Watch Mansfield Park with me and and we’ll dish over all the wonderful little period details together.
Mansfield Park is not the most popular Jane Austen work by any means. But I confess, I really like it. And there’s a lot of great stuff to talk about in it, so pull out the popcorn and a comfy spot on the couch and join the four part group watch of Mansfield Park. I’ve embedded a youtube link below. Today we’re going to watch from the beginning to the 17 minute mark.
The issue of adoption
We begin with a very young Fanny Price going to Mansfield Park. In this era, there were no formal adoption laws in England. Families with many children often sent children to better-off relatives. In some cases, like that of Jane Austen’s brother, those relatives, if childless, could ‘adopt’ that child and make him heir to the fortune.
I could not find the reference again (naturally) in time for this post, but I do remember reading that Jane Austen was not in favor of such adoptions. She felt the loss of her brother keenly. So it is not surprising that she should portray Fanny’s life as relatively sad and lonely. (If any of you has the reference to this, I’d love for you to post it in the comments.)
In the Bertram family, an heir was not needed. Fanny was styled as a companion for her Aunt Bertram who would doubtless lose the company of her daughters when they married. In the original manuscript (as opposed to the movie script) Fanny was supposed to have been taken in by her Aunt Norris, who conveniently made her Sir Thomas’s responsibility. This seems as one more reflection of Austen’s attitude toward the practice.
Fanny’s place in the family was clearly that of the poor relation. She was clearly above the servants, but not equal to the daughters of the house. The quality of her gown, in darker colors, rougher fabrics and less stylish cuts make her position clear. Light colors, especially white, and fine, difficult to clean fabrics like silks were a mark of wealth and station which Fanny does not enjoy. Such colors indicated that the family could afford the servants and the soap necessary to keep such impractical colors clean.
Battledore and Shuttlecocks
Fanny and Edmund are shown playing a game of battledore and shuttlecocks on the lawn. The game was commonly played and considered quite healthful and appropriate for young ladies.
Girl’s Own Book (1833) offers the following explanation:
This game is too well known to need much description The shuttlecock sometimes called the bird is a little ball stuck full of feathers the battledores are covered with parchment and the object of the players is to keep the bird constantly passing and re passing in the air by means of striking it with the battledores. Some people become so expert at it that they can keep it up more than a thousand times without once allowing it to fall Little girls should not be afraid of being well tired that will do them good but excessive fatigue should be avoided especially where it is quite unnecessary.
Jane Austen played the game herself with her nephews, writing to her sister of their practice and improvement in the activity.
Inside the house, Maria and Julia are engaged in other ladylike pursuits, playing the piano for Maria’s suitor, Mr. Rushworth, under the watchful eye of their Aunt Norris. Young women were always chaperoned in company.
A subtext of slavery
A theme underlying the overall story of Mansfield Park is that of slavery.
Sir Thomas expresses concerns about their interests in the West Indies. Since the 17th century, wealthy English families invested in plantations in the West Indies and shipped crops back to England to sell. Such plantations provided 80% of England’s imported goods. Sugars, rum, cotton, cocoa, coffee, mahogany, and tobacco were the biggest export goods. High demand and high taxes on these goods fostered a strong black market so smuggling and piracy were prevalent problems. Slave troubles on the plantations often plagued these interests as well. So there were likely plenty of concerns for Sir Thomas to attend to.
Dear Aunt Norris
In Sir Thomas’s absence, Aunt Norris’s role becomes even clearer. Sir Thomas explicitly give Julia into her aunt’s care suggesting that Aunt Norris is filling the role of governess or companion for her niece. While Aunt Bertram should be taking the role of mistress of the estate, running household matters, and caring for the local poor, her more active sister has taken on many of those responsibilities, effectively usurping her sister as mistress of the estate.
At the 9 minute mark, her statement about positioning herself to receive news of Sir Thomas’s possible demise first reveals that she is reading the mail before Lady Bertram gets it. In the era, one did not read someone else’s letters, so for her to be doing so suggests a great deal of brashness and even impropriety on her part. It also reveals the passivity of both her sister and Sir Thomas who both tolerate her intrusions into the household. In short, not only are the children out of order, but the parental authorities are as well.
About Mr. Rushworth
One thing Aunt Norris has not been trusted with is Maria’s wedding to Rushworth, which has to be put off until Sir Walter’s return. In the Regency era, engagements were generally swift affairs with weddings often following in less than six weeks. Long engagements were frowned upon and Sir Thomas’s insistence on an extended engagement is notable.
Mr. Rushworth is richer than even Mr. Darcy, with twelve thousand pounds a year. It is quite possible that his income exceeded that of the Bertrams. Title alone did not necessarily guarantee wealth, particularly if there were debts and problems with distant interests. We will later learn of Tom’s propensity to gamble, hinting that the Bertram fortune may not be safe from depletion.
The privileges of the elder son
In Sir Thomas’ absence, Thomas, his heir and eldest son is free to pursue the privilege of his rank. He is a gentleman, and as such, need not engage in a profession or preparing for one. With his father to manage the estate, there is little for Thomas to do but seek his own pleasure. In London and New Market, he escapes any responsibility that might fall on him—leaving it to Edmund—and indulges as many young dandies of the age, in gambling on cards, horses, or whatever else might strike his fancy, fine clothes, food, wine and lodging, and most likely in the services of the highest class of public woman he can afford. Like his peers, he spends and gambles freely, with little concern for how (or when) his bills will be paid.
Enter the Crawfords
Henry and Mary Crawford are much more appealing than Mr. Rushworth though, with their stylish dress and manners. Their opinions about marriage reflect common opinion that matrimony really was a business transaction in which one tried to gain the upper hand. Although ideas of love and romance are starting to take hold in the Regency, among the upper classes, marriage as still about wealth, connections and position.
Mary Crawford’s insistence that money should be able to purchase anything further illustrates this opinion as well as a terrible ignorance of the realities of country life. Even so, Mary is clearly ready to apply all she has to the process of catching an eligible match. Her gown is scandalously low cut for day wear and is clearly designed to catch the eye of an eligible son. Low cut gowns were the norm for evening, but proper ladies did not bare so much for daytime calls.
The young people go out walking together. Julia ‘stumbles’ and complains about her ankle. Henry Crawford offers her is harm to assist her. With all behavior between the sexes strictly prescribed, this was one of the few acceptable ways Henry might pay direct attention to Julia. Lady Bertram comments that Julia is ready to be fallen in love with. This statement reflects the passive role that women played in courtship. A young woman did not pursue a man, or even attempt to call attention to herself, and she certainly did to permit herself to develop feelings for a man or even worse admit to them. She might receive what (subtle) attentions were offered and accept (or refuse) an offer of marriage if it were made. To do more was to seriously risk her reputation.
A lady on horseback
In the country, horseback riding was a primary source of exercise for a lady. Not only was it good exercise, but it served the practical purpose of allowing a lady a means of transportation less elaborate, and less expensive, than a carriage. Given Fanny’s role as assistant to both her aunts, such mobility would have be very convenient, allowing them to send her on errands without the inconvenience of using the carriage to transport her.
Clearly Mary does not know how to ride despite her fancy riding dress—notice how her skirts are tangled in her feet.
Regency side saddles differed from modern side saddle and as a result female riders were somewhat limited. They could not jump or ride in vigorous hunts due to the lack of the second pommel found in modern side saddles that were developed in 1830. In modern side saddles, the ‘leaping horn’ provides additional stability for the rider’s left leg (the one in the stirrup). If you look carefully, the saddle used in the film is of the modern design! OOPS! You can clearly see the leaping horn in the film.
(After doing a little research on this, I discovered movies use modern side saddles because the old style ones are considered too unsafe by modern standards for actors to use.)
A period correct saddle would look more like this one. There is only one pommel for the right leg and nothing to brace the left leg against, it just hangs freely in the stirrup, thus giving the rider a less secure seat.
In order to get up into the saddle, a lady required assistance. Typically a groom would help her and she would utilize mounting blocks like these to help her get into the saddle.
Whether using a modern or a period side saddle, side saddle riders all use a riding crop or whip as a necessary part of their riding gear. The crop is not used to whip the horse, but rather is held along the right side and used to tap the horses side in place of the rider’s right knee, signaling the horse of the rider’s wishes.
Compare Mary’s riding habit to Fanny’s. The color, fabric and cut of Mary’s habit all point to Mary’s wealth and position in society. While Fanny’s habit is perfectly serviceable, the drab color and relative plainness all bespeak of Fanny’s lower social standing. She is provided with appropriate riding clothes, but ones that do not allow her to be confused with someone of higher status.
The trials of a younger son
Not only can she not ride, Mary Crawford clearly does not approve of Edmund’s plans to enter the clergy. In reality though, Edmund has few options open to him. English law did not allow an estate to be broken up among several children, so younger sons had to make their living by some other means. Another relative could leave them an estate or a fortune, but more often, they had to take a gentlemanly profession. By the second half of the 1700’s traditional ‘learned’ professions: the church, the law and medicine, took on a respectable character as ‘liberal professions’ befitting gentlemen. So these, together with the armed forces, formed the primary options for gentlemen’s sons.
Vicars, barristers, physicians and army officers were not paid directly for their work. They held livings, received honorarium or were paid with the interest earned off the amount paid for their commissions, thus they did not sully their hands to earn a wage, making them suitable professions for gentlemen.
To be considered for ordination, a candidate needed a degree from Cambridge or Oxford. No theological colleges or courses of study existed, so a standard honors degree satisfied the requirement. Afterwards, the candidate needed a testimonial from his college vouching for his fitness for ordination. Finally, he needed to locate a bishop and make arrangements for an examination that would satisfy the bishop of his competency in Latin, knowledge of the Scripture, and familiarity with the liturgy and church doctrine as written in the 39 Articles. Some bishops made only a cursory examination in these areas, only a few took their responsibilities more seriously.
After japanning (slang for ordination referring to putting on black cloth, from the color of black japan ware) a man was qualified to administer the sacraments of the Church. His career would begin at age 23, as a deacon, assisting an ordained priest. At 24, he could be fully ordained and eligible to be in charge of a parish. The next challenge for the newly minted clergyman would be to find a living, a lifetime appointment to lead a parish.
Approximately 11,500 benefices or livings existed in England and Wales at the end of the 18th century. This sounds like a large number; however, over half the ordained clergy never received a living. Most great families, including the Bertrams, had at least one living to grant, so Edmund will be able to move directly into the position of vicar. Less well connected individuals could wait ten or twenty years to find a be appointed to a living.
The majority of England’s parishes were small. An 1802 figure suggests a third of the benefices brought in less than £150 a year and some 1,000 of those less than £100. (Remember, about £50 a year was more or less equivalent to our minimum wage.) A clergyman needed a living of £300-400 per annum to be on the level with the lesser gentry. Since livings were in such short supply, a young man would commonly seek a position as a curate, an ordained clergyman who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a vicar. Though they might do all the work of the parish, their salaries were often meager, perhaps as little as £50 per year, not enough to afford a maid. No wonder Mary Crawford held such low regard for clergymen.
Things change dramatically when Sir Thomas leaves on business. As the old saying goes, while the cat’s away, the mice will play and this is very true of the denizens of Mansfield Park.
Now with our cast of players in place and the stage set, the drama can begin. Join us next week for part two!
You must have your share in the conversation in the comments! What did you notice? What period detail questions do you have?
- Rendell, Jane – The Pursuit of Pleasure: Gender, Space and Architecture in Regency London. Rutgers University Press (2002)
- Ross, Josephine – Jane Austen, a Companion. Rutgers University Press (2002)
- Sabor, Peter (editor) – The Cambridge Edition of the Juvenilia. Cambridge University Press (2006)
- Collins, Irene – Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter. Hambledon (1998)
- Selwyn, David – Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)