Near the end of Chapter 13 of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price is besieged by pressure from all sides of her family, as well as from their visitors the Crawfords and Mr. Yates. What do they all want from her? To agree to perform the small role of Cottager’s Wife in their home theatrical of Lover’s Vows—Elizabeth Inchbald’s English translation/adaptation of August Von Kotzebue’s controversial, even scandalous (or so we’re told) melodrama Das Kind Der Liebe (The Love Child or, as Anne Plumptre entitled her earlier translation, The Natural Son”).
The dramatic core of Kotzebue’s story is the return of an illegitimate son, Frederick, to his ancestral home, where he saves his dying mother, Agatha, and then confronts his aristocratic birth father (whom he never knew) with that father’s sins, i.e., the seduction and abandonment of his fiancee (the young hero’s mother) two decades earlier.
There’s a happy ending, sorta---Daddy Rooster (Baron Wildenhaim) fesses up and Does The Right Thing —a little late, and after much pressure, it’s true, but, after all , his conscience had been in a deep freeze for 20 years, and had to thaw—by marrying Mama Hen (Agatha), who is restored to full health.
Cottager’s Wife appears (by my count) in only three scenes, and really only takes center stage in the first of those scenes, when she and her husband—of course, called “Cottager”!-- take in Agatha as she is practically dying from hunger and exposure. So Cottager’s Wife is a very sympathetic character, a little gruff, salt of the earth, but with a heart of pure gold—she even takes Jesus’s parable to heart, the one about not casting the first stone at an adulterous wife—a truly selfless Christian, and therefore, you’d think, pretty suitable for Fanny to play.
So it’s never quite clear in Austen’s novel whether these proverbial “chickens coming home to roost” in Lovers Vows are the main reason why Fanny Price is so reluctant to perform even a small role in its enactment at Mansfield Park. But it’s also never quite clear why her being willing to play that small role is such a big deal. In any event, it is how she feels, and it is what they all want from her, so, having set the stage, let me now return to my analysis of the attack on Fanny, already in progress, which will, in short order, lead straight to the quotations presented in my Subject Line, I promise you.
After several Bertrams try polite persuasion and cajolery, and Fanny desperately tries to elude them in a polite way, the pressure is suddenly ratcheted up tenfold, when her sadistic aunt and arch-tormentor, Mrs. Norris, chimes in, in a terrifying stage whisper, no less:
“…before [Fanny] could breathe after it, Mrs. Norris completed the whole by thus addressing her in a whisper at once angry and audible--‘What A PIECE OF WORK here is ABOUT NOTHING: I am quite ashamed of you, Fanny, to make such a difficulty of obliging your cousins in a trifle of this sort—so kind as they are to you! Take the part with a good grace, and let us hear no more of the matter, I entreat.’ “
Fortunately, Mrs. Norris’s attack is so over the top that it apparently awakens the conscience of the others in the room as to how awful they have all been making Fanny feel. It reminds me of a scene from Goodfellas when several of the wiseguys are engaging in some relatively (for wiseguys, at least) good natured banter with some poor person from the civilized part of society who has had the really bad luck to cross their paths----and then suddenly, BOOM! BOOM! Joe Pesci’s character loses his cool, to put it mildly, pulls out a gun and shoots the guy a few times! Needless to say, the laughs cease rather quickly after the bullets start flying. But you get the idea—Mrs. Norris’s attack sobers up the entire room in a big hurry!
And so the attack on Fanny comes to an abrupt halt. But not permanently, because a mere five chapters later, at the very end of Chapter 18, the others come at Fanny one more time, this time much more gently, with the reduced request that she merely read the part of Cottager’s Wife in a rehearsal. And this time Fanny is finally too tired to resist any longer, and is ready to relent….only to be saved by the bell—metaphorically and literally:
“Fanny could not say she did not [know the part]; and as they all persevered, as Edmund repeated his wish, and with a look of even fond dependence on her good-nature, she must yield. She would do her best. Everybody was satisfied; and she was left to the tremors of a most palpitating heart, while the others prepared to begin.
They did begin; and being too much engaged in their own noise to be struck by an unusual noise in the other part of the house, had proceeded some way when the door of the room was thrown open, and Julia, appearing at it, with a face all aghast, exclaimed, "My father is come! He is in the hall at this moment."
And that unexpected “ghastly” appearance of Sir Thomas Bertram (who, actually, is described in quite ghostly terms: “he was grown thinner, and had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate…”—that “hot climate” being….the fires of Hell!) forever puts the kibosh on the Mansfield Park production of Lovers Vows. The still formidable Sir Thomas, family patriarch returned from his very long sojourn at his slave plantation in Antigua, razes and burns Lovers Vows into nothingness.
Now…I have previously opined on a number of occasions, as to the deep, disturbing, and concealed reasons why Sir Thomas goes so quietly berserk in his attempt to obliterate any trace of Inchbald/ Kotzebue’s play, including this sampler of blog posts…..
…each of which gives another side of the enigmatic, disturbing Sir Thomas, as I see him.
But, for those who don’t want to delve deeply into all the background I set forth in the above linked posts, suffice for today for me to summarize my core points for you, which are as follows. Jane Austen has carefully constructed the character of Tom Bertram, the heir to Sir Thomas, to be the “Hamlet” of Mansfield Park, and Sir Thomas to be the “Claudius”. [The first to suggest Tom as Hamlet was, if memory serves me right, Roger Sales’s book, Representations of Regency England in Jane Austen, back in 1998, but Sales’s focus was not on Tom as Hamlet, but on Tom as the Prince Regent who, after all, was in a Hamlet-like circumstance, royally speaking]
Tom may appear out of control or even “mad” with his gambling, drinking and wastrel lifestyle, but behind the mask of his wild and whirling ways, I suggest that Tom strategically and deliberately orchestrates the Bertram family and its guests into staging Lovers Vows, and Tom finds a way to time it so that the first full scale rehearsal just happens to begin precisely at the moment when his father returns from Antigua,, like a mouse walking right into a Mousetrap!
Recall that Tom was there with his father in Antigua not that long before, and came back ahead of his father---therefore, Tom would likely be fully apprised of his father’s affairs in Antigua in a way that no other Bertram family member would, and could, with knowledge of the schedule for the packet that would likely bring his father back, time things fairly precisely so that his father will be confronted by a “Mousetrap” in a way strikingly parallel to the “Murder of Gonzago” staged by Hamlet in order to catch the conscience of Claudius, the King, his uncle/stepfather.
And actually, as I revisit this point, I realize how easily Tom could have taken one additional step to be sure to time things properly. He could have arranged for a trusted friend (we know he had lots of friends all over England) to be watching at Sir Thomas’s port of entry (the very place Tom himself had arrived back in England not long before) when Tom expected Sir Thomas to arrive, and then send off to Tom an express mail delivery, so that as Sir Thomas made his leisurely way back to Mansfield Park, Tom would have at least a few hours, if not a full day’s, prior warning, and could plan things very precisely indeed!
Now, so far, this may sound very fanciful to some of you who have perhaps read Mansfield Park many times, but I promise you, if you reread the “theatricals” chapters with my above, alternative reading in mind, the textual “bread crumbs” will leap off the pages at you repeatedly!
And as further literary support for my reading of “good” Tom Bertram, think also about King Lear, another Shakespeare tragedy (which, by the way, unlike Hamlet, is established and widely accepted in mainstream Austen scholarly circles as a significant allusive source for Mansfield Park).
It has been noted by two Austen scholars, Harris and Ford, that (i) Tom Bertram shares his Christian name with “Poor Tom”, the madcap disguised identity which Edgar, legitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, assumes on the heath where he provides companionship to the demented King, and (ii) Edmund Bertram shares his Christian name with the illegitimate son of that same Duke of Gloucester.
But what no Austen or Shakespeare scholar had ever considered before now—because it’s so far outside the box of normative literary scholarship—is the possibility that Jane Austen had a deviously sly purpose in giving the “bad” Bertram son the name of the good son of Gloucester, while giving the “good” Bertram son the name of the villainous son of Gloucester, whose jealous scheming is a driving force in the arc of tragedy in King Lear. Why this reversal of what you’d expect?
Jane Austen’s purpose, I claim, was to alert the knowing reader that Tom Bertram is, beneath the surface, a good man, who is operating in disguise in order to further worthy goals—such as exposing the moral corruption of his hypocritical father, Sir Thomas! And that Edmund Bertram, on the other hand, is not so heroic as he might seem to us, who only see him through the adoring eyes of his little cousin Fanny.
So, this Lear name reversal supports my claim that Tom Bertram chooses to follow the template set by Hamlet in his exposure of the moral corruption of his hypocritical “father”, King Claudius!
But, now you rightly ask, exactly what sins would Sir Thomas’s conscience be confronted with? Claudius murdered his brother King Hamlet, what did Sir Thomas do?
The normative reading of Sir Thomas to this day in Austen scholarly and popular circles is that he’s a fundamentally good man, who just doesn’t quite get the hang of providing moral education to his children, and doesn’t show enough respect for the high moral caliber of his little niece, Fanny.
Obviously, however, I have seen things very differently, ever since 2006 when I attended Marcia McClintock Folsom’s breakout session at the JASNA AGM in Tucson, and her talking about the veiled allusion to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in Mansfield Park (you can read her article in the print Persuasions from that year) prompted me to suddenly realize, for the first time, the Mousetrap function that Lovers Vows plays in Mansfield Park.
So, since then, I have judged Sir Thomas harshly, and have not ceased to read him very suspiciously. And you read this last bit, Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park has surely come to your mind by now, because her film unflinchingly shows Sir Thomas as a moral monster, who rapes slaves on his Antigua plantation—and, in that light, Rozema also sees Tom Bertram’s alcoholism as the response of a good but weak young man, unable to deal with the intolerable moral pressure, as he foresees his life as the heir to that plantation and its monstrous mode of operation, which however pay the bills for everything at Mansfield Park.
However…..brilliant as Rozema’s insight was, in 1999, to see that far into the shadows of Mansfield Park--- aided by some cutting edge scholarship of the previous two decades that pointed the way there--- I have since 2006 (when, by the way, I submitted an article regarding same to the Persuasions journals (which was, perhaps not surprisingly, not accepted) also believed that Rozema stopped one step too soon in stepping outside the box. And now I’ll repeat the gist of what I wrote in that draft article seven years ago.
I believe that Tom Bertram (and therefore, Jane Austen) chose Lovers Vows in particular as the play to be enacted at Mansfield Park, because the siring of an illegitimate child by Baron Wildenhaim is exactly what Sir Thomas Bertram must have been up to during his rather busy youthful period of sowing oats. The Bertram and Ward family history at the beginning of the novel suggests all sorts of weirdness in the way the three Ward (sounds like Weird) sisters, especially the creepy discussion between Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris about the incestuous implications of Fanny and Edmund possibly falling in love one day. I think Jane Austen is practically screaming to us in a stage whisper, “Figure out whose child is really whose!”
So, bottom line, Tom Bertram knows—somehow--that it is no accident that Sir Thomas’s second son has been given the name “Edmund”, because Tom knows that Edmund shares the status of illegitimacy with Shakespeare’s tormented young villain! And Tom also probably knows that there are other illegitimate children of Sir Thomas who, like Frederick in Lovers Vows—are chickens who’ve “ come home” to Mansfield Park to roost, as the main action of the novel unfolds—and among them, at a minimum, are Henry Crawford and, ten years earlier, none other than Fanny Price herself!
I could go on, but the above is enough to set the stage to enable me to now get back on track, and finally explain the textual evidence I’ve presented upfront in my Subject Line, which validates, I suggest, all of these dark Shakespearean speculations of mine vis a vis Mansfield Park.
First, I will note the obvious, which is that Mrs. Norris, in speaking this sentence to Fanny….
--‘What A PIECE OF WORK here is ABOUT NOTHING…”
…is echoing Hamlet’s famous speech of disillusionment about humanity, which starts out famously emphasizing the positive…..
“What A PIECE OF WORK is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.”
….but then veers completely to the negative, before ending on a comic note with Hamlet’s acknowledging his inadvertent, sexual-preference innuendo that causes Rosencrantz & Guildenstern’s smiles:
“And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”
But this allusive echo seems a typical Austenian deflating irony-- Mrs. Norris uses the phrase “piece of work” not to speak of the creative works of God, but the opposite--an unnecessary, mundane fuss by Fanny “about nothing”, i.e., about something trivial, indeed not worth the bad vibes caused by Fanny’s fuss.
But perhaps some of you reading my all caps in that statement by Mrs. Norris have realized that she is also echoing the title of another Shakespeare play, entitled…(you guessed it)… Much Ado About Nothing! And the thing is, it fits perfectly with Lovers Vows as Hamlet, but in a different way. Lover’s Vows, the play Mrs. Norris wants Fanny to participate in, has as its backstory a young woman, Agatha, who could easily have been Hero in Much Ado, if Hero had given in to Claudio before marrying him, and if Claudio had then not gone on to marry her. And in a way, the climax of Lover’s Vows is just like the climax of Much Ado---Baron Wildenhaim is an older Claudio, who is morally pressured to undo a wrong, and finally marry his Hero, Agatha, but only (also similarly as in Much Ado) Agatha first almost dies!
So, what could these two Shakespearean allusions by Mrs. Norris mean, beyond a witty but superficial irony? I claim that it’s actually a special textual window constructed specially by Jane Austen, meticulously designed by her so as to open into the very Hamletian subtext I’ve been describing for years, and just summarized, above. Let’s open that window and plunge in deep (as Henry Crawford might have put it)!
What nobody, including myself, ever realized before I saw it yesterday, despite its being out there for two centuries where scholars could have studied and detected it, is that Mrs. Norris is also actually quoting almost verbatim from Lovers Vows itself!
Here’s the passage in Lovers Vows which I claim Jane Austen unmistakably alluded to, late in Act 1:
LANDLORD. Well, what is the matter now?
FREDERICK. Make haste, and get a bed ready for this good woman [Agatha, Frederick’s mother].
LANDLORD [with a sneer]. A bed for this good woman! ha, ha ha! She slept last night in that pent-house; so she may to-night. [Exit, shutting door].
FREDERICK. You are an infamous--[goes back to his mother] Oh! My poor mother--[runs to the Cottage at a little distance, and knocks]. Ha! hallo! Who is there?
COTTAGER. Good day, young soldier.--What is it you want?
FREDERICK. Good friend, look at that poor woman. She is perishing in the public road! It is my mother.--Will you give her a small corner in your hut? I beg for mercy's sake--Heaven will reward you.
COTTAGER. Can't you speak quietly? I understand you very well. [Calls at the door of the hut.] Wife, shake up our bed--here's a poor sick woman wants it. [Enter WIFE]. Why could not you say all this in fewer words? Why such a long preamble? Why for mercy's sake, and heaven's reward? Why talk about reward for such trifles as these? Come, let us lead her in; and welcome she shall be to a bed, as good as I can give her; and our homely fare.
FREDERICK. Ten thousand thanks, and blessings on you!
WIFE. Thanks and blessings! HERE’S A PIECE OF WORK INDEED ABOUT NOTHING! Good sick lady, lean on my shoulder. [To Frederick] Thanks and reward indeed! Do you think husband and I have lived to these years, and don't know our duty? Lean on my shoulder. [Exeunt into the Cottage.]
So there you see Cottager’s Wife, being quoted almost verbatim by Mrs. Norris, with understanding of her meaning. Cottager’s wife was saying that she did not deserve ten thousand thanks, or even blessings, for doing something any decent person would do, when they see a person suffering in dire need whom they are in a position to help.
Mrs. Norris seems to hijack Cottager’s Wife’s speech for a bogus purpose, i.e., to pressure Fanny into doing something she clearly is in a panic trying to avoid, by making Fanny feel that what is asked of her is also something any decent person would do in Fanny’s shoes, in order to do something that will make her loved one very happy.
But…at that stage of my reasoning yesterday, I was reminded of something Anielka Briggs wrote about three years ago in either Janeites or Austen-L, in which she made some very clever outside-the-box arguments. Anielka argued that Mrs. Norris may actually, in various paradoxical ways, be working for Fanny’s benefit, trying to get Fanny married to one of the Bertram boys. I.e., that Mrs. Norris uses the “mask” of being Fanny’s sadistic tormentor, in order to allow Mrs. Norris free rein to intervene in paradoxical ways at key moments in Fanny’s life history, in order to actually help Fanny achieve marital bliss in the long run.
Well, I don’t know about the effect on Fanny’s future marital bliss in this instance with Fanny playing Cottager’s Wife, but I do think it crystal clear that this is, nonetheless, another one of those instances of “Mrs. Norris to the rescue”. Here’s how it works, and perhaps you’ve already guessed by now.
If we merely go by the words she speaks and their apparent literal meaning, then Mrs. Norris is being horrible to Fanny, trying to make her feel guilty about something that should be Fanny’s perfect right as a young adult with a mind of her own; i.e., not to perform in a play if it would be upsetting for her to do so, as would clearly be the case here.
But…if we go by the effect of what Mrs. Norris says, it takes on a whole different meaning. Or, put another way, in light of Michael Chwe’s new book Jane Austen Game Theorist, what if we look at Mrs. Norris as being concerned only with the outcome or end she achieves for Fanny, regardless of the means Mrs. Norris has to employ, thinking outside the box, in order to achieve it.
In this case, the effect of Mrs. Norris’s intervention is immediate and decisive. The rest of the family backs off at once, and leaves Fanny in peace. And then they don’t revisit it again for a while—and then, only re-present the request to Fanny in a blunted form that Fanny actually can tolerate—even though she never does wind up having to do it at all—but I think Fanny has Tom to thank for that, not Mrs. Norris.
So….in the end of the day, in a strange way, Mrs. Norris has “saved” Fanny—and is willing not only to be thanked for it ten thousand times, but to be thought of very badly by the rest of the family for her ogre-like behavior toward Fanny.
And doesn’t that make Mrs. Norris a great deal like the selfless, generous Cottager’s Wife in Lovers Vows? And that, I suggest, is exactly what Jane Austen was “telling” us by having Mrs. Norris speak the very same words that Cottager’s Wife spoke! And then adding to the juicy covert irony of it all, by having Mrs. Norris echo Cottager’s Wife in the very words Mrs. Norris speaks which enable Fanny to avoid playing the role she so desperately seeks to avoid playing, that of….Cottager’s Wife!
That is the Jane Austen Code at its most perfect! And I hope it was worth it to you to read all of the foregoing in order to fully savor the beauty of Jane Austen’s sophisticated literary legerdemain—it is a seemingly chaotic jumble of story elements which when viewed from the proper perspective, turns out to be constitute a perfect gem of intellectual beauty.
But wait, someone among you might be thinking right now. You get that Jane Austen covertly alluded to Lovers Vows in this one speech by Mrs. Norris, which Mrs. Norris used to such noble effect, in rescuing Fanny, but what about my other claims, about how Lovers Vows is all about Hamlet, and that Jane Austen picked up on that subtext in Lovers Vows, and made full use of it in Mansfield Park?
Well…I’ve gone on quite a long time, and I appreciate the patience of those of you who’ve made it to the end of this post, so why don’t we just adjourn till tomorrow when I will present to you Part Two of this topic, in which I will tie as many of the remaining loose ends together as I can, and show how deeply interwoven Hamlet really was in the fabric of Lover’s Vows, and how adeptly and insightfully Jane Austen added another layer of interweaving of both the Kotzebue/Inchbald and the Shakespeare into Mansfield Park!
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P.S.: Before signing off, I want to reiterate something I wrote several months ago, when I last discussed the Mousetrap aspects of Mansfield Park—at that time, Anielka Briggs responded in part to my presentation about Tom as Hamlet setting up a Mousetrap for his father, by bringing forward a brilliant analysis of her own, showing that Tom as Hamlet set up a mousetrap to trap his brother Edmund. At that time, I acknowledged Anielka’s argument as brilliant, and I hold to that position today. It shows how incredibly complex was the mind of Jane Austen, able to weave multiple hidden expressions of this motif into the same novel, each resonating off the other.