Mansfield Park | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Mansfield Park | Chapters 13–15 (Volume 1, Chapters 13–15) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 13

One of the guests at the Bertrams' ball is Tom's friend John Yates, a fashionable younger son of a nobleman and of whom Sir Thomas would not approve. Yates has come away disappointed from a visit at Ecclesford where the inconvenient death of a relative put an end to amateur theatricals, with which Yates was involved. Yates raves about the play Lovers' Vows, critiques the roles, and gets the young people at Mansfield Park excited about acting. At Henry's urging, they decide to stage a private play. Their plan at first is simple and inexpensive, but they get carried away, adding first one frill then another and finding justifications for altering Sir Thomas's rooms to suit their needs. Edmund disapproves of the plan, especially given how dramatic roles might lead Henry and Maria to behave immodestly. He knows Sir Thomas would agree, but Tom excuses the plan as mere amusement and assures his brother they will pick "some play most perfectly unexceptionable." Tom, as the oldest child and his father's surrogate, gets his way, and even Mrs. Norris agrees to the plan, eager to manage the details. Edmund refuses to participate, yet when he thinks about seeing Mary on stage, he cannot deny he is tempted.

Chapter 14

Fanny's suspicion that the theatrical plan will fail when the would-be participants cannot agree on a play nearly proves true. They argue: tragedy or comedy? A few star roles or many small roles? With Mary at the Parsonage and Rushworth at Sotherton, the cast argues the merits of this and that play. Finally, Tom suggests Lovers' Vows, and discussion turns to who will play each character. Immediately, argument breaks out over the two female leads, Agatha and Amelia. Tom decides Julia cannot play either role, but both Maria and Julia want to play Agatha because Henry will play Agatha's lover. Maria gets the role at Henry's insistence, and Julia sulks; the role of Amelia goes to Mary. Outmaneuvered, Julia storms out of the room; the others ignore her as they plan happily. Alone as usual, Fanny reads the play with dismay because the roles of Agatha and Amelia are entirely "unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty." She trusts Edmund to put a stop to the plan.

Chapter 15

Mary and Rushworth arrive to learn about their roles, and Maria, in the guise of kindness, shortens the hapless Rushworth's lines. Rushworth pretends—repeatedly—not to care about the elaborate clothing his character will wear, and Maria pretends her fiancé is not hopeless in his small role. When Edmund arrives, he is horrified at the choice of the play and assignment of roles. Maria blushes when Edmund objects but offers a list of justifications for refusing to abandon her role. Edmund objects to Tom's hiring a carpenter and painter; meanwhile, Mrs. Norris shops for fabrics, bragging about how much money she is saving Sir Thomas. Tom has no authority to approve these expenses, but Lady Bertram is too distracted by tea to support Edmund. After a tense dinner, Edmund frets as the plans proceed. However, when Mary asks who will play Anhalt (Amelia's lover), Edmund is tempted to give in, all the more so when he learns Anhalt is a clergyman. Fanny quietly observes all this, until Tom insists she play the small role of a cottager's wife. The mere idea of acting mortifies Fanny, but although Edmund's look steadies her resolve, Mrs. Norris spews criticism "in a whisper at once angry and audible" at Fanny's lack of gratitude. Even Mary is shocked by Mrs. Norris's bile; she kindly moves her chair to screen Fanny from her aunt and distracts her with talk of William. Because Edmund still refuses to act, Tom names two friends who could take Anhalt's role—a clear violation of the privacy in which the play is to be performed. Mary sighs at the thought of rehearsing with a stranger and says pointedly, "It will be very disagreeable, and by no means what I expected."

Analysis

John Yates is a minor character in Mansfield Park, but his petulant complaints about the family death that inconveniently derailed the play spur the dominant conflict of the novel's first volume: the theatricals reveal much about characters, set up the cliffhanger ending of Volume 1, and shape the novel's later events. Readers familiar with Jane Austen's biography know that her family enjoyed putting on plays for family amusement, and drama is not a controversial art form today. So why all the fuss over the theatricals? Why does Edmund offer so many objections, and why does Tom, "master of the house" in Sir Thomas's absence, rationalize all of them away? Why is Fanny so appalled at the thought of speaking a few lines of text that she flees to her attic room, trembling at the demand?

Acting in general during Austen's lifetime and for several decades afterward was a suspect profession. Although conditions were improving by the end of the 19th century, actors' reputations were precarious. Performers might attain celebrity status, but they still were not welcome at many social gatherings; women who acted were regarded as morally suspect. Such women put themselves on public display, behaving and speaking in ways deemed contradictory to ideals of womanhood. Even though the young people at Mansfield Park are not professional actors and perform only for themselves, they do not escape moral censure. Furthermore, they use Sir Thomas's rooms and finances for an amusement of which he would strongly disapprove, and they choose a play that is considered scandalous. But even if they had spent their own money and chosen an innocuous play, the theatricals would expose Mary, Maria, and Julia to moral censure. Even private acting was seen by social commentators as harmful to young women. It encouraged a proud desire to be observed and applauded—the very opposite of modesty. It brought women into inappropriate (though fictional) relationships with men as they acted and spoke words no proper young people would say to each other, and it promoted a desire to read other plays, many of which had scandalous content, or to jostle elbows with theater-goers of lower classes. In short, acting could ruin or at least damage marriageable young women who should spend their time cultivating attitudes of modesty and useful skills that prepare them for marriage and motherhood. Maria in particular, as Edmund insists, risks scandal in her role opposite Henry; her dismissive treatment of her fiancé is proof enough of the influence of acting on young women.

The actual production of the play confirms the roles the characters have been playing up to this point. On the fringes, Lady Bertram remains in her own world of distracted indolence, incapable of and uninterested in being involved, even so much as to prevent it. Mrs. Norris, the busybody and micromanager, is delighted to oversee the production end. Edmund, upright and moral yet not unworldly, is appalled. Modest, fair-minded, and slow to judge, Fanny, who must please everyone, actually reads the play and is horrified at its content. She refuses to take part not only out of shyness but out of modesty as well. Julia, having been spurned by Henry in favor of her sister, is once again the loser as Henry chooses Maria for the role opposite him. Finally, Mary and Maria, who have been flirting scandalously, have roles that reflect their behavior in the roles they have been playing in their lives.

The chapters that tell the story of the theatricals are marked by frequent argument, sisterly jealousy, ungracious victories, and ambivalent concessions—all signs of the pernicious influence of acting and all conducted while no wiser adult is present to stop the slow-motion disaster.

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