‘Lost and Found’ Austen Find

The Hampshire Record Office, located in the city of Winchester, houses a treasure trove of primary artifacts, from original letters to period photographs, from local newspapers to public records. Its atmosphere is friendly, its staff helpful. Actual items, kept in the strong room in the bowels of the building, are highly accessible: HRO’s web-based catalogue makes it easy for visitors to know beforehand what HRO holds, and minimal paperwork gets the visitor entry into the reading room. So one would think that HRO would have a thorough knowledge of items within their vast collection… It seems, however, that at least one minor tidbit had gone unaccounted for – until now.

A letter in Friday’s post from a Winchester-based friend contained the following exciting news: ‘I was startled to find from our Record Office Annual Report that during reorganization a playbill for a performance of Lovers’ Vows 11 August 1809 had come to light among a collection.’ [HRO had been closed several months for renovations and reorganziation; they reopened Spring 2008.]

It will be remembered that Mrs Austen and the girls had only that May settled at Chawton.

As yet – there is no evidence that the Austens came to see the play. My friend thinks it ‘unlikely’ they would have attended, but she’s digging to see what further clues might be out there. She continues, ‘The theatre put on mixed entertainments, at 7 pm. I haven’t found that particular evening advertised in The Chronicle [Winchester’s newspaper] … [W]ith the horse races on, it was high season in August.’

Going online, we find other (later) playbills/handbills for LOVERS’ VOWS, so it was a play in demand – from Winchester to Edinburgh, even as late as 1820.

There are many possibilities for this particular appearance of the play, including a troop of actors just passing through. They perhaps did offer a very limited number of performances (either of one play, or a couple different plays over several nights). That no advance notice was given via The Chronicle may be accounted for in several ways: advertising was last-minute; the acting company may have ‘rented’ the theater for the evening; due to the races, a full-up Winchester might have given hawkers with handbills a good turnout based solely on word of mouth; it may have been a last-minute addition or change to a ‘mixed entertainments’ line-up. And we have all been visitors willing to sit through anything just to have a night out on the town, so tickets for any entertainment, for any play, will always sell when the ‘season’ is in swing. Handbills exist because it was easy to post ‘today’s’ lineup at the theater, or have people handing notices out to passers-by.

So this all begs the ultimate question: Could Jane Austen have attended, would she have heard about this play, offered in Winchester?

Family and friends did attend racing meets, at Winchester and elsewhere. Nephews brought Winchester within the Austen-sphere, as evidenced by a letter dated 9 February 1807, when Jane writes ‘We shall rejoice in being so near Winchester when Edward belongs to it’. At the time living in Southampton, thirteen miles were seen as ‘no distance’ once fourteen-year-old nephew Edward (Edward Austen Knight’s eldest son) enrolled at Winchester College; other nephews attended the same school, including James-Edward Austen (James’ son). A handful of Jane’s letters exist for 1809 – but none dated after July 26 (and the series doesn’t pick up again until 1811!). Winchester is sixteen miles from Chawton; it is conceivable that, after an absence of several years, the Austens planned to spend a day at the races or journeyed simply to enjoy the atmosphere of Winchester en fete.

Somewhere along this route, surely, the play and JANE AUSTEN crossed paths, even if only after the fact: she may have heard about its ‘local’ performance, or met up with someone who had been in attendance.

I will give more news as I hear of it.

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More playbill information; some commentary (and a second) on Austen’s use of the play in Mansfield Park; synopsis, cast, and play at Austen.com and Digital Library (includes ‘The Mansfield Casting’); Susan Allen Ford‘s Persuasions (2006) article on the play and the players from Mansfield Park.