Seeing double: theatrical spectatorship in Mansfield Park.
We can reframe the issue by considering another reason why Austen may have used Lovers' Vows in Mansfield Park. I propose that Austen's use of the play reflects her engagement in a debate about the effect of the drama on the emotions of eighteenth-century theatergoers. (4) Compared to Elizabeth Inchbald--who adapted the play from Das Kind der Liebe by the German dramatist August von Kotzebue--Austen harbored serious reservations about the consequences of arousing a sympathetic reaction in theater audiences. Her primary interest is in preserving the spectator's ability to reason while experiencing emotion. Austen's position regarding this issue manifests itself in the narrative style of Mansfield Park, particularly in the way she constructs her reader's point of view. (5) By including Inchbald's play in Mansfield Park, Austen is signaling her interest in the question of how one ought to respond to all kinds of fiction, including novels, plays, and the fictions one encounters in everyday life.
The ability of the theater to affect spectators' emotions was widely acknowledged long before either writer was born. In the Restoration, explains Joseph Roach, "it was widely believed that the spirits, agitated by [the actor], generate a wave of physical force, rolling through the aether, powerful enough to influence the spirits of others at a distance." (6) By mid-century, the philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, and the dramaturges Aaron Hill and Sir John Hill had replaced this material connection with one forged by the spectator's imagination. "As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel," remarks Smith,
we can form no other idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us what he suffers ... it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.... By the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body ... and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. (7)
Despite the lack of natural element binding spectator and spectacle, the spectators' reactions to the play are still physical. Now, though, these reactions depend on the spectators' capacity for sympathy--on their ability to imagine themselves in the place of the person observed.
Throughout the century, the drama's ability to affect spectators' emotions was both feared and admired. For its detractors, the theater was immoral and it fostered corruption in audience members. Women, apparently, were the most vulnerable "because their nerves were [believed] to be more delicate and more susceptible than men's." (8) In a world that insisted on a direct connection between the body and the emotions, prevailing definitions of human physiology endowed women with a greater degree of sensibility. Far more than men, women possessed the capacity to respond--both physically and emotionally--to the affecting in art and in life. However, compared to men, they lacked the emotional detachment necessary to reason. According to such antitheatrical writers as Jeremy Collier, women were therefore more likely to identify with the characters they saw on the stage. (9) When "replaying the scene in her own mind," he worries, the female theatergoer might "enact it herself, so that the erotic conduct" she has witnessed "becomes her own." (10) The anonymous author of The Stage Condemn'd goes even farther, arguing that "a man is justified in divorcing his wife simply because she watches a play; her gaze sets in motion a chain of events which inevitably results in promiscuity." (11)
Although the Licensing Act of 1737 and an increasingly sentimentalized view of human nature did much to render eighteenth-century plays more "respectable" than their Restoration counterparts, the effect of the theater on female audiences continued to be a source of concern throughout the century. Approximately seventy years after Collier's treatise, Dr. John Gregory cautions young women against attending the theater in A Father's Legacy to His Daughters. First he decries the current state of the theater. "There are very few English comedies that a young lady may see without a shock to her delicacy," he declares. (12) Echoing Collier almost verbatim, he then points out that the theater places young women in an untenable position. A truly innocent girl, he explains, will not be able to understand immodest material. Unfortunately, her lack of discomfort will be misinterpreted as an indication that she is less innocent than she appears. (13) Given this state of affairs, Gregory counsels young ladies to avoid the theater altogether. The anonymous author of Advice from a Lady of Quality to Her Children is even more vehement. "How often does the theatre ... carry us away from ourselves, and render us the slaves of passion!" she exclaims. (14) Women sympathize too strongly with the emotions rendered on stage; this impedes their ability to differentiate between real life and fiction. Because the world of the play appears more attractive than their everyday lives, women return from the theater "more enamoured with the world, more passionately fond of dress, [and] more strongly inclined to dissipation." (15)
While those who attack the theater often focus on its effect on female audience members, those who defend it take several tacks. Early in the century, as Jean Marsden explains, a popular strategy was to insist that the theater was a place of moral instruction; because "the spectator's identification with the image on stage is rational, rather than emotional, it provides a sense of distance between spectator and representation." (16) Although most of these writers avoid discussing the response of the female theatergoer, those who do "mostly envision her learning from the drama she watches, stressing the drama's capacity to represent society." (17) Another strategy, which became increasingly commonplace as the century advanced, was to insist that "literary emotions herald[ed] active ones; a theatrical or fictional feeling creates greater virtue in the audience or reader, and a contrived tear foreshadows the spontaneous one of human sympathy." (18) The emotional impact of the drama--and of literature in general--thus made it a powerful means of moral instruction.
Inchbald's Preface to August von Kotzebue's The Stranger for The British Theatre is a case in point. (19) We learn that Kotzebue has been criticized because the character of the adulteress, Mrs. Haller, is depicted with pity and ultimately restored to "her former rank in life, under the roof of her injured husband." According to Inchbald, some have alleged that this outcome "hold[s] out temptation ... for women to be false to their husbands," but she herself is incredulous. The play, she explains, eliminates this danger by depicting the most "calamitous woes ... as the consequence of illicit love." Not only the language, but also the "plot and the incidents" of the play describe "with effect, those multiplied miseries which the dishonor of a wife spreads around." Her highest praise is reserved for the actors.
Kemble's emaciated frame, sunken eye, drooping head, and death-like paleness; his heart-piercing lamentation that--`he trusted a friend who repaid his hospitality, by alluring from him all that his soul held dear,'--are potent warnings to the modern husband.
Mrs. Siddons, in Mrs. Haller (the just martyr to her own crimes) speaks in her turn to every married woman; and, in pathetic bursts of grief--in looks of overwhelming shame--in words of deep reproach against herself and her seducer--`conjures each wife to revere the marriage bond.'
If the moral force of the play resides in its ability to move the audience's emotions, then, Inchbald suggests, this is primarily accomplished through the spectators' response to what they see on the stage. She insists that watching a play is a different experience than reading one. "Plays of former times were written to be read," she declares; "now plays are written to be seen" (Preface to The Dramatist).
Although Inchbald admires the drama's ability to provoke a sympathetic response in theatrical spectators, she is also aware that this response can be problematic. Her primary concern is that certain plays make irresponsible conduct seem palatable. Writing of The Gamester, for instance, Inchbald remarks that the audience, "deluded into pity by the inimitable acting of a Mrs. Siddons or a Mr. Kemble ... weeps with her; sighs with him; and conceives them to be a most amiable, though unfortunate pair." However, a reader of the play, "blessed with the common reflection a reading should give, calls the husband a very silly man, and the wife a very imprudent woman; ... the punishment of the author is rather expected with impatience than lamented as severe." Reading, Inchbald suggests, enables one to evaluate the material from a detached perspective; in contrast, watching a play arouses an immediate, irrational emotional response.
Perhaps the one issue on which there was no debate when Lovers' Vows premiered in 1798 was its effect on the audience's emotions. As one reviewer noted, in watching Lovers' Vows the
mind is roused from the most torpid state of indifference, and compelled to sympathise in the melting effusions of sorrow, or to exult with fervent joy in the vindication of distressed innocence. We are absolutely forced to take part in the respective interests, and enter into the `cue for passion,' with which the characters are supposed to be animated. (20)
For those who believed that the play ultimately encouraged chastity, honesty, and respect for one's elders, its emotional effect was something to be admired. For those who believed that the play countenanced filial disobedience and encouraged licentious conduct, it was a serious concern. As Colin Pedley explains, these writers repeatedly warn of the following scenario: "the audience is seduced into acceptance by the grace of a performer; a position wins its place with us insidiously, by passing moral filters in moments of emotional collusion." (21) Like Collier and his supporters earlier in the century, those who object to Lovers' Vows oppose reason to emotion. The capacity to evaluate a play rationally, they suggest, is seriously hindered if one experiences a sympathetic response to the play in performance.
Clearly Lovers' Vows is subject to conflicting interpretations. The play concerns the fate of Agatha Friburg, who was seduced and abandoned by Baron Wildenhaim, twenty years before the play begins. Tormented by guilt and self-loathing, Wildenhaim refuses to marry his daughter to a rich libertine named Count Cassel, who courts her assiduously while under the Baron's roof. Amelia is less than heartbroken by this news. She is in love with her tutor, a young parson named Anhalt, to whom, in an early scene, she has nearly proposed. Amelia tells her father that she loves Anhalt but the Baron, who values money and name, opposes the match. Anhalt, however, plays a pivotal role in reuniting the Baron with Agatha and their illegitimate son, Frederick. After Anhalt convinces the Baron to atone for his sins by marrying Agatha, Wildenhaim gives the parson permission to marry his daughter. The play ends with the characters clustered around Agatha, who has spent much of the play prostrate and nearly dead.
Inchbald's prefatory remarks to Lovers' Vows suggest that she saw the play in performance as a vehicle for moral instruction. She explains that the play "condemn[s] the crime of seduction." She acknowledges the objection of a "small party of critics," who object that Lovers' Vows, like The Stranger, forgives immoral conduct. These critics, Inchbald maintains, have not seen the play enacted; thus they "forget that there is a punishment called conscience, which ... may weigh heavily on the fallen female and her libertine seducer." (22) Inchbald then goes on to explain in practical terms how the play, when performed, dramatizes their sufferings. "If," she declares, "she has agitated her audience with all the various passions that [Kotzebue] has depicted, the rigid criticism of the closet will be but a slender abatement of the pleasure resulting from the sanction of the applauding theatre." In contrast to her remarks on The Gamester, Inchbald endorses Lovers' Vows as a moral drama. Consequently she admires its ability to provoke a sympathetic response in theatergoers.
While Austen's opinion of the play remains unclear, her use of it in Mansfield Park suggests that she too was interested in the effect of the theater on spectators' emotions. However, compared to Inchbald, Austen seems to have harbored far more serious reservations about the emotional impact of plays in performance. As Margaret Kirkham contends, Austen was an enlightenment feminist, someone who firmly believed in women's ability to reason. (23) Her primary interest is in establishing women's agency, both as spectators and as readers. Thus Mansfield Park is, above all else, a novel about how individuals respond to the fictions around them, including plays, novels, and the performances that occur in everyday life. (24) Throughout the novel, Austen suggests certain parallels between watching plays and reading novels. She also collapses the distinction between on-stage and off and, in doing so, dramatizes the theatrical nature of ordinary social intercourse. Ultimately, Mansfield Park encourages its readers--regardless of their gender--to experience both a rational and an emotional response to the plays they watch, the novels they read, and the fictions they encounter in their daily lives.
Austen's own experience as a playgoer may serve as a model for the kind of spectatorship she recommends in Mansfield Park. Throughout her letters, her comments about the plays that she sees are characterized by the same capacity for objective observation that she requires from her own readers. While she often praises individual performers or plays, her compliments are always qualified by some kind of criticism that bespeaks her refusal to lose herself in the play. In praising The Hypocrite, which she saw in 1811, Austen notes that "Dowton & Mathews were the good actors" and that Mrs. Edwin's performance "is just what it used to be." (25) Although she enjoyed the play as a whole, Austen remains able to distinguish between the performers and their roles--an ability many anti-theatrical writers do not credit to ladies. Her interest is in evaluating the quality of the actors' work and her standards are rigorous. In 1813, she commends a performance of The Clandestine Marriage. The other pieces, she notes, were "singsong and trumpery" (JAL, 230). Although her nieces were pleased, Austen herself "wanted better acting.... The Theatres," she concludes, "are at a low ebb at present" (JAL, 230). Even Miss O'Neil, a tragic actress touted as Sarah Siddons's successor, failed to stir Austen. "I fancy I want something more than can be," she admits; "acting seldom satisfies me. I took two pocket handkerchiefs, but had very little occasion for either" (JAL, 283). Austen is proud of her discerning taste in performers and does not necessarily want to sob her way through a performance. Rather, she watches the play with a divided perspective, refusing to lose herself in the drama regardless of her emotional response to the play. For Austen, the theater is, above all, a place in which to exercise her capacity for aesthetic judgement; the best way to watch a play, she suggests, is to temper sensibility with reason, to recognize and evaluate a play as a work of art.
Read in this context, Mansfield Park is a novel that teaches its readers about the value of interpreting fiction through a divided perspective. With the exception of Fanny Price's, the manner in which the characters respond to the private theatricals at Mansfield Park serves as a lesson in how not to respond to a play. Oblivious to all but their own selfish desires, the performers are unable to evaluate the play objectively. Nor do they experience sympathetic response to the characters they portray. As Frederick and Agatha, Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram spend much of their time rehearsing the scene in which Agatha explains to her son how she was seduced and betrayed by Baron Wildenhaim. The performers, however, are "deaf to the dialogue." (26) Instead of profiting by Agatha's example, the pair use the rehearsals to further a flirtation that ends in adultery. Mary Crawford is also unable to learn from the play. Unlike Amelia, who respects Anhalt's beliefs, Mary has little regard for Edmund's convictions. Instead of honoring his refusal to act, she manipulates him into taking the role of Anhalt. As Mary intends, Edmund overhears her express her reluctance to perform a love scene with whomever plays Anhalt and becomes jealous. For these three "incorrigibles," as Dvora Zelicovici calls them, the play is nothing but a vehicle for the fulfillment of their own selfish desires. (27) Their solipsism, rather than the play's message, is what leads to mischief.
Edmund Bertram's response is a bit more complex than his fellow performers'. Initially he responds to the play as a reader, and demonstrates a considerable degree of critical detachment. Although he does not condemn the play if represented by professionals, he concludes that the female roles in the play make Lovers' Vows "unfit for private representation." (28) His specific objection is that a lady of delicacy would naturally revolt from playing either of the female leads. To play such a part, he implies, would be to demonstrate publicly that one lacked the innocence and modesty requisite in a lady. Edmund's opposition to the play thus may be read not as a rejection of Lovers' Vows, or of acting in general, but as an honest attempt to protect the reputations of his family and friends during the absence of his father.
Edmund's decision to take the part of Anhalt, however, signals a loss of perspective occasioned by the need to fulfill his own desires. Specifically, Edmund wants to prevent Mary from performing a love scene with Charles Maddox. "Perhaps," he warns Fanny,
you are not so much aware as I am, of the mischief that may, of the unpleasantness that must, arise from a young man's being received in this manner--domesticated among us--authorized to come and go at all hours--and placed suddenly on a footing which must do away with all restraints. To think of the license which every rehearsal must tend to create. It is all very bad! (175-76)
Edmund's speech does more than emphasize his own interest in Mary; it provides a perfect example of Austen's use of dramatic irony to underscore a character's limited vision. Like Fanny--whom Edmund here underestimates--we see that Edmund is blind to the fact that Henry Crawford and Mr. Yates enjoy the access he decries and are already pursuing his sisters. Edmund's affection for Mary has altered him for the worse. As an actor, the Edmund who had formerly proved himself a sympathetic and discerning observer is now as imperceptive as his fellow performers.
Compared to the actors, Fanny Price represents a superior model of theatrical spectatorship. Despite her own feelings of "jealousy and agitation," she is less self-absorbed than anyone else in the novel (180). As a result, she is a much more aware of the dramas that the rehearsals generate on stage and off. She is, for example, the only member of the Bertram household to see that Henry is toying with her cousins' affections.
The inattention of the two brothers and the aunt to Julia's discomposure and their blindness to its true cause [i.e. Henry's pursuit of Maria], must be imputed to the fullness of their own minds. Tom was engrossed by the concerns of his theatre ... Edmund between his theatrical and 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 ... to have leisure for watching the behavior or guarding the happiness of [Sir Thomas's] daughters. (183)
Full of their own concerns, Tom, Edmund, and Mrs. Norris are too self-involved to realize that both of the sisters have fallen in love with Henry. Fanny, in contrast, sees the situation quite clearly because she can look beyond her own emotional needs.
Unlike the other young women in the novel, Fanny is able to sympathize with those she observes. Like Fanny, Mary Crawford is aware that both Bertram sisters are in love with Henry. However, she feels nothing but contempt for their predicament. Maria and Julia are equally insensitive. At odds over Henry,
the sisters had not the affection or principle enough to make them merciful or just, to give them honour or compassion. Maria felt her triumph and pursued it careless of Julia; and Julia could never see Maria distinguished by Henry Crawford, without trusting that it would create jealousy, and bring public disturbance at last. (183)
Interested only in themselves, neither sister feels for the other. Nor do they notice Fanny's quiet dismay over the growing affection between Edmund and Mary. Fanny, in contrast, worries about Maria, empathizes with Julia, and pities Maria's fiance, Mr. Rushworth. As a sympathetic yet discerning observer, Fanny not only sees what the other characters cannot see, but possesses a generosity of spirit that they lack.
Despite the concern of writers like the anonymous author of Advice from a Lady of Quality to her Children, Fanny's capacity for sympathy does not prevent her from correctly evaluating what she observes. Although she enjoys watching Maria and Henry rehearse, she is able to differentiate the performers from the roles they portray. Henry, she decides, is an excellent actor both on stage and off: "he had more confidence than Edmund, more judgement than Tom, more talent and taste than Mr. Yates." (185). She also understands that his skill disguises his insincerity; he does not feel the emotions he portrays, whether they belong to Frederick, in Lovers' Vows, or to a man in love with Maria. Henry's insincerity engenders Fanny's distrust; although she is shocked at the news that he has run off with Maria, she quickly comes to believe the report: "His unsettled affections, wavering with his vanity, Maria's decided attachment, and no sufficient principle on either side gave it possibility" (430).
Fanny also evaluates the behavior of Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram correctly. Despite Edmund's insistence that Mary's character resembles Fanny's own in its "true generosity and natural delicacy," Fanny quickly becomes convinced that Mary has "a mind led astray and bewildered, and without any suspicion of being so" (270, 362). Although Fanny habitually subordinates her judgement to Edmund's, she is forced to recognize that Edmund is "deceiving himself," both about Mary Crawford and about his decision to act in the play (77). Unlike Edmund, Fanny is not surprised to discover that Mary considers the detection of her brother's affair with Maria to be a far more serious problem than the fact that the pair have committed a mortal sin. Edmund, however, is horrified. "[A]ll this together," he explains, "most grievously convinced me that I had never understood her before, and that, as far as related to mind, it had been the creature of my own imagination, not Miss Crawford, that I had been too apt to dwell on for many months past" (444). To Fanny's quiet delight, Edmund's conclusions echo her own reading of his behavior. Fanny's capacity for sympathy has not impeded her ability to interpret the behavior of others; indeed, it is her ability to balance the two that make her the most perceptive spectator at Mansfield Park.
Fanny also appears to be the only character in the novel incapable of acting in a theatrical sense. Acting, she declares, would be "absolutely impossible" for her and the narrative--at least at first glance--seems to support her assertion (169). Because we spend so much of the novel seeing events through her eyes, we know that Fanny regards herself as a spectator rather than a performer. We also know that she refuses to act against her principles. Her refusal to participate in Lovers' Vows is evidence of her personal integrity. To do otherwise, would be to renounce her own values. We also know that Fanny feels emotion far more intensely than any other character in the novel. When she displeases Sir Thomas by refusing Henry Crawford's offer of marriage, the narrative clearly describes how she suffers:
[H]er heart was almost broke by such a picture of what she appeared to him; by such accusations, so heavy, so multiplied, so rising in dreadful gradation. Self-willed, obstinate, selfish, and ungrateful. He thought her all this. She had deceived his expectations; she had lost his good opinion. What was to become of her? (319)
Here as elsewhere, Austen's use of free indirect discourse effaces the narrator, creating the illusion that we are witnessing Fanny's immediate, authentic emotions and thoughts. (29) In this particular instance, it underscores both the severity and the sincerity of Fanny's distress. By dramatizing Fanny's emotions thus, Austen reinforces our sense that Fanny is the novel's exemplar of genuine feeling. She seems incapable of insincerity, utterly different from those who perform in the play.
Fanny's emotional integrity, however, does not exempt her from the theatrical imperative governing Mansfield Park. As ought to be clear by now, the theatricals that take place at Mansfield Park extend far beyond the stage constructed in the Bertrams' billiard room. Throughout the novel, as Claudia Johnson remarks, "every major character is acting all of the time." (30) In Mansfield Park, the question of how to watch a play thus becomes a question of how to act--and interact--in relation to the performances that occur in the course of everyday life.
In this arena, Fanny proves herself an accomplished performer. Regardless of her refusal to act in the play, she is often transformed from spectator to spectacle by a narrative that collapses the distinction between on stage and off. Thus when Fanny rejects the part of the Cottager's Wife in Lovers' Vows, she is "shocked to find herself at that moment the only speaker in the room, and ... feel ... that almost every eye was upon her" (169). Likewise, at her first ball, she is put on display by Sir Thomas, whose goal is to demonstrate her "persuadableness" to Henry Crawford (286). Henry's presence, as David Marshall remarks, inevitably "places Fanny in a play." (31) Fanny never misrepresents herself to Henry deliberately, yet she is powerless to resist his gaze or assumptions. Regardless of her own preference for being "suffered to sit silent and unattended to," Fanny frequently is forced to perform (234).
At times, circumstances also compel Fanny to assume strategies of self-representation that are inherently theatrical. Throughout the novel, Fanny successfully conceals her dislike of the Crawfords. Nor does she reveal her feelings for Edmund. When she stands up to Sir Thomas by refusing Henry's proposal, her sorrow and fear do not ruin her performance. Instead, she uses a pause in the conversation to "harden and prepare herself against further questioning. She would rather die than own the truth and she hoped by a little reflection to fortify herself beyond betraying it" (317). Fanny does not regard such behavior as acting. Nevertheless, her determination to disguise her affection for Edmund requires her to perform in a theatrical sense. Instead of revealing a secret that would enrage Sir Thomas further, and cause her endless humiliation, Fanny eventually succeeds in placating her uncle, who blames her resistance on her natural timidity (320). Fanny's skill as an actress consequently earns her a limited degree of agency. Rather than bend her will to his own, Sir Thomas is forced to satisfy himself with the hope that Fanny will eventually change her mind about Henry.
Once we understand that Fanny is capable of acting then the importance of interpreting fiction--whether novels or plays--through a divided perspective becomes much more apparent. As if we were critics and Fanny an actress performing a role, the narrative encourages us to experience a sympathetic response to Fanny's emotions while maintaining a certain degree of critical detachment from Fanny herself. To this end, Austen endows her readers with a perspective that is even wider than Fanny's. By creating a novel that prohibits a simple identification with any character's perspective, including the heroine's, Austen encourages her readers to evaluate rationally the truths that her characters blindly embrace.
To facilitate a sympathetic response to Fanny's emotions, Austen spends much of the novel dramatizing her heroine's internal experience. Austen's sentences do more than describe what Fanny is feeling; as Norman Page notes, they actually encourage the reader to experience a semblance of Fanny's emotions. (32) For example, when the actors pressure Fanny to participate in what turns out to be the final rehearsal of Lovers' Vows, Fanny, we read,
still hung back. She could not endure the idea of it. Why was not Miss Crawford applied to as well? Or why had she not rather gone to her own room as she had felt to be safest, instead of attending the rehearsal at all? She had known it would irritate and distress her--she had known it her duty to keep away. She was properly punished. (191)
The first two sentences in this passage reflect Fanny's determination while the two unanswered questions indicate her feeling of helplessness. The dashes mirror her panic and the short final sentence rings with despair. Austen's syntax thus conveys the progress and tenor of Fanny's emotions. Meanwhile, Austen's use of free indirect discourse works to conflate the reader's sensibility with Fanny's. Specifically, it creates the illusion that Fanny's thoughts can be heard by the reader, rather than read. This auditory sensation creates the impression that the reader is inside Fanny's head; we seem to share her consciousness and experience her immediate emotions and thoughts.
Austen also encourages her readers to sympathize with Fanny's emotions by making her heroine's internal life more engaging than anything else that occurs in the novel. To do so, Austen frequently focuses on Fanny's response to a scene. This tendency is especially apparent in the episode in which Fanny helps Mary and Edmund rehearse the love scene between Amelia and Anhalt. Rather than describing what Fanny observes, Austen focuses on Fanny's internal reactions. Once Edmund arrives, Fanny's spirits sink. "She was invested," we are told,
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 turned away exactly as he wanted help. (189)
Austen here frames Fanny's emotions as theater. Fanny may define herself as a spectator, but the narrative insists that Fanny's interior conflict is as much of a spectacle as the scene she observes. Just as Fanny loses herself in watching the actors, the narrative encourages the readers to lose themselves in observing Fanny's response to the scene.
Although Austen's novel invites the reader to sympathize with Fanny, it also insists that the reader maintain a certain degree of critical detachment in order to evaluate Fanny's beliefs and decisions rationally. Thus the "actual pattern of human relations [in Mansfield Park] is visible only to the reader," who alone "is allowed to occupy Fanny's observation-post, and, with her sensibility, but with more critical detachment, to gather and relate impressions from all of the characters." (33) To effect this detachment, Austen offers the reader a perspective that is larger than Fanny's. In some cases, we are present at scenes when Fanny is not. At other times, the narrative informs us about feelings and motives that Fanny only suspects. Although Fanny is usually shown to be right, Austen occasionally encourages her readers to disagree with Fanny's conclusions.
This is especially true when the issue at hand regards Fanny herself. Throughout the novel, Fanny is far less successful at understanding herself than she is in evaluating others. At Portsmouth, for instance, when Fanny reconsiders her opinion of Henry, she fails to take into account her relative isolation, her despair over Edmund, and her disgust at her family's conduct. Fanny's lack of perspective is also made apparent when she condemns Mary as an unfit partner for Edmund. "Experience," Austen notes, "might have hoped for more for any young people so circumstanced, and impartiality would not have denied to Miss Crawford's nature, that ... which would lead her to adopt the opinions and of the man she loved and respected as her own" (362, emphasis mine). Although the narrative has frequently validated Fanny's doubts about Mary, here it suggests that Fanny's youth and self-interest prevent her from evaluating the situation fairly. Guided by the narrator, we understand that Fanny is not completely to be trusted regarding her opposition to the match.
Maintaining a doubled perspective with regard to Fanny is especially important at the end of the novel. If we were to identify with her completely, we would share her love for the social order represented by Mansfield Park. Our larger perspective, however, allows us to see that Fanny has internalized a system of values that the novel condemns. Ultimately, "the most unsettling irony of Mansfield Park ... is that the failures of conservative ideology fall ... most heavily on the only member of the household to believe in it to the very end." (34) Sir Thomas may be "conscious of errors in his conduct as a parent," but Fanny is not (446). Instead, she blames Maria, Julia, Tom, and the Crawfords. Nor does she understand that she possesses an "`independence of spirit' and that this is good." (35) Instead she remains a "model of obedience and silence." (36) Notwithstanding the ill-treatment which she has endured, and despite the poor conduct that she has observed, Fanny regards Mansfield Park as the repository of "elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony.... peace and tranquility" (376). From her perspective, her return to Mansfield Park and her marriage to Edmund are sources of joy, enabling her to continue a way of life that she believes she adores.
Austen makes sure that her readers understand the end of the novel differently. "My Fanny," she writes, "must have been very happy in spite of all that she felt or thought she felt for the distress of those around her" (446). More overtly than at any other time in the novel, the narrator calls the reader's attention to Fanny's limited perspective. Fanny, she suggests, cannot distinguish between her own sense of self and her role as Sir Thomas's best daughter. (37) Our vision, however, is more clear: Mansfield Park indicts the society that Fanny embraces. To this end, the conclusion of Mansfield Park works to create a sense of dissatisfaction in the reader. Indeed, the speed with which Austen describes the union of Fanny and Edmund makes the marriage seem "a perfunctorily opted anticlimax the narrator washes her hands of, rather than a properly wished-for and well-deserved union towards which the parties have been moving all along." (38)
Although the "bad" characters are expelled from Mansfield Park by the end of the novel, the conditions that have led to disaster remain firmly in place. Sir Thomas admits to his failings as a parent, but his foists much of the blame onto Mrs. Norris, whom he banishes along with Maria. This move relieves Sir Thomas from the "necessity of examining the mutuality of their responsibility in the ruin of his family." (39) He also chooses to believe that "Maria destroyed her own character" (376). By blaming the women, Sir Thomas justifies their expulsion. His decision, however, is also self-serving. Their absence not only removes what would have been a constant reminder of his own limitations, but also allows him to recoup his social position at their expense: "He would not, by a vain attempt to restore what could never be restored, be affording his sanction to vice, or in seeking to lessen its disgrace, be anywise accessory to introducing such misery in another man's family, as he had known himself" (449-50).
Even Austen's apparent condemnation of Henry, Mary, and Rushworth is less straightforward than it seems. Just as she underscores Sir Thomas's responsibility for Maria's behavior, Austen calls attention to the deficits in the way they were raised. "Henry Crawford," she notes, was "ruined by an early independence and a bad domestic example" (451). Spoiled from birth, Rushworth is blamed for his own "stupidity" and "selfish passion" in marrying a woman whom he knew loved another (449). Mary, like Henry, suffers because she was raised incorrectly. Only at Mansfield, Austen remarks, had Mary "learnt to estimate" domestic happiness (453). Together, their examples indict a society that teaches its children to value wealth, class, and a polished demeanor over love and moral integrity.
Austen's novel implies that the reader's salvation from this fate lies in the use of a divided perspective. Although we continue to sympathize with Fanny through the end of the novel, we are encouraged to disagree with her view of Mansfield Park. By offering us a perspective much larger than Fanny's, the narrative demonstrates that immersion into a world, whether fictional or real, does not necessarily mean that one must adopt its truths as one's own. Nor does the sympathetic reaction evoked by reading a novel or watching a play necessitate adopting the heroine's views. Instead, suggests Austen, watching plays, reading novels, and experiencing life demand double vision. By enabling her readers to disagree with Fanny's conclusions at the end of the novel, Austen calls her reader's attention to their own power as critics, encouraging them to read, see, and think for themselves.
Austen's use of Lovers' Vows in Mansfield Park thus may be read as a challenge to the assumptions implicit in Inchbald's prefatory remarks in The British Theatre. Although Inchbald admits that some plays make vice appealing, she firmly believes that the drama's ability to arouse an emotional response in theatrical spectators made it a powerful tool for moral reform. As an actress and playwright, she is disinclined to find fault with an audience that reacts sympathetically to what they see on the stage. Instead, she holds dramatists accountable for the content of their plays. Austen, in contrast, insists that one must be responsible for one's own response to a play, or a novel, or to the forms and pretensions encountered in everyday life. To relinquish one's capacity for rational judgement is, at best irresponsible and, at worst, downright dangerous. For her, moral growth cannot stem from a spontaneous emotional response to fiction. Instead it must be arrived at through a self-conscious union of feeling and reason, a union she offers her readers by encouraging them to read with a divided perspective.
Stern College for Women, Yeshiva University
(1) A free translation of Das Kind der Liebe by the German playwright August von Kotzebue, Lovers' Vows, by Elizabeth Inchbald, premiered at Covent Garden on 11 October 1798.
(2) Those who read Lovers' Vows as challenge to traditional forms of authority include Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 233-34; Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (U. of Chicago Press, 1988), 109-10; Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction (New York: Methuen, 1986), 93-119; and Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Harvard U. Press, 1986). Dvora Zelicovici, "The Inefficacy of Lovers' Vows," ELH 50 (1983): 531-40, reads the play as a didactic piece which upholds traditional values by condemning the immoral behavior of fashionable society. Zelicovici's reading has been developed in different ways by Susan Greenfield, "Fanny's Misreading and the Misreading of Fanny: Women, Literature, and Interiority in Mansfield Park," TSLL 36 (1994): 306-27 and Syndy McMillan Conger, "Reading Lovers' Vows: Jane Austen's Reflections on English Sense and German Sensibility," SP52 (1988): 92-113.
(3) Scholars who consider Austen a political conservative include Butler, Alistair Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1971), Joseph Litvak, Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel (U. of California Press, 1986), and Tanner. Those who see Austen as a radical writer include Greenfield, Johnson, and Kirkham.
(4) Despite public disputes about the play's political and moral content, Austen's contemporaries agreed that Lovers' Vows provoked a powerful emotional response from theatrical spectators. See Colin Pedley, "Terrific and Unprincipled Compositions: The Reception of Lovers" Vows and Mansfield Park,' PQ 74 (1995): 297-316, and Conger, 101-4.
(5) Pedley and Conger also propose that Austen is concerned with audience response to Inchbald's play. Neither, however, links Austen's interest in Lovers' Vows to her manipulation of the reader's perspective.
(6) Joseph Roach, The Player's Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (U. of Delaware Press, 1985), 45.
(7) Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 9.
(8) G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (U. of Chicago Press, 1992), xviii.
(9) Jeremy Collier, A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (London, 1698). See also Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (U. of California Press, 1981).
(10) Jean Marsden, "Female Spectatorship, Jeremy Collier and the Anti-Theatrical Debate" ELH 65 (1998): 886.
(11) Marsden, 887.
(12) John Gregory, A Father's Legacy to His Daughters by the Late Doctor Gregory (Wilmington, Del., 1801), 34.
(13) Gregory, 34-35. Collier states, "[t]he Customs of Education, and the Laws of Decency, are so very cautious, and reserv'd in regard to Women: I say so very reserv'd, that 'tis almost a Fault for them to Understand they are ill Used. They can't discover their Disgust without Disadvantage, nor Blush without disservice to their Modesty" (7-8).
(14) Parental Legacies consisting of Advice from a Lady of Quality to Her Children Delivered in the Last Stage of a Lingering Illness, and A Father's Legacy to His Daughters by the Late Dr. Gregory (New Brunswick, N.J., 1808), 86.
(15) Parental Legacies, 86.
(16) Marsden, 889.
(17) Marsden, 891.
(18) Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (London: Methuen, 1986), 4.
(19) Elizabeth Inchbald, Preface to The Stranger in The British Theatre; or a Collection of Plays Which are Acted at the Theatres Royal, Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and Haymarket, with Biographical and Critical Remarks by Mrs. Inchbald, 25 vols. (London: Longman, Hurt, Rees and Orne, 1808), vol. 13. Subsequent quotations from Inchbald's Prefaces for the plays in The British Theatre are quoted from
Preface to The Dramatist, vol. 14,
Preface to The Gamester, vol. 14,
Preface to Lovers' Vows, vol. 24, and
Preface to The Stranger, vol. 23.
(20) Quoted in Pedley, 305.
(21) Pedley, 307.
(22) Inchbald's defense of Lovers' Vows resonates with the plot of her novel, Nature and Art (London, 1801). The novel dramatizes the victim's gradual decline into despair and destitution and sentences the man who seduced her to endless guilt and self-loathing.
(23) Kirkham, xiii.
(24) One could argue that this is the primary concern of all of Austen's novels. It is, for example, a central concern of Northanger Abbey, which contains Austen's ringing defense of the novel as a literary genre.
(25) Jane Austen, Jane Austen's Letters, ed. Deirdre LeFaye, 3rd ed. (Oxford U. Press, 1997), 184. Subsequent references to Jane Austen's Letters will appear in the body of the essay with the abbreviation JAL.
(26) Zelicovici, 537.
(27) Zelicovici, 537.
(28) Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (New York: Penguin Classics, 1985), 163. Subsequent page references to Mansfield Park appear in the body of the essay.
(29) "A hybrid form of direct and indirect discourse," free indirect discourse employs the past tense and the third-person pronoun of indirect discourse as in "he was glad." Like direct discourse however, free indirect discourse is syntactically independent and implies the speaker's attitude as in "OH! He was glad" (John Dussinger, "The Language of Real Feeling: Internal Speech in Jane Austen's Novels," The Idea of the Novel in the Eighteenth Century [East Lansing, Mich.: Colleagues Press, 1998], 98).
(30) Johnson, 100.
(31) David Marshall, "True Acting and the Language of Real Feeling: Mansfield Park," Yale Journal of Criticism 3 (1989): 96.
(32) Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 106. Page does not analyze this particular passage but the discussion of its syntax uses his work as a model.
(33) Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), 165-66.
(34) Johnson, 115.
(35) Greenfield, 321.
(36) Greenfield, 321.
(37) Both Kirkham and Marshall point out Fanny's resemblance to Cordelia, who, in Nahum Tate's adaption of King Lear, lives and marries Edgar. In this context, Kirkham argues, Fanny's union with Edmund is a subtle criticism of the law of primogeniture (113-14).
(38) Johnson, 114.
(39) Johnson, 115.
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