Do you love films based on Jane Austen’s work or life, well, then you’ll love our theme this month. Grab your popcorn and a soda! It’s time for Movies in May!
I really love watching and re-watching period movies. But one of the best parts comes from catching all those little period details that I missed the last time I saw the movie. My sons and my husband have even learned to enjoy my period films, in large part because of the history discussion that is part of the event. I’d love the share the same experience with you.
Last week we saw the consequences of home theatricals and Maria’s marriage to Rushworth. Today we’ll continue talking about all the fun historical details underlying the plot and the movie adaptation. Find your comfy spot on the couch, grab your popcorn and let’s watch some more!
I’ve embedded a youtube link below. Today we’re going to watch from the 36:30 minute mark to the 1:08:15 mark .
William Price Visits
Fanny’s brother comes to visit. Their exuberant greeting is notable for the era. Polite society was restrained and refrained from open demonstrations of emotion. When Fanny hugs William we see her obvious affection for her brother, but we also see hints of her lower class upbringing and her lack of refinement. Had her Aunt Norris been watching, a stern reprimand would be sure to have followed. (This is also contrary to Jane Austen’s original writing.)
At dinner, William demonstrates rather appalling table manners. Specific rules had to be followed while eating. The soup course could never be refused, even if the diner only toyed with it until the fish course. If one ate the soup, it was scooped with the spoon away from the diner and sipped from the side of the spoon, not the point. Sipping should be accomplished noiselessly—one could not eat too quietly. Eating quickly (which inferred poverty) or very slowly (which inferred dislike of the food) was considered vulgar. Those who showed too much interest in their food or were overly finicky about it opened themselves to criticism.
Diners must not eat with their nose in the plate nor bring food to her mouth with a knife. If food had any liquid, it should be sopped with the bread and then raised it to the mouth. A lady’s napkin belonged in her lap, a gentleman’s tucked in his collar. Between courses, water in finger bowls was available so that mouths could be rinsed or hands washed as fingers were probably used as frequently as forks.
During dinner, a gentleman was expected to entertain the ladies nearest him with engaging conversation. It was not polite to talk behind one guest’s back to another, still less to shout down the table. To reduce general noise and confusion, there were rules of protocol developed for dinner conversation. During the first course, the conversation would flow to the hostesses’ left. When the second course was set, the hostess would turn to the guest on her right, thus “turning the table” and conversation would flow to her right.
The list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones. A polite individual did not ask direct personal questions of someone they had just met. To question or even compliment anyone else on the details of their dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Scandal and gossip should be omitted from public conversation. Any references to pregnancy, childbirth, or other natural bodily functions were considered coarse and carefully sidestepped. A man could sometimes discuss his hunters or driving horses in the presence of ladies though it was generally discouraged.
Fanny’s Coming Out
As part of William’s visit, Sir Thomas decides to celebrate Fanny’s birthday and have her come out in society. He is considering raising her status considerably. After coming out she will be considered an adult, eligible for the attentions of young men and even marriageable.
Although sometime between sixteen and eighteen was the common time for a girl to make her ‘come out’, the exact timing might vary depending on the status of other siblings, especially sisters. There was no hard and fast rule that a family have only one daughter ‘out’ at a time, however, for practical considerations, it was a common practice.
There was no single established way for a young woman to make her entry into society. Girls in the highest levels of society might expect to come out during the London season, starting around sometime after Christmas. She could anticipate a ball in her honor and an official presentation at court to the sovereign. Court presentation required a sponsor and a very specific (and expensive) presentation gown. A whirlwind of society events would follow, all in the hopes of attracting the notice of the right sort of gentleman.
A major event was not necessary, though. A mother might simply allow a girl to begin pinning up her hair (a sign of adulthood) and begin accompanying her on her morning calls and social events to indicate she was out in society. At these events, parents, friends and acquaintances would essentially show her off to potential suitors, for, once a girl was out, a courtship might begin at any time.
Clearly, Sir Thomas wishes to host a nice event for his niece. However Aunt Norris wants Fanny to remember that she does not have the natural born rank that the real daughters of Sir Thomas have and thus she should never consider herself their equal. This attitude was typical of the Regency era. Everyone knew their rank and the rank of those around them. Forgetting one’s rank and taking airs one was not born to was a serious social transgression.
Fanny’s life is changing forever. She is making a huge transition from the world of childhood into adulthood. As the guest of honor, she must open the dancing. This is a place of honor and distinction, putting her above all the other female guests at the picnic, a place she has never before occupied. Her white gown also echoes this point. Until now she has largely worn dark and drab dresses. Her white dress signifies that she has risen in status enough that servants will be available to care for such a garment. Though she still may not have risen to the same status as a daughter of the household, she has clearly risen in her uncle’s esteem.
Dance and Games
At Fanny’s coming out/birthday picnic, the young people are playing Blindman’s Bluff. In this game, the blindfolded player had to catch another player and had three guesses to identify that person by touch alone. Without radio or television, parlor games were a very popular diversion of the era. The game, as many favorite parlor games of the era, allowed for a great deal of otherwise inappropriate verbal or physical contact between the genders, despite the presence of many chaperones. These are portrayed clearly in the film.
Dancing was another favorite pastime for young people as it allowed for relatively private conversation and physical contact otherwise strictly forbidden.
(Just a quite note: Jane Austen’s original did not feature a picnic, but a more traditional party at home, where Fanny was greatly fatigued by the dancing and send to bed early as a result.)
Intercession on William’s Behalf
During the festivities, Fanny learns that Henry Crawford is trying to arrange for her brother William to have a visit with Henry’s step-father, the admiral. While promotion in the navy was largely a matter of seniority and merit, the step from midshipmen to lieutenant was one of the most difficult to make. A patron could make a huge difference in attaining this all important transition. While nothing is assured, such a meeting could be the making of a young officer’s career. So, Henry’s intervention has the potential to change William’s life forever.
William’s probably joined the navy, around age 11, as did most potential officers. At this point in time, he must have had at least 6 years of service already, since he is longing for a promotion to lieutenant.
The navy offered greater potential for social mobility than most institutions in Regency era society. Generally only the sons of gentlemen or perhaps wealthy middle-class parents could enter the path to becoming an officer, but the way was not entirely closed to others. Once a lieutenant, a man could rise through his own merit to a high position, even above those with higher origins. But because of their ‘lower’ origins, the manners of naval officers might pale in comparison to the loftier army officers.
Naval service was dangerous, though, with nearly 100,000 casualties between 1793 and 1815. Battle at sea accounted for less than 10% of naval casualties. Accidents and disease accounted for 80%. Naval wages, even for Captains were notoriously low. Prize money was the only way to wealth and came in various forms.
If an enemy ship was sunk, ‘Head and Gun’ money (calculated by the numbers of men or guns on the enemy vessel) was awarded. Until1808, a 3/8 share went to the captain and the remainder was divided on a diminishing scale, according to rank, among the other officers, commissioned and non-commissioned, and the ordinary members of the crew. After 1808, a slight change was made to the allocation of these shares. If they captured an enemy ship, the Admiralty was often prepared to buy it from them and resulted in higher rewards. The best payouts came if the captured ship was carrying a valuable cargo. This kind of prize money was divided up so officers received more than the ordinary crewmen.
Promotion to Lieutenant
Promotion to lieutenant was perhaps the most difficult step for young men to make in their naval careers. In order to become a lieutenant, a midshipmen had to serve a minimum of six years at sea. On presenting himself as a candidate for commissioning, he would also be asked to show his personal log books for the ships in which he sailed. Then he would take an examination on the topics of writing, mathematics ,astronomy, navigation, seamanship and gunnery. Not all midshipmen passed the test. In practice, some candidates were asked only token questions; others were grilled. It could depend on the mood of the Board and the severity of individual Commissioners. A patron, like Henry’s step-father, could have a direct influence on the mood of the Board and Commissioners.
Many men who passed the examination were never commissioned. Midshipmen passing the examination would then have to apply for commission as a lieutenant on a specific ship. Influence of a powerful friend or family member could open the way for commissioning. If he did not receive a post on the ship he applied for, he would remain a midshipman until he once again applied for a post and received it. Once a man made lieutenant, the prospect of further promotion, all the way up to Admiral was possible.
Hints of Indiscretion
When Maria’s letter comes, Aunt Norris has Fanny read it to her. The letter contains odd and somewhat disturbing news regarding Maria; that she and her husband are not in town together. In general, it was not unusual for couples to be separated. Since many marriages were based more in business arrangements than in romantic love, some couples lived apart often and even conducted affairs. As long as those affairs were discrete, little attention was paid to the situation.
Aunt Bertram though, does not think well of the situation, possible because it is too soon for the couple to be separated since Maria has not borne Rushworth his heir yet.
Aunt Bertram consoles herself with the thought that though her other children have left her, Fanny never well. It seems as though Aunt Bertram has not fully accepted the idea that now that Fanny is out, she too might marry and leave Mansfield Park.
Fanny is surprised when she is summoned for a private interview with Henry Crawford. Typically, a private interview is only permitted for a gentleman to make a proposal of marriage. Her trepidation is obvious and perhaps to ease the way for the conversation and to gain favor in her eyes, he brings up her brother’s new promotion.
Now that William is commissioned, his future full of possibilities. Fanny though, is not impressed enough by this favor to agree to marry him. Her refusal of Crawford might easily be throwing away her only opportunity to be free of her dependency on her Uncle Bertram and be the mistress of her own house. It is no small thing.
Sir Thomas’s reaction is interesting in light of his earlier offer to Maria. When he suggests Fanny has not the luxury to pick and choose, he intimates that with his daughters’ dowries and connections, they have might refuse one offer with the assurance of another one coming along soon. Since Fanny does not have this option, it implies that her Uncle has not gone so far as to provide her a dowry or at least enough of one to make her a desirable match for anyone of their circles. Though he has been her guardian these many years, nothing would have obliged him to do so.
Though harsh sounding in our ears, Sir Thomas accurately reflects Fanny’s prospects. She keeps little society as her aunt’s companion. So there is little opportunity to meet other young people. Moreover, those that she might meet are of Sir Thomas’s social class, one which would require a good dowry or title from a prospective bride, neither of which Fanny can bring into a marriage. When and where else is she going to meet another man the equal in wealth and consequence to Henry Crawford?
Edmund is Ordained
When Edmund returns home, he has been ordained. Though Fanny remarks on ‘The Reverend Bertram’, Edmund would only be referred to this way in letters addressed to him. He would never be referred to as Reverend in speech. Earlier, we learned Edmund’s yearly income from his living will be 700 pounds a year. While this is a paltry sum compared to Rushworth’s 12,000 a year, it is a sizable income compared to a comfortable middle class income of 250 pounds a year. So while far from wealthy, he and his family will be comfortable.
Once appointed to a living, a clergyman’s basic duties were to hold church service on Sundays and hold Holy Communion at least three times a year. Most priests took their sermons from books published for the purpose. Midweek duties included baptisms, marriages and funerals and visiting the sick. In addition, parish meetings, at which the clergyman officiated, discussed local affairs including charity, parish employment, care of the poor, repair and maintenance of the church and election of the churchwardens. The parish was responsible for the administration of the poor laws and elected Supervisors of the Poor who collected the Poor Rate taxes from the wealthier parishioners. Road maintenance was also a responsibility of the parish and two Surveyors of Highways were appointed to supervise the maintenance and repair of the roads. Thus, the clergyman played a major role in the life of his parish community. Join me soon for the next episode The Regency Interpreter on Mansfield Park.
Changing Fanny’s Mind
Edmund discusses Henry’s proposal with Fanny as well as his own affections for Mary Crawford. He is somewhat kinder that Uncle Bertram, but he to brings up the notion that Fanny should want to feel affection for Henry–a thinly disguised suggesting that she accept his proposal–on the basis of gratitude for Henry’s attention to her AND for her uncle’s support through the years and allowing her to come out in society.
This is one of those moments, where, in my humble opinion Edmund is at his worst, not really supporting Fanny at all, though giving some appearance that he is. I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Aunt Norris offers her opinions of Fanny quite freely. It is interesting to note that Aunt Norris is the widow of the vicar who filled the living that Sir Thomas bestowed upon him (and will go to Edmund). Vicars, though appointed for life, did not have a retirement program nor provisions for the widows. If they could not continue to manage their parish responsibilities, they would have to relinquish the living or hire a curate out of their own pocket. Upon the vicar’s death, his wife would be effectively homeless. Hopefully provisions were made in her marriage settlements or by her husband during their marriage, otherwise she would become dependent upon her children, relations, or in worst case, on the charity of the parish.
Aunt Norris is as dependent on Sir Thomas as Fanny is. It is possible that she attempts to prove her usefulness to Sir Thomas as a way of insuring her place at Mansfield Park.
Sir Thomas proposes to leave Fanny to a period of solitary reflection so that she might better consider her situation. Although it appears rather cold, he is trying to do his best for Fanny. Given that marriage was the only viable option for women in the era and with having little or no dowry could prove an insurmountable obstacle to marriage, Fanny might never have another chance at matrimony. Clearly, at least at this point in the story, he is more concerned about the financial ramifications of marriage the more relationship oriented ones, though as we know, that will change soon. His attitudes were very typical of his social class, for the era.
It is noteworthy that Fanny is left home alone without a companion. Young women of the day were not left without chaperones. That Fanny is speaks strongly of her uncle’s disapproval, almost a statement that she is not worthy of such care as would be taken with one of his daughters. This is a little throwback to her earlier status in the family.
(It is worthy of note that this is a place where the movie takes liberties with the story, as in Jane Austen’s original manuscript, Fanny was sent back to Portsmith to see her family and did not return until after the revelation of Maria’s misbehavior.)
Fanny sets about to writing Edmund a letter, but sets aside her first attempt. Paper in the Regency was expensive and a full, nearly unused sheet would not be discarded. We have to presume she is too disturbed right now to carefully cut off the part she wants to discard and that later, she will do so and use the remaining paper for another purpose.
She writes with a quill pen, which was the standard for the era. Most likely it is a goose feather, taken from the left wing of a living bird. (Right handed writers preferred left wing feathers to write with as they curved the proper direction over the hand.) One did not pluck a feather from a bird and immediately start writing with it. Quills were generally professionally prepared and sold by stationers, already cut and trimmed to be writing instruments.
More Improper Behavior
While the rest of the family is away, Henry Crawford arrives to visit Fanny, but he arrives unannounced, seeking her out in the garden. In the era, when someone called, they presented their card at the front door to servant who attended the door. The card would be then taken to Mistress of the home who would decide if she was ‘at home’ to that person. If she was, the servant would then usher the visitor into room where the mistress was set to receive company.
A young woman like Fanny would not receive a male visitor without a chaperone. Henry completely circumvents these conventions, demonstrating both his poor manners and his lack of respect for Fanny. Though his impulsiveness might appear romantic, it was the way one treated a mistress or courtesan, not a respectable lady. He even goes so far as to try to kiss her, which again, was not what a respectable man did with a woman not engaged to him. Henry Crawford may have feelings for Fanny, but his actions suggest that he has little intention of treating her as a respectable lady, even if she does marry him.
Henry, though, is not the only one whose behavior is questionable. Tom is in New Market, drinking and gambling. Such behavior was common for privileged first sons who would never have to work for a living. Gambling debts though, could put a heavy burden on an estate. Unlike debts to merchants which could, and often were, put off indefinitely, debts of honor had to be repaid. Many merchants lost everything waiting for upper class customers to pay their bills. While they had some recourse, they could file a Writ of Debt with the magistrate to press for collection, those documents were expensive. Sometimes several merchants would come together to file one. But, that practice could be damaging to their reputation and future business, potentially driving wealthy clients away
With Henry Crawford rebuffed a second time, Tom making merry in New Castle, and Edmund in London trying to win Mary Crawford’s hand, poor Fanny’s world is turning upside down. Join me next week for the final installment of Mansfield Park–you wouldn’t want to miss Fanny’s happy ending- would you?