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Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Regency Interpreter takes on Mansfield Park, part 4

Well, my dears, it's time for our last visit from the Regency Interpreter. It's perfect timing, too, since we had our Mansfield movie viewing / #AIATwitChat last night; if you feel you completely missed the boat on something, allow Maria to explain it for you! (And if you were unable to participate in the movie viewing last night, the entire movie is embedded in clips throughout all of Maria's Regency Interpreter posts, so watch, catch up, and then feel free to join the conversation at any time!)

Welcome back to the last installment of our group watch of Mansfield Park, in which we will finally get to the happily ever after.

Aunt Norris offers her opinions of Fanny quite freely. It is interesting to note that Aunt Norris is the widow of the vicar who filled the living that Sir Thomas bestowed (and will to to Edmund). Vicars did not have a retirement program nor provisions for the widows. Aunt Norris is as dependent on Sir Thomas as Fanny is. It is possible that she attempts to prove her usefulness to Sir Thomas as a way of insuring her place at Mansfield Park.

While the rest of the family is away, Henry Crawford arrives to visit Fanny, but he arrives unannounced. In the era, when someone called, they presented their card at the front door to servant who attended the door. The card would be then taken to Mistress of the home who would decide if she was ‘at home’ to that person. If she was, the servant would then usher the visitor into room where the mistress was set to receive company.

Henry completely circumvents these conventions, demonstrating both his poor manners and his lack of respect for Fanny. Though his impulsiveness might appear romantic, it was the way one treated a mistress or courtesan, not a respectable lady. Henry Crawford may have feelings for Fanny, but his actions suggest that he has little intention of treating her as a respectable lady, even if she does marry him.

Henry, though is not the only one whose behavior is questionable. Tom is in New Market, drinking and gambling. Such behavior was common for privileged first sons who would never have to work for a living. Gambling debts though, could put a heavy burden on an estate. Unlike debts to merchants which could, and often were, put off indefinitely, debts of honor had to be repaid. Many merchants lost everything waiting for upper class customers to pay their bills.

This part starts with another arrival by night, again suggesting desperation behind the travel. Tom has been brought home to recover from his illness.
Hospitals, in so far as they existed, were at best a place to die, not a place to recover. The best place for the ill and injured in the day was at home, particularly a clean and well provisioned home like Mansfield Park.

While nursing was considered the task of the mistress of the home, it is interesting to note that it is Fanny who is doing the work. Lady Bertram seems to have such a delicate constitution that it is not entirely surprising to see her avoid the sickroom. But Aunt Norris, as the widow of a vicar, should have had considerable experience nursing the sick. By all rights she should have been present in the sickroom as well.

Though it seems particularly cold and unfeeling for Sir Thomas to leave when his son is in such dire condition, it was considered in the nature of men to be were strong, controlled and reserved. So his warmth toward his Fanny is particularly notable. Similarly, when Edmund and Tom remark that Fanny is to kind to quarrel, it is a remark about the prevailing attitude about the inherent ‘softness’ of female nature.

Mary Crawford’s arrival and comments about the effects of Tom’s potential demise provide a sharp contrast to this nature. Prevailing attitudes suggested that females were naturally more sensitive to right and wrong and were inherently more moral than men. This makes Mary’s mercenary nature even more disturbing and marks her as a most inappropriate woman.

The news Sir Thomas shares about Maria’s transgressions profoundly affects the entire family, particularly her unmarried siblings. After their sister’s utter moral failure, all their characters will be called into question. Eligible matches will not want association with such a family, after all, while failings such as Tom’s could be ignored, public indiscretion in a woman was never overlooked.

Here Mary and Edmund are in disagreement. Mary styles Maria's ruin as a social one. Mary's experience with society tells her that discrete affairs are often overlooked, especially if an heir has already been born. Thus, in her estimation, Maria might, with enough large parties and good dinners, be restored to some measure of society, her ruin is not complete. Edmund though does not see the issue as one of lack of discretion, but rather a moral lapse that cannot be undone.

It seems that Aunt Norris agrees more with Mary Crawford than with Edmund as she argues that Maria should not be sacrificed for Fanny’s ‘niceness’. An innocent like Fanny—assuming she is a lady of quality—should not be exposed to a morally fallen woman in her home. Aunt Norris obviously considers Fanny no lady. Interestingly, Sir Thomas now does. Once again he has elevated Fanny's position in a quiet but meaningful way.

Lady Bertram opens this episode doing fancy needlework. Nearly all women, wealthy or not, were usually found with needlework in their hands. Poorer women made and mended clothes as matter of necessity to provide for their families. More well to do women did a variety of different kinds of embroidery to decorate both garments and household items. Many would also make clothes for the poor on their estate. When visiting one another on social calls, women would bring their work baskets and stitch as they visited. In case a caller arrived without something to sew, it was customary for a lady to offer a project to work on during the call.

When Edmund visits Fanny in her room, the poor man is faced with her in a shocking state of undress. Although to the modern eye she is covered neck to toes, in the era, she is in a scandalously unclad. No wonder he cannot seem to look her in the eye.

Edmund does seem to recover tolerably well when he finally proposes to her and declares his love. At this time, is was typical for a man not to declare love for a woman until the time of his proposal to her. To declare love at another time was tantamount to a proposal.

When at last our dear couple is married, they ‘have learned a new dance’ in the words of Lady Bertram, a waltz. The dance was still relatively new in that era and still not accepted at public assemblies. But, some historical letters suggest that the dance was being done in private, as we see Edmund and Fanny doing.

Well, we have arrived at our happily ever after. I hope you have enjoyed these installments of the Regency interpreter and will join me for more at Austen Authors and at my own website.

by Maria Grace

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

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  1. And you saved the best tidbits until last for me. There were so many things that I didn't pick up on in this episode. The sickroom presence of Fanny seemed natural to me because she was young and hearty, but now I see it wasn't about that. And Henry Crawford's sudden appearance now does seem rather more weighty.

    Thanks so much for sharing, Maria! I learned so much.

  2. I just wanted to second what Sophia said, your posts have really added to my understanding of the nuances which would have been obvious to Austen's contemporaries, but which are less obvious to us!

  3. I am so glad you enjoyed the Regency Interpreter. I love all those little details ad it is a joy to get to share them!

  4. Thank you for your views - I think it is time to reintroduce the habit of women bringing their work baskets with them when visiting - especially important when visiting the in-laws


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