Preferred Citation: Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.

The Infection of Acting

1. The Infection of Acting

Theatricals and Theatricality in Mansfield Park

Though Mansfield Park seems the least inclusive or dialectical of Jane Austen’s novels, it has failed to produce the critical unanimity that so unambiguous a work ought to permit.[1] Despite repeated attempts to lay the groundwork for scholarly consensus,[2] this ostensibly nonironic novel continues to elicit incompatible commentaries. Paradoxically, its very dogmatism is what makes for disagreement: the question of why Austen, in championing the priggish Fanny Price, should appear to dishonor her own artistic verve, may be answered, it seems, in more than one way. Recent critics are divided between those for whom Mansfield Park is an emphatically anti-Jacobin, staunchly Christian work, and those who find in it a disguised yet all the more potent version of the feminist or anti-authoritarian message that other Austen novels develop less obliquely.[3] From this discord, one is tempted to conclude that the novel’s dogma is somehow shakier than it ought to be. This chapter seeks not to determine once and for all whether the presiding genius of Mansfield Park is Edmund Burke or Mary Wollstonecraft, but to examine the central instability within the novel itself, the instability that renders such determination impossible. I will argue that the novel is neither unequivocally conservative nor unequivocally progressive, but rather that it is governed by a conservatism so riddled with internal contradictions as to trouble the authoritarian temperament more radically than would the dialectical leniency of, say, Pride and Prejudice or Emma. To argue as much, however, will also mean showing the tenacity of that conservatism, qualifying any interpretation too eager to claim Mansfield Park as a document of humanistic amplitude.[4]

One recent call for a synthesis in Austen criticism asks us to imagine a “structure large enough to accommodate an affirmative text with a subversive subtext.”[5]Mansfield Park reveals how precarious such a structure must, by definition, be. In a novel that abounds in talk of structures—of their erection, their improvement, and their dismantlement—the most problematic structure is the makeshift “theater” set up in the billiard-room of Mansfield Park. This structure literalizes a somewhat more abstract “structure”—the episode of the theatricals, the textual locus on which so much critical attention has centered. As Jonas Barish has pointed out, “the theatricals come charged with a mysterious iniquity that challenges explanation.”[6] The “crux of the book,”[7] the theatrical episode disturbs us because we cannot see why Austen should have been so disturbed by an art form whose energies seem so similar to her own. Yet one might also say that it disturbs us even more insistently precisely because it is the crux of the book—because, that is, it has the power to become more than just a local structure, to spread perplexingly throughout the novel, just as the “theater” at Mansfield Park soon extends from the billiard-room, encompassing, of all places, Sir Thomas’s study. The episode, which occupies the last third of the first volume, is abruptly terminated by his return from Antigua: he wastes no time in eradicating all traces of the theatricals, not only ordering the sets to be torn down but going so far as to burn every copy of Lover’s Vows, the play chosen for private performance. Despite this aggressive attempt at effacement, however, and despite the destruction of the theater as place, theatricality as topic turns out to pervade the novel. In this movement from a literal structure to a more metaphorical one, we witness a process of refinement, of increasingly subtle infiltration. After describing Sir Thomas’s swift campaign of destruction, Austen informs us, slyly, that at least one remnant of the episode has escaped his ravages: Mrs. Norris has appropriated the curtain, surreptitiously removing it to her cottage, “where she happened to be particularly in want of green baize.”[8] This appropriation and transformation might stand for that adaptability which allows the theater to survive and flourish in a less conspicuous form, reaching into the most unlikely recesses of the text.

Yet if this shift from theater to theatricality suggests the triumphant expansion of a “subversive subtext,” we need to specify just what theatricality entails. As we will see, the political implications of theatricality in Mansfield Park are ineluctably ambiguous. Critics have tended to associate it with the most attractively self-dramatizing characters in the novel, Mary and Henry Crawford, thereby construing it in terms of metropolitan glamor and decadence. Theatricality has a less glittering side, however, and this variant turns out to be surprisingly consistent with the authoritarianism represented, in different ways, by Sir Thomas, Mrs. Norris, Fanny, and Edmund. Wavering between affirmative and subversive poles, the generalized, ubiquitous structure of theatricality begins to expose their relationship as one not of opposition but of almost systematic interdependence. An all-embracing theatricality would seem to threaten the very foundations of a novel whose heroine epitomizes what Tony Tanner calls “immobility,”[9] yet theatricality is in fact capable of such wide diffusion only because it has certain features that not merely conform to but even enable the novel’s overriding conservatism. The question, in other words, is not so much “What motivated Austen’s anti-theatricalism?” as “What motivated her to create the impression of anti-theatricalism?” Alien enough to give her pause yet not so alien as to resist the uses to which Austen puts it, theatricality in Mansfield Park affords the spectacle of a distinct overdetermination.

But what in the nature of theatricality allows supposedly rival ideologies to converge upon it? When Fanny Price and Henry Crawford offer their respective descriptions of the theatricals, we note the similarity of their language as much as the difference between their tones. Here is Fanny’s view of the rehearsals:

So far from being all satisfied and all enjoying, she found every body requiring something they had not, and giving occasion of discontent to the others.—Every body had a part either too long or too short;—nobody would attend as they ought, nobody would remember on which side they were to come in—nobody but the complainer would observe any directions.

Henry recalls the same experience with nostalgic relish:

“It is as a dream, a pleasant dream!” he exclaimed, breaking forth again after a few minutes musing. “I shall always look back on our theatricals with exquisite pleasure. There was such an interest, such an animation, such a spirit diffused! Every body felt it. We were all alive. There was enjoyment, hope, solicitude, bustle, for every hour of the day. Always some little objection, some little doubt, some little anxiety to be got over. I never was happier.”

Though one response suggests the bemused omniscience of detachment while the other evokes the giddiness of absolute involvement, both Fanny and Henry characterize the theatricals in terms of “discontent” or “anxiety.” As Ruth Bernard Yeazell has written, theatricality provokes an “anxiety of boundary-confusion” that “is everywhere felt” in Mansfield Park.[10] Yet for Fanny and Henry the theater is not just an object of anxiety but the very site of anxiety, a site that crosses its own boundaries to figure the anxiety of the novel as a whole. For Mansfield Park, however much it may favor repose, is, as Yeazell notes, certainly one of the most anxious novels ever written.[11] Anxiety may be the condition of all narratives, but here, in its generality as “a spirit diffused,” it seems especially acute. Indeed, Fanny’s composure is merely superficial, a defensive fiction: Austen tells us that, during the rehearsals, “her mind had never been farther from peace” (p. 180), that she is agitated by “many uncomfortable, anxious, apprehensive feelings” (p. 186), that she observes the preparations in a baffled state of “longing and dreading” (p. 187). Fanny is anxious about the theater precisely because she knows that it is less a structure toward which one can locate a safely external position than the fluctuating space in which all positions find their tenuous footing. A Henry Crawford may thrive within this milieu while a Fanny Price may inhabit it more unhappily, but neither the libertine nor the evangelical moralist can choose to function outside of it. In Mansfield Park, the theater, or the theatricality by virtue of which it disperses itself and colonizes the rest of the novel, becomes virtually synonymous with the inescapable context of all social existence and all political postures. Resembling Henry Crawford in abhorring “any thing like a permanence of abode” (p. 74), theatricality turns up where one least expects it—even in the innermost meditations of the self-effacing Fanny. Discussions of the theatricals have not stressed sufficiently their privateness: Mansfield Park is about the incursion of public values upon private experience, about the theatricality of everyday life, in which to say, with Fanny, “No, indeed, I cannot act” (p. 168), is already to perform, whether one wants to or not.

Like Fanny’s anti-theatricalism, then, Austen’s begins to emerge as a futile protest against the theatrical imperative—futile in large part because it is disingenuous, given the extent to which the political order of Mansfield Park depends upon a certain theatricality. Actual theaters may be circumscribed places that one can have demolished, but in its most generalized form theatricality, like Flaubert’s divine artist, is present everywhere though visible nowhere. If this invisibility induces paranoia in the Tory mind, it also makes possible a more efficient policing of the social practices by which authority sustains itself. Austen, moreover, is not alone in recording this ambiguity. Mansfield Park, which was published in 1814, figures in a broader cultural discourse about theatricality, a discourse shaped by authors whose differences appear even more irreconcilable than those between Fanny Price and Henry Crawford. Like Fanny and Henry, however, these real-life conservatives and progressives exhibit a striking kinship when they engage the problem of theatricality, which seems to inspire not only a number of tellingly recurrent images but also a certain rhetorical oscillation in writings otherwise divided along lines of political allegiance. By looking briefly at a few of these writings, we may arrive at a more precise sense of what theatricality meant in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century England, of how it tended to comprehend those who would comprehend it, and of how Austen’s novel both reproduces and illuminates this predicament.

Our first two authors are evangelical ideologues whose wariness vis-à-vis the theater almost goes without saying. But here, as in Mansfield Park, the concern is less with the theater as an institution than with the possibility that the theater might have overstepped its institutional limits and invaded private life, establishing in private theatricals the symbol of an irreversible contamination. Indeed, in its recourse to metaphors of infection, Thomas Gisborne’s Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797) anticipates Austen’s insight into the theater’s refusal to stay within bounds. Gisborne identifies the ills of the modern stage, warning, “He knows little of human nature, who thinks that the youthful mind will be secured from the infecting influence of a vicious character, adorned with polished manners, wit, fortitude, and generosity, by a frigid moral, delivered at the conclusion, or to be deduced from the events of the drama.”[12] Gisborne’s slightly disorienting syntax already indicates an uncertainty characteristic of contemporary discussions of theatricality, for it is not at first clear whether the vicious character will infect the youthful mind because such a mind is adorned with polished manners and the like, or whether it will infect that mind even though it is so adorned. On closer inspection, it turns out that Gisborne intends the former; in theatrical discourse as a whole, the polish that would serve as an antidote to poison often becomes indistinguishable from the poison itself. Metaphors of infection lead almost irresistibly to metaphors of seduction. As Tom Bertram, trying to justify the theatrical scheme to his father, says, the “infection” of acting “spread as those things always spread you know” (p. 200). But Gisborne’s language, somewhat less vague than Tom’s, suggests that “those things always spread” because the poison may beguile us into mistaking it for the cure.[13] Austen, after all, refers to acting not only as an “infection” but also as a “charm” (p. 154), and what “spreads” is nothing other than a play about seduction.

Gisborne uncovers the logic of this mixed metaphor when he explains why young women are particularly susceptible to the enchantments of playacting:

A propensity to imitation is natural to the human mind, and is attended with various effects highly favourable to human happiness.…This propensity shows itself with especial strength in the female sex. Providence, designing from the beginning that the manner of life to be adopted by women should in many respects ultimately depend, not so much on their own deliberate choice, as on the interest and convenience of the parent, of the husband, or of some other connection, has implanted in them a remarkable tendency to conform to the wishes and examples of those for whom they feel a warmth of regard, and even of all those with whom they are in familiar habits of intercourse.…As the mind, in obeying the impulse of this principle, no less than in following any other of its native or acquired tendencies, is capable of being ensnared into errors and excesses; the season of youth, the season when the principle itself is in its greatest strength, and when it has yet derived few lessons from reflection and experience, is the time when error and excesses are most to be apprehended.[14]

Young women are even more liable to corruption than young men, since the very thing that keeps them healthy—their unusually strong “propensity to imitation”—can easily make them ill. Acting, whose essence is imitation, seduces by diminishing the distance between negative and positive terms—between poison and cure, sickness and health. Properly controlled, of course, the latent theatricality of the female sex, “implanted” in women by “Providence,” can have a salutary effect, ensuring that they will “conform to the wishes and examples” of their (male) superiors. Yet at what point does the very act of “obeying” turn into its opposite, with the result that these no longer merely latent actresses are “ensnared into errors and excesses”? What is required, obviously, is a vigilant patrolling of the border between “good” acting and “bad” acting. Acting, however, in addition to blurring the lines between sickness and health, or between poison and cure, frustrates the attempt to define—let alone to patrol—the border between the safely domestic and the menacingly foreign, between the private and the public, between the inside and the outside. For no sooner has Gisborne asserted that Providence has implanted the “principle” of imitation in the female sex than he appears unsure whether this principle is “native or acquired.” It may seem uncharitable to read vacillation into what is perhaps nothing more than a pseudophilosophical aside, yet this minor rhetorical fluttering hints at the boundary-confusion that becomes a leitmotif of the literature on theatricality.

We encounter this theme again in another tract directed at saving young women from themselves. In Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), Hannah More animadverts more harshly than Gisborne on the theatricalization of private life. Where Gisborne sees theatricality as a merely potential danger—as the aggravation of otherwise healthy “tendencies”—More describes it as a disease in its advanced stages, at least “among women of rank and fortune”: “If the life of a young lady, formerly, too much resembled the life of a confectioner, it now too much resembles that of an actress; the morning is all rehearsal, and the evening is all performance.”[15] More blames this vitiating penetration of the public into the private on a more specific form of crosscultural trespass: the “modern apostles of infidelity and immorality,” among whom she must number Elizabeth Inchbald, the translator and adapter of August von Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows, have strengthened their attacks on female virtue by enlisting the subversive services of German literature. Yet what might strike others as grounds for clemency invites More’s sharpest censure: “In many of these translations, certain stronger passages, which, though well received in Germany, would have excited disgust in England, are wholly omitted, in order that the mind may be more certainly, though more slowly, prepared for the full effect of the same poison to be administered in a stronger degree at another period.”[16]

In the preface to her translation of Lovers’ Vows, Inchbald defends her omissions and modifications by appealing to her own theatrical savvy, to her sense of what will play in Germany but not in England.[17] According to More, however, such changes are designed precisely to undermine rather than recognize the differences between the two nationalities. As in so much right-wing literature of the period, the poison of theatricality is inseparable from the poison of foreignness—specifically, of the revolutionary doctrines threatening to spread to England from the continent.[18] Theatricality destroys the body politic by destroying that body’s immune system, which, like all such systems, consists in the ability to distinguish between the native and the foreign, between self and other. The most insidious translation is that which seems so reassuringly familiar as to prevent us from identifying and repelling the alien substance. Here, the poison owes its seductive power not to its polished exterior but to its deceptive folksiness: the Unheimliche, or unsettling, masquerades as the Heimliche, or cozy. Interestingly, one of the ways in which Jane Austen signals the gravity of the theatrical infection is by having Edmund say of the Grants, through whom Mary and Henry Crawford were introduced into the Bertram family circle, “They seem to belong to us—they seem to be part of ourselves” (p. 211). If even the normally watchful Edmund has trouble distinguishing between insiders and outsiders, then the immune system of Mansfield Park has clearly broken down.

Against such calamities, More counsels a renewed alertness. But if her tone seems particularly melodramatic—apparent improvements in the translation serve in fact to poison the mind “more certainly, though more slowly”—then some of this straining to equate less with more and better with worse may indicate that she herself has become a victim of what she would contain. For her rhetoric of suspicion rests upon a logic of paradox, whereby quantitative differences disappear and everything ends up as its opposite. Is not this inability to differentiate one of the primary symptoms of the theatrical disease? Indeed, even as More rails against the tendency of upper-class young women to resemble actresses, her own prose draws heavily on theatrical metaphors, referring repeatedly, for example, to the duties that a young Christian woman must “perform.” It is worth noting that, earlier in her career, More had been a playwright, a friend and ardent admirer of Garrick, and a member in good standing of the London theatrical community; regardless of her present sympathies, her writing bears the marks of this past.[19] Yet where Gisborne might distinguish between moral and immoral performance, More’s new militancy excludes this possibility, as if to cover the traces of its own infection. Once again, the attempt to situate oneself outside the anxious world of playacting merely produces more anxiety, more evidence of one’s inextricable implication in that world.

Gisborne seems more inclined to acknowledge what More prefers to repress—namely, that all social experience presupposes some degree of theatricality. But, as we have seen, to acknowledge the contagion is not to escape its effects: in its own, admittedly milder, discrepancies, Gisborne’s language joins More’s in illustrating the plight of an authoritarianism compelled to come into contact with forces it would rather regulate or pronounce upon from a distance. The awkward position of these two evangelical conduct-book writers recalls that of Edmund Bertram, who, in order to halt the spread of the theatricals, has to plunge into their midst, playing the highly compromising role of Mary Crawford’s lover in the Mansfield production of Kotzebue’s play. Yet if Gisborne and More exemplify the difficulties of a certain conservatism in coping with theatricality, we would expect a liberal and more sophisticated writer to approach the subject with something like urbane equanimity. This attitude does in fact characterize William Hazlitt’s essay, “On Actors and Acting” (1817), a shrewd and lively rejoinder to the enemies of the stage. Oddly enough, though, Hazlitt’s defense shows some of the same instabilities that we have noticed in the language of the detractors.

Where Gisborne and More accuse the theater—or at least the theater in its present form—of encouraging immorality, Hazlitt recommends it as the “best teacher of morals” because the “truest and most intelligible picture of life.” Matters become more complicated, however, when he proceeds to explain how theatrical mimesis effects this moral education: “It points out the selfish and depraved to our detestation; the amiable and generous to our admiration; and if it clothes the more seductive vices with the borrowed graces of wit and fancy, even these graces operate as a diversion to the coarser poison of experience and bad example, and often prevent or carry off the infection by inoculating the mind with a certain taste and elegance.”[20] As in the previous texts, seduction and infection seem to invoke each other almost automatically, but here their relationship is more intricate. If, for Hazlitt, polish is not the poison but indeed the antidote, these “borrowed graces of wit and fancy” participate in what looks like a homeopathic program. For, as Gisborne and More would remind us, wit and fancy, or the “taste and elegance” with which they “inoculate” the mind, may become seductive vices in their own right. Hazlitt appears to share this view, insofar as he contrasts the theatrical graces with the “coarser poison” of vices not wearing this borrowed “clothing.”

Yet the mixed metaphor itself may signal a deeper trouble. Though Hazlitt began by affirming the morally instructive properties of mimesis, the process he is now describing has to do neither with mimesis nor with instruction, but with a kind of seduction of the mind itself. Adorning rather than imitating reality, wit and fancy “prevent or carry off the infection” of the mind by seductive vices by seducing it toward other, less coarse ones. Not only is the mind seduced: it is also reduced, demoted to the role of a passive object that can only submit to being “diverted” toward the lesser of two evils. By way of arguing for the salutary influence of the theater, Hazlitt resorts to the somewhat disconcerting image of the playgoer as patient, and in so doing comes surprisingly close to Gisborne’s ideology of social control, with its notion of latent theatricality as the basis of female “conformity.” Of course Hazlitt’s politics permit him to speak in less sinister terms: when he says of actors, “The height of their ambition is to be beside themselves,[21] he celebrates the freedom of the “improvised self,”[22] the Protean exuberance of a Henry Crawford. Alongside this overall humanism, however, Hazlitt’s apparent endorsement of theatricality as a means of manipulation becomes all the more significant, for it testifies to the readiness with which theatrical forms lend themselves to disciplinary purposes.[23]

Perhaps the congestion of Hazlitt’s language symptomatizes uneasiness in the face of inconsistency, or perhaps the clutter was designed as a “diversion,” at once an alternative to and a distraction from this inconsistency. In either case, though, Hazlitt’s unstable rhetoric reveals yet another peculiarity of the theatrical discourse to which Mansfield Park contributes. Where Gisborne and More worried that the theater might encroach upon everyday life, Hazlitt’s tergiversations point to the difficulty of keeping everyday life from encroaching upon the theater. It is not that Hazlitt rejects representation: as we have seen, he bases—or tries to base—his defense of the theater on a plea for its mimetic value. Yet in order to sustain one’s view of the theater as an “epitome, a bettered likeness of the world,”[24] one has to bar from this idealized enclosure the more cynical calculations that too often prevail in everyday life; such cynicism may accord with pragmatic schemes of social regulation, but it hardly becomes a large-spirited humanism. The theater can be a bettered likeness of the world only by remaining free from ideological complicities with that world, complicities that would jeopardize its ability to imitate and to instruct. In explaining how the theater operates as a guardian against moral infection, however, Hazlitt opens it to just this kind of ideological infection. Moreover, if the theater starts to look a little more like the world, the world starts to look a little more like the theater; as the different poisons play upon the mind, it becomes hard to tell where reality ends and art begins.

Together, Gisborne, More, and Hazlitt delineate the landscape of dis-ease in which Mansfield Park takes place. To situate the novel in this context, though, is not necessarily to arrive at a clearer understanding of what Jane Austen really thought about the theater. Much of the criticism of Mansfield Park tries to solve the mystery of the author’s intention, but the point of the preceding survey is that theatricality wreaks havoc on intentions. Whether they stand on the left or on the right, authors who set out to elucidate the problem soon find themselves baffled by unexpected complexities. Hazlitt undertakes to offer a liberal paean to actors and acting, and yet cannot help being pulled in the direction of authoritarianism. Contrary to our assumptions about the lawlessness of theatricality, the subject seems to impose an almost inexorable rightward drift.[25] Yet, contrary to what we might assume about drifts to the right, the texts of our evangelical authors betray a remarkable restlessness. Calling for an attentive monitoring of the theatrical impulse, Gisborne succeeds in showing why such monitoring may be impracticable. More, for her part, continues the sermon against theatricality as the enemy within, unwittingly providing evidence of the lengths to which a discourse will go in concealing the signs of its own occupation. As a novel about theatricality, Mansfield Park dramatizes both the conservative appropriation of theatrical forms and the way these forms endanger the very interests that appropriate them, threatening to turn the captors into captives.

Just how does conservatism appropriate theatricality? Following Hazlitt, we might see a certain homeopathic logic at work in the novel. The patriarchal authority who “keeps every body in their places” (p. 182), Sir Thomas embodies a cunningly manipulative authority, one that will not hesitate, for example, to exile Fanny to Portsmouth in the name of a “medicinal project upon [her] understanding, which he must consider as at present diseased” (p. 363). Though the theatrical scheme suggests a flouting of his authority, since it is conceived and begun during his absence and in spite of the likelihood of his disapproval, the theatricals may function quite differently, as a kind of medicinal project upon Mansfield Park itself, which a conscientious authority must also consider as diseased. For even before the Crawfords arrive, Mansfield Park suffers from an overdose of theatricality. Indeed, the regime in question seems more like a parody of authority than like authority in the strict sense. Sir Thomas has delegated too much power to the officious Mrs. Norris, who, with her “love of directing” (p. 45), views the household as a showcase for her own talents of management and domestic economy. Small wonder that she becomes such an energetic sponsor and supervisor of the theatricals. She has already assisted in the education, or miseducation, of Sir Thomas’s daughters, Maria and Julia, who typify the sort of “accomplished” young women about whom Hannah More complains:

The Miss Bertrams were now fully established among the belles of the neighbourhood; and as they joined to beauty and brilliant acquirements, a manner naturally easy, and carefully formed to general civility and obligingness, they possessed its favour as well as its admiration. Their vanity was in such good order, that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs; while the praises attending such behaviour, secured, and brought round by their aunt, served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults.

Actresses in everything but the title, Maria and Julia manifest their illness by concealing it. Just as, for Mrs. More, the poison of sub versive ideas works most effectively when introduced under a familiar disguise, so the height of vanity is to “seem quite free from it,” and the perfection of theatrical artifice is an apparent artlessness.

Given this state of affairs, why not attempt to cure like with like, “treating” theatricality itself with doses of more theatricality?[26] Obviously, Sir Thomas has nothing to do with the theatrical scheme. I am not intimating that he masterminds and controls it in some implausibly subterranean way. Yet, as the major authority within the book, he may well represent the authority behind the book—namely, Jane Austen herself. As he states at the outset, it is his duty to “authorize” (p. 47) various practices and relationships at Mansfield Park, and this responsibility echoes a more fundamental author-izing.[27] Perhaps Austen not only authors but also authorizes the theatrical episode, working out in terms of narrative structure a medicinal project or experiment upon the diseased body politic of Mansfield Park and, by extension, of the English gentry as a whole.[28] The injection of the Crawfords—and, to a lesser extent, of Mr. Yates—would serve to shock the system of Mansfield Park into protecting itself against such intruders. The infection that they bring would have the theatricals as its most alarming symptom, but this attack would culminate in a return to health. Indeed, the episode does seem to have some of the desired effect, for it ends with the banishment of Yates, the retreat of the Crawfords, and the departure of Maria and Julia, and initiates both the rise of Fanny and the fall of Mrs. Norris.

The only trouble with this scheme is that it scants the considerable distance between the end of the theatrical episode and the end of the novel itself: two whole volumes stand between the ostensible purgation and the complete recovery of Mansfield Park from the evils that have plagued it. However daring the homeopathic experiment, the disease lingers. For the Crawfords are only temporarily repelled by Sir Thomas’s displeasure; their exclusion, in fact, lasts for a mere two chapters. Moreover, it is immediately after this drastic attempt at cleansing that Edmund makes his remark about how the Grants, half-sister and half-brother-in-law of the Crawfords, “seem to be part of ourselves.”[29] And instead of taking steps to resolve this familial identity crisis, Sir Thomas actually exacerbates it, trying to maneuver Fanny into marrying Henry Crawford. Sir Thomas does not seem to recognize the Crawfords as the real “daemon[s] of the piece” (p. 435), as the chief perpetrators of the “bustle and confusion of acting” (p. 205). Like Maria and Julia, whose vanity is so advanced that it conceals itself, Mary and Henry are such adroit actors that they know how to dissemble their theatrical busy-ness. As a result, they are soon readmitted, while the less skillful Mr. Yates, who “bustles” more discernibly, is cast out. Of course, Yates is not merely a scapegoat, since it was he, after all, who carried the infection of acting from Ecclesford to Mansfield in the first place. But this very sanctioning of a covert theatricality at the expense of an overt one inheres in the deeper logic of the narrative: the theatricals serve not as a homeopathic cure—although Austen might want us to view them as one—but as a “diversion,” as Hazlitt would say, from the subtler and more comprehensive theatricality that persists long after Sir Thomas has reclaimed his study.

Jane Austen diverts our attention from this theatricality so that we may not notice how indispensable a role it plays in the rehabilitation of Mansfield Park. The reason that the Crawfords, who, through metonymic slippage, “seem to belong to us,” and the bustling Mrs. Norris, who “seemed a part of” Sir Thomas (p. 450), are not expelled until the end of the novel is not that it takes so long to eliminate theatricality, but that theatricality requires this much time to, as it were, take effect. By the end of the novel, these characters have done their work so well—have “implanted” theatricality so firmly—that they themselves no longer need to remain at Mansfield: they have not so much overstayed their welcome as outlived their usefulness. A sort of sideshow, the homeopathic experiment fails because it was never intended to succeed.

Theatricality inhabits Mansfield Park before, during, and after the theatrical episode. Are there differences, though, between the theatricality of the Miss Bertrams and the theatricality of the Crawfords, or between the theatricality of the Crawfords and the theatricality of Fanny? We may begin to answer this question by suggesting that, where Fanny’s cousins embody a dangerously centrifugal sociability, Fanny installs a steadfast and almost inaccessible inwardness at the other end of the narrative continuum. Mary and Henry Crawford do not so much stand between these two extremes as upset the very dichotomy on which this model is predicated. Mary, for example, is the subject of numerous tortured conversations between Fanny and Edmund, in which they struggle to decide whether her apparent irreverence indicates some profound flaw in her nature or merely the unfortunate effect of the company she keeps. We can understand Fanny and Edmund’s perplexity: on the one hand, Mary displays what looks like genuine warmth and affection for others; on the other hand, Austen often emphasizes the enormous amount of technique that underlies this display, as when, at Fanny’s coming-out party, Mary takes great pains to tell everyone what (she thinks) he or she wants to hear. In her artful artlessness, she puts even Maria and Julia to shame, seducing not only Edmund but many a suspicious, if not cantankerous, critic as well.[30]

Yet her brother is an even better actor, in whom play and seriousness are inseparably intertwined. Thus Fanny, whose mind tolerates only either/or distinctions, is at a loss to interpret his amorous behavior toward her:

How could she have excited serious attachment in a man, who had seen so many, and been admired by so many, and flirted with so many, infinitely her superiors—who seemed so little open to serious impressions, even where pains had been taken to please him—who thought so slightly, so carelessly, so unfeelingly on all such points—who was every thing to every body, and seemed to find no one essential to him?…Every thing might be possible rather than serious attachment or serious approbation of it toward her. She had quite convinced herself of this before Sir Thomas and Mr. Crawford joined them. The difficulty was in maintaining the conviction quite so absolutely after Mr. Crawford was in the room; for once or twice a look seemed forced on her which she did not know how to class among the common meaning; in any other man at least, she would have said that it meant something very earnest, very pointed. But she still tried to believe it no more than what he might often have expressed towards her cousins or fifty other women.

An inveterate player of roles—a man who is “every thing to every body”—Henry seems incapable of meaning what he says. How could such semiotic promiscuity coexist with the “seriousness” that Fanny keeps invoking? And yet Crawford presents the anomaly of one who not only combines role-playing with sincerity but reveals sincerity as an effect of role-playing. Fanny is bewildered by Crawford because she assumes that, if one is not serious, then one must be acting, manipulating conventions rather than speaking from the heart.[31] Austen’s style indirect libre, however, discloses more than Fanny’s consciousness can contain: words and deeds that one can “class among the common meaning” or insert into a conventional slot are not those that lack sincerity but those that convey it. Though he seems to personify an illicit deviation from the norm of seriousness into the no-man’s-land of artifice and conventionality, Henry in fact exposes seriousness as a product of artifice and conventionality. He is the exception that infects the rule.

What is infectious in Henry, moreover, is not the unmanageable indeterminacy that Fanny sees in him, but something surprisingly close to the ideals of hierarchy and propriety that we associate with a character like Sir Thomas. For although Henry enters the novel trailing clouds of undecidability—as befits one whom Leo Bersani calls an “ontological floater”[32]—the aim of the authoritarian appropriation of theatricality is to demystify it, to shift its focus from glamorous excess to a more pedestrian trading in certain codified procedures. Where before there was the prospect of reckless, infinite self-invention, now we find an almost mechanical shuffling and reshuffling of a limited repertory of tricks of the trade. Once the more or less spectacular attack of the theatricals has subsided, the novel can address itself to the task of domesticating the theatrical Crawfords—not, as More would have it, in order more certainly, though more slowly, to subvert Mansfield Park, but in order to rob them of their subversive power. By the end of the novel, potentially subversive impulses—which Austen groups under the heading of the “itch for acting” (p. 147)—will have been converted into props of authority.

The conquest of the Crawfords is a crucial intermediate phase in the ideological conflict enacted in the novel. For if Mary and Henry emblematize at first the anarchy of the unbounded self, they magnify the objectionable theatricality of Maria and Julia, who, as Sir Thomas finally admits, “had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers” (p. 448). The triumph of Fanny at the end of the novel symbolizes the triumph of governance over a selfhood run wild, but the demystification of Mary and Henry marks the turning point in that war. And though Fanny is appalled by the way the Crawfords reduce sincerity to a convention, she herself represents the consummation of that process. Of course, we have identified artful artlessness as the most distinctive trait of the Bertram sisters, yet their theatricality is too dispersive, too outer-directed, to comply with the novel’s centripetal ethos. The burden of the middle section of the novel is to stage the theatricalization of the self in such a way that theatricality virtually disappears into that inner space, submerged in the form of rigorously inculcated habits of mind and modes of response. Mansfield Park, that is, attempts to move backward from Gisborne’s theatrical young women, “ensnared into errors and excesses,” to the latent actresses whose “propensity to imitation,” carefully shaped and supervised, becomes the very guarantee of their virtuous “conformity.” Lending themselves to a demonstration of how the theatrical self may be redefined, the Crawfords enable this corrective movement from the theatrically extroverted Maria and Julia to the theatrically introverted Fanny.

When Henry reads aloud from Shakespeare, for example, Fanny’s involuntary absorption in the performance signifies more than just the transitory power of actor over spectator. An important lesson is being impressed upon her mind:

In Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen; Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always light, at will, on the best scene, or the best speeches of each; and whether it were dignity or pride, or tenderness or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty.—It was truly dramatic.—His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on stage with Miss Bertram.

Up until now, reading, for Fanny, has represented an escape from the public exposure implicit in acting. Whenever the eroticism of the rehearsals impinges too painfully upon her claustral sensibility, Fanny withdraws into the chill of her fireless room, where her books offer the solace of silent and purely spiritual intercourse.[33] It is not surprising that at her greatest crisis during the theatrical episode—the point at which she nearly capitulates to the company’s request that she read the part of the Cottager’s wife—Fanny can think only of returning to her room. She has, of course, been helping the others learn their lines by reading opposite them, but what is disturbing about this request is that it makes reading look all too much like a form of acting. It is one thing to rehearse with individual actors, quite another to read aloud as a member, however temporary, of the entire cast. Reading aloud points to an infection of reading proper by the very values it ought to exclude. Fanny’s desire to maintain a polarity between reading and acting manifests itself throughout the novel, since any kind of heightened attention in the rooms below—any compulsion to look at and to be looked at—merely reinstates the theatrical threat on a less obvious level. Yet Henry’s reading aloud once again undermines her cherished opposition: as Lady Bertram says, “It was really like being at a play” (p. 336). “His reading [brings] all his acting before [Fanny] again,” revealing the didactic purposiveness of both pursuits. For where, before, her retreats to the converted schoolroom that is her own apartment were a way of “shrinking again into herself” (p. 335), as if in flight from the free play of wandering libido, now she realizes that Henry’s “acting taught…what pleasure a play might give.”

His acting teaches her a more essential lesson as well—that the act of shrinking into oneself, of cultivating inwardness, has certain inevitable histrionic implications. All along, in eschewing acting, Fanny has in fact been playing a role, albeit “sincerely.” As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar point out, “Fanny silently plays the role of the angel by refusing to play.”[34] From Henry’s performance, she learns not the necessity of acting but the impossibility of not acting. Many critics have cited Henry’s remarks about the inability of most preachers to deliver an impressive sermon as a sure sign of his moral turpitude: he is actually a “bad reader” (and thus a bad person), the argument runs, because he is “not concerned with belief, only with applause or admiration.”[35] This sort of reasoning, however, may tell us more about the conduciveness of Austen’s novels to moral position-taking than about the ideological ironies that generate their moralism.[36] For Henry’s preoccupation with the “rules and trick” (p. 338) of preaching merely foregrounds the obsessive and omnipresent conventionality upon which the moral system of the entire novel depends. Whatever taint we may detect in Henry’s tendency to see theatricality in everything—even in the religious vocation that is the novel’s purported theme—turns out to color the authoritarian vision of Mansfield Park as a whole, especially as that vision is entrusted to Sir Thomas.

Indeed, if Henry’s cynicism—or, what is even worse, his conflation of cynicism and conviction—offends our moral good taste, Sir Thomas’s medicinal projects should strike us as equally exploitive. If they do not, it is only because the novel has succeeded in concealing its indebtedness to what it pretends to disown. One almost senses a collusion between Henry and Sir Thomas, for while the former would seduce Fanny into marriage, the latter expends considerable energy in encouraging this seduction. Any difference between the two male characters lies in Austen’s presentation of their strategies. In the case of Henry, she chooses to italicize, literally, his conscious use of rhetorical convention. When, for example, he tells Fanny that he has had William promoted to second lieutenant, he “used such strong expressions, was so abounding in the deepest interest, in twofold motives, in views and wishes more than could be told, that Fanny could not have remained insensible of his drift” (p. 304; Austen’s emphasis). In the case of Sir Thomas, Austen adopts a coy tone in order to cast a somewhat more benign light on the same manipulativeness. At the end of Fanny’s party, when Sir Thomas orders her, in the presence of Crawford, to go to bed—“ ‘Advise’ was his word, but it was the advice of absolute power” (p. 285)—Austen comments tellingly on the devices whereby patriarchal authority perpetuates itself: “In thus sending her away, Sir Thomas perhaps might not be thinking merely of her health. It might occur to him, that Mr. Crawford had been sitting by her long enough, or he might mean to recommend her as a wife by shewing her persuadableness” (p. 286).

Readers of Austen’s last complete novel know what an ominous ring the word “persuasion” can acquire. In “shewing her persuadableness,” Sir Thomas puts Fanny on stage, exhibiting her just as Henry exhibits himself, deploying theatrical technique as craftily as his younger collaborator. In fact, he may be even shrewder, since he is manipulating both actress (Fanny) and audience (Henry). Displaying Fanny in the role of the obedient young woman, Sir Thomas in effect concocts, for Henry’s benefit, a preview of and invitation to the marriage he seeks to bring about. With his keen sense of timing—he judges that “Mr. Crawford had been sitting by [Fanny] long enough”—and his eye for the symbolically resonant detail, Sir Thomas is the novel’s preeminent juggler of theatrical conventions. Fanny’s dramatic exit is merely the finale to an entire evening of skillfully directed moves, one that began with her “practising her steps about the drawing-room” (p. 278), looking perhaps more like one of Hannah More’s amateur actresses than like one of Gisborne’s demure mimics. The ball in her honor, conceived and staged by her uncle, constitutes her official entrance into society, the moment at which the ugly duckling steps into the spotlight to discover herself a swan. It is thus a thoroughly theatrical event, but instead of receiving the stigma that one might think it merits, it functions both as a pivotal point in the heroine’s development and as a validation of the “absolute power” by which that development has been supervised: Sir Thomas “was pleased with himself for having supplied every thing else [but Fanny’s beauty];—education and manners she owed to him” (p. 282).

Fanny, however, does not seem fully to appreciate the extent of her debt to Sir Thomas, for she of course rebels against his plan for her to marry Crawford, leading many commentators to propose that she is perhaps not so docile after all. Admittedly, her secret yet unwavering devotion to her cousin Edmund, in spite of her suitor’s relentless blandishments and her uncle’s merciless charge of ingratitude (p. 319; Austen’s emphasis), seems to adumbrate a rejection of theatrical management and a brave defense of the inviolate self. But we would do well to consider the long-range effects, as well as the immediate consequences, of this recalcitrance. Fanny’s insubordination precipitates the medicinal project according to which Sir Thomas dispatches her to the petit bourgeois chaos of Portsmouth, where she learns to esteem rather than disdain the theatricality of the Mansfield Park regime. After only a week amid the filth and anarchy of the parental abode, where “Nobody was in their right place, nothing was done as it ought to be” (p. 381), she longs for the scrupulous decorum of her uncle’s home, where his insistently watchful authority “keeps every body in their place.” If Fanny showed a regrettable tendency to disobey theatrically organized power, her exile serves as a valuable reminder of the virtues of such theatricality. Sir Thomas’s project upon her diseased understanding is a success, not because Fanny relinquishes her claim to an unassailable self, but because she realizes that that very integrity is possible only on the intensely supervised stage of Mansfield Park. Ultimately, that is, she acknowledges her debt to Sir Thomas, and to the elegant conventionality for which, and by which, he stands:

Her eagerness, her impatience, her longings to be with them, were such as to bring a line or two of Cowper’s Tirocinium for ever before her. “With what intense desire she wants her home,” was continually on her tongue, as the truest description of a yearning which she could not suppose any school-boy’s bosom to feel more keenly.

The citational mode of Fanny’s yearning is itself a token of the experiment’s success. It demonstrates that Austen’s most inward heroine is also, as many readers have observed, her most bookishly formulaic.[37] Whenever she feels the urge to dive deep into her innermost self, Fanny comes up with a handy touchstone, usually borrowed from Cowper. She is most herself when she is quoting someone else.[38]

It might be objected that theatricality is not the same thing as conventionality, that, although Fanny may think in clichés, she does not therefore acquiesce to the theatrical imperative. Yet the contention of this chapter is that, in the case of Mansfield Park, theatricality is in fact identified with conventionality to such a degree that the two terms eventually become synonymous. That theatricality-as-conventionality replaces theatricality-as-subversion reveals itself most vividly in the shift from metaphors of infection and of seduction to metaphors of debt and repayment. By the end of the novel, an omniscient authority has placed this world sufficiently under its control so that it may be said to own its subjects just as a conventional utterance or gesture owns a fixed and stable meaning. In marrying Edmund instead of Henry Crawford, Fanny indeed helps Sir Thomas to consolidate his empire and to protect his property from dispersion at the hands of outsiders. In keeping the family circle closed, she affirms repetition over difference, and legitimates Sir Thomas’s patriarchal program: “Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all” (p. 456). At last, after the disappointments arising from the “grievous mismanagement” (p. 448) of his own daughters, he sees in Fanny a handsome return on his investment: “Fanny was indeed the daughter that he wanted. His charitable kindness had been rearing a prime comfort for himself. His liberality had a rich repayment” (p. 456). “Prizing” in Fanny “more and more the sterling good of principle” (p. 455), Sir Thomas prizes as well the sterling good of principal.

Indeed, in the final chapter of the novel one has the impression that its protagonist is less Fanny than Sir Thomas himself, or the “governing body” that he represents.[39] Fanny and Edmund live happily ever after, but they do so in order to repay the authority that created them. As we have said, Sir Thomas may be viewed as an agent of Jane Austen, insofar as both appear to endorse the fortification of a conservative social order. Just here, however, where this order seems to have prevailed over the forces of subversion, authority starts to look oddly vulnerable. We would not be the first to notice a rather mechanical quality to this last chapter, which Austen begins with a perfunctory remark about her “impatien[ce] to restore every body…to tolerable comfort” (p. 446), and which she punctuates with other disquieting glimpses of the novelist ostentatiously in a hurry to tie up loose ends. When did Edmund transfer his love from Mary Crawford to Fanny?: “exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier” (p. 454). What became of the prodigal older son, Tom?: “He became what he ought to be” (p. 447). Austen takes greater trouble to describe the fates of Maria and Julia, the Crawfords, and Mrs. Norris, but her own somewhat noisy interventions are all too reminiscent of this last character’s theatrical bustle. No sooner has Sir Thomas expelled his demonic counterpart—whose “anxiety for every body’s comfort” (p. 196) mocks his own need to keep everybody in “their place”—than Mrs. Norris returns in the form of the anxious, “impatient,” comfort-oriented author herself. Not only does Mrs. Norris parody the authority of Sir Thomas; as Gilbert and Gubar have written, she is a “parodic surrogate for the author, a suitable double whose manipulations match those of Aunt Jane.”[40] In the embarrassing moment when the ordinarily discreet Jane Austen advances to the proscenium to ring down the curtain on the final scene of her drama, we witness something like a return of the repressed.

The lesson of Mansfield Park, it seems, is that subversive theatricality can only be repressed, temporarily neutralized by a concerted effort of demystification. This process can occur, however, precisely because theatricality is not a single, unitary phenomenon but an already self-divided set of practices capable of serving both reactionary and subversive causes. If it can serve both, it can betray both, offering at best a precarious purchase on whatever interpretation of reality it has been recruited to promote. Mansfield Park has been praised as a psychological study that uncovers the impurity of even the most admirable motives, yet it also performs a political analysis, yielding insight into the necessary inconsistency of any ideological position that appropriates theatricality for its own purposes. A final reference should illustrate this point. When Edmund decides that duty compels him to give up his censorious stance and join in the theatricals, he tries to persuade Fanny, and himself, that this about-face produces only the “appearance of…inconsistency” (p. 175; Austen’s emphasis). He explains that, if he does not play the romantic lead opposite Mary Crawford, someone from outside the immediate circle will. Thus he must act so that he “can be the means of restraining the publicity of the business, of limiting the exhibition, of concentrating our folly” (p. 176). And, of course, his folly is concentrated, not only in the sense of being circumscribed but also in the sense of being intensified. For in becoming an accomplice to the theatrical scheme, Edmund loses some of his status as moral paragon, incurring the disapproval of both Fanny and his father. He may genuinely wish to “limit the exhibition,” but he may also wish to exhibit his desire for and to Mary Crawford. Acting (the word itself is suggestive)[41] in what he imagines is his father’s interest, he manages at the same time to accommodate certain designs of his own, designs that may be at odds with the preservation of law and order. In Edmund’s inconsistent behavior, authority nearly subverts itself. Faced with this emergency, Jane Austen summons Sir Thomas back to Mansfield Park—so that authority may attempt, yet again, to include what could disrupt it.


1. Lionel Trilling (Sincerity and Authenticity [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971], pp. 75–80) opposes the “dialectical mode” of Austen’s other novels to the “categorical” mode of Mansfield Park.

2. See, for example, Avrom Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park: An Essay in Critical Synthesis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970) and Joel C. Weinsheimer, “Mansfield Park: Three Problems,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 29 (1974): 185–205.

3. For examples of the former view, see Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 219–49, and Gary Kelly, Reading Aloud in “Mansfield Park”Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37 (1982): 29–49. For examples of the latter view, see Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1983), pp. 93–120, and David Monaghan, Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision (London: Macmillan, 1980), pp. 93–114.

4. In other words, this chapter attempts a kind of balancing act between two influential styles of novel-reading, the first associated with certain versions of feminism and deconstruction, the second emerging from the writings of Michel Foucault. If I have tried to maintain a sense of the subversive implications of theatricality without underestimating the capacity of authority to domesticate forces that might overturn it, I have also sought to suggest power’s genius for self-preservation without promoting the monolithic view of power that often characterizes discussions of the nineteenth-century novel as a disciplinary practice.

5. David Monaghan, “Introduction: Jane Austen as a Social Novelist,” in Jane Austen in a Social Context, ed. Monaghan (London: Macmillan, 1981), p. 7.

6. Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), p. 301.

7. Sybil Rosenfeld, “Jane Austen and Private Theatricals,” Essays and Studies 15 (1962): 40.

8. Mansfield Park, ed. Tony Tanner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), p. 210. Subsequent references to the novel will be to this edition, and will be included parenthetically in the text.

9. Introduction, Mansfield Park, ed. Tony Tanner (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), p. 8.

10. Ruth Bernard Yeazell, “The Boundaries of Mansfield Park,Representations 7 (Summer 1984): 137.

11. It is remarkable how frequently the word “anxious” and its various derivatives appear in the text. I suspect that a concordance of Austen’s works would show that Mansfield Park draws more heavily than any of the other novels on the vocabulary of anxiety.

12. Thomas Gisborne, Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1797), pp. 171–72.

13. For a discussion of the identity of poison and cure, see Jacques Derrida’s remarks on the word pharmakon in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 61–181.

14. Gisborne, Enquiry, pp. 115–17.

15. Hannah More, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, 2 vols. (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1799), 1:115.

16. More, ibid., 1:42.

17. See Elizabeth Inchbald, Preface and Remarks, Lovers’ Vows: Altered from the German of Kotzebue (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1808), pp. 3–9.

18. The xenophobia of the age appears not only in the political journalism of periodicals like The Anti-Jacobin and the Porcupine and Anti-Gallican Monitor, both of which published negative reviews of Lovers’ Vows, but also in the literary theory of Wordsworth’s Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), with its denunciation of “sickly and stupid German tragedies,” which satisfy a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.” Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, rev. Ernest de Selincourt (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 735.

19. For a discussion of More’s career in the theater, see Mary Gwladys Jones, Hannah More (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), pp. 25–40.

20. “On Actors and Acting,” in Hazlitt, Essays, ed. Rosalind Vallance and John Hampden (London: Folio Society, 1964), p. 23.

21. Hazlitt, ibid., p. 22.

22. Leo Bersani, A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976), p. 76.

23. It is perhaps more than anecdotally interesting that in 1815—the year after Mansfield Park appeared—Hazlitt himself published a less than enthusiastic review of Lovers’ Vows. “The whole of this play,” he wrote, “which is of German origin, carries the romantic in sentiment and story to the extreme verge of decency as well as probability” (A View of the English Stage; or, A Series of Dramatic Criticisms, ed. W. Spencer Jackson [London: George Bell and Sons, 1906], p. 113).

24. Hazlitt, “On Actors,” p. 22.

25. In a single issue of the moderately liberal periodical The Theatrical Inquisitor 2 (May 1813), we find yet another illustration of this point. An anonymous article entitled “On the Origin and Progress of Theatrical Amusements in England” describes how the theater “became the source of an amusement classical and elegant at the same time that it was in the highest degree improving and attractive” (206). Only a few pages later, another anonymous piece fulminates about the dangers of masquerades: “a masquerade is the school of elegant instruction in all the mysteries of wantonness” (214). Admittedly, the masquerade is a minor and specialized form of theater, not a synonym for the theater in general. But the recurrence of the word “elegant” in a sardonic rather than an honorific register points to the problematic nature of the vaccine Hazlitt prescribes, and to a widespread early-nineteenth-century ambivalence about theatricality, even (or especially) among those in the protheatrical camp.

26. It is perhaps significant that the first major discoveries in homeopathic medicine took place in the late eighteenth century.

27. For a discussion of the relationship between authorship and authority as viewed by women writers, see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), pp. 3–99.

28. For a reading of the theatrical episode along these lines, see Fleishman, A Reading, pp. 24–29.

29. In “Three Problems,” Weinsheimer comments: “The Crawfords are not some extrinsic evil that ascends from London to violate the pure children of Mansfield; rather, the Crawfords’ appeal is based on tendencies latent in Edmund and in the whole Bertram family” (p. 203).

30. Marvin Mudrick, for example, defends Mary Crawford as the wronged would-be heroine of the novel, even though she is in many ways similar to Emma Woodhouse, for whom he has a distinct dislike. See Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), pp. 155–80.

31. Some of the novel’s best readers follow Fanny in endorsing the dichotomy of theatricality and sincerity, according to which Henry Crawford can only fall into the first category. For Tony Tanner (Introduction, Mansfield Park, p. 21), “he is really amusing himself by playing at being the honest devoted suitor. He is acting, albeit unconsciously.” And while Kenneth L. Moler (Jane Austen’s Art of Allusion [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968], p. 143) thinks that Henry is “consciously playing the role of the reformed rake, as he has played other roles in the past,” he and Tanner are in essential agreement when it comes to indicting Henry for representing “the external, the superficial, [and] the social” rather than “more solid and substantial values” (p. 127). One of the central claims of this chapter is that these “values” are inherently implicated in “the external, the superficial [and] the social.” For some suggestive remarks about antitheatricalism as a reaction to the inescapability of “the social,” see Barish, Prejudice, p. 349.

32. Bersani, A Future, p. 76.

33. One of the most common criticisms of private theatricals was that they permitted an “unrestrained familiarity with persons of the opposite sex” (Gisborne, Enquiry, p. 184).

34. Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman, p. 166.

35. Kelly, “Reading Aloud,” p. 39.

36. For discussions of the ways in which Mansfield Park resists the demand for moral certainty, see D. A. Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents: Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 21–22 and 55–57, and Martin Price, Forms of Life: Character and Moral Imagination in the Novel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 65–89.

37. See Kenneth L. Moler, “The Two Voices of Fanny Price,” in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, ed. John Halperin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 172–79.

38. In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, pp. 245–49, Marilyn Butler locates the “failure” (p. 249) of Mansfield Park in the undue weight given to Fanny’s consciousness, especially in the second half of the novel: “In the anti-Jacobin novel consciousness must be treated critically, lest it inadvertently lets in the enemy, subjectivism. Jane Austen has put much ingenuity into having her cake and eating it, but she has not succeeded” (p. 248). Yet by ignoring the conventional frame Austen has placed around Fanny’s consciousness, Butler misses the subtlety and scope of the novel’s strategy of appropriation.

39. The term comes from Joseph M. Duffy, “Moral Integrity and Moral Anarchy in Mansfield Park,ELH 23 (1956): 75.

40. Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman p. 171.

41. For a discussion of the theatricality implicit in the very notion of an act, see Barbara Johnson, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 65–66.

The Infection of Acting

Preferred Citation: Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth-Century English Novel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  1992.