Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"Terrific and Unprincipled Compositions": The Reception of 'Lover's Vows' and 'Mansfield Park.'

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

"Terrific and Unprincipled Compositions": The Reception of 'Lover's Vows' and 'Mansfield Park.'

Article excerpt

Austen's Mansfield Park continues to attract a good deal of attention from critics, but little unanimity of view. In particular, recent years have seen careful attempts to reconstruct the varying contexts of the novel, relating it to conduct literature, the education of women, and attitudes to acting and theatricality. There is fairly general agreement on the focal importance of the episode of the theatricals, and the use of Lovers' Vows as a climactic means of determining personal, moral and ideological alignments, but opinions differ concerning the use to which Austen puts the play, and why, when she began writing the novel in 1811, she chose to use a play that was first performed, and published, in London in 1798. R. W. Chapman chose to print the text of the play as an appendix to his edition of the novel, commenting: "Without such familiarity with Lovers' Vows as Miss Austen assumed her readers to possess, a large part of the first volume is not fully intelligible."(1) Such is the bewildering variety of approaches to the issue, that Handler and Segal (1990) think the theatricals "one of the thorniest problems in recent literature about Jane Austen."(2)

There are two broad ways of classifying these approaches. The first relates the issue to the perils of acting, as perceived by contemporaries. From Rousseau, via Trilling, there is suspicion of "a traditional, almost primitive, feeling about dramatic impersonation."(3) This approach is represented in recent criticism by Litvak (1992, elaborating on his article of 1986),(4) and is summarized in the title "The Infection of Acting." This approach is contextualised among items of contemporary conduct literature, highlighting especially the dangers of female acting. At the same time, it is worth noting that in many aristocratic households, both metropolitan and provincial, private theatricals were practised regularly and with enthusiasm, without fear of any deleterious moral effect. The passion for acting of Sir George Beaumont is a well known case in point.

The second series of approaches, among which there are considerable variations, relates the issue to a broad cultural context of values, asking whether Lovers' Vows was "jacobinical" or not in value. Various strands in this approach can be separated out. Some think Lovers' Vows is used to highlight the similarity between the characters in the novel and the roles they take in rehearsing the play. Kirkham (1983) takes this line, and also feels that Mansfield Park shows French Revolutionary sympathies. Zelicovici (1983) thinks instead that Lovers' Vows is a didactic play, and that the real threat to Mansfield Park is not Lovers' Vows but the wrong values of fashionable society and its insufficient emphasis on duty and self-restraint. Butler (1975) sees Mansfield Park as an anti-jacobinical novel: "Lovers' Vows counterpoints what the rehearsals have revealed of the actors' selfishness and reckless quest for self-gratification."(5) Kotzebue is a "one-sided propagandist for every position which the anti-jacobin novelist abhors," and "unless the modern reader feels, like Fanny, the anarchic connotation of the whole play - rather than, like Edmund and Mary, the daring of individual speeches - he is in no position to understand its significance in relation to Mansfield Park and its owner, Sir Thomas." Butler also thinks that Austen doesn't expect us to have an intimate knowledge of Lovers' Vows, but "a general impression of the ideology of the play" (234). Musselwhite (1987) finds in Mansfield Park, not Lovers' Vows as a means of social "liberation," but an example of that "silencing of revolutionary discourse by the appropriating strategies of a dominant middle-class ideology."(6) The antecedent Lovers' Vows does not liberate the characters of Mansfield Park; instead Mansfield Park derives its character from "the appropriation and containment of the popular appeal of egalitarian jacobinism" as presented in Lovers' Vows. …

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