One of the first events of interest in Mansfield Park is the attempted production of the play Lovers’ Vows, put on by the Bertram youngsters, Crawford siblings, and their friend Mr Yates.
The play is a shocker by Regency standards, featuring as it does an illegitimate love-child, and improper declarations of feeling from ladies. The idea that gentlefolk should have to utter the compromising lines of the characters they play is what prompts Fanny (and initially Edmund) to decline acting: they see playing a compromised character as compromising of the actor him- or herself. Yet the play’s dubious storyline, and some ingenious casting, provides interest for the narrative in permitting love interests Henry and Maria (who is engaged to someone else), and Edmund and Mary, a rare, disguised outlet for their feelings.
While Edmund eventually caves under pressure, Fanny is the only one steadfast in her refusal to act. She is instead mostly a spectator, then a facilitator (hearing Mr Rushworth botch his lines over and over again, or acting as prompt during Edmund and Mary’s love scene); but never a participant herself.
Nor is she much of an actor, or agent (from the same root), in the events of the novel. She is, rather, a still point around whom the others revolve: think of the visit to Mr Rushworth’s house Sotherton, when Edmund and Mary leave Fanny sitting alone on a bench in the park. Maria, Mr Rushworth, and Henry arrive after an interval, but leave soon after; Julia enters and exits, chasing after the others; and finally Mr Rushworth returns. Each person stops to deposit their confidences before moving offstage again: with Mr Rushworth gone, Henry can whisper something suggestive to Maria; Julia can complain to Fanny about Mr Rushworth’s tiresome mother; and Mr Rushworth can make a jealous comment about Henry’s inconsiderable height. The latter is one of the rare instances of Mr Rushworth’s jealousy, and it is Fanny’s silent presence that draws it out; she is a vehicle for others’ drama, like the theatre itself.
Incidentally, this lack of agency and autonomy is a reflection of Fanny’s lowly status, which Mrs Norris constantly reminds her of. She is forced to repay the Bertrams’ kindness, in taking her off their impoverished sister’s hands, by serving as prop: doing Lady Bertram’s needlework and Mrs Norris’ errands, for example. Personal autonomy belongs only to those who have what is aptly termed ‘an independence’, a monetary living.
Rehearsal is improvement by repetition, and we start to see similar motifs in the structuring of the end of the novel too. It eventually becomes clear that the first Bertram son is a bit of a disappointment: he runs up gambling debts at the beginning, and succumbs to a drink-induced illness towards the end. Edmund, the second instantiation in the male line, is a marked improvement. The same pattern repeats for the female children: Maria irrevocably disgraces herself through her adulterous elopement, but Julia’s running off with Mr Yates can be forgiven, since neither of them are already married. The first of each sex seems to be a prototype that the next instantiation improves upon.
Equally, when Maria is lost forever, the Bertrams gain a new improved version of The Daughter(-in-law) in Fanny. With this event, the family is strengthened in moral worth but also in genetic ‘purity’, since she is Edmund’s cousin. Lady Bertram also gains a new improved companion when Fanny leaves, in her younger sister Susan. Like Fanny before her,
Susan became the stationary niece […] First as a comfort to Fanny, then as an auxiliary, and last as her substitute, she was established at Mansfield
She becomes, indeed, ‘the most beloved of the two’. So by refilling all its major roles with better performers, Mansfield Park ensures not only its survival but its gradual perfection, like successive rehearsals of a play.
This is why the theatre motif is not just interesting, but important: the theme of rehearsal and iteration towards perfection is being used to make a point about virtue. Sir Thomas’ grand realisation is that his children were badly educated: Maria’s defects are due to a failure to inculcate habits of good behaviour that required her to work at goodness. ‘He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition’: his children were taught not to practise virtue, only to play at it.
There is a puzzle here: Fanny is the most virtuous character, in the least need of moral progression. Yet this means she is the most static (the ‘stationary niece’) – sitting by the hedge while the others run around, refusing to act, disrupting the narrative as she does the theatricals with inapropos comments ‘very much to the purpose of her own feelings, if not to the conversation’. Only imperfection allows for progression, but (traditional) narrative does not work without progression. Virtue, indeed, makes for a bad narrative, which may be why so many readers respond better to Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennett, who are forced to improve themselves, banishing their pride or matchmaking tendencies, before bagging the prize (of a rich man).
Maybe this is a tension – or maybe Fanny is there to point beyond the theatrical box and its contingencies of time and moral failing, as in uncharacteristic passages like this, when she goes stargazing with Edmund:
Here’s harmony! […] Here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe. Here’s what may tranquillize every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene
A lot could probably be said about this, and I don’t want to try and wrap this up too neatly. I like it because, as with this novel’s overemphasis on moral scrupulosity, there’s a glimmer here of something more than the usual Austen: we are typically presented with a scene for contemplation (for ridicule of stupidity, or admiration of the sort of conversational dexterity Fanny does not possess); we are less typically gestured towards the ineffable sublime.