Mansfield Park

“So Long as It be a German Play”


The young people at Mansfield Park—with Edmund and Fanny abstaining—decide to put on a play, and the moral seriousness with which this decision is met by these two arbiters of proper behavior has puzzled many later readers of the novel. Why indeed do Edmund and Fanny make such a fuss about this plan, and why do their objections become even more strenuous once the play to be performed actually is chosen? If the novel as a whole elicits puzzlement in many modern readers, the episode of the theatrical performance stands out as seeming particularly heavy and exaggerated. Yet as soon as we place it within its contemporary context, all difficulties I think are resolved. This chapter will explore just this context by looking at the comments of Austen’s contemporary Hannah More on the effects of precisely the sort of writing that attracts the group. After that, I will look at Lovers’ Vows, the play proposed for presentation, and finally I will talk about the episode within the context of the novel itself. What we shall see is that Austen presents precisely the conservative moral agenda that was typical of her class. There is no mystery here, and it is certainly not the case that “Austen’s enterprise in Mansfield Park is to turn conservative myth sour,” as one critic insists.1


Young People Emotional Abuse Moral Worth Modern Reader Family Circle 
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  1. 1.
    Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 97. Johnson in general misreads Mansfield Park, seeing this very realistic portrayal of eighteenth-century life as “no less a parody, though much less a comedy, than Northanger Abbey” (99). She demonizes Sir Thomas and excuses Mrs. Norris, claiming that much of the harm Mrs. Norris does is instigated by Sir Thomas: “Mrs. Norris, then, is less a villain in her own right than an adjutant. In her, we see his officiousness, his liberality, his family pride, and even his parsimoniousness—after all, his anxieties about money make him wish Mrs. Norris would take Fanny off his hands—with the drapery of decency” (114–15). Sir Thomas is not parsimonious—he supports Fanny for all those years— and the other qualities Johnson cites are positive ones in Austen’s portrayal of the man. His initial error in at first not wanting one of his sons to fall in love with the poor cousin is quite understandable, and once he knows Fanny’s worth he welcomes her match with Edmund without hesitation. Johnson twists the happy ending of the novel, with Fanny marrying Edmund, into a doubly questionable issue. First, it is apparently not a good thing after all for Fanny to marry into the Bertrams, for “Mansfield Park has no such luster [as Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice]. A conventionally happy ending which ensconces Fanny there, indispensable at last, and still adulating now enervated figures whose discernment has been radically impeached, sustains rather than settles the problems the foregoing material has uncovered” (116). But even more disturbing, according to Johnson, it all has a tinge of incest: “The marriage of Edmund and Fanny savors of incest” (116). And it is not only Fanny’s marriage that is suspicious; “a good deal of Mansfield Park is devoted to examining the intimacy of fraternal love” in which, as the novel tells us, “even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal” (117). By the way, “Nor is paternal affection exempt from an aura of erotic implication” (118), Johnson rather strangely decides.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Austen certainly was familiar with More: she mentions More’s Coelebs in Search of A Wife in her letters. See Jane Austen, Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1932), 1:259.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Elizabeth Inchbald, Lovers’ Vows, trans. of Kotzebue’s Das Kind der Liebe reprint. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998), 329. The “Preface” runs from 329–32; the play from 333–75.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Lionel Trilling, The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism (New York: Viking, 1955), 208. Trilling goes on to say that “Mansfield Park is for this reason held by many to be the novel that is least representative of Jane Austen’s peculiar attractiveness. For those who admire her it is likely to make an occasion for embarrassment. By the same token, it is the novel which the depreciators of Jane Austen may cite most tellingly in justification of their antagonism.”Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    For discussion of Fitzwilliam’s conversation with Elizabeth and how it characterizes the place of the younger son of an aristocratic family, see Mona Scheuermann, Her Bread to Earn (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 209–10.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Gary Kelly, “Religion and Politics” in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 152–53, does a good job of summing up much of Austen’s awareness of the movements of her time, including those of religion: “She would have known and understood both the interconnection of religion and politics and the way other writers used the novel to disseminate their religious and political views during the period when she herself was writing novels. She left little direct comment, however, in her novels or her letters, on these matters. According to her family she practiced an unostentatious yet consistent and mainstream Anglican faith. Scattered remarks on religion in her letters indicate that she placed great importance on taking holy communion, regarded religiosity unfavourably, and sometime between 1809 and 1814 came to view the Evangelicals with less disapproval than before…. She also left three highly penitential manuscript prayers…. She left even fewer comments on politics, though her letters show that she followed current events and especially naval affairs, as they involved two of her brothers [who eventually became Admirals].”Google Scholar

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© Mona Scheuermann 2009

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