Astonished at Amelia: Amelia Wildenhaim's Salutary Influence on Fanny Price.
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. (161)
In Lovers' Vows, Agatha is a woman disgraced in her youth by an affair with Baron Wildenhaim. Amelia is the legitimate daughter of the Baron, whose love for Anhalt--a young priest who educated her--constitutes the play's main subplot. It is no mystery that Agatha's situation would make her an improper part for a lady (such as Maria Bertram, who takes the role), but what are we to make of the comment on Amelia's language?
What Fanny condemns under the term "language" turns out to be an excessive forwardness of manner. Amelia has few scruples about expressing her feelings and desires, especially through what in the preface Inchbald describes as "whimsical insinuations" (559). An example from the play will exhibit Amelia's impropriety. Amelia's father sends the priest Anhalt to explain to his daughter the duties and pleasures of marriage in light of the interest of a ridiculous, womanizing nobleman named Count Cassel. After a grim depiction of unhappy marriage from Anhalt, Amelia replies: "I will not marry."
Anhalt. You mean to say, you will not fall in love. Amelia. Oh no! [Ashamed.] I am in love. Anhalt. Are in love! [Starting.] And with the Count? Amelia. I wish I was. Anhalt. Why so? Amelia. Because he would, perhaps, love me again. Anhalt. [Warmly.] Who is there that would not? Amelia. Would you? Anhalt. I--I--me--I--I am out of the question. Amelia. No; you are the very person to whom I have put the question. (592-93; 3.2)
The question Amelia puts to her tutor is "very little short of a declaration of love" (MP 196). Even Mary Crawford pokes fun at Amelia upon finding that no one has volunteered to play Anhalt: "Amelia deserves no better. Such a forward young lady may well frighten the men'" (169). If even the forthright Miss Crawford considers Amelia too forward, how much more the timid Miss Price!
But encountering Amelia actually helps Miss Price to appreciate forwardness. Amelia's example teaches Fanny the virtues of boldness so that later in the novel Fanny can appreciate Amelia's disposition when it reappears in her younger sister Susan.
Amelia's salutary influence on Fanny emerges from a background of striking similarities between the two characters. While criticism exploring the importance of the Mansfield theatricals abounds, parallels between Fanny and Amelia have not often been emphasized. Writing in 1933, E. M. Butler gestures toward similarities between Amelia's love for Anhalt and Fanny's love for Edmund (331). But Butler ultimately believes that Austen consciously attempts to undermine the lax morality of Lovers' Vows, and that this opposition to Lovers' Vows results in "a novel so totally unlike the original play that the relationship between them is the very reverse of obtrusive" (326).
In response to Butler, H. Winifred Husbands defended Austen from the charge of animosity toward the play (177). Nearly fifty years later, Dvora Zelicovici used the Butler-Husbands debate as a springboard for considering Austen's use of Lovers' Vows. Zelicovici offers several insights into the likeness between Fanny and Amelia. Fanny's "reticence contrasts strongly with Amelia's 'forwardness,'" writes Zelicovici, "yet in essentials they are similar" (535). The key similarity is that "Fanny, like Amelia, thinks and feels rightly, and is therefore rewarded with marriage to the virtuous parson" (535). More recently, Paula Byrne builds on Zelicovici's work, providing the quintessential catalog of similarities between Fanny and Amelia. Byrne notes that the "sub-plot of Lovers' Vows parallels the main plot in Mansfield Park: the prohibited love between a heroine and the clergyman/mentor who is responsible for forming her values" (153).
More critical to understanding Amelia's influence on Fanny are the moral similarities between the heroines. According to Zelicovici, "Austen chose Lovers' Vows for her actors precisely because the play shares the same moral premises and poses the same moral problems as her book" (532). Byrne shows that this similarity is certainly true as regards Fanny and Amelia. Both girls find themselves in "the uncompromising position of loving without invitation" (155). Amelia is "the stage prototype of a woman who unequivocally defends her right to love before her love is returned," and Fanny, in her own more timid way, does the same (158--59).
Byrne further demonstrates Amelia and Fanny's shared moral outlook, noting how both are repelled by their respective womanizing suitors. Says Fanny, '"I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman's feelings'" (419). Amelia, for her part, has this conversation with her father:
Baron. I hope you judge more favourably of Count Cassel's understanding, since the private interview you have had with him. Confess to me the exact effect of the long conference between you.
Amelia. To make me hate him.
Baron. What has he done?
Amelia. Oh! told me of such barbarous deeds he has committed.
Baron. What deeds?
Amelia. Made vows of love to so many women, that, on his marriage with me, a hundred female hearts will at least be broken. (605-06; 4.2)
For both Fanny and Amelia, the mistreatment of women is a fatal flaw in a suitor, whatever his other merits.
The wealth and rank of Amelia's Count Cassel and Fanny's Henry Crawford make no impression on either heroine. "Fanny ... correlates with Amelia Wildenhaim in refusing a brilliant match with a rich but unworthy lover because her heart is pre-engaged to the man who has nurtured and educated her," writes Byrne (161-62). Amelia declares, "[B]irth and fortune [are] such old-fashioned things to me, I [care] nothing about either" (613; 4.2). Likewise, when Mary writes to Fanny to express hopes that Tom will succumb to illness so that Edmund will be enriched, Fanny feels "disgust" and mentally accuses Mary of "cold-hearted ambition" and of having "only learnt to think nothing of consequence but money" (504-05). Byrne concludes that
Fanny is placed in an analogous situation with Amelia, in that both heroines are secretly in love with a clergyman/tutor. But their refusal to equate a good marriage with wealth and status, and their respect for other women, draws them even closer together. The surprising kinship between the superficially very different heroines of novel and play reveals the depth of Austen's engagement with Lovers' Vows. (176)
All of these similarities between Fanny and Amelia highlight the moral common ground that allows Fanny to benefit from Amelia's example without compromising her principles. It also serves to accentuate the single key difference between the girls--the difference that causes Fanny to marvel when she reads Amelia's speeches.
Amelia is blunt. She is not entirely shameless--after Anhalt is confused by one of her more indelicate proposals, she says, "I am glad you don't understand me. I was afraid I had spoken too plain" (593; 3.2)--but she is alarmingly forthright.
This forthrightness flows from a commitment to honesty, mentioned several times during the play. Amelia reminds Anhalt that her father "has commanded me never to conceal or disguise the truth" (594; 3.2). She reminds her father of the same later in the play (613; 4.2). An earlier conversation underscores Amelia's fidelity to truth-telling:
Amelia. I never told an untruth in my life. Baron. Nor ever conceal the truth from me, I command you. Amelia. [Earnestly.] Indeed, my lord, I never will. (581; 2.2)
While Amelia's whimsical speech sometimes makes her appear silly, she is perfectly serious in her commitment to telling truths.
Fanny--"[t]imid, anxious, doubting" (545)--lives by concealing truths. Twice in the novel Fanny even comes to the point of a blatant lie. First, in gratitude for a good deed of Mary's, Fanny almost says that she would be glad to have Edmund and Mary play opposite each other as Anhalt and Amelia: "She could not finish the generous effusion. Her conscience stopt her in the middle" (183). The second and more significant occurrence appears when Sir Thomas interrogates Fanny about her refusal of Henry Crawford's proposal:
Sir Thomas looked at her with deeper surprise. "This is beyond me," said he. "This requires explanation. Young as you are, and having seen scarcely any one, it is hardly possible that your affections--" He paused and eyed her fixedly. He saw her lips formed into a no, though the sound was inarticulate, but her face was like scarlet. That, however, in so modest a girl might be very compatible with innocence; and chusing at least to appear satisfied, he quickly added, "No, no, I know that is quite out of the question--quite impossible." (365)
As Byrne notes, "Amelia's lips would never have formed into a 'no' in this way" (174). But Fanny "would rather die than own the truth" (MP 365).
Fanny is shy and conceals, while Amelia is bold and reveals. Many readers find Amelia's method more appealing. It is difficult to talk about Mansfield Park without alluding to Fanny's purported unlikableness. The commonly quoted opinion on the subject belongs to Lionel Trilling: "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park" (212). Indeed, some critics go much further. Nina Auerbach calls Fanny a "vampire" who "feasts secretly upon human vitality in the dark" (212). C. S. Lewis gives perhaps the most fair reason for this negative response to Fanny: "One of the most dangerous literary ventures is the little, shy, unimportant heroine whom none of the other characters value. The danger is that your readers may agree with the other characters" (366).
But Fanny's encounter with Amelia in Mansfield Park offers two answers to such criticism. First, the novel's implicit comparison between Fanny and Amelia brings the former's disadvantages into sharp relief. Amelia enjoys both the prerogatives of nobility and an "affectionate relationship between father and daughter" (Byrne 164). Furthermore, Amelia's future is secured by the large inheritance (627; 5.2). Fanny's condition could hardly be more different. Fanny is a second-class denizen of Mansfield, entirely beholden to the whims of others and with no prospects. Edmund determines early in the novel that Fanny's disposition "required more positive kindness" (19). Unfortunately, "nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort" (15), and, "[k]ept back as she was by every body else, [Edmund's] single support could not bring her forward" (24). Amelia can show confidence (extending to impropriety) that Fanny has never had the opportunity to develop. Surely bearing this distinction in mind permits some sympathy for the heroine of Mansfield Park.
More important, Austen allows Fanny to grow through Amelia's example. Much Fanny-hate arises, seemingly, from the suspicion that Fanny is an ideal; readers do not mind the shy and weak heroine nearly so much as they mind the feeling that Austen sides with such a character. Certainly, Austen does seem to commend Fanny's moral outlook--as we have seen, a point of similarity between Fanny and Amelia. But Austen does not endorse Fanny's passivity. Instead, Austen pushes her heroine to grow past some of her tendencies to timidity--and a key part of this growth is her encounter with Amelia Wildenhaim.
We have already noticed the first stage of this encounter--Fanny's initial alarm at Amelia. The next comes soon after Edmund and Mary assume the roles of Anhalt and Amelia. Fanny begins to take a special interest in the scene in which Amelia's whimsical insinuations elicit a confession of love from her tutor:
[T]he third act would bring a scene between them which interested her most particularly, and which she was longing and dreading to see how they would perform. The whole subject of it was love--a marriage of love was to be described by the gentleman, and very little short of a declaration of love be made by the lady. She had read, and read the scene again with many painful, many wondering emotions, and looked forward to their representation of it as a circumstance almost too interesting. (196)
Fanny is, naturally, worried to see her beloved Edmund flirting with Mary through the lines of the play. But there is another reason that the scene "interested her most particularly." Amelia--as we have mentioned--is a girl in love with a clergyman who is her tutor and a socially inappropriate match. Can we doubt that Fanny, in the same situation, would have a particular interest in the scene? Susan Allen Ford suggests that Fanny's distress prevents her from noting the parallels with her own situation, but Byrne proposes more plausibly that the parallels are a principal cause of the distress (162). Some of Fanny's "many wondering emotions" must include awe at the blunt young lady who can come to the brink of confessing love--while Fanny can only conceal.
Fanny has the opportunity to see the dreaded scene soon enough. Mary and Edmund, separately seeking Fanny's help to practice their lines, wind up rehearsing in Fanny's East room with Fanny as their prompter:
She was invested, indeed, with the office of judge and critic, and earnestly desired to exercise it and tell them all their faults; but from doing so every feeling within her shrank, she could not, would not, dared not attempt it; had she been otherwise qualified for criticism, her conscience must have restrained her from venturing at disapprobation. She believed herself to feel too much of it in the aggregate for honesty or safety in particulars. To prompt them must be enough for her; and it was sometimes more than enough; for she could not always pay attention to the book. In watching them she forgot herself; and agitated by the increasing spirit of Edmund's manner, had once closed the page and turned away exactly as he wanted help. (199-200)
Again, the most obvious source of Fanny's discomfort is seeing Edmund and Mary flirt together excessively. But just beneath the surface is the fact that Fanny must watch Amelia do what Fanny is unwilling and unable to do--confess her love and be rewarded with love in return. Thus, there is a twofold reason for Fanny's agitation at "the increasing spirit of Edmund's manner": she is jealous of Mary, but she is also jealous of Amelia. Byrne speculates that "Edmund's searching out of Fanny to read Amelia's part against his Anhalt is potentially even more distressing than her being forced to watch Edmund and Mary rehearse the scene" (162).
These episodes do not exhaust Fanny's encounter with Amelia. Ford reminds us that although Fanny "hasn't read Lovers' Vows before its selection, during the weeks of rehearsal--through obsessive re-readings, the 'innocent enjoyment' of watching and listening, and other forms of participation--she comes to know much of it by heart." According to Ford, the text suggests that Fanny has "an intimate and oral relationship to the roles of both Amelia and Anhalt." So despite Amelia's improper "language," Fanny becomes intimately familiar with her.
Of course, we must not forget the improper language. Amelia--although delightful--is not a wholly positive example. But studying a faulty character is nevertheless beneficial to Fanny, a truism of the Aristotelian ethics that Alasdair MacIntyre and others have identified in Austen's work. As Aristotle writes:
we must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent. (2: 9; 1109bl-7)
For Fanny, prone to timidity, the example of Amelia at the opposite extreme is a moral help. By looking towards the error opposite her own, Fanny is better equipped to overcome her pusillanimity.
While a comprehensive consideration of Fanny's evolution would require more space than is available here, Mansfield Park contains one passage that particularly demonstrates Fanny's growth--and specifically her growth inspired by Amelia. That passage comes from the Portsmouth portion of the novel and concerns Fanny's relationship with her sister Susan:
The first solid consolation which Fanny received for the evils of home, the first which her judgment could entirely approve, and which gave any promise of durability, was in a better knowledge of Susan, and a hope of being of service to her. Susan had always behaved pleasantly to herself, but the determined character of her general manners had astonished and alarmed her, and it was at least a fortnight before she began to understand a disposition so totally different from her own. (457-58)
Although Kathleen L. Fowler has drawn some basic parallels between Susan Price and a character of the same name from a story by Maria Edgeworth, to my knowledge no critic has observed the striking parallels between Susan and Amelia Wildenhaim. Like Amelia, Susan has a "disposition so totally different" from Fanny's. Fanny's "astonished" reaction to Susan may even be a deliberate callback to her "intervals of astonishment" when reading Lovers' Vows (161). The paragraph continues:
Susan saw that much was wrong at home, and wanted to set it right. That a girl of fourteen, acting only on her unassisted reason, should err in the method of reform was not wonderful; and Fanny soon became more disposed to admire the natural light of the mind which could so early distinguish justly, than to censure severely the faults of conduct to which it led. Susan was only acting on the same truths, and pursuing the same system, which her own judgment acknowledged, but which her more supine and yielding temper would have shrunk from asserting. (458)
Amelia is this same mixture of right sentiments enacted in wrong conduct. This is the key connection between Susan and Amelia. Amelia and Susan both are quintessentially prone to faults of conduct; as we have seen, these faults are what initially astonishes Fanny about Lovers' Vows.
But through Susan, Fanny encounters Amelia a second time and on this meeting recognizes the underlying good principles that even impropriety cannot obscure. On this meeting, Fanny is "more disposed to admire" than "to censure." The more complex and generous reaction to Amelia-like traits in her sister shows the extent of Fanny's progress in appreciating boldness. The final segment of the paragraph describing Fanny's reevaluation of Susan is perhaps the most telling of all:
Susan tried to be useful, where she could only have gone away and cried; and that Susan was useful she could perceive; that things, bad as they were, would have been worse but for such interposition, and that both her mother and [her other sister] Betsey were restrained from some excesses of very offensive indulgence and vulgarity. (458)
Typical of Austen's novels is a moment of self-knowledge in which the heroine recognizes something that prompts improvement. This paragraph marks Fanny's critical moment of self-knowledge. Fanny recognizes that Susan's boldness makes her useful where she herself would be useless. In so doing, Fanny recognizes the virtues of Amelia.
Fanny's original encounter with Amelia is what makes this recognition possible. The pedagogical effect of the Mansfield theatricals on Fanny has been noted before. Syndy McMillen Conger argues that through Lovers' Vows Fanny "discovers in herself an unrecognized strength" that will give her the courage to refuse Henry later in the novel (113). More recently, Penny Gay has called the theatricals a "special educational experience" for Fanny, focusing on Fanny's exposure to sexual realities (107). But what has not been emphasized is the fact that, due to the particular parallels between the two, Amelia specifically challenges Fanny in a way nothing else in the play can.
Amelia and Susan both challenge Fanny--both astonish her. With Susan, the astonishment gives way to "mingled compassion and respect" (458). This respect for Susan's boldness represents the benefit Fanny has gained from her encounter with Amelia Wildenhaim. Nor is the benefit merely an intellectual one, for, in the end, Fanny demonstrates the ability to overcome her timidity and--in a way no doubt less outrageous than Amelia's--reveals her own affection for her own clergyman. "[T]here was happiness ... which no description can reach" (545).
Josiah J. Duran holds an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Dallas and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. through the university's interdisciplinary Institute of Philosophic Studies program. His research interest in the nature of storytelling has led him to study Austen as a master of the craft.
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Byrne, Paula. Jane Austen and the Theatre. London: Hambledon, 2002.
Conger, Syndy McMillen. "Reading 'Lovers' Vows': Jane Austen's Reflections on English Sense and German Sensibility." Studies in Philology 85 (1988): 92-113.
Ford, Susan Allen. '"It is about Lovers' Vows': Kotzebue, Inchbald, and the Players of Mansfield Park." Persuasions On-Line 27.1 (2006).
Fowler, Kathleen L. "Apricots, Raspberries, and Susan Price! Susan Price!: Mansfield Park and Maria Edgeworth." Persuasions 13 (1991): 28-32.
Gay, Penny. Jane Austen and the Theatre. Cambridge: CUP, 2002.
Husbands, H. Winifred. '"Mansfield Park' and Kotzebue's 'Lovers' Vows': A Reply." Modern Language Review 29 (1934): 176-79.
Inchbald, Elizabeth. Lovers' Vows. Mansfield Park. Ed. John Wiltshire. Cambridge: CUP, 2005. 557-629.
Lewis, C. S. "A Note on Jane Austen." Essays in Criticism 4 (1954): 359-71.
MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. 3rd ed. South Bend, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2012.
Trilling, Lionel. "Mansfield Park." The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism. New York: Viking, 1959. 206-30.
Zelicovici, Dvora. "The Inefficacy of Lovers' Vows." ELH50 (1983): 531-40.
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|Title Annotation:||Miscellany; characters in Elizabeth Inchbald's "Lovers' Vows" and Jane Austen's "Persuasion"|
|Author:||Duran, Josiah J.|
|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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