Imagine that you are traveling to another country for a work commitment. You leave your spouse and adult children in charge of your house, but when you get back you find that they have remodeled your office without your permission, invited a TV crew in, and made a spectacle of themselves in front of your neighbors. How would you react?
In last month’s post I wrote a defense of Fanny Price, the unlikely heroine of Mansfield Park, and promised that I would do a deep dive into one of the most confounding scenes in any of Austen’s novels (for a modern reader, at least). Today I would like to answer the question: why were Fanny Price and her cousin Edmund Bertram opposed to family and a few friends acting out a play in their own home? The answer requires an in depth understanding of the culture and times.
For starters, Fanny and her cousins, the Bertrams, are all members of the English gentry, a social class that had obligations and expectations we do not fully appreciate today. It wasn’t that the gentry thought plays were necessarily bad. In fact they attended plays regularly. But performing in a play was different. People who acted in plays had to work for a living. Their lives were not their own and working for others demonstrated that.
The gentry were different. Their role was to pay to watch the play, not to be in it themselves. This was especially true for the ladies, who were not supposed to be treated as commodities. Performing for money would be demeaning.
Secondly, for the play to be staged there had to be some construction done to the house itself, which the group decides to carry out without their father’s knowledge or consent. This is a family home, not an item for display. It’s a sign of the family’s status and their role as leaders of the community. Changing it into a venue for a play would be akin, today, to taking an historic site and making it the setting for a cheap reality show.
As odd as these viewpoints may seem to us today, they were entirely valid in Jane Austen’s time. The real wonder of it all is that Lady Bertram, the lady of the house, makes no effort to stop something that her husband would certainly disapprove. Her children insist that they will be discreet and everything will be carried out decently and in order. But Tom Bertram begins almost immediately to talk about bringing in half a dozen young men from the neighborhood to help out with the play, directly contradicting earlier plans to keep the whole thing private. It’s easy to see that this will not end well!
But the worst part of the whole idea is the play itself, as Fanny finds out for herself. Lover’s Vows was scandalous for its time, featuring illicit liaisons, secret love children, and just generally unseemly behavior. Even today we would probably think it suitable only for teens and up. And that’s not even taking into account the fact that several of the people acting in the play are on the verge of some fairly unseemly real-life behavior of their own.
Taking all this into consideration, imagine this:
A group of college kids is home on spring break. This is a mixed group, both young men and women, and they are at an age when hormones are raging. They haven’t been able to join their friends in Cancun for some reason so they’re all hanging out at one guy’s house, and with bad weather outside they’re getting a little bored. They decide to create their own reality TV show. They’ll write the script, cast characters, come up with costumes, and put cameras and microphones into the owner’s work-at-home office to record the performance. They might even let a few friends watch the whole thing live on the internet, because there’s nothing wrong with putting things on the internet, is there?
And the TV show they use as the basis for their production is the most recent season of a certain popular reality “dating” show, complete with girls vying for a guy’s attention, steamy hot tub scenes, and tons of sexual innuendoes. To make it even more interesting, the guy who will play the bachelor is rather openly hitting on the actress who will receive the final rose, even though the actress is engaged to someone else in real life. And they will have to passionately kiss on camera!
No wonder Fanny and Edmund are so opposed, though they have a hard time explaining why without sounding snobby. And no wonder Sir Thomas is so upset when he arrives home in the middle of the play itself. His arrival makes it clear that Fanny and Edmund were right all along. When the group hears that Sir Thomas has already come inside, that there is no chance of covering up what they are doing, “To the greater number it was a moment of absolute horror. . . . every other heart was sinking under some degree of self-condemnation or undefined alarm.”
So what do you think? Has any of this changed your view of Mansfield Park? I would love to hear your thoughts!