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Wordsworth, Jonathan. 'Introduction to Kotzebue's Lovers' Vows, translated from the German by elizabeth Inchbald (1798).' British Women Playwrights around 1800. 15 January 2000. 4 pars. <http://www.etang.umontreal.ca/bwp1800/essays/wordsworth_kotzebue.html>


This introduction is reprinted from Jonathan Wordsworth's Ancestral Voices: Fifty Books from the Romantic Period (Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1996 [1991]) pp. 115-8, with kind permission of the author.

Copyright © Contributor, 2000-2008. 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.

1.

Lovers' Vows has a strange half-life in English literature, known to readers of Jane Austen as the play that all the fuss was about in Mansfield Park, but seldom read or placed in its original context. As Mrs. Inchbald points out in 1798, despite the great number of German plays being translated, 'no person of talents or literary knowledge' had undertaken Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe (Child of Love) since its publication in 1790. Her explanation - interesting in the light of Mansfield Park - is that the play is, in the original, discordant with an English stage. In particular, 'Amelia's love [as portrayed] by Kotzebue is indelicately blunt' (p. iii). Southey's view, expressed the following year, is that, 'though German plays have always something of the ridiculous', Kotzebue is possessed of 'unsurpassed and unsurpassable genius'. His work, however, has invariably a political message:

I wonder his plays are acted here; they are so Jacobinical in tendency- They create Jacobinical feelings, almost irresistibly. In every one that I have yet seen ... some old prejudice or old principle is attacked. (to Wynn, 5 April 1799)
Though described on the title-page as 'From the German', Lovers' Vows is a free adaptation, designed to please an English audience, and brought into line with English modesty. But even when adapted, the play remains an attack on old prejudice and principle. Amelia's directness is the central fact. It can be rendered less 'blunt', but nothing can make it by Austen's standards 'delicate':
Amelia [to her less-than-aristocratic tutor]: It is my father's will that I should marry - It is my father's wish to see me happy - If then you love me as you say, I will marry; and will be happy - but only with you. - I will tell him this. - At first he will start; then grow angry; then be in a passion - In his passion he will call me 'undutiful'; but he will soon recollect himself, and resume his usual smiles, saying, 'Well, well, if he love you, and you love him, in the name of heaven, let it be'. - Then I shall hug him round the neck, kiss his hands, run away from him, and fly to you; it will soon be known that I am your bride, the whole village will come to wish me joy, and heaven's blessing will follow. (pp. 42-3)
Amelia has been taught by the young clergyman, Anhalt (descendant of Abelard and Rousseau's St Preux), that 'birth and fortune [are] old-fashioned things'. Love and integrity are what matter. Her 'indelicacy' is innocent, but there can be no doubt that she is defying class, defying parental authority, defying the taboo which says that a woman shall not make the running in matters of love. To judge from Inchbald's excessive rectitude at the time of Godwin's marriage to Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, she was not one to write these matters off as 'old prejudice'. Nor would she be unaware of making a political statement. She must have been able to accept Kotzebue's jacobinical tendency, as (to Southey's surprise) British audiences accepted it. This despite the threat of French invasion in 1798, and a backlash against radical thinking. 'Kotzebue's Child of Love, in Germany', Inchbald boasts in her Preface, 'was never more attractive than Lovers' Vows has been in England' (p. i). After its run at Covent Garden, the play was staged frequently in London and elsewhere: during Austen's time in Bath, 1801-5, there were six productions at the Theatre Royal.
2. Austen knows Lovers' Vows extremely well, and assumes that her audience does so too (among her characters, Fanny stands out as not having read or seen it). It is important that Edmund and Fanny, as representatives of the author, are against any theatrical presentation whatever. Lovers' Vows is decided upon at a late stage: Austen's major objections would have been the same if the choice had been King Lear. It is wrong to do anything so radical as put on a play in the absence of the head of the family. It is wrong to bring guests from outside the family into the intimacy that drama implies. It is wrong for those of marriageable - that is to say (though Austen would never say say it), sexually arousable - age to adopt roles that leave them unprotected. Acting overrides the safeguards devised by society to keep the sexes at a distance. 'Pray let me know my fate', says Mary Crawford, breaking every possible taboo. 'Who is to be Anhalt? What gentleman among you am I to have the pleasure of making love to?' (Mansfield Park, ed. Chapman, p. 143).
3.

Lovers' Vows is chosen by Austen's characters as an acceptable compromise; by Austen herself, it is chosen for its impropriety, and for the sinuous way in which it can be interwoven with her own plot. Certain correspondences are neat but of little interest: Mr Yates, who plays Baron Wildenhaim, will seduce, and finally marry, Julie Bertram, as Wildenhaim seduces and finally marries Agatha. Agatha is played by Maria, who will be betrayed by Henry Crawford as Agatha is (initially) betrayed by the Baron. Count Cassel and Mr Rushworth are a perfect match in their silliness. The pairing of Amelia and Mary, Anhalt and Edmund, is of quite a different kind. Here there is scope for development, and interaction, and the subtle examination of values. The scene of Amelia's proposal to Anhalt is central both to Lovers' Vows and to Austen's novel. In its portrayal of the different values of Fanny and Mary, and their fight for the soul of Edmund, Mansfield Park narrows down to the episode of the play. And the episode of the play narrows down to the scene in the chilly East Room, as Mary and Edmund come in turn to make use of Fanny as prompter.

4. 'Have you ever happened to look at the part I mean?' Mary asks, oblivious of Fanny's love for Edmund, and of her painful brooding over the scene in question:
Here it is. I did not think much of it at fast - but, upon my word -. There, look at that speech, and that, and that. How am I ever to look him in the face and say such things? Could you do it? But then he is your cousin, which makes all the difference ... (Chapman, p. 168)
Edmund arrives, also unbidden. Together he and Mary play out before Fanny the declaration of love that she can never make. The Mansfield theatricals tend to be regarded as a quaint and slightly inexplicable episode: why the fuss, when the Austen children themselves had enjoyed acting? The more one looks at the coincidence of play and novel, however, the more likely it seems that Lovers' Vows was Austen's starting-point. Edmund (as clergyman, in effect tutor) forms the character and values of Fanny, as Anhalt had formed Amelia; Fanny repays him with all Amelia's staunchness and love. But social positions have been reversed. Fanny, as poor relation, is required to depend wholly upon her own worth; Edmund, meanwhile, is given enough standing to make him an attractive match. Austen is thus enabled to complicate her plot by introducing in Mary the sort of woman who, within the contemporary English scene, might indeed have the forwardness that Amelia is permitted to show. Kotzebue has been nearly turned to the defence of an 'old principle'.
 

Jonathan Wordsworth
St. Catherine's College, Oxford

Professor Jonathan Wordsworth teaches at St. Catherine's College, Oxford. He is also University Lecturer in Romantic Studies, and Chairman of the Wordsworth Trust. He is the editor of more than hundred volumes in the Woodstock facsimile series.