“In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it would be highly injudicious”
A large portion of Mansfield Park revolves around the production of a play, Lovers’ Vows, by the young people at Mansfield Park. Eight chapters (XIII-XX) are devoted to this subject, and the repercussions continue to the end of the novel.
The idea is brought to the Bertrams by Mr. Yates, a “particular friend” of Tom Bertram’s, who comes “on the wings of disappointment”, after the theatrical party that he was involved in at Ecclesford was broken up by the death of a near relative of his host.
To be so near happiness, so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth! and being so near, to lose it all, was an injury to be keenly felt, and Mr. Yates could talk of nothing else. Ecclesford and its theatre, with its arrangements and dresses, rehearsals and jokes, was his never-failing subject, and to boast of the past his only consolation.
Happily for him, a love of the theatre is so general, an itch for acting so strong among young people, that he could hardly out-talk the interest of his hearers. From the first casting of the parts to the epilogue it was all bewitching, and there were few who did not wish to have been a party concerned, or would have hesitated to try their skill. The play had been Lovers’ Vows …
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XIII)
Tom, his sisters Maria and Julia, and Mr. Crawford, all listen with fascination and a desire to have been there themselves.
Henry Crawford, to whom, in all the riot of his gratifications [acting] was yet an untasted pleasure, was quite alive at the idea. “I really believe,” said he, “I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or everything; as if I could rant and storm, or sigh or cut capers, in any tragedy or comedy in the English language. Let us be doing something. Be it only half a play, an act, a scene; what should prevent us? Not these countenances, I am sure,” looking towards the Miss Bertrams; “and for a theatre, what signifies a theatre? We shall be only amusing ourselves. Any room in this house might suffice.”
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XIII)
And so it begins. But not all of the family were caught up in the idea. Edmund “began to listen with alarm”. He does his best to dissuade his brother, who, due to their father’s absence in Antigua, is currently master of the house.
“You are not serious, Tom, in meaning to act?” said Edmund, in a low voice, as his brother approached the fire.
“Not serious! never more so, I assure you. What is there to surprise you in it?”
“I think it would be very wrong. In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it would be highly injudicious, and more than injudicious to attempt anything of the kind. It would shew great want of feeling on my father’s account, absent as he is, and in some degree of constant danger; and it would be imprudent, I think, with regard to Maria, whose situation is a very delicate one, considering everything, extremely delicate.”
“You take up a thing so seriously! as if we were going to act three times a week till my father’s return, and invite all the country. But it is not to be a display of that sort. We mean nothing but a little amusement among ourselves, just to vary the scene, and exercise our powers in something new. We want no audience, no publicity. We may be trusted, I think, in chusing some play most perfectly unexceptionable; and I can conceive no greater harm or danger to any of us in conversing in the elegant written language of some respectable author than in chattering in words of our own. I have no fears and no scruples. …. this I will maintain, that we shall be doing no harm.”
“And I am convinced to the contrary. Nobody is fonder of the exercise of talent in young people, or promotes it more, than my father, and for anything of the acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he has always a decided taste. I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be’d and not to be’d, in this very room, for his amusement? And I am sure, my name was Norval, every evening of my life through one Christmas holidays.”
“It was a very different thing. You must see the difference yourself. My father wished us, as schoolboys, to speak well, but he would never wish his grown-up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict.”
“I know all that,” said Tom, displeased. “I know my father as well as you do; and I’ll take care that his daughters do nothing to distress him. Manage your own concerns, Edmund, and I’ll take care of the rest of the family.”
“If you are resolved on acting,” replied the persevering Edmund, “I must hope it will be in a very small and quiet way; and I think a theatre ought not to be attempted. It would be taking liberties with my father’s house in his absence which could not be justified.”
“For everything of that nature I will be answerable,” said Tom, in a decided tone. “His house shall not be hurt. I have quite as great an interest in being careful of his house as you can have; and as to such alterations as I was suggesting just now, such as moving a bookcase, or unlocking a door, or even as using the billiard-room for the space of a week without playing at billiards in it, you might just as well suppose he would object to our sitting more in this room, and less in the breakfast-room, than we did before he went away, or to my sister’s pianoforte being moved from one side of the room to the other. Absolute nonsense!”
“The innovation, if not wrong as an innovation, will be wrong as an expense.”
“Yes, the expense of such an undertaking would be prodigious! Perhaps it might cost a whole twenty pounds. Something of a theatre we must have undoubtedly, but it will be on the simplest plan: a green curtain and a little carpenter’s work, and that’s all; and as the carpenter’s work may be all done at home by Christopher Jackson himself, it will be too absurd to talk of expense; and as long as Jackson is employed, everything will be right with Sir Thomas. Don’t imagine that nobody in this house can see or judge but yourself. Don’t act yourself, if you do not like it, but don’t expect to govern everybody else.”
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XIII)
Maria’s “situation”, referred to as “extremely delicate”, is the fact that she is engaged to be married to Mr. Rushworth—a marriage that is not to take place until her father’s return from Antigua. Their father, Sir Thomas Bertram, is gone to Antigua to look after his property there because of “some recent losses on his West India estate”, so the expense of any undertaking of theirs was necessary for his children to consider. (The idea of adding “to the great expenses of [Sir Thomas’s] stable, at a time when a large part of his income was unsettled”, even prevents Edmund from purchasing another horse for Fanny when her pony dies, but to instead trade his own road-horse for a mare for her to ride.)
Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs …. The necessity of the measure in a pecuniary light … reconciled Sir Thomas to the effort of quitting the rest of his family, and of leaving his daughters to the direction of others at their present most interesting time of life. He could not think Lady Bertram quite equal to supply his place with them, or rather, to perform what should have been her own; but, in Mrs. Norris’s watchful attention, and in Edmund’s judgment, he had sufficient confidence to make him go without fears for their conduct.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter III)
Sir Thomas is gone, the only one capable of ruling his family, for Lady Bertram is almost a nonentity and Mrs. Norris has “no judgment”, besides which she has “no influence with either Tom or [Maria and Julia] that could be of any use”. So far from disapproving of the play, Mrs. Norris “started no difficulties that were not talked down in five minutes by her eldest nephew and niece, who were all-powerful with her; and as the whole arrangement was to bring very little expense to anybody, and none at all to herself, as she foresaw in it all the comforts of hurry, bustle, and importance, and derived the immediate advantage of fancying herself obliged to leave her own house, where she had been living a month at her own cost, and take up her abode in theirs, that every hour might be spent in their service, she was, in fact, exceedingly delighted with the project.” And Lady Bertram’s only attempt at dissuading them is her mild, “Do not act anything improper, my dear … Sir Thomas would not like it.—Fanny, ring the bell; I must have my dinner.—” It is left, therefore, to Edmund to try to dissuade his brother and sisters, with, as has been shown, no success. Fanny Price’s judgment is with Edmund’s.
Fanny, who had heard it all [Edmund’s conversation with Tom], and borne Edmund company in every feeling throughout the whole, now ventured to say, in her anxiety to suggest some comfort, “Perhaps they may not be able to find any play to suit them. Your brother’s taste and your sisters’ seem very different.”
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XIII)
Edmund does not only try to persuade his brother not to act. He attempts to persuade his sisters as well.
His sisters, to whom he had an opportunity of speaking the next morning, were quite as impatient of his advice, quite as unyielding to his representation, quite as determined in the cause of pleasure, as Tom. Their mother had no objection to the plan, and they were not in the least afraid of their father’s disapprobation. There could be no harm in what had been done in so many respectable families, and by so many women of the first consideration; and it must be scrupulousness run mad that could see anything to censure in a plan like theirs, comprehending only brothers and sisters and intimate friends, and which would never be heard of beyond themselves. Julia did seem inclined to admit that Maria’s situation might require particular caution and delicacy—but that could not extend to her—she was at liberty; and Maria evidently considered her engagement as only raising her so much more above restraint, and leaving her less occasion than Julia to consult either father or mother.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XIII)
Tom thinks that they will be doing no harm, Maria and Julia are eager to be acting, and Mr. Crawford is all alive at the idea. Only Sir Thomas (who puts a complete stop to the project when he returns home), Edmund, and Fanny find anything about the plan to censure. Many readers are puzzled to find the reasons against acting that seem so blatant to Edmund and Fanny. It seems like an innocent form of entertainment, and many will agree with Mr. Yates, that Sir Thomas in this case is “unintelligibly moral”. Even Fanny has transient doubts that her refusal to participate in the play can be justified. “Was it not ill-nature, selfishness, and a fear of exposing herself? And would Edmund’s judgment, would his persuasion of Sir Thomas’s disapprobation of the whole, be enough to justify her in a determined denial in spite of all the rest? It would be so horrible to her to act that she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples”.
Jane Austen participated in private theatricals, so she knew what they were like. If she approved of them—or, at least, approved of them under these circumstances—why would she have portrayed them as wrong? To make Edmund look stuffy? If she just wanted Edmund to be stuffy, why did she make him right? After all, in the end the theatricals did harm—even Tom realized that.
What made the play wrong? Edmund does not condemn all theatricals. When he first objects to the play, Julia protests, “Now, Edmund, do not be disagreeable … Nobody loves a play better than you do, or can have gone much farther to see one.” Edmund does not deny it, “True, to see real acting, good hardened real acting; but I would hardly walk from this room to the next to look at the raw efforts of those who have not been bred to the trade: a set of gentlemen and ladies, who have all the disadvantages of education and decorum to struggle through.” Nor does he condemn all private theatricals point blank, though he does point out that, “In a general light, private theatricals are open to some objections”. His objections are personal to his family.
Great Want of Feeling
Edmund points out two objections. First, it would show “great want of feeling” on their father’s account. Sir Thomas was absent, “and in some degree of constant danger”—at sea, where any number of things could happen to prevent his ever returning. That the family were conscious of Sir Thomas’s danger is shown by Fanny and Mrs. Norris. Fanny grieves “because she could not grieve” when he left, even though, as she thinks, he is gone “perhaps never to return”. Mrs. Norris has less tender feelings. She simply depends on being the one to break the news to the family, if “poor Sir Thomas were fated never to return”. Apart from the fears, or expectations, of his family, Sir Thomas’s voyage was, in fact, not without danger, as he tells his family. Mrs. Norris interrupts him during his narration “in the most interesting moment of his passage to England, when the alarm of a French privateer was at the height”.
Sir Thomas’s danger did not only come from his voyage (of which his children might have been ignorant, as he left earlier than he had planned). He was living in the West Indies, which were well-known to be an unhealthy place for Europeans to live. Fanny notices when Sir Thomas returns that “he was grown thinner, and had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate”. In her book Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels, Deirdre Le Faye comments on this.
Sir Thomas seems to have been lucky, in that he returns home no more the worse for wear than being grown thinner and having the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate. The West Indies were notoriously unhealthy for Europeans, with yellow fever the greatest risk, the progress of which could be so rapid that it was not unusual for the doctor, the coffin-maker and the undertaker to be sent for at the same time. Other local diseases were the incurable ‘black scurvy’ (either leprosy or syphilis) and some unnamed infection which covered the body with itching boils.1
In fact, Jane Austen’s own sister, Cassandra, lost her fiancé, Reverend Thomas Fowle, when he accompanied his cousin Lord Craven to the West Indies. He died there, in February 1797, of yellow fever.
On top of their father’s danger, there is the conviction that he “would totally disapprove it”—“he would never wish his grown-up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict.” As Edmund tells his mother, “I am convinced … that Sir Thomas would not like it.” Edmund also thinks that “a theatre ought not to be attempted. It would be taking liberties with my father’s house in his absence which could not be justified.”
Even if there was nothing wrong with the scheme, Sir Thomas’s disapprobation would have been enough to make it blameworthy. The house did not belong to them. They had no business rearranging their father’s house or otherwise using it in a manner that they knew would be disagreeable to him. And they did know. Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia all knew. Their consternation when he arrives proves it.
How is the consternation of the party to be described? To the greater number it was a moment of absolute horror. Sir Thomas in the house! …. after the first starts and exclamations, not a word was spoken for half a minute: each with an altered countenance was looking at some other, and almost each was feeling it a stroke the most unwelcome, most ill-timed, most appalling! Mr. Yates might consider it only as a vexatious interruption for the evening, and Mr. Rushworth might imagine it a blessing; but every other heart was sinking under some degree of self-condemnation or undefined alarm, every other heart was suggesting, “What will become of us? what is to be done now?” It was a terrible pause; and terrible to every ear were the corroborating sounds of opening doors and passing footsteps.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XIX)
Julia’s assertion, “I need not be afraid of appearing before him” (a statement she is only able to make because, after not being cast as Agatha, she refused to have anything more to do with the play), shows her consciousness that Sir Thomas will not approve of their activities. The fact that they all view Edmund’s joining the scheme as a moral fall—“a victory over Edmund’s discretion” that was “beyond their hopes, and was most delightful”—reveals their awareness that what they were doing was wrong.
There was no longer anything to disturb them in their darling project, and they congratulated each other in private on the jealous weakness to which they attributed the change, with all the glee of feelings gratified in every way. Edmund might still look grave, and say he did not like the scheme in general, and must disapprove the play in particular; their point was gained: he was to act, and he was driven to it by the force of selfish inclinations only. Edmund had descended from that moral elevation which he had maintained before, and they were both as much the better as the happier for the descent.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XVII)
Even Mr. and Miss Crawford knew that what they were doing would not be approved of by the master of the house. When Sir Thomas arrives home, the Crawfords and Mr. Yates gave “vent to their feelings of vexation, lamenting over such an unlooked-for premature arrival as a most untoward event, and without mercy wishing poor Sir Thomas had been twice as long on his passage, or were still in Antigua.”
The Crawfords were more warm on the subject than Mr. Yates, from better understanding the family, and judging more clearly of the mischief that must ensue. The ruin of the play was to them a certainty: they felt the total destruction of the scheme to be inevitably at hand; while Mr. Yates considered it only as a temporary interruption, a disaster for the evening, and could even suggest the possibility of the rehearsal being renewed after tea, when the bustle of receiving Sir Thomas were over, and he might be at leisure to be amused by it. The Crawfords laughed at the idea …
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XIX)
And while, as Tom points out, Sir Thomas would probably not have minded slight rearrangements being made in his absence, his children had no business making such serious alterations, or rearranging Sir Thomas’s own room. When Sir Thomas arrives, he is “a good deal surprised to find candles burning in his room; and on casting his eye round it, to see other symptoms of recent habitation and a general air of confusion in the furniture. The removal of the bookcase from before the billiard-room door struck him especially”. Indeed, “it needed all the felicity of being again at home, and all the forbearance it could supply, to save Sir Thomas from anger on finding himself thus bewildered in his own house, making part of a ridiculous exhibition in the midst of theatrical nonsense”. “Tom understood his father’s thoughts, and … began to see, more clearly than he had ever done before, that there might be some ground of offence, that there might be some reason for the glance his father gave towards the ceiling and stucco of the room; and that when he inquired with mild gravity after the fate of the billiard-table, he was not proceeding beyond a very allowable curiosity.”
Despite Tom’s assurances that the theatre “will be on the simplest plan: a green curtain and a little carpenter’s work, and that’s all” and that perhaps it “might cost a whole twenty pounds”, and despite Mrs. Norris’s “superintending their various dresses with economical expedient, for which nobody thanked her, and saving, with delighted integrity, half a crown here and there to the absent Sir Thomas”, the damages must have cost Sir Thomas rather more than Tom had foreseen. Edmund is vexed when “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 éclat of their proceedings”. When Sir Thomas dismisses the scene-painter, he leaves “having spoilt only the floor of one room, ruined all the coachman’s sponges, and made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied”.
On three points, therefore, did the private theatricals show “great want of feeling” on Sir Thomas’s account. First, they were insensitive when Sir Thomas was “in some degree of constant danger”. Secondly, the Bertrams, and, indeed, the Crawfords, knew that Sir Thomas “would totally disapprove it” because of his strict sense of decorum. Finally, it was taking liberties with his house while he was absent, which, as Edmund pointed out, “could not be justified”, and, in light of Sir Thomas’s financial situation, were “wrong as an expense”.
Edmund’s second objection is that it would be “imprudent … with regard to Maria”. Maria was engaged, but could not marry until her father’s return. The lack of her father, her extended engagement, both are disadvantages to Maria.
Considering her engagement, most plays would have brought Maria into an intimacy that must be inappropriate, however the particular play chosen was very inappropriate, and almost all involved felt it so. Though resistant to the idea of any play being done, both Fanny and Edmund were shocked by the particular play chosen—Lovers’ Vows, by Mrs. Inchbald. And Edmund and Fanny were not the only ones who recognized that the selected play was improper for them to act. Maria blushed when she acknowledged the part she was to play and even Miss Crawford was embarrassed to think of acting her part with a stranger.
Mrs. Norris thinks, with regards to Maria, “As Mr. Rushworth is to act too, there can be no harm.” Maria, however, was still worried about her fiancé’s reaction to what she was doing. She needn’t have worried, however. “Mr. Rushworth liked the idea of his finery very well, though affecting to despise it; and was too much engaged with what his own appearance would be to think of the others, or draw any of those conclusions, or feel any of that displeasure which Maria had been half prepared for.” Mr. Rushworth excitedly tells Edmund, “We have got a play …. It is to be Lovers’ Vows; and I am to be Count Cassel”. “Lovers’ Vows!” cries Edmund, in a tone of the greatest amazement, “and he turned towards his brother and sisters as if hardly doubting a contradiction.” Mr. Yates adds, “We have cast almost every part.”
“But what do you do for women?” said Edmund gravely, and looking at Maria.
Maria blushed in spite of herself as she answered, “I take the part which Lady Ravenshaw was to have done, and” (with a bolder eye) “Miss Crawford is to be Amelia.”
“I should not have thought it the sort of play to be so easily filled up, with us,” replied Edmund, turning away to the fire, where sat his mother, aunt, and Fanny, and seating himself with a look of great vexation.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XV)
Maria does not even want to admit that she is to play Agatha, instead stating ambiguously that she is to take Lady Ravenshaw’s part. Miss Crawford also feels the impropriety of her part—or, at least, she recognizes it when she finds that she is not to act with Edmund. Once convinced that Edmund will not act, she is eager to have someone that she has at least met. “Mr. Charles Maddox dined at my sister’s one day, did not he, Henry? A quiet-looking young man. I remember him. Let him be applied to, if you please, for it will be less unpleasant to me than to have a perfect stranger.” She tells Fanny, “I am not very sanguine as to our play … and I can tell Mr. Maddox that I shall shorten some of his speeches, and a great many of my own, before we rehearse together. It will be very disagreeable, and by no means what I expected.”
The play they settled on was “almost as bad a play as they could” have chosen. After Fanny finds out that Lovers’ Vows has been chosen,
The first use she made of her solitude was to take up the volume which had been left on the table, and begin to acquaint herself with the play of which she had heard so much. Her curiosity was all awake, and she ran through it with an eagerness which was suspended only by intervals of astonishment, that it could be chosen in the present instance, that it could be proposed and accepted in a private theatre! Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in; and longed to have them roused as soon as possible by the remonstrance which Edmund would certainly make.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XIV)
Edmund does remontrate with his sister, “I cannot, before Mr. Yates, speak what I feel as to this play, without reflecting on his friends at Ecclesford; but I must now, my dear Maria, tell you, that I think it exceedingly unfit for private representation, and that I hope you will give it up. I cannot but suppose you will when you have read it carefully over. Read only the first act aloud to either your mother or aunt, and see how you can approve it. It will not be necessary to send you to your father’s judgment, I am convinced.” “Although the play ends with morality restored,” Deirdre Le Faye writes, “some critics of the time considered it still too risqué”—and that when performed by professionals.2 Edmund tell Maria, “You must set the example. If others have blundered, it is your place to put them right, and shew them what true delicacy is. In all points of decorum your conduct must be law to the rest of the party. …. Say that, on examining the part, you feel yourself unequal to it; that you find it requiring more exertion and confidence than you can be supposed to have. Say this with firmness, and it will be quite enough. All who can distinguish will understand your motive. The play will be given up, and your delicacy honoured as it ought.” Maria, however, afraid her sister would take her part if she gave it up, will not yield. “Oh! she might think the difference between us—the difference in our situations—that she need not be so scrupulous as I might feel necessary. I am sure she would argue so. No; you must excuse me; I cannot retract my consent; it is too far settled, everybody would be so disappointed, Tom would be quite angry; and if we are so very nice, we shall never act anything.”
Agatha, the character that Maria accepts, is an unmarried woman with a child. It is this “situation” of Agatha’s that makes Fanny so astonished that this play was chosen. In the play, Agatha admits to her grown son, “His [her seducer’s] flattery made me vain, and his repeated vows—; Don’t look at me, dear Frederick!—; I can say no more. Oh! oh! my son! I was intoxicated by the fervent caresses of a young, inexperienced, capricious man, and did not recover from the delirium till it was too late.”3 In the first scene of the play (the one that Maria and Mr. Crawford rehearse “so needlessly often”), Agatha rises and embraces her son Frederick (played, of course, by Mr. Crawford), he “leans her against his breast”. During her confession, Frederick “takes her hand, and puts it to his heart”, and, at the end of the scene, “embraces her”. When Sir Thomas returns during a rehearsal of the play, “Frederick was listening with looks of devotion to Agatha’s narrative, and pressing her hand to his heart”, an action he continues “in spite of the shock” of the news. In the last scene of the play, Baron Wildenhaim (Mr. Yates) runs and clasps Agatha in his arms and she embraces him. The play ends with this action, “Frederick throws himself on his knees by the other side of his mother—; She clasps him in her arms”, etc.
During the time period of Mansfield Park, it was inappropriate for unmarried men and women to do much touching, such as holding hands, etc. Mrs. Norris insists that “if there is anything a little too warm (and it is so with most of them) it can be easily left out”, but she is too busy “saving … half a crown here and there to the absent Sir Thomas, to have leisure for watching the behaviour, or guarding the happiness of his daughters”. And, though, according to Maria, some omissions were to be made to the play, the fact that when Sir Thomas’s arrival is announced, Henry is pressing Maria’s hand to his heart, shows that, at the least, not all of the touching was edited. Fanny notices that this particular scene is practiced over and over, obviously for the flirting pleasure of Henry and Maria. (And note that, when touching is not generally allowed, small touches take on greater meaning, greater significance, than they would otherwise.)
Despite his initial obliviousness to the position acting would put his fiancée into, Mr. Rushworth does not continue unconscious. After watching Maria rehearse with Mr. Crawford so often, Mr. Rushworth experiences “a return of his former jealousy, which Maria, from increasing hopes of Crawford, was at little pains to remove”. Miss Crawford tries to turn off some of Mr. Rushworth’s jealousy at one point, as she relates to Fanny.
“The theatre is engaged of course by those indefatigable rehearsers, Agatha and Frederick. If they are not perfect, I shall be surprised. By the bye, I looked in upon them five minutes ago, and it happened to be exactly at one of the times when they were trying not to embrace, and Mr. Rushworth was with me. I thought he began to look a little queer, so I turned it off as well as I could, by whispering to him, ‘We shall have an excellent Agatha; there is something so maternal in her manner, so completely maternal in her voice and countenance.’ Was not that well done of me? He brightened up directly.”
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XVIII)
Maria might have “increasing hopes of Mr. Crawford”, but he has no serious intentions towards her. He uses the play as a vehicle for his flirtation with her only. He has no intention of fulfilling the expectations that he is raising, as Maria finds when the play is over. “The hand which had so pressed hers to his heart! the hand and the heart were alike motionless and passive now! Her spirit supported her, but the agony of her mind was severe.”
Amelia, the character which Miss Crawford undertakes, is almost as inappropriate in her way, as Agatha. Fanny is astonished that “any woman of modesty” would speak as forwardly as Amelia does in the play, and even Miss Crawford admits that “really there is a speech or two”. Amelia’s forwardness consists in her forcing her tutor, Mr. Anhalt (played by Edmund), into confessing his love for her (“Why do you force from me, what it is villanous to own?—; I love you more than life—”4) by pressing him with declarations of her love for him, when he is sent to her by her father to find out how she feels about marrying Count Cassel. She pretty much proposes to him and then undertakes, before he even accepts, to talk her father into allowing them to marry. As Mr. Anhalt has been secretly in love with Amelia for some time, and Amelia’s father does consent to their marriage, no harm is done, but the lady’s language makes her part, like the part of Agatha, “totally improper for home representation”—especially when played with someone not of the family.
As for the other characters, Count Cassel (played by Mr. Rushworth) is a man who has shamelessly seduced many young women, and even boasts of his conquests. “My meaning is, that when a man is young and rich, has travelled, and is no personal object of disapprobation, to have made vows but to one woman, is an absolute slight upon the rest of the sex.”5 The “rhyming” Butler (played by Tom) recounts the Count’s exploits in verse:
There lived a lady in this land,
Whose charms the heart made tingle;
At church she had not given her hand,
And therefore still was single.
Count Cassel wooed this maid so rare,
And in her eye found grace;
And if his purpose was not fair
It probably was base.
The sire consents to bless the pair,
And names the nuptial day,
When, lo! the bridegroom was not there,
Because he was away.
For ah! the very night before,
No prudent guard upon her,
The Count he gave her oaths a score,
And took in change her honour.
Then you, who now lead single lives,
From this sad tale beware;
And do not act as you were wives,
Before you really are.6
Mr. Yates plays Baron Wildenhaim, the man who seduced Agatha and left her pregnant, eventually marrying another woman (his wife dies before the action of the play). They are reconciled in the end, Agatha forgives the Baron, and he agrees to marry her. When Anhalt goes to bring Agatha to the Baron, he cries, “Stop! Let me first recover a little. That door she will come from—; That was once the dressing-room of my mother—; From that door I have seen her come many times—; have been delighted with her lovely smiles—; How shall I now behold her altered looks! Frederick must be my mediator.—; Where is he? Where is my son?—; Now I am ready—; my heart is prepared to receive her—; Haste! haste! Bring her in.”7 Frederick’s actions have already been touched on.
The parts were very purposely cast for the convenience of the passions of the young people involved. When Mr. Crawford and Mr. Yates are debating which of them should play the Baron and which should play Frederick, Maria, “feeling all the interest of an Agatha in the question, took on her to decide it, by observing to Mr. Yates that this was a point in which height and figure ought to be considered, and that his being the tallest, seemed to fit him peculiarly for the Baron. She was acknowledged to be quite right, and the two parts being accepted accordingly, she was certain of the proper Frederick.” She, like nearly everyone else involved in the play, wanted to use the part to be able to get around the forms of the time that didn’t allow the degree of intimacy she wanted. Mr. Crawford, in his turn, entreats “Miss Julia Bertram … not to engage in the part of Agatha”. “Pleasantly, courteously, it was spoken; but the manner was lost in the matter to Julia’s feelings. She saw a glance at Maria which confirmed the injury to herself: it was a scheme, a trick; she was slighted, Maria was preferred; the smile of triumph which Maria was trying to suppress shewed how well it was understood”. Julia knew as well as Mr. Crawford and her sister, why the parts were being cast as they were. “Henry Crawford had trifled with her feelings; but she had very long allowed and even sought his attentions, with a jealousy of her sister so reasonable as ought to have been their cure; and now that the conviction of his preference for Maria had been forced on her, she submitted to it without any alarm for Maria’s situation”.
Both Mr. and Miss Crawford knew that the play would be used as a vehicle for Henry’s flirtation with Maria, and Miss Crawford, though so aware of “what it would be to act Amelia with a stranger”, has no objection to acting the part with Edmund. “I should not particularly dislike the part of Amelia if well supported”, she says. She wanted to play the part of Edmund’s love interest, as a vehicle for her flirtation with him.
Edmund, though thoroughly convinced of the imprudence and indelicacy of doing this play (or any play), when he finds that his brother is to ask Charles Maddox to act with Miss Crawford, decides to undertake the part of Anhalt himself. Some delicacy for Miss Crawford he may have had, but I believe that he was also driven by jealousy to act as he did—he recognized the intimacy acting together would give Miss Crawford and Mr. Maddox, and he wanted that for himself, and was jealous of Mr. Maddox having it.
Fanny continues to judge rightly, even after Edmund’s fall. “Her heart and her judgment were equally against Edmund’s decision: she could not acquit his unsteadiness, and his happiness under it made her wretched.” “I am sorry for Miss Crawford;” she tells Edmund, “but I am more sorry to see you drawn in to do what you had resolved against, and what you are known to think will be disagreeable to my uncle.” She knows that “she could never have been easy in joining a scheme which, considering only her uncle, she must condemn altogether.” She never ceases “to think of what was due to” Sir Thomas.
The play was not a family affair. A great and dangerous intimacy comes from acting together, especially as adults. Having people other than the family involved (the Crawfords, in particular) was very wrong. Edmund recognizes the danger of inviting Charles Maddox to act with them. He sees “the more than intimacy—the familiarity”, “the mischief that may, … the unpleasantness that must arise from a young man’s being received in this manner: domesticated among us; authorised to come at all hours, and placed suddenly on a footing which must do away all restraints”. “To think only of the licence which every rehearsal must tend to create. It is all very bad!” However, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the same mischief and licence would be created by his acting with Miss Crawford, and that it would be just as wrong for him to undertake the part as it would for Mr. Maddox to do so. The same argument held for the Bertrams acting with the Crawfords and Mr. Yates, as with Mr. Maddox. None of the others recognize this, either. When Edmund join the theatricals, the others “seemed to think it as great an escape to be quit of the intrusion of Charles Maddox, as if they had been forced into admitting him against their inclination. ‘To have it quite in their own family circle was what they had particularly wished. A stranger among them would have been the destruction of all their comfort’”.
Edmund says that “to see real acting, good hardened real acting”, he would go far—“but I would hardly walk from this room to the next to look at the raw efforts of those who have not been bred to the trade: a set of gentlemen and ladies, who have all the disadvantages of education and decorum to struggle through.” When you enter into something as a profession, you bring different feelings, a different perspective to it than when you are just doing something for entertainment. The Bertrams were not professional actors, and their feelings were therefore more susceptible.
The inattention of the two brothers and the aunt to Julia’s discomposure [at being jilted by Mr. Crawford], and their blindness to its true cause, must be imputed to the fullness of their own minds. They were totally preoccupied. Tom was engrossed by the concerns of his theatre, and saw nothing that did not immediately relate to it. Edmund, between his theatrical and his real part, between Miss Crawford’s claims and his own conduct, between love and consistency, was equally unobservant; and Mrs. Norris was too busy in contriving and directing the general little matters of the company, superintending their various dresses with economical expedient, for which nobody thanked her, and saving, with delighted integrity, half a crown here and there to the absent Sir Thomas, to have leisure for watching the behaviour, or guarding the happiness of his daughters.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XVII)
Acting brought no great happiness to any of those involved—except, perhaps, Mr. Yates—even superficially.
Fanny found, before many days were past, that it was not all uninterrupted enjoyment to the party themselves, and that she had not to witness the continuance of such unanimity and delight as had been … at first. Everybody began to have their vexation. Edmund had many. 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 his brother, instead of being really guided by him as to the privacy of the representation, was giving an invitation to every family who came in his way. Tom himself began to fret over the scene-painter’s slow progress, and to feel the miseries of waiting. He had learned his part—all his parts, for he took every trifling one that could be united with the Butler, and began to be impatient to be acting; and every day thus unemployed was tending to increase his sense of the insignificance of all his parts together, and make him more ready to regret that some other play had not been chosen.
Fanny, being always a very courteous listener, and often the only listener at hand, came in for the complaints and the distresses of most of them. She knew that Mr. Yates was in general thought to rant dreadfully; that Mr. Yates was disappointed in Henry Crawford; that Tom Bertram spoke so quick he would be unintelligible; that Mrs. Grant spoiled everything by laughing; that Edmund was behindhand with his part, and that it was misery to have anything to do with Mr. Rushworth, who was wanting a prompter through every speech. She knew, also, that poor Mr. Rushworth could seldom get anybody to rehearse with him: his complaint came before her as well as the rest; and so decided to her eye was her cousin Maria’s avoidance of him, and so needlessly often the rehearsal of the first scene between her and Mr. Crawford, that she had soon all the terror of other complaints from him. So far from being all satisfied and all enjoying, she found everybody requiring something they had not, and giving occasion of discontent to the others. Everybody had a part either too long or too short; nobody would attend as they ought; nobody would remember on which side they were to come in; nobody but the complainer would observe any directions.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XVIII)
When Sir Thomas finds out about the theatre, he returns to the drawing-room “with an increase of gravity which was not lost on all.” “‘I come from your theatre,’ said he composedly, as he sat down; ‘I found myself in it rather unexpectedly. Its vicinity to my own room—but in every respect, indeed, it took me by surprise, as I had not the smallest suspicion of your acting having assumed so serious a character.’” Mr. Yates, without any discernment, keeps Sir Thomas on “the subject of the theatre, would torment him with …. an account of what they had done and were doing: told him of the gradual increase of their views, the happy conclusion of their first difficulties, and present promising state of affairs; relating everything …” Mr. Yates is so blind as to not see “Sir Thomas’s dark brow contract as he looked with inquiring earnestness at his daughters and Edmund, dwelling particularly on the latter, and speaking a language, a remonstrance, a reproof, which he felt at his heart. …. Such a look of reproach at Edmund from his father [Fanny] could never have expected to witness; and to feel that it was in any degree deserved was an aggravation indeed. Sir Thomas’s look implied, ‘On your judgment, Edmund, I depended; what have you been about?’” In Mr. Yates’s relation of his theatre at Ecclesford, Sir Thomas “found much to offend his ideas of decorum”. Sir Thomas tries to turn it all off, and excuse his children as much as he can, “That I should be cautious and quick-sighted, and feel many scruples which my children do not feel, is perfectly natural; and equally so that my value for domestic tranquillity, for a home which shuts out noisy pleasures, should much exceed theirs.”
Edmund’s first object the next morning was to see his father alone, and give him a fair statement of the whole acting scheme, defending his own share in it as far only as he could then, in a soberer moment, feel his motives to deserve, and acknowledging, with perfect ingenuousness, that his concession had been attended with such partial good as to make his judgment in it very doubtful. He was anxious, while vindicating himself, to say nothing unkind of the others: but there was only one amongst them whose conduct he could mention without some necessity of defence or palliation. “We have all been more or less to blame,” said he, “every one of us, excepting Fanny. Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout; who has been consistent. Her feelings have been steadily against it from first to last. She never ceased to think of what was due to you. You will find Fanny everything you could wish.”
Sir Thomas saw all the impropriety of such a scheme among such a party, and at such a time, as strongly as his son had ever supposed he must; he felt it too much, indeed, for many words; and having shaken hands with Edmund, meant to try to lose the disagreeable impression, and forget how much he had been forgotten himself as soon as he could, after the house had been cleared of every object enforcing the remembrance, and restored to its proper state. He did not enter into any remonstrance with his other children: he was more willing to believe they felt their error than to run the risk of investigation. The reproof of an immediate conclusion of everything, the sweep of every preparation, would be sufficient.
There was one person, however, in the house, whom he could not leave to learn his sentiments merely through his conduct. He could not help giving Mrs. Norris a hint of his having hoped that her advice might have been interposed to prevent what her judgment must certainly have disapproved. The young people had been very inconsiderate in forming the plan; they ought to have been capable of a better decision themselves; but they were young; and, excepting Edmund, he believed, of unsteady characters; and with greater surprise, therefore, he must regard her acquiescence in their wrong measures, her countenance of their unsafe amusements, than that such measures and such amusements should have been suggested. Mrs. Norris was a little confounded and as nearly being silenced as ever she had been in her life; for she was ashamed to confess having never seen any of the impropriety which was so glaring to Sir Thomas, and would not have admitted that her influence was insufficient—that she might have talked in vain. Her only resource was to get out of the subject as fast as possible, and turn the current of Sir Thomas’s ideas into a happier channel. …. Sir Thomas gave up the point ….
Sir Thomas was in hopes that another day or two would suffice to wipe away every outward memento of what had been, even to the destruction of every unbound copy of Lovers’ Vows in the house, for he was burning all that met his eye. ….
The evening passed with external smoothness, though almost every mind was ruffled; and the music which Sir Thomas called for from his daughters helped to conceal the want of real harmony.
(Mansfield Park, Chapter XX, underlining mine)
Deirdre Le Faye writes of the Mansfield theatricals:
Some people wonder why, since the young Austens themselves performed plays at home in Steventon, Jane should apparently disapprove of the amateur dramatics at Mansfield Park; but such critics here confuse reality and fiction. The point Jane is making in the novel is not that amateur dramatics are themselves wrong in principle, but that the Bertrams know their father would disapprove and are therefore disobeying him in his absence, as well as choosing a play which, as Fanny realizes, is unsuitable for performance in a domestic circle, and which only exacerbates the jealousies and quarrels already existing among the young people. As Jane intended, the sexual tensions created at this time between Maria and Henry Crawford, and Edmund and Mary Crawford, as they rehearse their parts all too enthusiastically, make the production of Lovers’ Vows the turning point for the eventual collapse of the Bertram family group.8
“We mean nothing but a little amusement among ourselves,” says Tom, “just to vary the scene, and exercise our powers in something new.” “What should prevent us?” is Mr. Crawford’s comment. “I have no fears and no scruples”, Tom tells his brother.
“For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.” (Luke 6:44). The play is proved wrong by its result. A harmless scheme would have caused no harm. Instead, the intimacy it created between Henry and Maria led to her expecting a proposal from him, led to her dissatisfaction with Mr. Rushworth, led to a renewal of their flirtation, and led, finally, to Maria running away with Henry, and her subsequent disgrace, as well as his loss of the woman he truly loved. Maria’s guilt also precipitated Julia’s elopement with Mr. Yates, and caused great suffering to all her family. Tom later suffers “self-reproach arising from the deplorable event in Wimpole Street [that is, Maria’s running away with Mr. Crawford], to which he felt himself accessory by all the dangerous intimacy of his unjustifiable theatre”.
1 Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2002), p. 242.
2 Ibid., p. 241.
3 Mrs. Inchbald, Lovers’ Vows, Act I, Scene I.
4 Ibid., Act III, Scene I.
5 Ibid., Act IV, Scene I.
7 Ibid., Act V, Scene II.
8 Le Faye, p. 242.
All images are from the 1983 adaptation of ‘Mansfield Park’ (with Sylvestra Le Touzel as Fanny Price).