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Monday, August 19, 2013

The Regency Interpreter: Mansfield Park, part 1

Ever struggled with understanding Austen's writing or the world she writes about? Especially the upper-crusty world of Mansfield Park? Have no fear - enter the Regency Interpreter (aka Maria Grace) to the rescue!

The Regency Interpreter on Mansfield Park

When I watch Jane Austen adaptations with my family or friends I usually spend a lot of time commenting on Regency era history and customs to help explain what is going on with the story. There are so much that we miss Since many people find Mansfield Park such a challenging piece, I thought it might be fun to sit down and watch a recent adaptation of Mansfield Park to go along with the group read.

This first episode starts with a very young Fanny Price going to Mansfield Park. In this era, there were no formal adoption laws in England. Families with many children often
sent children to better-off relatives. In some cases, like that of Jane Austen’s brother, those relatives, if childless could adopt that child and make him heir to the fortune.

 In Fanny’s case, an heir was not needed. Fanny was styled as a companion for her Aunt Bertram who would doubtless lose the company of her daughters when they married.

Her place in the family was clearly that of the poor relation. She was clearly above the servants, but not equal to the daughters of the house. The quality of her gown, in darker colors, rougher fabrics and less stylish cuts make her position clear. Light colors, especially white, and fine, difficult to clean fabrics like silks were the mark of wealth and station which Fanny does not enjoy.

Slightly later in the episode, Sir Walter expresses concerns about their interests in the West Indies. Since the 17th century, wealthy English families invested in plantations in the West Indies and shipped crops back to England to sell. Such plantations provided 80% of England’s imported goods. Sugars, rum, cotton, cocoa, coffee, mahogany, and tobacco were the biggest export goods. High demand and high taxes on these goods fostered a strong black market . Smuggling, piracy and slave troubles often plagued these interests, so Sir Walter probably went to deal with one of those.

In Sir Walter’s absence, Aunt Norris’s role becomes even clearer. While Aunt Bertram should be taking on the role of mistress of the estate, running household matters, and caring for the local poor, her more active sister has taken on many of those responsibilities. Her statement about positioning herself to receive news of Sir Walter’s possible demise first reveals that she is reading the mail before Lady Bertram gets it. In the era, one did not read someone else’s letters, so for her to be doing so suggests a great deal of brashness and even impropriety on her part. It also reveals the  passivity of both her sister and Sir Thomas who both tolerate her intrusions into the household.

One thing Aunt Norris has not been trusted with is Maria’s wedding to Rushworth, which has to be put off until Sir Walter’s return.  In the Regency era, engagements were swift affairs with weddings often following in less that six weeks. Long engagements were frowned upon and Sir Thomas's insistence on an extended engagement is notable.

Mr. Rushworth is richer than Mr. Darcy, with twelve thousand pounds a year. He has little else to recommend him, though.

Henry and Mary Crawford are much more appealing with their stylish dress and manners. Their opinions about marriage reflect common opinion that matrimony really was a business transaction in which one tried to gain the upper hand. Although ideas of love and romance are starting to take hold in the Regency, among the upper classes, marriage as still about wealth, connections and position.

Mary Crawford's insistence that money should be able to purchase anything further illustrates this opinion as well as a terrible ignorance of the realities of country life. Even so, Mary is clearly ready to apply all she has to the process of catching an eligible match. Her gown is scandalously low cut for day wear and is clearly designed to catch the eye of an eligible son. Low cut gowns were the norm for evening, but proper ladies did not bare so much for daytime calls.

Join me soon  for episodes 2 and 3 of Mansfield Park!

by Maria Grace

Read more of the Regency Interpreter at Austen Authors
Visit her website: Random Bits of Fascination

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  1. This is very helpful, and I'm looking forward to the other two parts of your series.

    It seems to me that Mrs Norris thought she deserved to be mistress of an estate, so I wonder why she "settled" for a humble parson.

    I've read that JA's sister, Cassandra, and other family members wanted Fanny to marry Henry Crawford. Can you imagine the discussions the sisters must have had!

    Thank you for posting this, Maria Grace.

  2. Thank you for talking us through Mansfield Park, Maria. I think your point about Fanny being intended as Mrs. Bertram's companion is an important one. It firmly positions her within the household in a particular role.

  3. Those comments are very helpful, Maria. I missed much of that just in my own viewing.

  4. I thought that initially Fanny was to be a companion for her Aunt Norris after her husband had died, to help Aunt Norris with her duties


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