Theatricals and Theatricality in 'Mansfield Park'


  • Penelope Gay


Julia Bertram may have missed out on the starring role she wanted in Lovers' Vows, but her author compensates her with the fine melodramatic entry and speech which bring down the curtain on Volume I (or Act 1?) of Mansfield Park: 'the door of the room was thrown open, and Julia appearing at it, with a face all aghast, exclaimed, "My father is come! He is in the hall at this moment." The theatricals playa complex role (it is hard to avoid such figures of speech) in Mansfield Park, and their placing as the chief concern and narrative climax of Volume I ensures that we are at least subconsciously made aware of their symbolic significance - not only for the moral conflict but also for the very form of the novel. Theatricality - the employment of the ambiguous idea that 'all the world's a stage' - works in this novel to crystallize a mode of apprehending the characters and their story as being other than what we normally expect of a novel - or to be precise, what we expect of 'The Author of "Pride and Prejudice" ,, as the title-page announces. A. Walton Litz makes the point that Mansfield Park deliberately sets out to deny the expectations raised by the novelistic perfection of Pride and Prejudice: Fanny is the antithesis ofthe conventional heroine, the reverse of Pamela [or, as Trilling more aptly argues, of Elizabeth Bennet], a young woman who denies the role of Cinderella ... [Mansfield Park] deprives the reader of wish fulfilment ... in the end the charming lover is rejected ... the reversal ofthe fairy-tale may be seen as part of a general attack on the dangers of 'fiction'. This paper attempts to demonstrate one of the methods by which Jane Austen subverts our pleasant expectations of 'fiction', substituting instead, at one level of the prose, the sterner method of allegory, and specifically that of the English tradition typified by the morality play.