Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England

By Roger Sales | Go to book overview

4

Mansfield Park: The RegencyCrisis and the theatre

INTRODUCTION

Although some of the arguments developed in this long chapter have already been anticipated, its structure still needs to be outlined. The first section shows that it was commonplace for writers in the 1790s and later on to make connections between the government of the estate and that of the state itself. This allows Mansfield Park to be read as a Condition-of-England novel that debates topical issues such as the conduct of the war and the Regency Crisis. The second section concentrates on the neglected figure of Tom Bertram and his regency. He threatens to destroy his father’s house by bringing into it attitudes and acquaintances acquired at watering places such as Ramsgate and Weymouth. It will be shown, more particularly, that he is associated with some of the transgressive forms of cross-dressing and masquerade common in the Regency period. The third section locates Henry Crawford in the contexts that have already been established for dandyism. Other areas that will be explored include the ideas of Portsmouth that Regency readers might have brought with them to the text. All of these sections comment on the period of the theatrical rehearsals, which is indeed the main focus of attention in the chapter as a whole. The final two sections provide more details about the complex relationships between Lovers’ Vows, the play that is being rehearsed, and Mansfield Park. The contradictory attitudes of various characters to theatre and theatricality are explored in order to bring out this complexity. Historical contexts that are developed here include the cultural status of the actress in Regency society and the ‘old price’ riots at Covent Garden in 1809.

The function of all of these individual sections is to suggest what is being missed by those critics who read the novel exclusively in terms of its conservative messages. J. Steven Watson pictures England at the end of the Napoleonic Wars as having ‘two faces, the one bacchanalian

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