General Editors: Thomas C. Crochunis and Michael Eberle-Sinatra

Conger, Syndy McMillen. 'Reading Lovers' Vows: Reading Jane Austen's Reflections on English Sense and German Sensibility.' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 15 January 2000. 34 pars. <>

From Studies in Philology, Volume 85, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. This essay is protected under the copyright laws of the United States and the Universal Copyright Convention. Publication (print or electronic) or commercial use of any of the copyrighted materials without direct authorization from the copyright holder is strictly prohibited.

Copyright © Contributor, 1998-2008. This essay is protected under the copyright laws of the United States and the Universal Copyright Convention. Publication (print or electronic) or commercial use of any of the copyrighted materials without direct authorization from the copyright holder is strictly prohibited.


JANE Austen sometimes suffers, as her heroines often do, from her friends' determination to abide by first impressions. Dazzled by the witty satire directed against the literature of sensibility in her early writings, they agree, despite their divergent approaches, that Austen is constitutionally anti-sentimental. John Halperin's biography of Austen reinforces this view, even seeing a hint of pathology in Austen's attitudes: "inherent cynicism," "cold-blooded judgment," "occasional malice," and "a pessimistic assessment of human nature." (1) If Austen is so viewed, then Mansfield Park becomes a problem text; for its heroine Fanny Price, as Austen's circle of friends recognized immediately, is "all sensibility," an unequivocal woman of feeling, moved to action primarily by her several sentimental attachments to places and people. The anti-sentimental school of Austen criticism tends to focus not on this heroine, whom they see either as art ironic or a flawed construct, but on the theatricals episode of the novel. To them, Sir Thomas Bertram's incineration of all copies of the sentimental German play that his children and their friends had planned to perform at Mansfield represents Austen's opinion: a "rejection of sensibility as a danger to the integrity of the self." (2) Such readings of the novel cannot do justice to Austen's habitual attention to nuance, or to her subtle appreciation of sensibility in general and, in particular, of one of its leading German exponents, Augustus von Kotzebue. Her treatment of Lovers' Vows in Mansfield Park is neither rejection nor simple endorsement of sensibility, but rather a subtle analysis of both the causes and effects of the play's remarkable popularity among the English at the end of the eighteenth century, an analysis quite similar in aim and results to modern reception studies. (3)

2. In Mansfield Park Austen presents a balanced, witty, retrospective assessment of the significance of the Germanophilia that struck the English during her lifetime: a temporary danger to English norms, she decides, but in the end, a means to testing the metal of those norms. Her conclusions are validated by modern reception theorists Hans Robert Jauss and his colleague Wolfgang Iser, who tell us that texts can either shatter or reinforce norm s, but that each is very likely to result from certain kinds of reader behavior. The Crawfords and the Bertram daughters, in Jauss's terms, engage in naïve, "pre-reflective" reader behavior, evincing an identification with the text so complete as to be comparable to "cultic participation." They become, even if for their own sophisticated purposes, the characters they depict, and this alters their lives irrevocably. Such responses to a text, especially if unaccompanied by any subsequent reflection, Jauss calls "pathological," using the classic examples of Don Quixote and Werther (AE&1H 29). Readers whose minds lack stability or principle to begin with, who then identify too completely with literary characters who may also lack these same qualities, may well endanger their own or others' lives or happiness.

Edmund and Fanny, in contrast, demonstrate a more positive reader behavior. They are initially appalled by Lovers' Vows and reject it unqualifiedly, something that earns them the undeserved reputation of inflexible moral rigorists. But readers' first reactions, Iser would say, need not be their final ones. If at first they dismiss the play as a threat to their values, they gradually become willing to speculate about it. They anatomize scenes, players' motives, and their own motives; in the process, they become divided against each other and even themselves. Then, when they articulate their final thoughts on the subject, it becomes clear that both their norms and their relationship have undergone considerable strengthening. For them, Kotzebue's play has become a stimulus to ethical reflection, which, for Jauss and Iser, is one of the highest ends that any literary work can serve (TAR 39-45).




In peopling her novels, as Gilbert Ryle notes in his "Jane Austen and the Moralists," Austen is a precise Aristotelian. She "pin-points the exact quality of character in which she is interested, and the exact degree of that quality, by matching it against the same quality in different degrees, against simulations of the quality, against deficiencies of it." (4) Her characters of sensibility are no exceptions to this modus operandi. The submerged tradition in Austen's novels is largely the earlier literature of sensibility (Richardson, Cowper, Radcliffe) (5) but by the end of the eighteenth century, moralists like Hannah More were distinguishing carefully between excess or counterfeit sensibility and "'right" or "true" sensibility; and even a cursory overview of Austen's literary characters suggests that she both understood the distinctions and subscribed to the golden mean. (6) For Austen, right sensibility, with its keen sensitivity to immediate contexts, is an indispensable prerequisite to the exercise of responsible moral choice. Jean Hagstrum has recently emphasized the centrality of such sensibility to Austen's protagonists (27); if anything, such characters—Catherine Morland, for example, or Mrs. Jennings—err in the direction of correctable excess feeling. Austen's antagonists, in contrast, often lack sensibility in varying degrees. At their worst, they feign its presence, as do the cruel Isabella Thorpe and Lucy Steele.


Just such distinctions still comprise the foundation of assumptions that constellates the characters in Mansfield Park. Mary Crawford and Mrs. Norris are both quite capable of false sensibility; the Price family demonstrate its excess, the Bertram parents its deficiency; and right sensibility is represented in this novel by Edmund Bertram, kind already as a boy, and his "tenderhearted cousin" Fanny Price (204). (7) They both bear all the signs of true sensibility: sensitivity to others, good literature, and nature; pity and kindness; and a profound modesty and a sometimes near-crippling tendency to taciturnity. Whatever else Austen's inclusion of the sentimental Kotzebue play in their story may mean, it simply cannot signify a wholesale rejection of sensibility.

6. Then does it signify a rejection of Kotzebue as a purveyor of false sensibility? Even that seems unlikely. Dvora Zelicovici's "The Inefficacy of Lovers' Vows" (8) argues persuasively that "'the general standard of conduct ruling Kotzebue's play is ... essentially the one ruling Mansfield Park" (531-32); and in so doing, it departs from previous interpretations with two key assertions. First, Austen intends to use rather than abuse Kotzebue's play in her novel: "Far from exalting sexual liberty, Lovers' Vows exposes the viciousness of immoral conduct and its miserable consequences.... It is not Lovers' Vows, therefore, that constitutes a threat to Mansfield Park. The real threat in both works is the wrong values of fashionable society and its insufficient emphasis on pity and self-restraint" (531-32). Second and closely allied to the first point, at the center of Austen's target in this case is not the German play but the English players: "the play miscarries not because of its intrinsic nature and quality, but because of the incorrigible nature of the major performers—Henry, Maria, Mary" (537).
7. Zelicovici could have mentioned further affinities between Kotzebue's plays and Austen's novels: their realism, for example, their preference for social comedies about the mores and manners of the landed gentry, or, most pertinent to the concerns of this essay, their mutual focus on marriages of affection, and on the woman's right to exercise choice in questions of matrimony. In the crucial scene in Lovers' Vows (III.ii), the chaplain Anhalt paints a picture of happy marriage that Austen could hardly have found exceptionable (it is quoted by her, in fact, in MP 358): (9) "two sympathetic hearts" becoming one; and a picture of unhappy marriage that brings to mind many of Austen's mismatched couples, for a few instances, the Bennets, the Allens, the Palmers, and the Prices. Even the compliant heroine Fanny, who herself objects to the character of Kotzebue's heroine Amelia as "totally improper for home presentation" (137), nevertheless sounds very much like Amelia in her defense of her right to refuse Henry Crawford's marriage proposal (353; cf. III.ii.40).
8. Although Zelicovici's article stops short of drawing such parallels, it strikes out in a promising new direction, one which recognizes that Austen may have evoked a Kotzebue play to acknowledge and contemplate his considerable power over her contemporaries. Joseph Litvak's recent essay about the larger question of theatricality in Mansfield Park further emphasizes the centrality of play to novel and refines Zelicovici's picture of the complexity of the relationship between an author and her source materials. For Litvak, even if some of the residents of Mansfield Park (especially Sir Thomas, Fanny, and Edmund) resist, to some extent, the lure of Lovers' Vows, in a larger sense they all appropriate theatricality for their own purposes: Sir Thomas, in order to be "a cunningly manipulative authority" (341, my emphasis) and "'the novel's pre-eminent juggler of theatrical conventions" (349); Fanny, and to a lesser extent, Edmund, in order to be angels who perform their duties impeccably, whose histrionic skills are all the more regrettable because they are covert, "'submerged in the form of vigorously inculcated habits of mind and modes of response" (346). Litvak believes that Mansfield Park is "about the theatricality of everyday life, in which to say, with Fanny, 'No, indeed, I cannot act' ..., is already to perform, whether one wants to or not" (334); and he concludes that "Like Fanny's anti-theatricalism ... Austen's begins to emerge as a futile protest against the theatrical imperative—futile in large part because disingenuous, given the extent to which the political order of Mansfield Park depends upon a certain theatricality" (334).
9. While the present essay could not agree more with Litvak's insistence that Mansfield Park has very much indeed to do with theatricality, it makes no claims about the novel's self-contradiction or the futility or disingenuity of Austen's anti-theatrical protest. It rather argues that, on a less abstract level, Mansfield Park is about the English mania for German sentimental drama represented by Kotzebue, and that, on that level, the novel works to offer its readers a clear-minded assessment of the sources and results of that mania. At the same time, it works to give at least some of its characters the freedom to disengage themselves from sentimental theatricality and, in so doing, to learn more about their companions, themselves, and their values. Quite unlike Litvak's essay, in other words, this one rests on the assumption that the narrative voice of Mansfield Park is not necessarily trapped inside the discourse of sentimental theatricality that it evokes but manages, instead, to, make its own light, analytic-comic escape. (10) The first of the remaining three sections of this essay reviews Kotzebue's play and its English critics to provide a brief sketch of the horizon of expectations within which Austen operated as she wrote Mansfield Park; the other two look more closely at Austen's original insights into Kotzebue's popularity in the English provinces.



L. F. Thompson, author of one of the few full-length studies of Kotzebue's reception in his own time, stresses the fact that Kotzebue was a child of the eighteenth century, a "cosmopolitan and a rationalist." (11) He did not set new trends so much as participate in existing ones, and one of the most visible of those trends was sensibility. His Lovers' Vows represents a compendium of the sentimental literature of its century. Its main plot, with a persecuted lower-class heroine Agatha, a guilt-driven aristocratic libertine Baron Wildenhaim, and their emotionally saturated reconciliation late in the play, brings to mind Richardson's Pamela. Their story unfolds in a series of memorably affecting scenes: Agatha, returning home after a twenty-year absence, is turned out of the local inn when the landlord discovers that she is ill and penniless; her only son Frederick coincidentally discovers her on the highway on his leave of absence from the army to procure a birth certificate; these circumstances force her to confess that he is illegitimate; poor but kindly cottagers befriend them; the Baron, meanwhile, agonizes in frequent soliloquy over his youthful betrayal of Agatha; when Frederick discovers himself to be the Baron's son, the Baron's immediate wish is to locate and find forgiveness of the mother:

Baron. Agatha, Agatha, do you know this voice?
Agatha. Wildenhaim.
Baron. Can you forgive me?
Agatha. Forgive you! [Embracing him.]

Antecedents for the subplot, which, as E. M. Butler demonstrates meticulously, has parallels to the fortunes of all three of the young women in the Bertram household (Maria, Julia, and Fanny), can be found in early English sentimental drama; for example, The Conscious Lovers of Sir Richard Steele. It recounts the trials of a young hero (Anhalt) and heroine (Amelia), divergent in social background but equal in intelligence, affection, and sensitivity, who eventually persuade their parents to let(them marry. Kotzebue's special variation on this theme is the dominant role he grants to the Baron's daughter, Amelia: it is she who resists the advances of an aristocratic suitor Count Cassel; she who tricks a marriage proposal from the man she prefers, her tutor-chaplain Anhalt:

Anhalt. You misconstrue—you misconceive every thing, I say or do. The subject I came to you upon was marriage.
Amelia. A very proper subject for the man, who has taught me love, and I accept the proposal. (III.ii.39)

and she who pleads with her father, on grounds of affection, to permit their marriage. Sentiment clearly not only informs Kotzebue's techniques but underlies his subject matter: he presents it as an alternative ethic of the younger generation, one assuming the importance of the individual's—especially the female individual's—right to self-determination in questions of marriage.

11. Also conspicuous to the early English reviewers, who were accustomed to making finer distinctions between kinds of sensibility than moderns, was Kotzebue's Rousseauistic strain. He intensifies the ethic of sensibility to a pseudo-religion, absolutizes sentiment at the expense of older virtues, nature at the expense of culture, freedom at the expense of duty, passionate lover over prudent. Rousseau's indelible stamp is the erotic idealization of the tutor-pupil relationship: Anhalt is a new St. Preux, Amelia still another new Hé1oise. The erotic coloration, it should be said, is not as pronounced in Kotzebue's characters; the keystone of his sentimental characters is their capacity not for ecstatic passion but for forgiveness. Two of the three of his most popular dramas in England, Lovers' Vows and The Stranger, turn on an extraordinary act of conjugal forgiveness: in the first, a wronged woman forgives her seducer; in the second, a wronged husband, his long-estranged wife. In other ways, however, Kotzebue's characters espouse Rousseau's ideas faithfully: his unqualified faith in human goodness, in the natural, and in children, women, and the lower classes. Male aristocrats in Lovers' Vows usually deserve, and are given, very little respect. Frederick is allowed, in a scene which unsettled spectators at the time, to taunt, then to rail at, his father for his early sexual peccadilloes: "In this house did you rob my mother of her honour; and in this house I am a sacrifice for the crime. ..." The Baron, conscience-struck, replies, "Desist—barbarian, savage, stop!" (IV.ii.61).
12. English reviewers were mildly pleased with the first Kotzebue plays to cross the Channel in the mid-1790s; it was the sentiment, apparently, that made them attractive. They praised Kotzebue's appeal to "the fairest … and dearest feelings of our nature" and declared that Lovers' Vows, despite minor flaws, demonstrated "a refinement in the cast of ... ethics, a lofty indifference to artificial distinctions, a catching spirit of disinterest and benevolence, and an … enthusiasm for the qualities of the heart, which provoke only because they humiliate the cringers to fortune, birth, and power. It is no feeble symptom of interior selfishness . . . not to glow with sympathetic rapture, while this Rousseau of the drama delineates . . . sweet affections and the noble sacrifices. . . ." (12) In the wake of the French Revolution, the charitable tone of the first reviews, however, shifted to one of venom. In a new, tense political climate, the German literary productions that streamed into England in the 90s, many among them Kotzebue's, although in fact stimulated artificially by the French embargo, began to seem like a planned invasion. Hannah More, drawing her conclusions, as did many of her contemporaries, from new misleading reports about Germany as the seedbed of the French Revolution, (13) likened these "'swarms of publications now daily issuing from the banks of the Danube" to "Huns and Vandals once more overpowering the Greeks and the Romans" (VI.26). In such an atmosphere, too, the continental sentiment that had at first won approval began to seem threatening, especially after Rousseau became a designated hero of the much feared new French government. At first the threat was envisioned in a vague, political way, later, in a specifically gender-related way.
13. On the English stage, the years 1798 and 1799 were those of the Kotzebue play. E W Stokoe lists nine translations of Kotzebue's works for 1798, including two of The Stranger and two of Lovers' Vows; for 1799, the number mushrooms to twenty-eight, including one more of Lovers' Vows (The Natural Son by Anne Plumptre) and three of his third most popular play in England, Pizarro. In these same years, although not a single play of Goethe, Schiller, or Lessing was performed in England, Kotzebue'sPizarro and The Stanger were given thirty and forty-two times In a single season. Out of 301 references to dramas in the periodicals in 1798, 181were to Kotzebue's, statistics enough, perhaps, although many more exist, to suggest why Dutton's Monthly Theatrical Reporter hailed the English playwright Thomas Morton around the turn of the century as one come "to rescue the English stage from the usurpation of Kotzebue" (Thompson 88). The word "usurpation" was, in all probability, not meant lightly; for the anti-Jacobins had by then branded Kotzebue a dangerous revolutionary.
14. In its first number of 1798 the Anti-Jacobin Review agrees with the Monthly Review that Lovers' Vows is an affecting story but wishes nevertheless that the English were not so enamored of the German drama: "It is the evident tendency of this piece, as, indeed, of most of the pieces of the modern German school, and of its disciples in this country, to render the upper classes of society, objects of indignation or contempt: and to confine all virtue, and every noble quality, to the lower classes.... neither the taste of a British public will have improved, nor their morals meliorated, by the importation of any productions of the German stage, in the present state of German literature" (480-81).
15. The anti-Jacobins renew their attacks on Kotzebue repeatedly until 1805. In 1800 they criticize his Pizarro for its atheistical tendencies (6:452-54); and, in the same year, they fault his reliance on inflated language ("rant") and spectacle (6:206-8). By far the greatest concern of the reviewers, however, is Kotzebue's sexual morality, specifically his alleged disregard for female chastity. The first review which gives expression to their concern is already virulent. The Virgin of the Sun appals them; they find it "improbable" and "poisonous to morality." Kotzebue's emphasis on sentiment, moreover, is now seen as a large part of the problem: "Feeling is pleaded as an excuse for deviations from the most sacred duties of religion and virtue," the "'pathos of the author ... misemployed in vindicating fornication, or diminishing the odium of adultery" (3 [1799]:441-43). In the following year the same charge is reiterated. Pizarro's heroine Elvira is "adulterous"; the play a "subtle engine of immorality" (16:320; cf. 6:453). Kotzebue, they conclude, is "a dramatist of extraordinary talent" but more dangerous than Voltaire or D'Alembert, because he speaks to "the passions and prejudices of the lower orders, and particularly of the female sex" (21:142).
16. J. M. S. Tompkins is sure that what "stuck most in the reviewer's throat" about Kotzebue's plays was "the forgiving husband ... for he was imperilling the structure of society." (14) The ethics of sensibility, in other words, were being applied too generously to the conjugal relationship. Kotzebue dares to forgive "'adulteresses" in the all-inclusive eighteenth-century sense of that term (i.e., all seduced, sold, or betrayed women as well as any who deliberately commit adultery). For this the English reviewers, who never recall the prominent New Testament precedent for such an act, could never forgive Kotzebue. So much did English attention rivet on this feature that by 1799, Hannah More, in her Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education, decided to single out Kotzebue's plays as a very particular menace to women. Kotzebue represents to her a devastating new "era in manners" which will depict the "adulteress in an exemplary light." Her example is The Stranger; play like this one, she is sure, make it indubitably clear that "the attacks of infidelity in Great Britain are at this moment principally directed against the female breast" (Works 6:28-30). (15)  
17. Various emphases in Mansfield Park suggest that Austen was not only well acquainted with the charges brought against Kotzebue by her contemporaries but may, to some extent, have agreed with them. "The female breast" does indeed seem to be jeopardized in her novel, as are some of Sir Thomas's servants; there are no extraordinary acts of forgiveness among husbands or fathers; and neither the upper nor the lower classes are portrayed with unqualified sympathy. There are, however, two prominent signs that Austen wishes to distance herself from the debate, that she is not so much interested in taking sides for or against Kotzebue as she is in analyzing the phenomenon of his amazing popularity. The first of these signs is the Horatian tone Austen maintains throughout the theatricals sequence. Yates's predilection for rant and spectacle provides Austen with the material for one of the best comic moments in the novel, Sir Thomas's discovery of Yates "hallooing" on the makeshift stage in the father's "own dear room" (181). In keeping with this tone, Austen sports with one of the least charitable criticisms of Kotzebue by giving it a most unreliable spokesperson in her novel. An irrationally jealous Julia delivers the harshest words in Mansfield Park against Kotzebue's play: "and as to Amelia, it is of all parts in the world the most disgusting to me. I quite detest her. An odious, little, pert, unnatural, impudent girl. I have protested against comedy, and this is comedy in its worst form" (136). Any such remarkable revulsion for a mere sentimental play, Austen seems to suggest playfully, is an overreaction which cannot be entirely explained by the play itself but must stern, to some extent, from private (sexual) disappointments. Coming as it does from one of the novel's least admirable characters, the functional equivalent of one of Cinderella's stepsisters, it clearly works to nudge the reader away from any total condemnation of Kotzebue. The second sign is, as Zelicovici suggests, the focus on the players rather than the play. Lovers' Vovs is only quoted once, and is never performed. Austen's fascination is not with the play itself but with its effect on English youth, not so much with its unsuitability but with Tom Bertram's startlingly unqualified judgment about it: "there is nothing that will suit us altogether so well, nothing so unexceptionable, as Lovers' Vows" (139).



What should be clear by now is that, in speculating about Kotzebue, Austen was hardly alone. Her contemporaries worried about his damage to English values; critics since then have puzzled over the phenomenon of his English popularity. Mansfield Park addresses both these matters, both effects and causes, but does so by taking a characteristic Austen middle way. The causes, Austen's novel suggests, may be overrated, eradicable; and the effects, to some extent, may be positive. If German sentimental drama threatens certain English values in the immediate sense, in the long run it can bring about a clarification of those values, and chief among them is right sensibility.

19. In explaining to themselves the mystery of Kotzebue's popularity in England, literary historians have usually resorted to one of two explanations: a temporary lack of new, high-quality English plays, or a temporary lapse of good taste in English playgoers. Mansfield Park avoids either oversimplification. The Bertram house has no dearth of available material with Shakespeare in its library; and the Bertrams and Crawfords dismiss Shakespeare on grounds that have more to do with utility than taste. His plays do not have a sufficient number of roles for women: "they wanted a piece containing very few characters in the whole, but every character first-rate, and three principal women" (130). Austen's novel plumbs deeper for causes, searching the characters' pasts and psyches. A considerable list results, but one that can be subsumed under a single central explanation: inadequate education.
20. The immediate reason for Kotzebue's introduction to Mansfield Park is the Honourable John Yates, a friend of Tom Bertram's who has "not much to recommend him beyond habits of fashion and expenses" (121). Through Yates Austen suggests to her readers that among Kotzebue's warmest English admirers are mindless, fickle young men and women of leisure in search of novelty, not necessarily, as the anti-Jacobins feared, subversives themselves, but certainly easy prey to the subversion of others; for they immerse themselves so completely in the popular culture of the present that they forget to value cultural traditions. Adjunct to Yates's immersion in the moment is his remarkably insular narcissism and his general disregard for traditional constructs like family, principle, and propriety. Novelty is his supreme value, self-gratification his principal motive; and these pursuits so cut him off from the natural events of domestic life—the death of a relative, for example, or the return of a long-absent father—that he views such occurrences, with chilling distance, merely as obstacles: "to be sure the poor old dowager could not have died at a worse time; and it is impossible to help wishing, that the news could have been suppressed for just the three days we wanted" (122).
21. Yates's hallmark, and a most appropriate one, is his rant. Sir Thomas first encounters him in "his own dear room" ranting on the makeshift stage: "Some one was talking there in a very loud accent—he did not know the voice—more than talking—almost hallooing" (182). Mary Crawford, in reminiscing about the Mansfield adventure later, only remembers this feature of Yates's: "What a difference a vowel makes!—if his rents were but equal to his rants!" (394). The single vowel difference epitomizes, too, as Mary well knows, all that is worst about Yates: his egocentricity, his disregard for domestic tranquillity, his complete failure to hear others. Kotzebue's play is introduced to provincial society here by a social butterfly "without discernment . . . , or diffidence, or delicacy, or discretion" (184)—without, that is to say, ironically enough, the slightest trace of sensibility.
22. But recommended it is, and for that, Mansfield Park emphasizes, the Bertrams and the Crawfords are responsible. Fashion may explain the presence of a play on a London stage, but people must be willing accessories if it is brought into their homes. Most willing, in this case, are Tom, Henry, Julia, and Maria; and Austen offers a number of plausible reasons for their eagerness, some springing from the residual effects of early training, others from their current circumstances. Tom's interest in theatricals is, of the four principals in question, the most harmless, the least reprehensible. He has so much leisure and so few resources for using it "'as to make almost any novelty a certain good" (123). For Henry, too, the idea of a theatrical is a welcome novelty, "'in all the riot of his gratifications ... an untasted pleasure"" (123), but the pleasure he hopes from it makes his interest more culpable than Tom's. He wishes to prolong, and intensify, his flirtation with the engaged Maria Bertram under cover of playacting; and Lovers' Vows will offer him the perfect opportunity. Maria and Julia are also "alive at the idea"' for the very same reason: "Julia did seem inclined to admit that Maria's situation might require particular caution and delicacy—but that could not extend to hershe was at liberty; and Maria evidently considered her engagement as only raising her so much more above restraint, and leaving her less occasion than Julia, to consult either father or mother" (128-29).
23. Self-restraint, as this passage implies, remains largely unfamiliar to the Crawfords and the Bertram daughters, a flaw that Austen traces to their childhood training, then forward to their final flights into the wilderness of unlawful union. As children they are carefully trained in outward accomplishments: Henry learns to read beautifully, Mary to play the hirp, Julia and Maria to play piano, do water colors, and recite such things as the "principal rivers in Russia" or "'the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns!" (18). Of their capacity to memorize, the Bertram children are quite proud; Julia and Maria judge Fanny "ignorant" as a child because she has no such skill (although, as Tave has pointed out, she has by far the best memory 194-204); and, when trying to persuade Edmund to approve of their theatrical project, Tom brings up their father's joy in hearing them recite: "for any thing of tile acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he [Sir Thomas] has always a decided taste. I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned over the dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be'd and not to be'd, in this very room, for his amusement!" (126).
24. Unfortunately, as Sir Thomas realizes belatedly, too little attention was paid to his children's interior development. He had been reserved and scrupulous himself but without teaching his children his own principles: "Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting, that they had never been properly taught to govern their own inclinations and tempers, by that sense of duty which can alone suffice" (463). They grew into adults with polish and poise but without "self-knowledge, generosity, or humility" (19)—three traits very apparent in characters of true sensibility—decorously ruthless in the pursuit of their own pleasures. The best emblem of this pursuit in the novel is Mary Crawford's monopolization of Fanny's horse to gain Edmund's attention and admiration, an enjoyment that is entirely at the expense of Fanny's happiness and health: "Miss Crawford's enjoyment of riding was such, that she did not know how to leave off. Active and fearless ... to the sure pleasure of the exercise, something was probably added in Edmund's attendance. . . . , and something more in the conviction of her much surpassing her sex in general by her early progress, to make her unwilling to dismount" (66-67).
25. Clearly, much more than bad taste impels these young English provincials to prefer Kotzebue before any other author. As Edmund and Fanny believe, it is actually bad judgment: "highly injudicious, and more than injudicious" (125) to be so riotous in the father's grave absence; to pair Maria, even on the stage, with any other man on the eve of her marriage; to represent Agatha and Amelia, "the situation of one, and the language of the other" so "'totally improper for home representation" because "unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty" (137). Tom, Henry, Julia, Maria, and Mary, on the other hand, believe that their choice has nothing to do with judgment: "You take up a thing so seriously," Tom protests to his younger brother, "we mean nothing but a little amusement among ourselves, just to vary the scene, and exercise our powers in something new. We want no audience, no publicity. . ." (125). He "can conceive no greater harm or danger to any of us in conversing in the elegant written language of some respectable author than in chattering in words of our own" (l26). Precisely therein, however, does lie a danger. Rehearsing a language of sentiment which wears the cloak of authority will give the illicit lovers' search for greater sexual freedom a dangerous outlet. They are hence drawn to Lovers' Vows for improper, extra-literary reasons: they intend to divert its sentiment to their own purposes, to use it as an artificial stimulus of emotion and as a screen for their own sensuality.
26. For a time, it must be admitted, they succeed in their design. From the beginning Fanny sees "the selfishness which, more or less disguised, seemed to govern them all, and wondering how it would end" (131). In the distribution of roles, it ends, to a great extent, just as the principals wish. Maria jostles her fiancé Rushworth into a role in which he must never appear on the stage with her. In turn, Henry manages to maneuver Julia out of the way so that Maria can play a romantic part opposite his; then he and Maria rehearse the scene in which they embrace so often that Mary Crawford is reduced to sarcasm (169) and even Fanny at last to exasperation (168). For her part, Mary coerces Edmund into taking part in a way nearly as forward as the actions of the character Amelia that she is to play: "'What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?" (143). Although Edmund joins the troupe late, he, too, manages to rehearse his love scene with Mary with warm participation, and to Fanny's dismay, in her own room (170). In a brilliant sequel parallel to the Sotherton episode, Austen again allows her characters to find alternate space (16) in which to enjoy the sexual intimacy which is actually taboo: there by climbing the gate into the "wilderness," here by escaping to a manuscript where they may read borrowed words of passion.
27. They unwittingly parody, in so doing, a behavior long associated with the movement of sensibility, in which sentimentally saturated passages are read aloud to create a congenial artificial environment in which to foster emotional intimacy among participants. Readers inside or outside texts borrow the emotionally charged language of authors to supplement their own, grown sterile and unfeeling through the double force of propriety and reason. Werther reads Lotte his own translation of Ossian's lament for fallen heroic lovers, for example, a reading which so intensifies their emotions and their emotional identification that it explodes at last into a forbidden kiss and embrace and, shortly thereafter, into the young man's suicide. At its most pathological, in Jauss's view, such behavior can be destabilizing to both the individual self and society in general (AE&IH 215-16, 229). Mansfield Park, as the final section of this essay should show, demonstrates this effect very well indeed.
28. It also presents, with admirable subtlety, a complex of causes behind the preference for Kotzebue: to review some of the most prominent, idleness, hunger for novelty, selfishness, sexual desire, exhibitionism, ease in dissimulation. All these dubious motives, of course, spring from a single remote cause, insufficient childhood training in ethics: all, therefore, are at least theoretically eradicable. For characters already "blunted," "corrupted," "vitiated," words used by Edmund to describe Mary Crawford as he at last sees her (456), however, little hope is held out. Zelicovici calls them "'the incorrigibles" (537), and with good reason. They do not reform; they seem, on the contrary, capable only of moral deterioration; and the effect on them of participating in rehearsals of Lovers' Vows is startlingly negative. It expedites their corruption by placing them, as David Lodge has put it so well, in the " "proximate occasion of sin." (17) In a larger sense, however, tile play is most efficacious in bringing about a clarification of key English values. Although the causes of its popularity are presented as deplorable, the consequences are far from all bad.



Most commentators on play and novel have noticed Lovers' Vows' potential to lead the vulnerable astray. What they occasionally forget is that the characters, not the German play, are held responsible for this. Austen checkmates any reader impulse to view people as the mere products of their environment by allowing both Mansfield Park and Portsmouth to produce exceptionally good children (Edmund, Fanny, and William) as well as exceptionally bad ones. The "lawlessness" (94) of Mary, Maria, Henry, and Julia has already brought them to the brink of socially unacceptable behavior at Sotherton; the rehearsals simply further their seductive designs. The theatricals, however, do force certain people apart and others together in ways that have a permanent effect on the relationships in the book. Only because Julia gets no role in the play does she begin to admit the attentions of Yates, with whom she finally elopes. Only because frequent rehearsals allow Henry and Maria to hold hands and embrace do they gain the necessary audacity to elope after her marriage to Rushworth. And these elopements, so damaging to the reputation of the Bertram family, will in their turn force Edmund to measure the moral shallows of Mary Crawford's mind, abandon his courtship of her, and turn his attention to Fanny, who is, significantly enough, the only woman whose affections in this story do not waver.

30. Not all the principal actors, of course, are affected to the same degree. Tom and Rushworth seem to emerge relatively unscathed; and Mary Crawford manages to maintain some distance from the proceedings, although the histrionic interlude remains a vivid one for her long afterwards, as her later references to it indicate. She continues, for example, to call Yates "'Baron Wildenhaim" (394). On the others, however, the play has had a norm-shattering effect. Maria and Henry identify so completely with their fictional characters that they cease to care about their real lives. The play divides them from their former selves, their former lives, and ultimately, from respectable society. Even though Julia does not participate in the play, moreover, it has its corrosive effects on her as well. The events surrounding the theatricals have so embittered her that she throws aside all propriety and prudence to flirt with the disreputable Mr. Yates. The play thus divides her, too, first from her sister, of whom she is jealous, then, from her family by her elopement. All these last four characters allow the play's fiction to become their reality; they extend Kotzebue's latitude in dealing with a repentant libertine and his long-suffering victim to their own situations, even though they have neither repented nor suffered.
31. The Lovers' Vows scheme, however, also implicates the virtuous characters, threatening to destabilize them, to compromise their integrity. In the face of the incessant pressure of the others, the tender hearts, Edmund and Fanny, find themselves weakening, helping in spite of themselves, and finally questioning the soundness of their own judgment. When Edmund capitulates and agrees to participate, he pleads, like a man of true sensibility, for the need to have empathy, to consider Mary's feelings: "Consider what it would be to act Amelia with a stranger. She has a right to be felt for, because she evidently feels for herself" (154).
32. Fanny, however, is even more emotionally entangled in the theatricals. (18) She at first refuses to act but then is made prompter; when she is asked to substitute as the Cottager's Wife, her own self-doubts have undermined her so much that only Sir Thomas's sudden return prevents her acquiescence; and her misgivings, like Edmund's, spring from her own acute sensibility: "Was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked, so strongly wished for? ... Was it not ill-nature—selfishness—and a fear of exposing herself? ... she was inclined to suspect the truth and purity of her own scruples, and as she looked around her [in her room], the claims of her cousins to being obliged, were strengthened by the sight of present upon present that she had received from them.... she grew bewildered as to the amount of the debt which all these kind remembrances produced" (153) The play stirs many less emotions in Fanny as well—jealousy, anger, melancholy, fear—so many that it is truly remarkable that any critic could suspect her of being too perfect. (19) She dreads especially the representation of the scene Amelia (Mary) declares her love to Anhalt (Edmund). She reads and rereads it "with many painful, many wondering emotions" (167). Fanny's self-command never undergoes a greater test than when she must sit through Edmund and Mary's private rehearsal of the scene as prompter, witness their obvious enjoyment, then praise them when it is over. She meets that test admirably and wins, the approbation of the narrator (170).

The consternation of Edmun and Fanny over the theatricals is variously viewed by the critical community. Some see it as a reason to condemn hero and heroine as spoilsports, insufferable prigs. Others see it as reason enough to condemn Kotzebue and all he stands for, especially sentiment and theatricals or art. In the present context, the situation may be read another way: not as an attack on sensibility, either in the persons of Edmund and Fanny or in the form of Lovers' Vows, but as an anatomy of the effect of the false sensibility of the Crawfords and the other Bertrams on the true sensibility of hero and heroine, an effect more accurately described, as depicted in Mansfield Park, as a test than a threat. Edmund is, to be sure, temporarily drawn into the sentimental revel, and Fanny into the kinds of emotions that destroy Julia's prudence. At the same time, however, Austen's test shows hero and heroine rallying in the face of the challenge. The play does not tempt them, as it does the others, to a state of abandonment, of alienation from self, family, and society. It rather spurs them to sober reflection. It temporarily divides them from themselves and each other, forces them to question both their own integrity and that of the principles on which they base their actions: "Was she right in refusing ... ?" (153); "Her feelings ought to be respected. Does it not strike you so, Fanny? You hesitate" (155); "Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent. Was he not deceiving himself? Was he not wrong? Alas!" (156). As they ponder the problem, however, they eventually articulate their own values, and that with increasing conviction:

Edmund: As we are circumstanced, I must think it would be highly injudicious ... to be imprudent … with regard to Maria whose situation is a very delicate one. (125)
Fanny: ... so totally improper for home presentation.... (137
Edmund: It would show great want of feeling on my father's account, absent as he is, and in some degree of constant danger.... (125)
Fanny: ... the situation of the one [Agatha], and the language of the other [Amelia], so unfit to be expressed by any woman of modesty. (137)
Edmund: It would be taking liberties with my father's house in his absence which could not be justified. (127)

Ultimately their conscience-struck articulation and reflection are not in vain. As a result, they are enabled to meet Sir Thomas upon his return with some vestiges of self-respect, and they are demonstrably strengthened by the process as well. The fact that they bend under pressure is, in the last analysis, a positive sign; it proves them capable of that special combination of sensitive flexibility and principle that distinguishes Austen's protagonists. Each is strengthened privately, moreover, in a different way. Edmund gains self-knowledge, comes face to face with his own fallibility and courageously confesses as much in his candid (generous as well as truthful) remark to his father about Fanny: "Fanny is the only one who has judged rightly throughout, who has been consistent" (187). Fanny, on the other hand, discovers in herself an unrecognized strength, one underestimated frequently by modern critics. In a culture that prizes amiability in women above nearly everything else, one of the hardest things for a young woman to do is resist, say no. Fanny does so, however, twice in this book—once to the theatricals, and once to Henry Crawford's proposal, and the first experience, both in terms of gained self-knowledge and suspicion of Henry, trains her quite literally for the second.


Rousseau was accused by Hannah More of dispensing in the form of his Julie, Emile, and Confessions a "complicated drug" (VI.22). That drug was, needless to say, continental sensibility; and there is every reason to believe that Austen could have said something very similar about Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows. Yet the Mansfield Parks of England, she seems to smile and say, are not necessarily better off if they are never exposed to that temptation. Such an event indubitably represents a test of character and values; but any character or value worth preserving should be able to withstand such a test. If Mansfield Park is no apology for Lovers' Vows, no tribute, then neither is it a condemnation. Sentimental literature, for Austen, was a given, a reality she had dealt with since her earliest fictions and one which showed no sign of waning (and did not, for a century, as we know in retrospect). What she had wished to do from at least Northanger Abbey on was to teach her contemporaries how to read such literature, in order that they could properly value it. Mansfield Park is her one last and most eloquent lesson on that subject. (20)


Syndy McMillen Conger
Western Illinois University

Professor Syndy McMillen Conger teaches at Western Illinois University. She is the author of numerous articles on the Romantic period, and has recently edited a collection of essays on Mary Shelley.



1. Cf. Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen, Feminisn, and Fiction (Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1983), xii, 46, 95 ff., who sees Austen as radical and anti-sentimental; Alistair Duckworth, The Importance of the Estate (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971), 8-9, who sees her as conservative and anti-sentimental; and John Halperin, The Life of Jane Austen (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 50, 54, 76. (back)
2. Two very helpful volumes, which contain between them many classic essays on Austen or Mansfield Park, are B. C. Southam's Critical Essays on Jane Austen (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968) and "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice " and "Mansfield Park": A Casebook (New York: MacMillan, 1976). They will be referred to hereafter as Southam 1 and Southam 2. The reactions of Austen's contemporaries to Mansfield Park are in Southarn 2:200-07; the phrase "all sensibility" is Denis Donaghue's in Southam 1:56. For other interpretations of the novel as anti-sentimental or self-contradictory, see Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1975); Marian E. Fowler, "The Courtesy Book Heroine of Mansfield Park," UTQ 44 (1974): 31-46; Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 163-72; and Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 212-34. A compelling recent argument for self-contradiction is Joseph Litvak's "The Infection of Acting: Theatricals and Theatricality in Mansfield Park," ELH 93.2 (1986): 331-55 (here after cited in the text). He presents Mansfield Park as a highly complex document, "governed by a conservatism … riddled with internal contradictions" (331). A passing reference to Fanny's "claustral sensibility" (347) is the only direct attention Litvak pays to the underlying question central to this essay, that of Austen's stance towards the literary and cultural phenomenon of sensibility; but her attitude towards theatricality is clearly a related question. See section I of this essay and especially note 10 for further discussion of Litvak's article. (back)
3. The outlines of Jauss's new literary history were sketched in his Literaturgeschichte als Prvokations der Literaturwissenschaft (1967), now translated by Timothy Bahti as Toward an Aesthetic of Reception (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1982). He discusses the reading process more closely in Aesthetische Erfahrung und literarische Hermeneutik (1977), also translated by the same press (1982). Jauss's theoretical model for the reading process compares favorably to theose of Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) and Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr. and Mark Bracher, "Literature, Psychoanalysis, and the Re-Formation of the Self: A New Direction for Reader-Reception Theory," PMLA 100 (1985): 342-54. Jauss's works will hereafter be cited in the text as TAR and AEIH. (back)
4. Ryle's remarks are in Southam 1:108; cf. Stuart M. Tave, Some Words of Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 182 and also P. Gila Reinstein, "Moral Priorities in Sense and Sensibility," Renascence 35 (1983): 269-83. Tave will hereafter be cited in the text. (back)
5. Austen's pervasive debt to the literature of sensibility can be inferred from Frank W. Bradbrook's discussion, Jane Austen and her Predecessors (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966) and Kenneth Moler's Jane Austen's Art of Allusion (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968) but is made explicit by Henrietta ten Harmsel's Jane Austen: A Study in Fictional Conventions (The Hague: Mouton, 1964) and Judith Wilt, Ghosts of the Gothic (Princeton University Press, 19870): ch. 3. Recent studies have just begun to emphasize the complexity of Austen's stance towards her predecessors. Hannah More's Works are cited from the American edition of Harper (New York, 1835). Volume and page number will hereafter be included in the text. (back)
6. This minority view is defended in Ian Watt's often cited 1961 essay, "Sense Triumphantly Introduced to Sensibility" (Southam 2:119-29); R. F. Brissenden's Virtue in Distress (New York: barnes and Noble, 1974), chs. 2 and 5; and Jean Hagstrums's Sex and Sensibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 1-23, 268-74. Three exceptionally useful essays on sensibility are those of Stephen D. Cox, "The Stranger Within Thee": Concepts of the Self in Late Eigtheenth-Century Literature (Pittsburg: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980); William Empson, The Structure of Complex Words (London: New Directions, 1951), 250-69, 306-10; and Raymond Williams, Keywords (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 235-38. (back)
7. Page numbers cited the text are to R. W. Chapman's edition of Mansfield Park, vol. 3 of The Novels of Jane Austen (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1934). Patricia Meyer Spacks' The Female Imagination (London: Allen & Unwin, 1976) which investigates Austen's character psychology, indicates her recognition of traits central to right sensibility, especially attending to others and concealing of feelings. (back)
8. Dvora Zelicovici, "The Inefficacy of Lovers' Vows," ELH 50 (1983): 531-40, hereafter cited in the text, may be profitably compared to E. M. Butler's earlier "'Mansfield Park' and Kotzebue's 'Lovers' Vows,'" MLR 28 (1933): 326-37 and William Reitzel's "Mansfield Park and Lovers' Vows," RES 9 (1933): 451-56. (back)
9. The citations are from the English translation of the play that Austen and her contemporaries favored, Mrs. [Elizabeth] Inchbald's of 1798, now available in vol. 7 of Eighteen th-Centu ry English Drama (Frankfurt: Minerva, 1969). It is also available in the Chapman edition of Mansfield Park. It will hereafter be cited in the text by act, scene, and page number. (back)
10. For the suggestion that Mansfield Park may be a self-conscious demonstration of comic theatricality, I am indebted to Vladimir Nabokov's essay on Austen's novel in his Lectures on Literature (London: Weidenfels and Nicolson, n.d.), 9. Litvak's article offers occasional support for inferences drawn in my essay (see esp. notes 13, 15, 16, 18), but as much as I admire Litvak's feminist interpretation, it would be disingentious of me to make light of our differences. His post-structuralist reading of the novel may not be easily reconciled with my phenomenological one. For an incisive discussion of the nature of the incompatibility of the so-called hermeneutics of suspicion and the hermeneutics of trust, see Paul B. Armstrong's "The Conflict of Interpretations and the Limits of Pluralism," PMLA 98.3 (1983): 341-52. My interpretation disagrees most significantly with Litvak's claim that the society at Mansfield Park relies on theatricality on an everyday basis, both before and after the Crawfords' visit, for its continued survival (346). As I read the novel, Sir Thomas, Fanny, and Edmund become increasingly aware that exclusive emphasis on external performance can lead to folly, and beyond that, to the very kind of destructive immorality it seeks to prevent. The theatricals episode, in other words, effects their cure (see especially my introduction and section IV). Litvak, in contrast, is fairly certain that the novel, whatever Austen may have intended, does not achieve such a cure: "the theatricals serve not as a homeopathic cure—although Austen might want us to view them as one—but as a 'diversion' ... from the subtler and more comprehensive theatricality that persists long after Sir Thomas Bertram has reclaimed his study" (343). (back)
11. L. E Thompson, Kotzebue: A Survey of His Progress in France and England (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1928), 54 will be hereafter cited in the text. Walter Sellier's dissertation stresses theater history, Kotzebue in England (Leipzig: Oswald Schmidt, 1901). (back)
12. Both of these statements are from the Monthly Review, generally known to be one of the more hospitable journals to German literature in the period: the first from vol. 27 (1798): 580, the other from vol. 29 (1799): 102-3. (back)
13. Two publications that fanned English fear of German literature and fuelled the publications of the anti-Jacobins were John Robison's Proofs of a Conspiracy (London, 1797) and Augustin de Barruel's Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobism (London, 1797-98). The story is usefully recounted in E W. Stokoe's German Influence in the English Romantic Period 1788-1818 (1926; New York: Russell and Russell, 1963) and John Mander's Our Gcrinan Cousins (London: John Murray, 1974). Cf. Litvak: "As in so much poison of theatricality is inseparable from the right wing literature of the period, the poison of foreignness" (338). (back)
14. J. M. S. Tompkins, The Popular Novel in England 1770-1800 (1932; Lincoln University of Nebraska Press, 1961): 317. (back)
15. A reception event in 1813 may have sitrred Austen's memories of the anti-German fears of the late 90s: it certainly did so among periodical reviewers: the publication of de Staël's de l'Allemagne. See Mander 40, 51, and the more thorough Emma Gerturde Jaeck's Madame de Staël and the Spread of German Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1915), 73-76. Litvak's discussion of Hannah Moore and Thomas Gisborne's Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797) suggests that some of the anxiety about the influence of theater on women had to do with the conviction that women's natural propensity to "imitate" and to "conform" rendered them especially vulnerable to corruption from imitations on the stage (335-39). (back)
16. This idea is admirably explored by H. C. Finsen, "Empfindsamkeit als Raum der Alternative: Untersuchungen am Beispiel von Goethes 'Die Leiden des jungen Werthers,"' DU 29 (1977): 27-38. Litvak attributes some of Fanny's unease in such scenes as these to her realization that reading, which she loves, including reading aloud, which she also loves, is not so very different from acting (347). (back)
17. David Lodge, "A Question of judgement: The Theatricals at Mansfield Park," NCF 17 (1962): 275-82 also insists that the theatricals are not bad in themselves but nevertheless do constitute a moral test for the characters involved in them. (back)
18. Cf. Tave, "Fanny … is drawn into the same whirl of unworthy emotions as the others" (191) or Litvak, "Fanny's composure is merely superficial, a defensive fiction" (334). (back)
19. The Myth of Fanny's Perfection has recently been revived by Fowler's article. (back)
20. I wish to thank the NEH and the Fulbright Commission for funding the research that made this article possible. (back)