The Autobiographical Perspective on Austen's Objections to Play-acting

Nancy Mayer wrote:

I never have thought MP was a blanket condemnation of plays or the theatre though by that time Hannah More's group were strongly opposed to the theatre. I think that Edmund's arguments against the play areto the point. The pplay chosen was inappopriate for a household of unmarried girls and casual acquaintances; the setting up of the theatre disrupted Sir Thomas's belongings and his room. Fanny says she can not act... she can not dissemble though she can keep quiet and hide her thoughts that way. Edmund says it is improper, Fanny says that it is imprudent to undertake such an activity when Sir Thomas was away. Edmund seees all the pitfalls then falls into one himself in order to be with Mary. He agrees to join the cast so that another stranger would not get a foothold in the hosue and be on a footing odf intimacy that might be difficult to withdraw from later. He did not know to whom the play would be presented, either. He makes a distinction between professiional actresses who know enough not to forget they are merely palying a aprt and amateurs who sometimes become confused. Jane, by all records, liked the theatre and enjoyed the family theatricals when young but lovers vows at MP was something else again.

A question for thoe who study the time period... did James and his family indulge in home theatrics or was it generally thought a little old fashioned or not wuite the thing by the time James's and Edward's children were old enough to take part? Could it have been a general change against home theatre?

To which I replied:

To answer Nancy Mayer's question: it was not obsolete for the upper class and for those who had not been affected by evangelicanism to perform private theatricals by the 1810's. In fact a new "wrinkle" emerged in the practice by the 1820's which we see reflected in Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair: the wealthy and gentry liked to put on charades, still theatrical dumb shows which were often sexy.

As to the Austen's private theatricals at Steventon: the family put on a number of plays, but did not keep records--they could not know a couple of hundred years later their obscure little group would be of interest to a wide audience. Thus we cannot limits the time frame or plays chosen beyond the probable limits of the later 1780's and 1790's when the Austen siblings were still young and either unmarried or with few children.

There is also another element to Austen's attitude towards play-acting which we have not brought up this time round (it has been brought up in previous conversations). The players included Eliza de Feuillide and James and Henry Austen and from the extant letters and various documents it is inferred that both Henry and James Austen were rivals for Eliza's affections. Eliza herself was not a particularly tender-hearted type in public, and would tease and flirt and play. James Austen was much attracted and kept visiting her and her husband (for she was married and older than both Austen brothers); it is known that one of Eliza's objections to marrying Henry a few years after her husband was guillotined was his profession. He was thinking of becoming a clergyman. Instead he went into banking. He pleased the lady with this; they went to live in London.

Austen herself would have been a young girl witnessing this use of play-acting, and it is probable that some of the criticism directed at the play-acting as a cover-up for unpleasant sexy games reflects Austen's memories of this time in the 1790's. I will add that the one year the calendar for MP fits perfectly is that of 1796-7; Walton Litz worked it out in Notes and Queries, and has argued that the first draft of MP was written around the time of the amateur theatricals at Steventon which eventually led to the marriage of Eliza and Henry. A number of characteristics of Mary Crawford recall the personality of Eliza de Feuillide.

All that said, allow me to say I don't think Eliza=Mary or Henry=Henry. Nor do I think Fanny is a surrogate for Austen. Rather I suggest that part of the emotional background to the opening sequence of _MP_ and the complex attitude taken towards play-acting at home as opposed to play-acting in a theatre derives from Austen's own experiences of theatricals in the 1790's.

Ellen Moody

An earlier conversation on the above perspective is also relevant.

From: Frances Burkhart

Subject: MP & Amateur Theatricals

George Holbert Tucker's Jane Austen The Woman adds some insight into the potential danger of amateur theatricals and why Fanny objects to them. In Chapter 8 "Jane Austen and Scandal", pages 152-153, Tucker writes:

"In September 1788, Thomas James Twisleton, the baron's [of Saye and Sele, married to Jane's mother's second cousin] eighteen-year-old stagestruck son, eloped to Scotland with Miss Charlotte Anne Frances Wattell, also a minor, as a result of a liaison begun while they were acting in an amateur production of Jephson's tragedy "Julia" at the Freemason's Hall in London.
"Young Twisleton's runaway marriage with Miss Wattell not only caused quite a stir in fashionable society, it also lent support to the long-standing opinion (later capitalized on by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park) that private theatricals provided tempting opportunities for nonprofessionals to indulge in dalliance...
"Twistleton's runaway marriage is highly significant as far as Jane Austen is concerned since it took place only a few months before the last known private theatricals at Steventon rectory. These had begun in December 1782, when Jane was seven ... and ended during Christmas season of 1788 ... soon after Jane's thirteenth birthday.
"... Christmas festivities of 1787. At that time Susannah Centlivre's lively comedy "The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret" was acted with Jane's coquettish cousin Eliza de Feuillide in the leading role. Eliza ... caused a few heartaches like those later described in _Mansfiled Park_ by openly flirting with Jane's elder brother James and his younger brother Henry, who later became her second husband."

Frances Burkhart

Dept. of Molecular Pharmacology

Stanford University

To which I replied:

RE: MP & Amateur Theatricals

While Edith Lank is quite right when she says the very mention of Fanny Price and MP is enough to make "all hell break loose;" nonetheless I thought I would support Frances Burkhardt's posting the other day to the effect that one explanation for the intensity of the depiction of amateur theatricals in Mansfield Park and the condemnation of them is that they have an autobiographical source; that is, they reach down into some painful episode in Austen's own life. Frances's significant post seems to have gone unnoticed, and it's very important for all our heated discussions now and in future about MP.

While fictions are not literally autobiography disguised, they absolutely grow out of the lives and experiences of their authors, and one can find analogies both direct and indirect between Austen's life and her fiction, but between the lives and fictions of other authors who are said to be wholly unautobiographical, somehow growing out of some miracle which cannot be accounted for by normal human means, as apparently was once still believed or at least said of Austen (see QDLeavis's really amusing refutation of this kind of blind worship of "creativity" in Scrutiny X, 1941, 61-90). Trollope is such another author thought not to be autobiographical, but sometimes the only way you can explain a passage which seems very peculiar or overwrought in some ways is that it closely resembles some episode in his life about which an intense emotional reaction remained with him.

What I think is fascinating about the parallel between people and events in Austen's life and the amateur theatrics in MP is also true about the scene between Fanny and John Dashwood and the three Austen women's poverty after the death of the father. Edith remarked that this scene in S&S has to be written after 1806 because

"it bears an uncanny resemblance to a letter Henry Austen wrote (to a brother?) when they were deciding how much each would contribute to their recently widowed mother and their sisters. If I remember correctly, Henry said things like "They will keep no carriage...they will make extensive visits to friends and relatives..."

I would not see the Twisteton's as important as the theatricals at home; in Frances's quotation from Tucker:

"... Christmas festivities of 1787. At that time Susannah Centlivre's lively comedy "The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret" was acted with Jane's coquettish cousin Eliza de Feuillide in the leading role. Eliza ... caused a few heartaches like those later described in _Mansfield Park_ by openly flirting with Jane's elder brother James and his younger brother Henry, who later became her second husband."

So although the play itself does not resemble the play the Austens chose (actually Centlivre's play is a lot less sentimental), in the domestic circumstances of the players the theatricals at MP bear a strong resemblance to the theatricals at Steventon in 1787 in which Eliza took a leading role. People have assumed Austen enjoyed the theatrics at Steventon in 1787 in which Eliza took the leading gay lady role; but we don't know that. Maybe like Fanny she was silent and said nothing, but she was not unobservant (as Fanny says in one of her explanations of her rejection of Henry Crawford's proposal) of the pain that some people's sexual interplays and flirtations were inflicting on others. In MP this story of a cover-up for sexual interplays may stem precisely from Austen having watched both brothers (James as well as Henry) flirt intensely with the gay widow while other around them had to pretend not to see while they suffered in silence too. QDLeavis retells it very well in her Scrutiny, X (1941), 120-1; she has a theory she can't prove (that MP is a development from Lady Susan), but her point that autobiographical material is important when it illuminates and explains what has seemed an overreaction on Fanny's and by extension her author's part.

Critics who tend to emphasize a rosy picture of all happiness and harmony in the Austen family, who want to take the family's estimate of themselves and of their sister at their word, and argue, partly as a result, that the novels are basically complacent about society, basically comic and light, say, how could you suppose if this in S&S or that in MP were a direct and bitter parallel that the relatives would not be aghast? Therefore it must be that there isn't a parallel. They say this in the face of "uncanny" (to use Edith's word) parallels to the contrary, thorough, detailed, and striking in some instances. The answer is they weren't aghast. That's kind of interesting. Who's sentimental? Us or them?

Several aspects of Mary Crawford's character and her story draw upon the character and life of Eliza de Feuillide, and here I'll quote the beautifully concise summary by Southam (from Literary Manuscripts, the appendix), precisely because he is hostile. Eliza (from Southam's book) reveals herself in the letters to be "witty, shrewd, calculating, flirtatious, jealous of her reputation, yet unable to preserve herself from scandal, a heartless mother, domineering with men, and glorying in their adoration, but essentially shallow in her feelings." This is quite a condemnation and I wouldn't say, as Southam implies here, that Eliza was as bad as this without some real merits too; this is to turn Eliza into a caricature; and certainly one wouldn't want to say either Mary Crawford or Lady Susan is a portrait of Eliza. But they partake of her character, and especially parts of her character that we find condemned in MP & Lady Susan, even to the point (again I take this from Southam as he is a hostile witness) of

"After considering the financial and social prospects of several matches she married Henry in December 17987, having first overcome his wish to enter the church (which he did in 1816, three years after her death).

As I say Southam is a hostile witness; he writes of the argument that one source of the inspiration for Lady Susan was Eliza that

"Are we to suppose that Cassandra, who took possession of her sister's litrary effects in 1817, would allow such a damaging account of Henry's intimate affairs to remain in existence? Would Henry permit such a portrait of his wife to pass around the family"

To which I boldly answer, Yes. Everyday of our lives we see people fail to recognize truths about themselves when they are disguised, especially if these truths are unpleasant. Edward Austen Knight could not have seen himself in John Dashwood either, but the parallel is clear.

Southam himself quotes a letter from Eliza talking in the third person about herself to her her cousin, Philadelphia, excusing herself for hurting Henry (Austen's brother):

"For my own part I think this young man [Henry] ill-used but the lady [herself, Eliza] is so well pleased with her present situation that she cnanot find in her heart to change it, and says in hergiddy way that independence and the homage of half a dozen are preferable to subjection and the attachment of a single individual. I am more & more convinced that she is not at all calculated for sober matrimony..."

Maybe Henry was not as bothered about this truth to human nature as Southam is; maybe he didn't make the connection--he wasn't scouring the letters for such connections at all; maybe he & his brothers and sisters-in-law and the rest of the Austens preferred to concentrate on those aspects of Mary Crawford or Lady Susan which are not like Eliza de Feuillide, as critics sometimes concentrate on the many aspects of Austen's brother's generosity which are most unlike the complete lack of any help given the Dashwood girls by their stepbrother and his wife. The brothers did put together (according to Chapman) some 460 pounds a year. Maybe Henry was more amibivalent about his wife than he let on in public. Are not we all?

The intensity and power of that the famous seceond chapter in _S&S_ comes from memory as well as imagination. And one common sense and obvious (but which critic likes the obvious--for who would pay him?) explanation for the intensity with which the whole phase of MP which concerns the apparent play-acting of Henry Crawford with Maria Bertram and Mary Crawford with Edmund may be that it stems from vivid memories. Memory is underrated in discussions of literarature.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 10 January 2003