|Lady with a Harp: Eliza Ridgely, 1818.|
Thomas Sully, oil on canvas.
National Gallery of Art.
|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:
|La Belle Assemblée, 1809.|
|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.