By Lona Manning
A group of young people, passing the rainy weeks of autumn together in “a dull country house,” decide to entertain themselves by staging a play. So what’s so wrong about that, as the critic Lionel Trilling asks rhetorically in his 1954 essay?
The characters in Jane Austen’s great novel, Mansfield Park, devote a great deal of time to debating the question. The play chosen, Lovers’ Vows, is a real play, and Austen could have relied on the fact that her contemporary readers would be familiar with this play. A greater understanding of the play, and of the social milieu of Mansfield Park, will help modern readers understand why the novel’s hero and heroine — Edmund Bertram and his meek cousin Fanny Price — thought that yes, there was plenty wrong about that.
Lovers’ Vows has two storylines – one melodramatic and one comic. Frederick, a young soldier returning home, encounters his mother starving by the roadside. He also learns to his horror that he is illegitimate, and his father is the long-absent Baron Wildenhaim. A kindly local peasant, or Cottager, and his wife take his mother under their roof. Frederick accosts his father and is thrown in prison but matters are eventually sorted out and the remorseful Baron marries Agatha. Meanwhile, the Baron’s legitimate daughter, Amelia, is the lead in the comic storyline. She flirtatiously woos her tutor, the preacher Anhalt, while fending off a marriage proposal from Count Cassel. The entire action is commented on, in rhyming verse, by the Butler, another comic character.
In other words, the themes of Lovers’ Vows (in the original German, the play was called The Love Child) are extra-marital sex and seduction, albeit where sinners repent and Virtue triumphs in the end. Fanny thinks the two female leads, Agatha and Amelia, are “totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, [are] unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty.”