In Nabokov's famous lecture on Mansfield
Park, he retells the story of Inchbald's
play, Lovers Vowsbecause, he suggests,
it leads us to understand
how we are to read the characters in Austen's book
and how it sets a perspective on their activities. He
says we cannot understand fully the objection to the
playacting until we have read this play and seen the
parallels between the characters in the play and the
characters in Austen's novels.
The trouble with his essay though is that he really
doesn't work out the parallels between the characters
in Mansfield Park and those in
Lovers Vows nor the ironic juxtapostions
of their stories and the sentiments they express
with the the stories and sentiments the characters
in Mansfield Park represent. Austen
is sometimes said to be Shakespearean because
her characters are so convincingly realistic;
she is also Shakespearean in her use of a play
within a play. Austen is careful with the smallest
details of her narratives, rarely wasteful, and doesn't plant
hints for nothing in those books which are finished, it
is no surprize that much is revealed about the characters
in the novels itself. As Elvira Casal has said,
this play "plays" on what is actually going on in the novel.
First a handy cast list:
Baron Wildhaim .....Mr Yates Count Cassel.....Mr Rushworth Anhalt.....Mr Edmund Bertram Verdun the Butler (as well as Cottager & all minor male parts)....Mr Tom Bertram
Let us look at the parallels between Austen's characters and the roles they take on. Agatha Friburg is a woman who has had a child out of wedlock, and as the play opens she is wandering the streets. Miss Maria Bertram will leave her husband and risk wandering the streets. There is also for 18th century people the image of the pregnant woman. Apparently for Maria to play someone who was this way is titilating. It gives her a frisson. However at the end of the book she will find that deeper emotions are involved in sexual relationships than that of mere conquest, triumph, and owning fancy houses, and is something of a tragic figure. Well Agatha Friburg is something of a tragic figure--though the play is maudlin and sentimental and to the 20th century reader it is hard to respond to Agatha in this way.
Again in the play, Count Cassel is a loathsome stupid man who preens himself upon his sexual conquests; Baron Wildhaim was ready to coerce his daughter, Amelia Wildhaim into marrying him if she would agree, though he is willing to break it off if she does not want the man. Thus if Rushworth is too dull to express the salacious sources of his passion for Maria, Austen has suggested it in this casting. The scene between Baron Wildhaim and Amelia parallels the one between Maria and Sir Thomas though Maria tells Sir Thomas she is happy at the prospect of marrying Rushworth and is satisfied by his character. Amelia admits to the Baron she does not want to marry Cassell and is freed of him.
There is a great deal of kissing and hugging between the long-lost son, Frederick, and his mother Agatha. Curious incestuous vibes--kinky sex--is then interjected into the acting scenes between Maria and Henry Crawford. So that scene which Mary and Henry are continually performing is incestuous in a double way since Austen's characters are not mother and son, but sexual partners. Austen means us to sense an unease and the serpentine quality of Henry's advances, as well as the nature of Maria's enjoyment of them.
In the play Amelia is the witty heroine who falls in love with her tutor, her father's rector, Anhalt who has fallen in love with her. So there's a clear parallel between Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram. Here the parallel is not damaging. The definition of love and marriage is decent; it is about loyalty, trust, permanence, and affection (these are the lines Mary and Edmund speak to one another). In this case the parallel sheds a positive light on the relationship between Austen's characters. On the other hand, the the reason in the play that Anhalt's being a clergyman is not acceptable is it's not a high enough rank for Amelia--until the end of the play when the Baron relents. The love ends happily for Anhalt and Amelia because Amelia is willing to set aside status and money. The novel of course will end unhappily because Mary is never willing to set these things aside. She is willing again to look to Edmund when she hears Tom may be dying. She had been very cold to Edmund in London until then.
There is also a parallel between Anhalt and Edmund and Amelia and Fanny since Edmund has taught Fanny, shaped her into what she is, and both are in love--Fanny knowing it, Edmund not realizing the nature of his feelings for Fanny. Anhalt and Amelia can be seen as analogues to Fanny and Edmund as two people who have been tutor and student, for whom the tutor has become everything to the student, and for whom the student has become the standard, the alter ego of the tutor.
In the play Amelia is Frederick's half-sister and Amelia does visit Frederick in prison before she and he know they are half-brother and sister. He discovers it during the scene because he knows the Baron is his father. If Julia had played this scene of utter bathos with Henry Crawford (as he desired) we then would have had another sexual odd scene in which incest adds the kinky note to the actual acting. We would have had brother and sister playing in this overtly sexy way (because they don't know they are brother and sister). Julia declining to play this part is of a piece with her leaving the Rushworth home in London later. There are limits to how far she will allow her appetites to be exploited and abused. In London she will not be degraded; here at Mansfield she will not be abused by accepting the role of the secondary female in Henry Crawford's menage a trois.
The Baron was a thoughtless young man who seduced Agatha when young; he now rants a good deal. Thus we have the hollow Mr Yates.
The Butler is a tasteless type who makes verses which are meant as mockery of sentimentality. It's hard to say what is worse: the sentimentality of the verses or the so-called mockery. This is the character Tom Bertram was so keen to play.
Cottager's wife is a down-to-earth somewhat overly practical woman who can only think of basic needs. She is desperate we are to suppose, but very good. Only to happy to take Agatha in; all respect for the aristocrats who starve her and Cottager. Maybe this is a parody of Fanny? Mrs Grant does spend her time feeding her husband's belly.
Further oddies and parallels: by the casting, Mr Yates and Maria Bertram are father and mother to Henry Crawford; Mr Yates and dead wife are father and mother to Mary Crawford. Mary and Henry Crawford are then half-siblings in the play.
So when Edmund and Fanny are appalled by the choice of this play Austen expects us to understand why because she expects us to have read it. Unlike Lady Bertram or Mrs Norris who do not read it.
On a separate note I fully concur with anyone who does bother to read this play and finds it to be awful play, maudlin, sentimental, prurient. The only thing I can think to say in Elizabeth Inchbald's exoneration is she didn't write it, she only translated it. Also she needed the money, and look at what is popular in the movies today. Nabokov suggests that Lovers Vows is actually on a level with many popular movies today.