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Monday, August 26, 2013

The Regency Interpreter takes on Mansfield Park, part 3

Maria Grace, aka The Regency Interpreter, is back for part 3 of her series on Mansfield Park. If you haven't been following along, you can catch parts 1 & 2 here, and watch along with clips of the movie as Maria breaks down what's really going on. Don't forget, we'll also be live-tweeting and discussing this version of MP this Wednesday on Twitter. And while you're not-forgetting things, make sure you remember to enter to win Maria's Given Good Principles series!
But now, on to the show!

 The Regency Interpreter on Mansfield Park Part 3

Welcome back to the Regency Interpreter on Mansfield Park. Poor Fanny’s life is about to get much more complicated. Join me to get some deeper insights into why.

We begin with Fanny playing with a little girl after Maria's wedding. This is not only an endearing look at Fanny’s character, but a reminder of her status as child rather than adult. Since she has not come out in society, she is still counted among the children of the party. Thus Henry Crawford’s decision to pursue her and make her fall in love with him is a shocking incitement of his character—he is pursuing forbidden fruit so to speak, a child, not a woman. A bit creepy, no?

Fanny’s brother comes to visit. He joined the navy, probably around age 11, and must have had at least 6 years of service already, since he is longing for a promotion to lieutenant.

The navy offered greater potential for social mobility than most institutions in Regency era society. Generally only the sons of gentlemen or perhaps wealthy middle-class parents could enter the path to becoming an officer, but the way was not entirely closed to others. Once there, a man could rise through his own merit to a high position, even above those with higher origins. 

Naval service was dangerous, though, with nearly 100,000 casualties between 1793 and 1815. Battle at sea accounted for less than 10% of naval casualties. Accidents and disease accounted for 80%.

Naval wages, even for Captains were notoriously low. Prize money was the only way to wealth and came in various forms. If an enemy ship was sunk, 'Head and Gun' money (calculated by the numbers of men or guns on the enemy vessel) was awarded. Until1808, a 3/8 share went to the captain and the remainder was divided on a diminishing scale, according to rank, among the other officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, and the ordinary members of the crew. After 1808, a slight change was made to the allocation of these shares.

If they captured an enemy ship, the Admiralty was often prepared to buy it from them and resulted in higher rewards. The best payouts came if the captured ship was carrying a valuable cargo. This kind of prize money was divided up so officers received more than the ordinary crewmen.

In discussing Fanny’s birthday, Sir Thomas talks about Fanny coming out in society. He is considering raising her status considerably. After coming out she will be considered an adult, eligible for the attentions of young men and even marriageable.

Even so, the prevailing attitude toward femininity emphasized tenderness and delicacy, in particular a sensitivity to others and propriety, so it is still her duty to consider everyone else and their wishes above her own.

Her coming out will be celebrated by a picnic ‘for half the county’, a sizable gathering by any estimation, though not nearly so formal as a ball. Clearly, Sir Thomas wishes to host a nice event for his niece.

However Aunt Norris wants Fanny to remember that she does not have the natural born rank that the real daughters of Sir Thomas have and thus she should never consider herself their equal. This attitude was typical of the Regency era.

At Fanny’s picnic, the young people are playing Blindman’s Bluff. The blindfolded player had to catch another player and had three guesses to identify that person by touch alone. The game, as many popular parlor games of the era, allowed for a great deal of otherwise inappropriate contact between the genders, despite the presence of many chaperones.

Fanny learns that Henry Crawford is trying to arrange for her brother William to have a visit with Henry’s step-father, the admiral. While promotion in the navy was largely a matter of seniority and merit, the step from midshipmen to lieutenant was one of the most difficult to make. A patron could make a huge difference in attaining this all important transition. While nothing is assured, such a meeting could be the making of a young officer’s career. So, Henry’s intervention has the potential to change William’s life forever.

Fanny’s life is changing forever as well. As the guest of honor, she must open the dancing. This is a place of honor and distinction, putting her above all the other female guests at the picnic, a place she has never before occupied. Her white gown also echoes this point. Until now she has largely worn dark and grab dresses. Her white dress signifies that she has risen in status enough that servants will be available to care for such a garment.

After her coming out party, Fanny is summoned for a private interview with Henry Crawford. Typically, a private interview is only permitted for a gentleman to make a proposal of marriage to a lady. Clearly, he brings up her brother’s new promotion in the hopes of softening her heart toward what he is about to ask.

In order to become a lieutenant, a midshipmen had to serve a minimum of six years at sea. On presenting himself as a candidate for commissioning, He would also be asked to show his personal log books for the ships in which he sailed. Then he would take an examination on the topics of writing, mathematics ,astronomy, navigation, seamanship and gunnery. Not all midshipmen passed the test. In practice, some candidates were asked only token questions; others were grilled. It could depend on the mood of the Board and the severity of individual Commissioners. A patron, like Henry's step-father, could have a direct influence on the mood of the Board and Commissioners.

Many men who passed the examination were never commissioned. Midshipmen passing the examination would then have to apply for commission as a lieutenant on a specific ship. Influence of a powerful friend or family member could open the way for commissioning. Once a man made lieutenant, the prospect of further promotion, all the way up to Admiral was possible. Now that William is commissioned, his future full of possibilities.

Fanny though, is not impressed enough by this favor to agree to marry him. Her refusal of Crawford might easily be throwing away her only opportunity to be free of her dependency on her Uncle Bertram and be the mistress of her own house. It is no small thing.

Sir Thomas’s reaction is interesting in light of his earlier offer to Maria. When he suggests Fanny has not the luxury to pick and choose, he intimates that with his daughters’ dowries and connections, they have might refuse one offer with the assurance of another one coming along soon. Since Fanny does not have this option, it implies that her Uncle has not gone so far as to provide her a dowry or at least enough of one to make her a desirable match for anyone of their circles.

When Edmund returns home, he has been ordained. Though Fanny remarks on ‘The Reverend Bertram’, Edmund would only be referred to this way in letters addressed to him. He would never be referred to as Reverend in speech. 

Once appointed to a living, a clergyman's basic duties were to hold church service on Sundays and hold Holy Communion at least three times a year. Most priests took their sermons from books published for the purpose. Midweek duties included baptisms, marriages and funerals and visiting the sick.

In addition, parish meetings, at which the clergyman officiated, discussed local affairs including charity, parish employment, care of the poor, repair and maintenance of the church and election of the churchwardens. The parish was responsible for the administration of the poor laws and elected Supervisors of the Poor who collected the Poor Rate taxes from the wealthier parishioners. Road maintenance was also a responsibility of the parish and two Surveyors of Highways were appointed to supervise the maintenance and repair of the roads. Thus, the clergyman played a major role in the life of his parish community.

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
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  1. Goodness! I never thought of Fanny's child status when Henry Crawford started showing an interest. I love all the details about how naval advancement worked.

  2. Wow. I too hadn't realized that Fanny was still not "out" when Henry was interested in her, but what a nice thing for her Uncle Bertram to do. Now, did Crawford's uncle the Admiral have the ability to ruin Lt Price's future in view of Fanny's refusal of Henry?

    Thank you for enlightening us about MP!

  3. June, I think in all likelihood William would have been out at sea by the time the news of Fanny's refusal would have gotten to the Admiral. Out at sea, William would prove his own merit and by the time he returns, Henry's transgressions with Maria would be know well enough and not likely to be held against William. But that's just my guess.

  4. I didn't connect Fanny's status as not out when I have read this book - will keep this is mind next time i read it. A film about the navy that I would recommend would be Master and Commander - one of my favourite films


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