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The source for the theatricals of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park: a discovery.

THE MAJOR LITERARY source for the private theatricals in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park lies in an article reprinted in magazines from 1788 to 1789. It is a letter purportedly from one Abraham Thrifty, who returns home to find his family well on its way to staging Hamlet in his house. The letter, as it appears in The Lady's Magazine for June 1789, includes the following passage:
   Would you believe it, sir, that during an absence of six weeks in
   the country, my house has been metamorphosed into a theatre,
   absolutely into a theatre, sir. My dining-room, which unfortunately
   for me is large, and consequently fit for the purpose, was the
   audience part of the house, and the adjoining room, by the
   demolition of the partition, was converted into a stage and
   dressing-room. I know not how much it will cost to have matters put
   to rights again, for they have made a prodigious large hole in the
   centre of the floor of the lesser room (now the stage) which I find
   was intended for the preternatural accommodation of a ghost. (291)

The resemblance to Mansfield Park does not stop with the story of a paterfamilias who goes on a trip and returns to find his house rearranged and his family amidst rehearsals. It includes the potential fetching of neighbors--like Charles Maddox in the novel--to play minor roles: "A ghost was borrowed from a neighbour, and Laertes and Polonius came on purpose from Putney-heath to be killed on the occasion" (292). The abrupt end of the Thrifty family's theatrical plans also resembles that in Austen's novel: "In short, sir, regular notices had been sent to the intended spectators, and all was in a happy train, when I arrived, and finding what had been done and what was to be done, issued my prohibitory determination in a tone and manner, which no one thought proper to despise" (292). The language, too, here resembles Austen's. Chapter 18 of Mansfield Park begins, "Every thing was now in a regular train; theatre, actors, actresses, and dresses, were all getting forward" (192). "Regular notices" and "all was in a happy train" in the magazine article turn into "Every thing was now in a regular train" in Austen. "Happy train" and "regular train" are both common enough expressions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but uses of the term for events and preparations leading up to a theatrical performance as in these two texts are rare at best. (I have located no other examples among hundreds of uses.)

Differences between the source and Austen's novel obviously occur. Abraham Thrifty, whose name had attached to a 1711 Spectator letter complaining about his household, is a middle-class merchant, unlike Sir Thomas Bertram. Nonetheless, their sentiments on and actions toward the home theatricals coincide, and Thrifty's language connects to that of various Mansfield Park characters. The annoyed father finds, "There are still private rehearsals in every part of the house" (292), an observation that sounds like Mary Crawford's '"we are rehearsing all over the house'" (198). The letter winds down with a "wish there was a law that no person should play the fool, unless he first proved that he had a clear, independent estate" (293). "Fool" appears twice in Austen's narrative, first where Henry Crawford exclaims, '"I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that was ever written'" (145), and then when Edmund reluctantly submits to the household theatrics, remarking sardonically that '"we shall be all in high good humour at the prospect of acting the fool together'" (183). Edmund, moreover, has made the distinction between amateur and professional performers at the beginning of his argument against acting: '"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"' (146). Thrifty's letter ends on this point, desiring "that all mankind would study to act the part of honest men on the stage of life, and leave tyrants, murderers, Grecian kings, and Danish ghosts to be personated by those whose profession it is to amuse the public" (293).

When and where did Jane Austen encounter this letter? It is printed three times. The Lady's Magazine is the second of these publications. It appears first in July of 1788, addressed "To the Editor of the County Magazine," published in Salisbury. This version has distinct differences from The Lady's Magazines copy, beginning with an epigraph, "All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players," and it contains an introductory paragraph that does not appear in later versions, about "Lords and Ladies" who "amuse themselves by acting plays like children at a boarding-school" (97). However, the language describing a "metamorphosed" house is not present, and that is a word Austen picks up when she describes "the gradual metamorphosis of the impassioned Baron Wildenhaim into the well-bred and easy Mr. Yates" (213). Also absent from The County Magazine version is "all was in a happy train," which appears as "all was going on very well" (97). Yet this version is a little more explicit that the father has come home unexpectedly early. Nonetheless, the lack of the "train" metaphor here points to Austen's source as one of the later printings, either that in The Lady's Magazine of London in June 1789 or that in The Weekly Entertainer.; published a month later in Sherborne, that is, 20 July 1789. These two versions have very much the same form, except that The Lady's Magazine embeds Abraham Thrifty's letter within another to the editor, which starts, "The following Letter fell into my hands but lately. I believe it is but little known, and I am sure it cannot fail of contributing much to the entertainment of your readers" (290). This introductory letter then goes on to suggest that "[t]he fashion of acting plays which seems at present to reign among persons of distinction" will die away of its own accord, "as it requires such culture of memory and habits of attention as are rarely found in persons addicted to amusement" (290). The cultivation of memory appears centrally in Mansfield Park, with Fanny's distinctive rhapsody upon the subject: " If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory'" (243). Her memory creates both her love for Edmund and her distrust of Henry.

Thrifty's letter in The Lady's Magazine might stick in the memory of the 13-year-old Jane Austen because in 1789 her family was in the midst of its own theatrical productions, under the leadership of her two elder brothers. Paula Byrne sums up the Austen family activities: "During 1787-9 the Steventon company performed a wide variety of comedies: The Wonder, Bon Ton, The Chances, The Tragedy of Tom Thumb, The Sultan and High Life below Stairs. Eliza [de Feuillide] took on the female leading roles and flirted outrageously with her cousins, James and Henry" (138). Besides Abraham Thrifty's piece, which was headlined, as in The Weekly Entertainer, "On the Prevalence of acting Plays in private Families," The Lady's Magazine ran a series of articles on the topic soon after. In July 1790, The Lady's Magazine printed a letter questioning "Whether the private acting of plays by young people is attended with good or bad consequences?" (Beaumont 379), which prompted an August lead article signed "Carlos" against private acting and a column from "Nestor," "On Acting private Plays" "Addressed to the Ladies." A September "Letter on the Private Acting of Plays" by "Mira" followed, rebutting Carlos and Nestor. Another letter, though written in August, appeared in the November issue, more balanced but mainly on the negative side of private acting (Voredanus), and the December issue printed "The Dramatic Daughter. A Tale," involving a house-disturbing rehearsal in a garden. Such an extended cluster of articles could well remain in Austen's retentive mind for a quarter of a century. As Isobel Grundy notes of Austen's reading, "From an early age she read like a potential author. She looked for w hat she could use" (190). If Jane Austen was reading The Lady's Magazine, the stream of letters debating and often denouncing the activities her own family enjoyed must have struck her forcibly.

She was, probably, an avid reader of magazines in her early teenage years. Not only were James and Henry Austen leading the Steventon household in private theatricals at this period, but in the same years, 1789--1790, they were publishing their own magazine, The Loiterer, at Oxford. If, as is often suggested, Jane herself contributed the letter from "Sophia Sentiment" in March 1789, the portrait of the magazine-obsessed young woman may have, whatever its parodic qualities, a measure of self-portraiture: "Indeed 1 love a periodical work beyond any thing, especially those in which one meets with a great many stories, and where the papers are not too long" (Juvenilia 361). Perhaps young Jane, following the lead of her elder brothers, focused much attention upon both private theatricals and magazines in these years, making Abraham Thrifty's letter register memorably with her.

The Loiterer points to Abraham Thrifty's piece, too, by itself publishing an imitation. In April 1789, just three weeks after Sophia Sentiment's epistle, and nine months after Thrifty's appearance in The County Magazine, but before the reprints in The Lady's Magazine or The Weekly Entertainer, issue 12 of The Loiterer prints a letter from one "Abraham Steady." The complaint here sounds familiar:
   As I had ever been an indulgent father, I could not refuse my
   children the pleasure of going to the play; but would I had rather
   sent them to a Methodist meeting!--For do you know, Sir, they have
   been downright mad ever since. Their whole conversation turns upon
   nothing else but acting. In spite of my injunctions, they attend
   almost every performance; and, not contented with hearing, are
   continually spouting some of their nonsensical confounded stuff:
   crowns, daggers, chains, pistols, and every thing of that kind are
   scattered up and down the rooms; and, in short, my house, which was
   lately the most regular, best disposed house in town, is turned
   topsy-turvy. On my entering into the parlour the other morning, my
   three daughters came up to me with brooms in their hands, and
   thrice exclaiming, "All hail, Macbeth!" brushed by me out of the
   door. (4-5)

If not for the pseudonym of the writer, the connection from Abraham Steady to Abraham Thrifty might seem tentative, but the emphasis is similarly on the disorder in the house. Such a piece--not by Jane's brothers but by Thomas Alston Warren of St. John's College (like James Austen) or by Edward Cooper of Queen's College, a first cousin of the Austen siblings--could have primed Jane Austen for encountering the source in Abraham Thrifty's letter later that same year in The Lady's Magazine or The Weekly Entertainer.

One need not speculate with mights and coulds, however. If young, teenage Jane was so alerted to Thrifty's anti-theatrical rant and read it in 1789 or 1790, surely the influence must appear in her juvenile writings of the period. It does. At the end of her "Love and Freindship," dated 13 June 1790, we find a final, narratively unnecessary tale from Gustavus about his and Philanders adventures, where they steal their mothers' nine hundred pounds but '"were determined to manage it with eoconomy and not to spend it either with folly or Extravagance."' The punchline here, as they divide their spoils into nine parts, is that they devote the ninth '"to Silver Buckles'" (,Juvenilia 138). They exhaust their money, and, Gustavus says, we "'determined to engage ourselves to some strolling Company of Players,'" with whom "'[o]ne of our most admired Performances was Macbeth, in which we were truly great'" (139). Abraham Thrifty begins his letter by complaining of those who imitate the wealthy: "If a man of quality sports (as they call it) a new buckle, or button, it operates like a despotic command, and is obeyed by all the young men in the kingdom, as a something on which their lives and characters depend." In his next paragraph, on the "epidemic" of acting plays, he notes that by "young tradesmen, journeymen, and apprentices, younger sons of younger sons" some years ago "a very comfortable addition was made to strolling companies; for how could the hero who had strutted at the head of any army over-night, with his trunchion in his hand, reconcile that hand to the vulgar yard-measure of the shop? Was it for Macbeth, after being let into the secret of the infernal cauldron, to return to the baseborn occupation of soap-boiling? ... No. The young gentlemen felt the dignity of their characters too sensibly ever to return to their business" (291). Not only do Austen's Philander and Gustavus stay in the theatrical profession as do Thrifty's young men, but Austen also manages to combine a "strolling company" with Macbeth and buckles. One can find "strolling companies" (a far less common phrase than "strolling players") elsewhere in combination with a mention of Macbeth, for instance in the 1788 novel Frederic, or the Libertine by John Potter (2:42), but the added coincidence of buckles as a sign of extravagance for young men in both Thrifty and Austen indicates influence from his letter to her parodic tale and indicates Austen encountered Thrifty's letter while young, though she may have gone back to a bound version of The Lady's Magazine or The Weekly Entertainer for consultation as she wrote her 1814 novel.

What does such a source do to our view of Mansfield Park? The theatrical episode has usually been placed alongside conduct-book literature, particularly Thomas Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (17.97) and Hannah Mores Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799). Joseph Litvak's 1986 article on "The Infection of Acting," for instance, points out Gisborne's recognition that drama can provide "the infecting influence of a vicious character, adorned with polished manners, wit, fortitude, and generosity" (171; qtd. in Litvak 335), and we know that Austen read Gisborne (Letters 30 August 1805). John Wiltshire, in his Cambridge edition note to Tom Bertram's use of "infection," writes, "Tom copies the rhetoric of Thomas Gisborne and other conservative moralists." Wiltshire admits that "the metaphor does not appear in the passage of Gisborne's Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex on the dangers of'acting plays in private theatres'" (691 n.16; Gisborne 173-75). The metaphor does, however, appear precisely on this topic in Abraham Thrifty's letter. Tom says of the enthusiasm for acting, '"My friend Yates brought the infection'" (215). Abraham Thrifty writes, of his household's mania for acting, "My principal clerk is a sedate kind of man, and I hoped had escaped the infection" (293). For Gisborne and Hannah More, the metaphors of infection (without the precise use of the noun) apply to moral ills derived from play-acting or watching, but "infection" does not mean the desire to be acting itself, as it does in Mansfield Park and Thrifty's letter. So, if instead of saying Tom's use of "infection" imitates Gisborne's rhetoric, we say Austen's use of "infection" copies the wording in the comic letter, we might see Austen as less concerned with writing social commentary than with writing comedy. The introducer of the letter in The Lady's Magazine understood the nature of the Thrifty letter--"it cannot fail of contributing much to the entertainment of your readers" (290)--and this writer thought the worry about pernicious effects of home theatricals was overblown.

The interruption of Sir Thomas Bertram is dramatic in the comic vein. If Fanny is full of angst at his return, young Tom sees what is funny when he enters the theatre to find "Yates perceiving Sir Thomas, and giving perhaps the very best start he had ever given in the whole course of his rehearsals." Tom has "difficulty in keeping his countenance" at "[h]is father's looks of solemnity and amazement on this his first appearance on any stage," phrasing straight from theatrical advertisements. The movement into Tom's perspective and his thoughts--a rare shift within this novel--should indicate Austen's genre of writing: "It would be the last--in all probability the last scene on that stage; but he was sure there could not be a finer. The house would close with the greatest eclat" (213-14). Of course, Austen is also writing social commentary, but if we recognize her source not as Gisborne's treatise but Thrifty's letter, we can better grasp that even in Mansfield Park, Austen is writing comedy, an understanding of the novel often obscured.

Those who trace Jane Austen's sources tend to look at other books. Austen herself, after all, makes references to such solid publications or to plays or poems that appear in them. The brief lives of newspapers and magazines can hardly support allusions. Yet half or more of any literate person's reading will consist of periodicals, and this ephemeral material may be no less adaptable for novelistic purposes. Another reason for general ignorance of Thrifty's letter may be that it lurks beyond the horizon of those seeking sources for Mansfield Park. Gisborne, More, and Inchbald's translation of Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows (1798)--such obvious sources for the novel--tend to terminate the backward view of the context for Mansfield Park in the late 1790s. Thrifty's tale of his return to his stage-struck house is a decade earlier, when Austen was young but already latching onto suitable subjects for her satiric understanding. Austen was, we know, willing to let her own writing age for many years before publication; her source, in this case, is well-aged, too, fermenting two-and-a-half decades before she uncorked its wit.

Sayre Greenfield teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. His publications range in subject from The Ends of Allegory (U Delaware Press, 1998) to a collection of essays, Jane Austen in Hollywood, co-edited with Linda Troost (UP of Kentucky, 1998, 2001). He has frequently spoken at JASNA AGMs.


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Beaumont, R. "Question on the Private Acting of Plays." The Lady's Magazine 21 (July 1790): 378-79.

Byrne, Paula. The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. New York: Harper, 2013.

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"The Dramatic Daughter. A Tale." The Lady's Magazine 21 (Dec. 1790): 635-38.

Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: Cadell and Davies, 1797.

Grundy, Isobel. "Jane Austen and Literary Traditions." The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: CUP, 1997. 189-210.

Litvak, Joseph. "The Infection of Acting: Theatricals and Theatricality in Mansfield Park:' ELH 53 (1986): 331-55.

Mira [pseud.]. "Letter on the Private Acting of Plays." The Lady's Magazine 21 (Sept. 1790): 458.

More, Hannah. Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education. 2 vols. London: Cadell and Davies, 1799.

Nestor [pseud.]. "On Acting Private Plays." The Lady's Magazine 21 (Aug. 1790): 425-28.

Potter, John. Frederic, or the Libertine. Vol. 2. London: Lane, 1788.

Steady, Abraham [pseud.]. "To the Loiterer." The Loiterer 12 (18 Apr. 1789): 3-6.

Thrifty, Abraham [pseud.]. "On the Prevalence of Acting Plays in Private Families." The Lady's Magazine 20 (June 1789): 290-93.

--, "On the Prevalence of Acting Plays in Private Families." The Mreekly Entertainer; or, Agreeable and Instructive Repository 14 (20 July 1789): 55-59.

--. "To the Editor of the County Magazine." The County Magazine 31 (July 1788): 97-98.

Voredanus, J. H. "On the Private Acting of Plays." The Lady's Magazine 21 (Nov. 1790): 572-73.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Greenfield, Sayre
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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