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Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Regency Interpreter takes on Mansfield Park, part 2

Author Maria Grace is back in her role as the Regency Interpreter, demystifying Mansfield Park, bit by bit! If you missed part one, you can check that out here. And make sure you stop back by later today for a chance to win Maria's complete Given Good Principles series!

The Regency Interpreter on Mansfield Park Part 2

So glad to have you back for the next several episodes of Mansfield Park.In the next several episodes, the plot thickens and our characters begin to reveal their true natures.

In the country, a primary source of exercise for a lady might be horseback riding. Sidesaddles had not yet progressed to the modern two pommel design. This is a modern side saddle.

The addition of the second pommel makes the saddle far more stable so ladies could trot, gallop and even jump. But this did not come into being until 1830. So the Regency lady would be far more limited, she did not though need to be led as Mary Crawford is. Even a minimally trained rider would be able to walk, even quickly, and use her horse as a means of independent transportation. Clearly Mary does not know how to ride despite her fancy riding dress—notice how her skirts are tangled in her feet.

 Not only can she not ride, Mary Crawford clearly does not approve of Edmund’s plans to enter the clergy. English law did not allow an estate to be broken up among several children, so younger sons had to acquire a fortune by another way. Another relative could leave them an estate or a fortune, but more often, they had to take a gentlemanly profession.

By the second half of the 1700’s traditional ‘learned’ professions: the church, the law and medicine, took on a respectable character as ‘liberal professions’ befitting gentlemen. So these, together with the armed forces formed the primary options for gentlemen’s sons. One things these professions held in common and made them appropriate for gentlemen was that vicars, barristers, physicians and army officers were not paid directly for their work. They held livings, received honorarium or were paid with the interest earned off the amount paid for their commissions, thus they did not sully their hands to earn a wage.

To be considered for ordination, a candidate needed a degree from Cambridge or Oxford. No theological colleges or courses of study existed, so a standard honors degree satisfied the requirement. Afterwards, the candidate needed a testimonial from his college vouching for his fitness for ordination. Finally, he needed to locate a bishop and make arrangements for an examination that would satisfy the bishop of his competency in Latin, knowledge of the Scripture, and familiarity with the liturgy and church doctrine as written in the 39 Articles. Some bishops made only a cursory examination in these areas, only a few took their responsibilities more seriously.

After japanning (slang for ordination referring to putting on black cloth, from the color of black japan ware) a man was qualified to administer the sacraments of the Church. His career would begin at age 23, as a deacon, assisting an ordained priest. At 24 he could be fully ordained and eligible to be in charge of a parish. Most great families had at least one living to grant, so Edmund will not have to serve as a curate under another, he will be able to move directly into the position of vicar.

When elder brother Tom comes home and starts talking about acting in a play Edmund is shocked. Professional actors were considered little above servants and actresses on the par with prostitutes.

Attitudes toward amateur theatricals were ambivalent at best. While traditional during the festive holiday season, they also required the participants to deviate from proper, restrained behavior while on stage. To make matters worse, the play in question was highly inappropriate. Lovers' Vows (1798), written by Elizabeth Inchbald, is one of at least four adaptations of August von Kotzebue's German Das Kind der Liebe (1780, "Child of Love," or "Natural Son,"). It deals with sex outside marriage and illegitimate birth and thus would be considered highly inappropriate for gently bred ladies. Between the acting and the shocking play, Edmund must conclude that his brother has sunken to new lows.

Poor Fanny is caught between a rock and a hard place. She is, in many ways;  utterly helpless in this situation. She is totally dependent on Sir Thomas’s good will for everything and must be very concerned about displeasing him. He could send her away on any whim and she would be without any support or recourse as she is not protected by any legal status. In his absence, she is dependent on her cousins and as the poor relation; she is beholden to do whatever pleases them. So, although she may be morally appalled by what is going on, she is also limited by the potentially dire practical considerations of the situation.

In the process of preparing for their theatrical, couples rehearse alone. This breaks all the bounds of propriety and is truly appalling behavior, thus Rushworth's shock and offense. Even Edmund is not above such breeches in propriety as he takes Mary Crawford's hand, something that would not be acceptable in any other setting.

When Mary Crawford asks to which gentleman she has the privilege of making love to, the meaning is quite different from what modern readers/viewer assume. She refers to paying amorous attention, not the physical sexual act.

A little later, Sir Thomas arrives home at night. With no light on the roads, night travel was difficult and dangerous. Usually nighttime travel was only attempted during a full moon. Traveling at night to get home from a trip reflects a high level of desperation to get home.

At dinner the next day, Fanny asks a question about slavery in the West Indies. Parliament passed a bill abolishing slave trade in March 1807 which came into full effect in May 1808. This is perhaps the first time we see Fanny speaking out in adult conversation.  Until a young woman 'came out' in society, usually at the age of 17, (Fanny is approaching her 18th birthday), if she sat at the family dinner table, she only spoke if spoken to and certainly did not ask such bold questions.  Perhaps it is this action which prompts Sir Thomas to begin considering her transition into adult life.

After seeing Maria with Mr. Rushworth, Sir Thomas becomes concerned for her regard for her betrothed.

After a couple well connected, mooned was betrothed, the engagement was often published in in the "Morning Post", the "Gazette" or "The Times" or all three, making it a very public event.
Breaking off an engagement constituted a serious breach of etiquette. A gentleman did not break an engagement for any reason. A lady might, but only for a very good reason. Still, it was considered shameful behavior that indicated moral unsteadiness on the part of the lady and might also impugn the character and prospects of the gentleman.

Breaking an engagement was considered so serious that legal ramifications might ensue.

So Sir Thomas’s offer to intervene on her behalf to end the engagement is a huge statement of his concern for her and the extent to which he is willing to go for her happiness. He is showing himself a very concerned father, despite being relatively easily dissuaded from his concerns.

After the wedding, Julia accompanies her sister on the wedding trip. Although this seems decidedly unromantic in our eyes, it was a very common practice and a good opportunity for Julia to travel and get out and mix in society.

After the couple leaves, we learn Edmund’s yearly income from his living as a clergyman will be 700 pounds a year. While this is a paltry sum compared to Rushworth’s 12,000 a year, it is a sizable income compared to a comfortable middle class income of 250 pounds a year. So while far from wealthy, he and his family will be comfortable.

Join me soon for the next episode The Regency Interpreter on 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. Again, the details were icing on the cake. I've seen these movies and read the book more than once, but some of the nuances were missed. Thanks so much, Maria!

  2. I love all these extra tidbits! I always learn lots of good stuff from Maria Grace. I'm always baffled at the custom of bringing a companion on your wedding trip. And that saddle looks really uncomfortable.

  3. That "Lovers' Vow" play really does sound scandalous; I had thought it was a bit of imaginary romantic fluff. Not!

    Thank you for setting me straight, Maria Grace.

  4. It's really great that you take the time to explain and help us to situate ourselves in this time and place. So many details can be overlooked by a reader the first time one reads the book, for example the explanation of the actors and actresses reputations and how it wasn't a worthy occupation of the ladies of a certain social status to be more involve in the theater scene.

  5. It is so wonderful to be able to share all these tidbits with folks who don't roll their eyes with me as I prattle on. ;)

  6. Thank you for the background information on the clergy - totally new information for me

  7. Maria, thanks for these little tidbits! I have really been learning quite a bit from your postings. The professions offered to gentlemen were especially interesting to learn about. It really helps explain why so much effort was spent chasing down wealthy women! While the means used to ensnare this wealth in Austen's novels were sometimes "dubious", it actually shows how men sometimes felt trapped too.


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