Jane Travers of the Jane Obsessed With Jane blog has very kindly asked me to prepare a guest blog post on the topic of the private theatricals in Mansfield Park, and to try and explain why Fanny’s censorious attitude towards then seems to have been in complete contradiction to that of her creator, Jane Austen. So here it is, written with love for her ;-)


It is true that Jane Austen loved the theatre. Each time she visited London and her brother Henry she seized every chance she could to see professional performances. She had her favourite actors an actresses and was a keen but cool critic of their performances.  Eliza O’Neil of Ireland was a favourite:

We were all at the Play last night, to see Miss o’Neal (sic) in” Isabella… She is an elegant creature however and hugs Mr Younge  delightfully.

(See letter from Jane Austen to Anna Austen dated 29th November 1814)

As was Dorothea Jordan. She was most miffed to have missed the opportunity of seeing Mrs Siddons in 1811:

I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons.She did act on Monday but as Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would all the places and all the thought of it were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance and  could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me.

( letter to  Cassandra Austen of the 25th April 1811)

Her early works have numerous theatrical and farcical  elements, evidence of her wide reading of the 18th century theatrical cannon. For example, in Love and Freindship (sic)we find one of the most famous phrases in the Juvenilia:

“We fainted Alternatively on a Sofa”

a line in which Jane Austen is in fact satirising a stage direction in Sheriden’s farce, The Critic,which was in turn satirising the discovery scene in Home’s tragedy, Douglas.

Jane Austen was even known to have taken part in private theatricals at Manydown House,the home of the Biggs Wither family as part of the Christmas festivities in 1808.

So why did she make Fanny Price so censorious of private theatricals in Mansfield Park?

The answer may lie in her own experience of private theatricals held at Steventon Rectory when she was a young girl. From 1782-90 productions of plays modern and classic took place in the dining parlour and later, when their ambitions for producing more professional productions took hold, in the Barn at Steventon.

Jane Austen’s brothers, James and Henry, appear to be the main instigators of this activity, and, indeed,  James wrote the prologues and epilogues for the plays they performed. Jane Austen was 7 years old when these theatricals began and 14 when they ceased.

In 1787 they probably used the barn as a setting for their plays for the first time. They performed the now  forgotten play, “The Wonder! : A Woman Keeps A Secret” (1714),written by Susannah Centlivre,  after rejecting a request by their guest, their glamorous and worldly cousin Eliza de Feuilide to perform “Which is the Man?” by Hannah Cowley, or “Bon Ton or High Life Above Stairs” by David Garrick.

(The Frontispiece of The Wonder from Mrs Inchbald’s collection of plays the early 19th century theatrical repertoire, The British Theatre.)

The Austen’s acting enthusiasm reflected the craze for private theatricals –the itch for acting- which became prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and certainly from 1770, almost all genteel British society was affected by the seeming urge to perform plays in private theatres.

And they had to be “private” and amateur; unlicensed paid public performances were illegal .The Licensing Act of 1737 stipulated a fine of £50 for anyone convicted of acting for “hire, gain or reward” in any play or theatrical performance not previously allowed by royal patent or Licensed by the Lord Chamberlain.

Marc Baer in his excellent book “ Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London” theorizes that private performances may have been preferable to many of the upper classes who wished to avoid the riots which were so prevalent a part of theatre going throughout the 18th century. Also that it was a step by the upper classes to distance themselves from the increasingly plebeian nature of performances at the two Patent theatres in London. They were once concerned only with productions of “serious” plays and opera, but were increasingly incorporating elements of pantomime, and melodrama, burletta and pure spectacle into the evening’s entertainment. In short the evenings were becoming vulgar. Horrors!

“It was beyond everything vulgar I ever saw…the people were hollowing and talking to each other from the pit to the gallery, and fighting and throwing oranges at each other. The play itself was a representation of all the low scenes in London… a sort of very low Beggar’s Opera, but it is impossible to describe the sort of enthusiasm with which it was received by the people who seems to enjoy a representation of scenes, in which, from their appearance, one might infer they frequently shared.”

(extract from a letter written by Mrs Harriet Arbuthnot, writing about seeing a performance of Life in London by Pierce Egan and George Cruickshank at the Adelphi Theatre in 1822.)

Some of the more prosperous amateur performers constructed very elaborate private theatres.  As Paula Byrne writes in her excellent book Jane Austen and the Theatre:

Makeshift theatre mushroomed all over England from drawing room to domestic buildings. At the more extreme end of the theatrical craze member of the gentrified classes and the aristocracy built their own scaled down imitations of London playhouses. The most famous was that erected in the late 1770s by the spendthrift Earl of Barrymore, at a reputed cost of £60,000. Barrymore’s elaborate private theatre was modeled on Vanburgh’s Kings Theatre in the Haymarket. It supposedly seated seven hundred..

We also know from records of the very elaborate and private theatricals at Richmond House- home to the Duke of Richmond  that these private theatricals could be very professional(and costly) indeed.

But they were sometimes accompanied by a sense of unease: as shown in this  letter written at the time of the Steventon Theatricals by another Austen  cousin, Philadelphia Walter who was being ever-so-gently bullied by Eliza de Feuillide to attend the Steventon Theatricals, and it throws a little light on the moral dilemmas these performances could cause, and reflects quite eerily in my opinion,  those  doubts experienced by Fanny Price:

“They go at Xmas to Steventon and mean to act a play “ Which Is the Man” and “Bon Ton”. My uncle’s barn is fitting up quite like a theatre and all the young folks are to take their part. The Countess (Eliza-JFW) is Lady Bob Alrdoon in the former and Miss Tittup in the latter. They wish me much of the party and offer to carry me, but I do not think of it. I should like to be a Spectator, but am sure I should not have the courage to act a part, nor do I wish to attain it”

(Letter dated 19th September 1787).

Opinions as to the desirability and correctness of “polite” females appearing on the stage certainly varied at the time, the position certainly reflected by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park. Members of the growing Evangelical Movement in the Church of England voiced grave concerns about such performances. The attitude shown by the Reverend Thomas Gisbourne in his work “An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex”(1797)

was typical. He took a stance very much against this type of theatrical performance. Remember- most actresses were still not quite “respectable” at this time in history, despite the success of actresses such as Mrs Siddons, who was a favourite with King George III and Queen Charlotte.

He wrote:

For some years past the custom of acting in plays in private theatres, fitted up by individuals of fortune, had occasionally prevailed. It is a custom liable to objection among others: that it is almost certain to prove, in its effects, injurious to the female performers. Let it be admitted that theatres of this description no longer present the flagrant impropriety of ladies bearing apart in the drama in conjunction with professional players. Let it be admitted, that the drama reflected will in its language and conduct always be irreprehensible. Let it even be admitted, that many theatrical talents will not hereafter gain admission upon such a Stage for men of ambiguous or worse than ambiguous character. Take the benefit of all these favourable circumstances; yet what is even then the tendency of such an amusement? To encourage vanity; to excite a thirst of applause and admiration of attainments which, if the are to be thus exhibited, it would commonly have been far better for the individual not to possess; to destroy diffidence, by the unrestrained familiarity with the persons of the other sex, which inevitably results from being joined with them in the drama; to create a general fondness for the perusal of plays, of which so many are unfit to be read; and for attending dramatic representations, of which so many are unfit to be witnessed”

Jane Austen read this work, on Cassandra’s recommendation, in 1805. She had expected to dislike it, but surprised herself by approving of it. But as Jane Austen took part in private theatricals herself  at Christmas in 1808 was merely performing in such a play a problem for her? I think not. But I think she did recognise, as Philadelphia Walter had done , that the experience could, in certain circumstances, be disquieting.

Amanda Vickery in her book The Gentleman’s Daughter notes;

“The donning of disguise and the doffing of decorum might be thrilling for participants but it could be disquieting to attentive observers, as novels such as Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) Maria Edgeworth’s Patronage (1814) and Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer (1814) dramatically demonstrated.”

In a note to this part of her text she adds;

“The narrative possibilities inherent in amateur performance were seized on by novelists, but assessments of the morality of female exhibition differed. Fanny Price piously refuses to take part in Lovers Vows, which rebounds to her credit…The pure and perfect Caroline Percy declines an invitation to take part in Zara, which in the event demonstrates the vanity of her rival, yet Caroline remains a sympathetic member of the audience…On the other hand, the “incognita” is allowed to give a dignified performance as Lady Townley in The Provoked Husband, which convinces many in the audience of her gentility:”

So….if these performances were so widely prevalent in genteel society, what could have particularly  upset Jane Austen, watching her brothers and her glamorous cousin Eliza as they rehearsed and performed this old play in 1787, so much so that she used her experiences in Mansfield Park, to reflect Fanny’s own discomfort?

I don’t think it was acting per se that gave her such discomposure.  I think it was motive and opportunity.

Let me explain.

The Wonder as performed at Steventon in 1787 was an old , not particularly well written play. It was set in Portugal and gives the opportunity for many declarations of patriotic fervour in praise of the British (Hurrah and Huzzah, would no doubt ring out from the  audience of young Austens) ). But the hero Don Felix, played by Henry Austen at Steventon, is given quite some liberty for ‘stage business’ with the leading lady, Violante, who played by Eliza de Feuillide. Look at this extract, as just one example :

Don Felix: Give me your hand at parting Violante, won’t you ? (He lays his hand upon her knee several times)Won’t you ..won’t you..won’t you….

Volante: (Half regarding him) Won’t I do what?

Don Felix: You know what I would have Violante.’Oh ! My Heart!

Volante (smiles) : I thought my chains were easily broken(lays her hand in his)

Don Felix: (Draws his chair close to her and kisses her hand in a rapture) Too well thou knowest thy strength.Oh!  my charming Angel, my heart is all thy own. Forgive my hasty passion, tis the transport of a love sincere. Oh Violante! Violante!

As George Herbert Tucker in his book “A Goodly Heritage “ writes;

“As Eliza De Feuililde had descended on Steventon that Christmas like a Parisian bird of paradise, and had according to family tradition, openly flirted with both James and his younger brother Henry, it is apparent that James epilogue was tailored to her specifications…Also considering her predilection to coquetry, it is easy to imagine she delivered the provocative lines with considerable biro.”

I am of the opinion that the young Jane Austen would have watched all these goings on with great interest. What ever she truly thought of it all, we will never know,but I think she abhorred the use of such a play to facilitate flirtations between the cousins and no doubt causing pain to one , two or all three of the participants. All done in full view of her, a child of twelve watching on the sidelines.

James eventually married Mary Lloyd of the Lloyds of Ibthorpe, long time family friends of the Austens, whereas Eliza eventually married James and Jane’s brother…Henry.

Marylin Butler can certainly be justified for making this comment on the behaviour of this trio;

“Detail from real life has plainly been absorbed in Mansfield Park and the vantage point of the younger sister, jealous and excluded by the casts intrigues has re-emerged as the novel’s distinctive mode.”

(Introduction to Mansfield Park, Oxford Classics edition.)

So when it came to writing Mansfield Park’s private theatrical sessions, remembering the events in the Steventon Barn in 1787, Jane Austen chose her play carefully. Clearly using The Wonder was too close to real life for comfort . Lovers Vows however, does give the participants extraordinary license for physical closeness in a way that would not have bene tolerated in real life(even under the negligent eyes of the poor chaperones Mrs Norris or Lady Bertram.) And this is the nub of Jane Austen and Fanny’s disquiet.

Sir Thomas it is certain would not approve of any performance whatsoever. But what he would certainly have disapproved of was the use of a play as a pretext for dangerous love games between engaged couples and their unengaged friends. Fanny’s reaction on first reading Lovers Vows ,with the knowledge of who would play the parts, makes her very uneasy:

The first use she made of her solitude was to take up the volume which had been left on the table, and begin to acquaint herself with the play of which she had heard so much. Her curiosity was all awake, and she ran through it with an eagerness which was suspended only by intervals of astonishment, that it could be chosen in the present instance, that it could be proposed and accepted in a private theatre! Agatha and Amelia appeared to her in their different ways so totally improper for home representation—the situation of one, and the language of the other, so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty, that she could hardly suppose her cousins could be aware of what they were engaging in; and longed to have them roused as soon as possible by the remonstrance which Edmund would certainly make.

Chapter 14

Forced involuntarily to watch the rehearsal between Edmund and Mary  in her cold  sanctuary of the East Room, poor Fanny  sees exactly what is going on: no real play-acting this, but an excuse for impropriety of a most dangerous manner:

She could not equal them in their warmth. Her spirits sank under the glow of theirs, and she felt herself becoming too nearly nothing to both to have any comfort in having been sought by either. They must now rehearse together. Edmund proposed, urged, entreated it, till the lady, not very unwilling at first, could refuse no longer, and Fanny was wanted only to prompt and observe them. She was invested, indeed, with the office of judge and critic, and earnestly desired to exercise it and tell them all their faults; but from doing so every feeling within her shrank—she could not, would not, dared not attempt it: had she been otherwise qualified for criticism, her conscience must have restrained her from venturing at disapprobation. She believed herself to feel too much of it in the aggregate for honesty or safety in particulars. To prompt them must be enough for her; and it was sometimes more than enough; for she could not always pay attention to the book. In watching them she forgot herself; and, agitated by the increasing spirit of Edmund’s manner, had once closed the page and turned away exactly as he wanted help. It was imputed to very reasonable weariness, and she was thanked and pitied; but she deserved their pity more than she hoped they would ever surmise. At last the scene was over, and Fanny forced herself to add her praise to the compliments each was giving the other; and when again alone and able to recall the whole, she was inclined to believe their performance would, indeed, have such nature and feeling in it as must ensure their credit, and make it a very suffering exhibition to herself. Whatever might be its effect, however, she must stand the brunt of it again that very day.

Chapter 18

This reflects I am sure, the feelings Jane Austen had as she watched her brothers and cousin play out their fantasies in public in the barn at Steventon all those years ago. Jane Austen saw the dangerous consequences of using private theatricals as a screen for playing a rather more dangerous game. And that is why Fanny was so censorious. She was, in my humble opinion,  reflecting Jane Austen’s dislike of the hypocrisy  to be found when “lovers” use such a situation to their own advantage.