to be removed, unless troublesome or unseemly ; they are the principal safeguards against the intrusion of insects, which might otherwise insinuate themselves into these delicate passages, to the great annoyance and danger of the individual thus invaded.

Portrait of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.
Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun. Oil on canvas, c. 1788. 
New Orleans Museum of Art.
Add caption

From Chapter X: Cosmetics.

Denmark Lotion.

Take equal parts of bean-flower, and the water of the four cold seeds–namely, of pompion, melon, cucumber, and gourd, and of fresh cream ; beat the whole up together, adding a sufficient quantity of milk to make a wash, which apply to the face.

OBS.–This recipe is taken from the “Ami de Femmes.” Another writer says, that the cosmetic lotion used by the ladies of Denmark is totally different–it is what is called Eau de Pigeon (pigeon-water). It is composed as follows:–

“Take the juice of water-lilies, of melons, of cucumbers, of lemons, each one ounce; briony, wild succory, lily-flowers, borage, beans, of each a handful ; eight pigeons stewed. Put the whole mixture into an alembic, adding four ounces of lump sugar, well pounded, one drachm of borax, the same quantity of camphor, the crumb of three French rolls, and a pint of white wine. When the whole has remained in digestion for seventeen or eighteen days, proceed to distillation, and you will obtain pigeon-water, which is such an improvement on the complexion.”


A Pomatum to remove Redness, or Pimples in the Face.

Steep in clear water a pound of boar’s check till it becomes tolerably white ; drain it quite dry, and put it into a new glazed earthen pan with two or three hard pippins, quartered ; an ounce and a half of the four cold seeds, bruised, and a slice of veal about the size of the palm of your hand. Boil the whole together in a vapour bath for four hours, then with a string cloth squeeze out your pomatum into an earthen dish, placed upon hot ashes ; add to it an ounce of white bees’ wax and an ounce of the oil of sweet almonds, stir it with a wooden spatula till it becomes cold.

From Chapter XVI: Mouth, Tongue, Throat, Teeth, and Gums.

Another (Dentifrices).

Rub them with nettle or tobacco ashes, or with vine ashes, mixed with a little honey.

From Chapter XIX: Eyes and Nose.

For watery and inflamed Eyes.

Foment frequently with decoction of poppy heads ; when the irritation and inflammation occur, a teaspoonful of cogniac brandy, in four ounces of spring water, may be used three or four times in the course of the day as a strengthening lotion.


From Chapter XXI: Eyelashes.

The growth of the eye-lashes has been promoted, where they have been lost by sore eyes, by the following simple ointment:–

Take ointment of nitric oxyde of mercury; 2 drachms

Hogs lard – – – – – – – – – – 1 drachm

Incorporate the ointment well with the lard, and anoint the edges of the eye-lids night and morning ; washing after each time with milk and water, warm.

From Chapter XXIII: The Hands and Nails.

For Chapped Hands.

Take three drachms of bole ammoniac–three drachms of myrrh, and a drachm of white lead.–Incorporate these with a sufficient quantity of goose-grease ; and with this anoint the parts affected; and wear worsted gloves.

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Ladies of Norton, Coming Soon!

I'm writing! Wow! It feels good and has been way, way too long. I've only carved out a few days to get this Twisted Austen story completed, but it will hopefully be ready to post here the week before Halloween. If I miss my self-imposed deadline, I'll post it late. Whenever it's ready. It's just really excited to be working on something new, and I am having a blast with this twist. Mrs. Dashwood inherits a life residency at Norland Park and her daughters each have ten thousand pounds, but will this improvement to their fortunes result in happily ever afters? I can't wait to share. In the meantime, what do you think of the cover?

Friday, October 2, 2020

Harping on Harps

Lady with a Harp: Eliza Ridgely, 1818.
Thomas Sully, oil on canvas.
National Gallery of Art.

Inspired by an article in Persuasions, I have been dwelling on the role the harp plays in Austen’s novels. 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, utilises 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 epitomises urbane sophistication.

Costume Parisien, 1800.

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.

La Belle Assemblée, 1809.
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.

The Sirens and Ulysses, 1837.
William Etty, Oil on Canvas.
Manchester City Galleries

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. Its 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.

Mansfield Park, Chapter Seven.
C.E. Brock, watercolor.

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 forced 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 its 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 music from the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, played on the harp, of course, as I bid you goodbye. It’s really very lovely and not all wicked and debauched. Sorry.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

New beginnings ...

I am very sorry to say that I parted ways with Austen Authors after 5 years last August. It was a heartbreaking decision, but we had unreconcilable differences. 

I am now trying to claw my way back to blogging and writing. I've had a hard time doing the latter since my son became mobile, and the pandemic has completely destroyed all of my quiet time, so it's a bit of a tall order. I have a Twisted Austen story in my head, this one S&S based, and I'm hoping to pound it out.

I am also going to at least take a stab a NaNoWriMo again this year. For the third year running, I'm going to be working on my new version of Tales of Less Pride and Prejudice. I guess it started as three books, so needing three event cycles to complete it isn't totally ridiculous.

In the meantime, I'm going to start reposting my Austen Authors content here, having now removed years of reposts here. Keep an eye out. The content will start flowing soon, and I some of the posts are truly fabulous. 

Here's to finally, truly, really reigniting this blog! I've said it so many times - believe it when you see it.