At last, Maria Bertram’s fall and Fanny Price’s happily ever after.
Last week we saw the consequences of Fanny’s refusal of Henry Crawford’s proposal. Today we’ll continue talking about all the fun historical details underlying the plot and the movie adaptation all the way to our happy ending. Find your comfy spot on the couch, grab your popcorn and let’s watch some more!
I’ve embedded a youtube link below. Today we’re going to watch from the 1:08:15 mark to the end.
This part starts with another arrival by night, again suggesting desperation behind the travel. Tom has been brought home to recover from his illness.
Signs of Wealth and Luxury
On a side note, notice there are at least four male servants present, all in livery. Male servants were more expensive than female servants and liveried servants even more expensive because the employer provided the livery. The number and dress of the servants was indicative of the family’s wealth. Similarly to have two coaches was a rare luxury when a family had to have an annual income for at least 1000 pounds in order to afford a single carriage.
Tom’s Illness and Recovery
Back to Tom, though. Hospitals, in so far as they existed, were at best a place to die, not a place to recover. The role of germs in infection had not been established in the Regency era and doctors and surgeons did not necessary wash their hands or their tools between patients. The more patients a medical man saw, the more likely he was to pass disease between them. The best place for the ill and injured in the day was at home, particularly a clean and well provisioned home like Mansfield Park.
While nursing was considered the task of the mistress of the home, it is interesting to note that it is Fanny who is doing the work. Lady Bertram seems to have such a delicate constitution that it is not entirely surprising to see her avoid the sickroom. But Aunt Norris, as the widow of a vicar, should have had considerable experience nursing the sick. By all rights she should have been present in the sickroom as well.
Fanny brings in a tray for her cousin Tom. Here she is taking the role of the mistress of the house, upon whom it should fall to care for the sick in the household. We have seen how Aunt Bertram has eschewed her household duties and allowed her sister Aunt Norris to take them up. Now, Aunt Norris is delegating her presumably disagreeable duties upon Fanny.
Though it seems particularly cold and unfeeling for Sir Thomas to leave when his son is in such dire condition, it was considered in the nature of men to be strong, controlled and reserved. It would be incumbent upon him to attend to the family business regardless of the personal tragedy he might be facing. Sir Thomas’ warmth toward Fanny is particularly notable. Men did not openly display affection and for him to kiss her was really a profound gesture.
In an earlier episode we talked about how it was nearly unthinkable for one to read another’s mail. Sir Thomas throws his letter into the fire. This suggests that even the security of knowing that his mail should be secure is not enough, he must insure that whatever is in that letter is not exposed (possibly to Aunt Norris?), so he destroys it. Only the most dire of information was likely to be handled this way.
Bloodletting and Regency Era Medicine
The medical man, it is difficult to say whether he was surgeon or even apothecary uses leeches on Tom. (It is definitely not a doctor attending Tom, as the man gets his hands ‘dirty’ by actually applying the leeches. A gentleman would never do so, and a doctor was a gentleman.) Bloodletting was thought to balance the ‘humors’ by reducing a ‘plethora’ and used to treat nearly every disorder until the mid-1800’s. Frequently a blood-letting session would continue until a patient fainted. Blood might be let by opening a vein, or less frequently an artery with a knife, or with the application of leeches. In the 1830’s, France imported as many as 40 million leeches a year for the purposes of bloodletting.
Though bleeding a patient seems counter-intuitive to us today, in the Regency era the problems with it were not so clear. While certain aspects of medicine, anatomical knowledge, surgical and diagnostic skills were increasing, the keys to actually curing disease still eluded the medical profession. Medical men tended to believe that any treatment was better than none at all and bleeding was one of their primary treatment options. Interestingly, the placebo effect from the patient’s belief in the power of the cure may have, at times, actually effected physical improvements in that patient’s condition after being bled.
Mary Crawford’s arrival and comments about the effects of Tom’s potential demise provide a sharply contrasts Fanny’s sweet and caring, and more appropriate to the era, nature. Prevailing attitudes suggested that females were naturally more sensitive to right and wrong and were inherently more moral than men. This makes Mary’s mercenary nature even more disturbing and marks her as a most inappropriate woman.
Further, Mary criticizes Maria and Julia for not returning home to be with the family at this difficult time. However, for a married woman, her place was with her husband, not her family and she would have been expected to be at her husband’s. Perhaps if it were her father dying, she might attend, but travel was so difficult and expensive in the day, that a brother, even the heir of the family, would not necessarily warrant travel.
Similarly, Julia who would be caught up in the essential business of socializing and finding a husband with the aid of her sister’s society, would not likely be expected to return home and possibly lose her new found connections and possible beaus. In light of this, Mary’s arrival and her motives for it become even more suspect.
In Austen’s original manuscript, Fanny learns of Maria’s transgressions while she is in Portsmith with her family. Her father sees the news in the newspaper and shares it with her. While the news Sir Thomas shares about Maria’s transgressions profoundly affects the entire family, particularly her unmarried siblings, the fact that it is public knowledge is extremely important.
Failings such as Tom’s drinking and gambling could be ignored, while public indiscretion, particularly of a sexual nature, in a woman was never overlooked. After their sister’s utter moral failure, all their characters will be called into question. Eligible matches will not want association with such a family Julia and Fanny are particularly likely to suffer, though Edmund could as well.
Mary and Edmund are in disagreement over the extent and nature of the problem. Mary styles Maria Bertram’s fall and ruin as a social disgrace and the biggest issue is that the affair has become widely known. Mary’s experience with society tells her that discrete affairs for both men and women are often overlooked, especially if an heir has already been born.
Thus, in her estimation, Maria might, with enough large parties and good dinners, be restored to some measure of society; her ruin is not complete. She blames Fanny rather than Henry for the affair, implying that the flirtation might have continued, but would have been rendered harmless because an affair in the family could have been kept discrete.
In many ways, Mary is correct. Affairs were very common in society and as long as a woman’s affairs did not become public knowledge, they were simply accepted. Men’s affairs were generally treated as less contemptible. A woman could not sue for divorce for infidelity unless it was accompanied by cruelty—what we would call extreme domestic violence, whereas a man only needed infidelity to press such a suit.
Edmund does not see the issue as one of lack of discretion, but rather a moral lapse that cannot be undone. Even worse, he sees Mary’s own sense of morals, which he is unable to abide.
It seems that Aunt Norris agrees more with Mary Crawford than with Edmund, blaming Fanny for the entire affair. She tries to convince Sir Thomas to maintain his connections with Maria arguing that Maria should not be sacrificed for Fanny’s ‘niceness’. An innocent like Fanny—assuming she is a lady of quality—should not be exposed to a morally fallen woman in her home. Aunt Norris obviously considers Fanny no lady.
Interestingly, Sir Thomas now does. Once again he has elevated Fanny’s position in a quiet but meaningful way. Aunt Norris is sent away as a companion to Maria.
The sequence is rather ironic as single women employed companions in order to act as chaperones and keep them ‘proper’ in the eyes of society. Perhaps Aunt Norris thinks her presence with Maria will help bring Maria back to a more respectable state. But after degree of transgression Maria has committed, a mere companion is not likely to change society’s perceptions of her.
In Austen’s original work, Julia, in the face of her sister’s transgressions runs off and marries Yates, a friend of her brother Tom’s. The implication is that Maria’s fall is so severe that Julia despairs of ever finding an appropriate man who will take her and so hurries into marriage. Luckily for her, Austen suggests he is a decent young man in a reasonable situation, so her fate may not be an utterly unhappy one.
Lady Bertram and the other ladies of Mansfield Park are often shown doing fancy needlework. Nearly all women, wealthy or not, were usually found with needlework in their hands. Poorer women made and mended clothes as matter of necessity to provide for their families. More well to do women did a variety of different kinds of embroidery to decorate both garments and household items. Many would also make clothes for the poor on their estate. When visiting one another on social calls, women would bring their work baskets and stitch as they visited. In case a caller arrived without something to sew, it was customary for a lady to offer a project to work on during the call.
When Edmund visits Fanny in her room, the poor man is faced with her in a shocking state of undress. Although to the modern eye she is covered neck to toes, in the era, she is in a scandalously unclad. No wonder he cannot seem to look her in the eye. In reality, he would have been unlikely to have entered her room with her in such dishabille, and she would not have been likely to have permitted, as it would be considered inappropriate.
As to whether or not Fanny would have been washing her hair, that is a little less clear. Godey’s Lady Book (1830) recommended ladies wash the hair daily with warm soft water to which, occasionally a portion of soap was added. Other ladies’ books strongly disapproved of wetting the hair, maintaining that many evil consequences were likely to follow. In either case, she was more likely to have used a pitcher and basin to wash her hair than a bathtub which required many gallons of water to be heated and transported to fill the tub. Bath tubs were an expensive luxury and even homes which had them did not use them for each person, each day as we do today.
Soap for personal hygiene was likely to have been made on the estate itself, with the same lye and animal fat base that soap for laundry and other washing was made. Plant extracts and other additives might be mixed it to give the soap more pleasing properties for personal use. Specialty shampoos had not been developed at this point.
The next morning we she both Fanny and Edmund running through the house. Such behavior was highly inappropriate for them both. Ladies especially did not run unless there were some kind of emergency involved. Moreover, they did not laugh out loud. To do both at the same time was extremely improper. Perhaps this is symbolic of Fanny’s new found status in the household, that she is not able or willing to drop a little of her guard and be a bit unrestrained.
The family sits down to breakfast, which would have been late by modern day standards probably 10AM or after. People did not eat immediately upon rising. Oftentimes morning business was attended to first, the they would have their meal.
Notice the male servant who attends the family at breakfast and the number of dishes on the table, just another sign of their wealth. For many, breakfast would be a hot beverage, often chocolate and some sort of baked item, sweet or savory. To have multiple dishes available for the first meal of the day was definitely a luxury.
Edmund finally proposes to Fanny and declares his love. At this time, was typical for a man not to declare love for a woman until the time of his proposal to her. To declare love at another time was tantamount to a proposal.
In the era, engagements tended to be brief, usually only long enough for a settlement to be drawn up and the banns to be read—often as short as three weeks. Marriage by license, special or ordinary could cut the time down further
When at last our dear couple is married, they ‘have learned a new dance’ in the words of Lady Bertram, a waltz. The dance was still relatively new in that era and still not accepted at public assemblies. But, some historical letters suggest that the dance was being done in private, as we see Edmund and Fanny doing. It would be unusual to dance this way outside a drawing room though.
Unusual or not, we have finally arrived at our happily ever after. I hope you have enjoyed these our group watch of Mansfield Park. Let me know if you’d like another such series in the future and which movie you’d like to watch together.