Pull out the popcorn and warm up that comfy spot on the couch. It’s time to join the Regency Interpreter for Mansfield Park part 2
Last week we begin watching Mansfield part and talking about all the fun historical details underlying the plot and the movie adaptation. Find your comfy spot on the couch, grab your popcorn and let’s watch some more! The question of the day is, can Lover’s Vows really be that bad?
I’ve embedded a youtube link below. Today we’re going to watch from the 17 minute mark to the 36:30 mark .
When elder brother Tom comes home he surprises everyone with his talk about acting in a play. Edmund, who is by far the Bertram child most concerned about propriety, is shocked.
Professional actors were considered little above servants and actresses on the par with prostitutes, since women who worked in the public sphere (servants, shopgirls etc) were assumed to supplement their income with prostitution on the side. It was well known that actresses we often sought after as mistresses by wealthy gentlemen.
Attitudes toward amateur theatricals were ambivalent at best although they were very popular, especially among the aristocracy. They provided a diverting occupation for idle young people cooped up in a house party. Learning parts, staging the production, making costumes and scenery all offered opportunities for interacting with the opposite sex and displaying one’s skills. For many, basic acting skills were acquired in boarding school where the activity was used to teach elocution and graceful movement.
The objection to amateur theatricals centered around the likelihood of active physical contact in public between the sexes and deviation from proper, restrained behaviors while on stage. Such activities were most improper for a gentleman’s daughter who had a reputation and marriage prospects to consider.
To make matters worse, the play in question was highly inappropriate. Lovers’ Vows (1798), written by Elizabeth Inchbald, is one of at least four adaptations of August von Kotzebue’s German Das Kind der Liebe (1780, “Child of Love,” or “Natural Son,”). It deals with sex outside marriage and illegitimate birth and thus would be considered highly inappropriate for gently bred ladies. Between the acting and the shocking play, Edmund must conclude that his brother has sunken to new lows.
As Tom and Edmund argue about the play, we can see Lady Bertram in the background, dozing on the couch. While it is possible she is tired and merely napping, another equally viable, period -correct explanation is that she is expressing the effects of laudanum.
Laudanum is made from soaking the pods of dried poppies in alcohol to extract the opiates. The tincture would then be mixed with cinnamon, saffron and cloves to improve the flavor. The tincture might then be dissolved in wine or tea, or even taken straight. Regency era laudanum was the rough equivalent of 1% morphine today.
Laudanum was used to treat all sorts of pain and nervous complaints as well as a cough suppressant. It could be bought over the counter and cost less than a doctor’s fee, so its use became widespread. Apt to nervous complaints and menstrual woes, upper class women in particular were particularly susceptible to laudanum addiction.
Since there were few truly effective medicines in the era, when one was found, it was typically over prescribed. Well-meaning doctors offered it for everything from tuberculosis to malaria. Laudanum was also a key ingredient in many patent medicines which promised cures for a variety of maladies including: cholera, migraines, diarrhea, insomnia, neuralgia, consumption, dysentery, “women’s troubles,” and nervous afflictions. Some patent medicines were marketed for children’s complaints of teething, colic and fretfulness. Even newborns might be treated with drops of laudanum.
As Aunt Bertram dozes away, poor Fanny is caught between a rock and a hard place. She is, in many ways; utterly helpless in this situation. She is totally dependent on Sir Thomas’s good will for everything and must be very concerned about displeasing him. He could send her away on any whim and she would be without any support or recourse as she is not protected by any legal status. In his absence, she is dependent on her cousins and, as the poor relation; she is beholden to do whatever pleases them. So, although she may be morally appalled by what is going on, she is also limited by the potentially dire practical considerations of the situation. Alas, poor Fanny’s life will only grow more complicated as the story continues on.
In the process of preparing for their theatrical, couples rehearse alone. This breaks all the bounds of propriety and is truly appalling behavior. The kiss the couple shares is entirely beyond the pale. Had Rushworth seen that he would probably have ended his engagement with Maria immediately since propriety did not allow even him to kiss Maria (prior to their wedding) in such a way.
Had any outsider witnessed Maria and Henry’s inappropriate behavior, her reputation might have been utterly ruined. Maria is indeed fortunate that Edmund’s concern for Mary Crawford’s reputation won out and he chose to act in the play rather than allow in a stranger.
Even so, Edmund is not above such breaches in propriety as he takes Mary Crawford’s hand. Outside of the dance floor, Regency era couples did not hold hands. A gentleman might offer a lady his arm during a walk, might assist her down from a carriage or on a stair, or might kiss a hand briefly in greeting or leave-taking, but he would not hold the hand of a woman to whom he was not engaged.
The Return of Sir Thomas
With no light on the roads, night travel was difficult and dangerous. Usually nighttime travel was only attempted during a full moon. Traveling at night to get home from a trip reflects a high level of desperation to get home.
Clearly, though, Sir Thomas does not hold with others of his class. He does not appreciate rooms in his house being turned into a theater, even on a temporary basis. This suggests he is sensitive to his daughter’s reputations, like a good father should be.
By the next day, life for the family returns to normal. They are dressed for a formal family dinner, and gathered together at the table. in their familiar places. Sit Thomas presides at the head of the table, with his family arranged, in more or less rank order around him. They observed the convention of alternating male and female around the table, though not everyone at this period did so. At a more formal event, Lady Bertram would take the head of the table and Sir Thomas the foot with the highest ranking female guest to Sir Thomas’s right and the highest ranking male guest to Lady Bertram’s right.
During the meal, Fanny asks a question about slavery in the West Indies. Parliament passed a bill abolishing slave trade, but not slavery itself, in March 1807 which came into full effect in May 1808. The French Revolution had originally outlawed slavery, but Napoleon reestablished slavery in Haiti and Guadeloupe, in 1802. So, the British law won some moral high ground against the French. Britain then pressured other nations to end their own slave trade, including the US, Portugal, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain and France.
Asking this question, this is perhaps the first time we see Fanny speaking out in adult conversation. Until a young woman ‘came out’ in society, usually at the age of 17, (Fanny is approaching her 18th birthday), if she sat at the family dinner table, she only spoke if spoken to and certainly did not ask such bold questions. Perhaps it is this action which prompts Sir Thomas to begin considering her transition into adult life.
Maria’s Engagement and Wedding
After seeing Maria with Mr. Rushworth, Sir Thomas becomes concerned about her regard for her betrothed. Though marrying simply for love and without regard for the financial consequences is not really done in higher social circles, it is widely agreed that it is best if couples have amiable and friendly relationships.
Breaking off an engagement constituted a serious breach of etiquette. A gentleman did not break an engagement for any reason. A lady might, but only for a very good reason. Still, it was considered shameful behavior that indicated moral unsteadiness on the part of the lady and might also impugn the character and prospects of the gentleman. Breaking an engagement was considered so serious that legal ramifications might ensue. So, Sir Thomas’s offer to intervene on her behalf to end the engagement is a huge statement of his concern for her and the extent to which he is willing to go for her happiness. He is showing himself a very concerned father, despite being relatively easily dissuaded from his concerns.
When the wedding does occur, notice the wedding clothes. The traditional white wedding dress had not come into fashion. Instead, brides would wear whatever was their best gown, or if they could afford it, they would have a new gown made that would be suitable to be for in their new married life. Maria’s ensemble is certain that, highly fashionable and distinct from the simpler, more girlish style of her sister, Julia’s gown, just what would be expected of an up and coming leader of the fashionable world.
After the wedding, Julia accompanies her sister on the wedding trip. Although this seems decidedly unromantic in our eyes, it was a very common practice in the era and a good opportunity for Julia to travel and get out and mix in society. Moreover, since it was not uncommon that husband and wife might not know each other very well, it was helpful for a young bride to have someone with her to keep her company.
The Income of a Clergyman
After the couple leaves, we learn Edmund’s yearly income from his living as a clergyman will be 700 pounds a year. While this is a paltry sum compared to Rushworth’s 12,000 a year, it is a sizable income compared to a comfortable middle class income of 250 pounds a year. So while far from wealthy, he and his family will be comfortable.
Out in society
We see Fanny playing with a little girl after Maria’s wedding. This is not only an endearing look at Fanny’s character, but a reminder of her status as child rather than adult. Since she has not come out in society, she is still counted among the children of the party. Thus Henry Crawford’s decision to pursue her and make her fall in love with him is a shocking incitement of his character—he is pursuing forbidden fruit so to speak, a child, not a woman. A bit creepy, no?
A young woman’s accomplishments were a primary way for her to attract attention from potential marriage partners and a way for married women to establish social and cultural distinctions that set them apart from the middling classes. Necessary female accomplishments included singing, playing an instrument, dancing, speaking French and possibly Italian, drawing and painting, sewing and decorative needlework, elegant penmanship, and the ability to conduct polite conversation that revealed suitable knowledge of history, literature and poetry. Reading aloud in a pleasing manner might also be considered as part of this list, although not nearly as significant as the others. Dancing, singing and playing music were particularly valuable accomplishments because they displayed the young woman’s body and bearing to potential suitors.
The harp was considered as the most distinguished instrument, but most girls had to settle for the piano. The degree of a woman’s accomplishments reflected both her family’s wealth and their commitment to having her marry well. Clearly the Crawfords are committed to marrying well for Mary to have attained proficiency on the harp.
The plot thickens now, with Henry Crawford committed to making Fanny fall in love with him. Join me next week as we explore just how he will go about doing that.
- Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L. The Regency Companion, Garland Publishing (1989)
- Wiltshire, John (editor).The Cambridge Edition of Mansfield Park. Cambridge University Press (2005)