Lovers Vows: Nabokov, Wollstonecraft, & A Recent Feminist Reading

I have wanted to respond to Elvira Casal's citation of a passage from Nabokov which shows that for him (as with some other male critics) what he conceives of as his comfortable maleness doesn't fit into Austen's novels. Since it's a while since Elvira posted on Nabokov, I'll remind everyone Nabokov talks of Austen's fictions as a "collection of eggshells," as "porcelain" and he refers to people who are devoted "to Jane" as having "ivy-clad lives." It's interesting to mention the same kinds of complaints are sometimes hurled at some male novelists, Henry James being a case in point. H. G. Wells find them not rough and manly enough.

Still unlike Wells--or Twain and Amis on Austen--Nabokov can enter imaginately into Austen's world, and some of the best passages in his lectures concern the sequence of chapters at Sotherton (which I already quoted a while back) and the sequence of chapters showing the characters rehearsing and preparing for a performance of Lovers Vows. In an earlier posting I showed how the play's characters cunningly expose the inner lives of Austen's own characters and shadow forth their eventual fates. Nabokov too is caught up by "the distribution of the parts," though he writes more about the quarrels and miseries that ensue over who gets which part. Reading his exegesis I thought of another curious parallel: Julia opts out. This opting out is mirrored at the close of the novel when she is partly saved from an utter debacle_ in London by going to live with further cousins. Of course now during the play-acting and late in the novel Julia could have helped Maria, prevented her from falling into bitterness and then calamity. She is indifferent. She is not her sister's keeper, she.

I also thought Nabokov was onto something when he discussed the final partial performance of this doomed play: when Sir Thomas Bertram and Mr Yates in the part of another heavy father, the Baron Waldeheim meet on the dias made in the billiard room. Nabokov is very alive to the comedy and theatricality of the scene. Nabokov's discussion also implies that the reason readers are offended by the condemnation of the play-acting is not that the theatricality and interest of Austen's scenes in playing off the characters against their roles, in showing the characters behaving in extravagant and exaggerated ways appeals to us. We don't care about the real emotions that are being stirred in Austen's characters but about the scenes which are so piquant with curiously ravaged and uneasy emotions of all sorts. It's a release all right.

There is another interpretation of Lovers Vows which I'd also like to call attention to: Margaret Kirkham devotes a separate chapter to Kotzebue and Inchbald and Lovers Vows in their own rights in her recent Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction. She offers another take on why the play-acting of Lovers Vows is condemned in Mansfield Park. I am not sure Kirkham is not being anachronistic, but she does try to set her irritation and disgust with this play (she refers to Kotzebue's "extreme silliness") in the context of something she argues was "in the air" and influenced Austen: "Enlightenment feminism." This may be a construct of Kirkham's own mind in part (but then what criticism isn't--Austen herself in Northanger Abbeysuggests she was sceptical about the truth that one finds in so-called true histories), but I think maybe she's onto something. Kirkham writes:

"whatever later readers and critics may think of Kotzebue's sentimentalizing of innocent adulteresses, or pathetic victims of 'noble' seducers, as revolutionary and liberationist, this view is not in accord with Enlightenment feminism."

Enlightenment feminism as exemplified by Mary Wollstonecraft disdained the concept of women as helplessly sexual creatures, as emotional (Kirkham, pp 38-50, 93-98).

I have always thought of Wollstonecraft's argument as having as much root in a puritanical dislike of sex itself, but the idea that culture can reinforce in women attitudes which make them all the more men's victims through sex is one many can accept. Whether Austen could or did think this way I don't know,

But Kirkham's idea that Austen shows a strong distaste for this play and for playacting in the whole sequence in Mansfield Parkbecause it is a depressing repeat and manipulative exploitation of women's sexual vulnerability fits into the whole pattern of Austen's novels from Sense and Sensibility on. In all of them we see a determination to expose the evil latent in those novels which glamorize and make appealing the typical male seducer figure, and to substitute for this male figure a more adequate conception of a good and truly romantic man.

That this was a conscious motive in her can be seen in the fragment in Sanditon and the passage by the dense selfish male therein, Sir Edward Denham, whom Charlotte calls "downright silly" upon Clarissa (1994 Penguin ed, MDrabble, p 190).

Ellen Moody

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Update 10 January 2003