You probably need to be a pretty obsessed Jane Austen fan to download Lovers’ Vows, but I’m glad I did. Apart from learning more about Jane Austen and the social context of her work, it’s a fun read.
Lovers’ Vows may have shocked Fanny Price, but to a modern audience there’d be nothing scandalous about it. It reads like a cute and slightly cheesy movie – it has nothing original to say, but it makes reasonable enough points in a pretty nice way. The famous scene between Amelia and Anhalt that shocks and upsets Fanny now seems cute and quite amusing. Lovers’ Vows is popcorn, but wholesome, delectable popcorn.
Most surprisingly, given what Fanny thinks of the play, one can’t help but notice similarities between its story and that of Mansfield Park. Of course, the objection in the novel is not so much to the play itself as to the family performing it and using it as a channel to express all their more inappropriate passions. Jane Austen clearly found the play interesting. She differed from it ideologically in places, but she also seems to have found inspiration or at least concurrence here and there.
Fanny somewhat resembles Agatha, the gentle, affectionate woman who is adopted by a rich family and later upbraided for seeming ingratitude. Each falls in love with a man but watches him woo (and in Agatha’s case, marry) another. Each has a quiet pride and strength of character, but is forced to depend on the charity of others. And in the end, the patience of each is rewarded by the love they longed for (but would never pursue). They both endure rather than fight.
The chief difference: the moral Fanny Price would never dream of having an illegitimate child, of course. One is tempted to see this as evidence of Jane Austen’s essential prudishness – which in large measure it probably is, Jane Austen certainly doesn’t depict Maria Bertram and Lydia Bennet sympathetically – but we must remember that Jane Austen, the feminist and rationalist, didn’t believe in sensationalist writing or emotional extremes. (Just look at her lampooning the Gothic heroine in Northanger Abbey, or the passionate and susceptible female in Sense and Sensibility.) Fanny isn’t just the good little girl of the family. She’s also its most level-headed and critical observer. She just wouldn’t be stupid enough to have an illegitimate child. Austen doesn’t endorse the ‘feminine victim’ cliche.
Another crucial difference is that Agatha is a fallen, impoverished woman, and when Baron Wildenhaim takes her back, he is essentially rescuing her. Edmund is clearly not intended as a rescuer – that role is for Henry Crawford, his passionate and chivalrous, ardent but faintly chauvinistic rival. Fanny may suffer, but she suffers in silence – she continues to live collectedly, rationally, and with dignity. (Again, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey tell us just how much Jane Austen valued those qualities.) Edmund is kindly and solicitous in an elder-brotherly way, but he also takes Fanny very seriously as an individual and frequently asks her advice (he appears to be the only person who does this). Thus far, of course, I’m of the opinion that Jane Austen’s version is an improvement.
Another departure from Lovers’ Vows’ occasional sensationalism is the fact that Edmund hurts Fanny unknowingly. He doesn’t use her as he wills and abandon her to suffer – he is completely unaware of her love for him. In Austen’s version, no-one is really to blame (well, perhaps Edmund is for pursuing a woman unworthy of him – more on this presently, but he’s misguided rather than iniquitous). This does represent greater sophistication and maturity on Austen’s part.
Another point of resemblance between Mansfield Park and Lovers’ Vows is the fact that both feature good-hearted but stern and slightly pompous fathers who end up doing completely wrong things. It’s an odd coincidence that Sir Thomas comes across Yates playing the part of Baron Wildenhaim in the library and is shocked and astounded – one appears to represent the stately majesty of the establishment, and the other the personification of iniquity and vice – when the character of the Baron in the play actually has a lot in common with Sir Thomas. Austen is ostensibly on Sir Thomas’ side here, but one can’t but think Austen the satirist wanted us to notice the paradox here as well.
Both fathers try to persuade their daughters (Sir Thomas is acting in the position of a father to Fanny) to marry very unsuitable men, but both actually want nothing more than to see their daughters happy. Both are lacking in ‘romantic delicacy’ – Sir Thomas marries his oldest daughter to the foolish Mr Rushworth and sends Fanny away to be unhappy in the hope that she will submit to marrying Henry Crawford, while the Baron employs his daughter’s tutor to talk her into marrying Count Cassel. But both are essentially kindly, though pompous and, as Jane Austen would say, ‘aweful’ in their manners. Chauvinists, of course, but well-meaning chauvinists.
We are clearly meant to perceive a resemblance between Mary Crawford and Amelia – this is underlined by the famous scene where Mary and Edmund rehearse, while Fanny looks on, weary and miserable, seeing an irresistible parallel between the increasing proximity of the characters in the play and the growing affection between Edmund and Mary. Mary, like Amelia, is roguish and forward, a quality Austen finds slightly unforgivable. When she wants something, she asks for it.
In the play, clergyman Anhalt is meant to persuade Amelia to marry Cassel – she interrupts him with a “you love me, don’t you? well, then!” and cheerfully overrides all his and her father’s objections, finally persuading them both to agree to the marriage.
Mary’s methods, however, are less direct. Though Fanny expresses an objection to “the language of [Amelia]”, Mary (and it is really Mary she dislikes) never says anything one could perceive as actually promiscuous. (Well, nor does Amelia, really. But Mary’s conversation conformed perfectly even to the rules of Jane Austen’s society, a somewhat more stringent standard.) Austen was an advocate of sincerity over polish (and no, she didn’t believe the two could exist simultaneously. Didn’t Anne reject Mr Elliot because his manners were too good?) and from the point of view of both propriety and feminism, she considered it rather degrading for a woman to ‘employ arts’ to attract a man. “Undoubtedly … there is meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.” Mary Crawford may have been a less brazen flirt than Caroline Bingley, but she certainly knew what she wanted and let people see it. Austen’s objection isn’t so much to the fact that she wanted to marry Edmund as to the fact that she had a strategy in place to attract him. It’s hard to see whether Austen’s censure of Mary represents moral intolerance or feminist pride – with Jane Austen, the discreditable and creditable are often so mixed it’s impossible to tell them apart.
Jane Austen’s dislike of pretension also comes across in the way Edmund and Mary treat the scene. They claim to be apprehensive, but they have clearly looked forward to it (they went so far as to seek out Fanny to tell her how apprehensive they were) and are evidently delighted to have a chance to rehearse it in advance. Fanny can be forgiven for feeling that everyone but she is succumbing to the fatal attraction of playing at being promiscuous. Mary and Edmund seem to delight in being perfectly correct but almost scandalous. They speak of unease but are thrilled to act what they consider a slightly indelicate proposal. The unease is, in Edmund’s case and probably in Mary’s case as well, quite genuine – neither of them is so lost to propriety as to feel no apprehension – but so is the thrill of acting the scene. Fanny, on the other hand, doesn’t find flirting at all exciting. Well, of course she couldn’t be expected to here, but she also finds Henry Crawford’s romantic ardour both insidious and uninteresting. How many of us can say the same? Fanny doesn’t pretend to be proper, she genuinely doesn’t want to be anything else. Maybe there’s more Jane Austen in her than one realises at first.
But Jane Austen could certainly learn a thing or two from Lovers’ Vows about the art of the non-judgmental narrative. Lovers’ Vows presents two contrasting women, Agatha and Amelia, without treating either as superior. Agatha bravely and patiently endures suffering, while Amelia openly asks for what she wants. In the end, they both attain their hearts’ desires – no remark as to
“Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.”
In Mansfield Park, on the other hand, it’s quite clear which is nobler. Fanny, the moral woman, does not let Edmund see she loves him – Mary, the coquette, does. In the end, Mary is denounced and Fanny is rewarded. Austen is pretty clear about what she thinks.
To sum up… Jane Austen is a cranky, sarky, sententious old lady, with firm principles, a staunch idealism that is alternately touching and exasperating, and an odd streak of feminism that shows up in the strangest places and the strangest ways. Like a true genius, she does everything an author could to annoy you (including presenting ideas you believe in as you hope never to see them presented again) and in the end wins you over completely.