Harpists in Austen’s Books

Harpists in Austen’s Books

As some of you may remember from my previous post a few months back, I play the harp.

I always think it’s fun when I find harpist characters in the books I’m reading. So, this month, I thought it would be fun to take a peek at all the harpists that are in Jane Austen’s books. There are more than I thought there would be! I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised; the harp was one of the few acceptable instruments for gentle-bred ladies to play, and Jane Austen would have more than likely seen and heard her fair share of harps over the course of her life. 


Let’s start with the most widely-known harpist character: Mary Crawford.  Shortly after coming to the parsonage at Mansfield Park, Mary relates the difficulties she’s had in getting her harp transported. Nobody is willing to hire out their horse and cart to transport her harp during the harvest season, and Mary has to learn the hard way that money cannot buy everything. Nevertheless, her brother is willing to go fetch the harp in his barouche, so Mary finally gets her harp there.


Edmund speaks of the harp as being his favorite instrument, and as it turns out, Mary’s skill on the harp becomes one of the charms which endears her to him.


Miss Crawford’s attractions did not lessen. The harp arrived, and rather added to her beauty, wit, and good-humour; for she played with the greatest obligingness, with an expression and taste which were peculiarly becoming, and there was something clever to be said at the close of every air. Edmund was at the Parsonage every day, to be indulged with his favourite instrument: one morning secured an invitation for the next; for the lady could not be unwilling to have a listener, and every thing was soon in a fair train.

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. The season, the scene, the air, were all favourable to tenderness and sentiment. (Mansfield Park, Chapter 7)


So if you wanna get a guy, get a harp!  (This is totally true, by the way. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve gotten hit on while at a gig, lol) If Mary had Fanny Price’s morals in addition to her harp playing, I have no doubt she would have landed Edmund Bertram in the end.


Here are some clips of Mary playing her harp from the 1999, 2007, and 1983 versions of Mansfield Park (sorry about the quality of the 1983 one, it’s the best I could find on YouTube).


In Pride and Prejudice, it is mentioned that Georgiana Darcy is learning the harp in addition to her being an accomplished pianist.


“Tell your sister I am delighted to hear of her improvement on the harp, and pray let her know that I am quite in raptures with her beautiful little design for a table, and I think it infinitely superior to Miss Grantley’s.” (Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 10)


She does not play the harp in any of the movies, but in the 1995 version, you can see her harp behind the piano.


In the 2005 version, the harp is seen in the reflection in the mirror when Elizabeth is peeking in the room where Georgiana is playing the piano.

Persuasion also has a harpist. It’s not immediately clear from the text which Musgrove sister plays the harp (maybe both!), but they bring the harp over from Uppercross to the cottage one night because Mrs. Musgrove is out of spirits and she loves harp music more than piano.


The folks of the Great House were to spend the evening of this day at the Cottage; and it being now too late in the year for such visits to be made on foot, the coach was beginning to be listened for, when the youngest Miss Musgrove walked in. That she was coming to apologize, and that they should have to spend the evening by themselves, was the first black idea; and Mary was quite ready to be affronted, when Louisa made all right by saying, that she only came on foot, to leave more room for the harp, which was bringing in the carriage.

“And I will tell you our reason,” she added, “and all about it. I am come on to give you notice, that papa and mamma are out of spirits this evening, especially mamma; she is thinking so much of poor Richard! And we agreed it would be best to have the harp, for it seems to amuse her more than the piano-forte. (Persuasion, Chapter 6)


In the movies, it is Henrietta Musgrove who is the harpist of the family. Here is a clip I found of Henrietta playing the harp in the 1995 Persuasion.

And here is a clip of the 1971 version where she is playing in the background.


Lastly, in the unfinished novel Sanditon, Miss Beaufort is also a harpist.


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. (Sanditon, Chapter 11)


Apparently, even back then, you could rent a harp instead of purchasing one!


Moving a harp in the Regency era

I will keep my mouth shut about things like the condition of some of the strings on the harps they used as props and which actresses are actually playing versus faking it on top of the soundtrack. The fact that they show them playing the harp in any of the movies, even just showing the harp as a prop in some of the shots, is enough to get me excited. (At my house, I am notorious for being able to spot a harp in a film or TV show when no one else can!) One thing that really bugged me, though, was the method they used to move Mary’s harp in the 1999 Mansfield Park movie. They actually had the harp standing up, strapped on top of a carriage!  Here’s the clip to show you.


Given how tippable harps are, and how top-heavy carriages are in general, this just looks like a disaster in the making. No harpist in their right mind that I know of would ever consent to their instrument being transported like this. It says in the text that her harp will be conveyed in her brother’s barouche, a type of open carriage with a top that can be put down in fair weather. 

A barouche- a type of open-carriage with a top that can be put up or down.

More than likely, the harp would have been laid on its side or back on the seat of the barouche with the base resting on the floor. Also, I suspect that they would have packed it in a wooden crate with sawdust to protect it, since it had to travel first to Northampton and then from there to Mansfield Park. Maybe they used one fitted to the shape of a harp like this antique one pictured below. 

Antique harp crate, circa 1890.

At the very least, if it had to go on top of a closed-coach, they would have for sure laid it on its side before strapping it to the top. Suddenly, Mary’s idea of putting it in the back of a farm wagon doesn’t seem so ridiculous! The 1999 Mansfield Park has a lot of things wrong with it and this is not the most grievous thing in the movie, but definitely the most ridiculous moment, in my opinion. I really don’t know what the filmmakers were thinking when they did this. (shaking my head)

In the 1971 Persuasion film, they show the Musgroves moving Henrietta’s harp in the carriage.

There’s still no crate or protective case, which I suppose can be forgiven since they are supposed to only be going down the road from the big house to the cottage. But at least they put the harp inside the carriage, which makes a heck of a lot more sense than strapping it to the top! Ok, rant over!

Also, here’s the harp being brought into the drawing room. 

Men never seem to know where to put the harp once they bring it into a room (I’m laughing cuz this is really true!)


And just for fun, here’s some pictures.


Here’s me in 1995 at my first harp recital.


Here’s me, circa 2008, with my pedal harp and wearing my most Regency-esque dress I had at the time.

Before I had kids, I played my harp for weddings and events and taught harp lessons. Nowadays, I’m happy to just play for my own enjoyment.

I currently have 6 harps, 5 of which I rent out local students, and the harp we have at home I play on and am teaching my oldest daughter to play as well.

I hope you enjoyed this post! Be sure to check out my books, and sign up here if you want to get a free copy of my novella “Elizabeth’s Secret Admirer”.

Until next time, Happy Reading!

-Amanda Kai

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6 Responses to Harpists in Austen’s Books

  1. I used to play in an ensemble with a harpist. She played the Celtic harp, not a pedal harp, and we did mostly traditional and folk music. Even thought it was smaller than a concert harp, it was still quite the beast to lug around to engagements! Beautiful instrument, though, both to look at and to hear.

  2. Good eye! I always look at the horses. And, if someone is riding, I watch to see if they really know what they are doing.

  3. You do have a sharp eye for finding a harp in a movie. I did NOT see those in the movie pics you chose. I am glad they had someone actually playing the harp. I hate seeing someone pretending to play an instrument and you know it’s fake. I love the sound of the harp. Your pictures were delightful. Thanks for sharing them with us. Blessings.

  4. What beautiful pics of you! I think the harp sounds so pretty. I used to play the clarinet! A totally different sound!lol Great post!

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