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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Inchbald's Lover’s Vows, the thing to catch the conscience of Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park!:

 Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2:
HAMLET …the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1:
ALL  Lights, lights, lights!                               

Mansfield Park, Chapter 20:
“…[Sir Thomas] had also set the carpenter to work in pulling down what had been so lately put up in the billiard-room, and given the scene-painter his dismissal long enough to justify the pleasing belief of his being then at least as far off as Northampton. The scene-painter was gone, having spoilt only the floor of one room, ruined all the coachman's sponges, and made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied; and Sir Thomas was in hopes that another day or two would suffice to wipe away every outward memento of what had been, even to the destruction of every unbound copy of Lovers' Vows in the house, for HE WAS BURNING ALL THAT MET HIS EYE.”


Among the countless omissions and wrong turns of mainstream Austen scholarship I‘ve collected and catalogued over the past decade, one near the very top of the list has to be the belief that one major reason why Jane Austen included the Lovers Vows episode in Mansfield  Park, was to express her own strong disapproval of the theatrical performance in general, and even more so of the “subversive” message of Kotzebue’s controversial play as translated and adapted by Inchbald.

In my considered opinion, and as I will explain why below, it is absurd to take (1) Fanny’s disapproval of the family’s enactment of the play, and (2) Sir Thomas’s burning of every copy thereof “that met his eye”, as being congruent with a similar disapproval thereof by Jane Austen herself.  It is as absurd, in fact, as it would be if Shakespearean scholars widely believed that Shakespeare himself strongly disapproved of theatre, and The Mousetrap (itself an adaptation by Hamlet of a supposed play called The Murder of Gonzago) in particular, because (1) Gertrude opines that the Player Queen protests too much, and (2) Claudius gets really upset watching the performance thereof. Of course, they don’t believe this, and I hope that my post today will be a  first step toward bringing  about a change in that same direction in opinions about Lovers Vows in Mansfield Park. 


It also remains surprising to me that I was, in 2006, apparently the first Austen scholar ever to realize, as perhaps my placing the two quotations at the start of this post next to each other may have already alerted you, that Lovers Vows fulfills the exact same function in the shadow story of   Mansfield Park as The Mousetrap does in Hamlet.

The only Austen scholar I can find who even went so far as to understand that Sir Thomas’s conscience was caught by Lovers Vows is the wonderfully outside-the-box Barbara K. Seeber, who back in 2000 wrote:
Lovers Vows brings to the surface exactly what Sir Thomas’s discourse seeks to repress. The play exposes Baron Wildenhaim’s indiscretion; illicit love has no place in Sir Thomas’s self-  definition as the benevolent patriarch. He reacts by burning ‘every unbound copy of Lovers Vows’ and when Maria exposes his failure as a patriarch, she too is purged…The play questions the trading of one’s daughter to a rich fool, a fault that Sir Thomas is conscious of committing in his deal with Mr. Rushworth…Brought face to face with Baron Wildenhaim, Sir Thomas is made to look into a mirror, and he does not like what he sees. Sir Thomas’s vision of himself is based on partial blindness…”    

As excellent and ahead of the curve as Seeber’s insight was in 2000, she was not outside-the-box  enough to realize (1) the Hamlet connection, or  (2) that it was not merely Sir Thomas’s readiness to trade his daughter to a rich fool that he saw in the theatrical mirror, it was the even more  heinous sin that Baron Waldenhaim committed twenty years earlier—that of seducing and then abandoning an innocent young woman who loved him, leaving her to raise their illegitimate son in poverty and scandal---that Tom Bertram, the Hamlet-like stage-director who chooses Lovers Vows from among the play candidates (which by the way include Hamlet!), holds up to his father’s face!

I.e., it has been my interpretation since 2006 that Sir Thomas, who is just returning from a very lengthy stay in Antigua, where he presumably is the hands-on own of a slave plantation, has (1) more than two decades earlier sired one or more children on one or more of his African slaves there (much as occurred, by the way and not coincidentally, with Lord MANSFIELD’s nephew, who appears to have sired Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the heroine of the new movie Belle, on an African slave), and (2) now one of those children, like Frederick in Lovers Vows, has, like a proverbial chicken coming home to roost, returned to claim some compensation from his father:

‘[Henry Crawford] was not handsome: no, when they first saw him he was absolutely plain, BLACK and plain; but still he was the gentleman, with a pleasing address. The second meeting proved him not so very plain: he was plain, to be sure, but then he had so much countenance, and HIS TEETH WERE SO GOOD, and he was SO WELL MADE, that one soon forgot he was plain; and after a third interview, after dining in company with him at the Parsonage, he was no longer allowed to be called so by anybody. “

Which is also as much to say that I heartily approve of Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, which depicts Tom Bertram as an artist sketching visual nightmare images of watching his father rape a slave, but even Rozema, for all her many catches of pieces of the shadow story of Mansfield Park and making them explicit, causing  much unjustified gnashing  of  teeth among Janeites at large, did not connect Sir Thomas’s mysterious Antigua career to the “plain and black” Henry Crawford, with his “so good” teeth and his being “so well made” as if his teeth and physique  were being evaluated at a slave auction at a dock.

As you can gather from all of this, then, my interpretation is not a complete departure from all prior reactions to the Lovers Vows episode in MP, so much as an extension of the ideas of two earlier pioneers.

And I will close by pointing out that my connection of Hamlet to Lovers Vows is strongly supported by the many veiled allusions by Inchbald to Hamlet in particular, including but not limited to (1) the two times in Lovers Vows when Cottager’s Wife paraphrases Hamlet’s famous “what a piece of work is man” line, which Mrs. Norris then quotes in Mansfield  Park, and also (2) (as I only noticed just this past week) Inchbald’s Prologue, which in every line winks at Hamlet  as the primary allusive subtext of Lovers Vows, without  ever stating this explicitly:

POETS have oft' declared, in doleful strain,
That o'er dramatic tracks they beat in vain,
Hopeless that novelty will spring to sight;
For life and nature are exhausted quite.
Though plaints like these have rung from age to age,
Too kind are writers to desert the stage;
And if they, fruitless, search for unknown prey,
At least they dress old game a novel way;
But such lamentings should be heard no more,
For modern taste turns Nature out of door;
Who ne'er again her former sway will boast,
Till, to complete her works, she starts A GHOST.
If such the mode, what can we hope to-night,
Who rashly dare approach without A SPRITE?
No dreadful cavern, no MIDNIGHT SCREAM,
No rosin flames, nor e'en one flitting gleam.
Nought of the charms so potent to invite
The monstrous charms of terrible delight.
Our present theme the German Muse supplies,
But rather aims to soften than surprise.
Yet, with her woes she strives some smiles to blend,
Intent as well to cheer as to amend:
On her own native soil she knows the art
To charm the fancy, and to touch the heart.
If, then, she mirth and pathos can express,
Though less engaging in an English dress,
Let her from British hearts no peril fear,

Inchbald is, I think it clear, first alerting her savvy audience that she has redressed “old game”  (i.e., Hamlet)  “a novel way”; more specifically, that she has transmuted the Gothic horror imagery of Hamlet, with its ghost/spirit who walks at midnight, into a  domestic scene that nonetheless is still horrible from a moral perspective—and how Austenian is that?
And then, to be sure her hints were not ignored, that final line is a wink at another famous Kotzebue play, The Stranger, but is also, as the 1808 edition---surely therefore read by JA herself before while writing  Mansfield Park----of Inchbald’s plays, makes explicit, an allusion to Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, when the Ghost appears:

HORATIO   O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


I hope I have convinced you, then, that there are more things, things of great importance, in Lovers Vows as interpreted and reinvented by Jane Austen, than have been dreamt of in the philosophy of mainstream Austen scholarship.  I hope you agree that Jane Austen took Inchbald’s multiple hints at Hamlet, and, in turn, made a sandwich out of Hamlet and Lovers Vows, and added her own inimitable novelistic condiments, as only she could, to create the miraculously meaty and delicious concoction—like Lovers Vows, a domesticated Gothic horror--- she named Mansfield Park.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: The above will be included in my presentation at the upcoming JASNA AGM in Montreal from October 12-14. If you attend, while I hope that I will convince my audience with my arguments not only about the Hamlet, but also the Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, and Titus Andronicus allusions in Mansfield Park, you might just observe some interesting  reactions from some members of the audience who may feel about my interpretations the way Sir Thomas did about  Lovers Vows, i.e., that they are so horrible that they need to be burned!

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