My Chapman edition of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park included the play Lovers’ Vows by Mrs. Inchbald. I read Mansfield Park last month, and I thought it would be fun and interesting to read Lovers’ Vows, which Austen had made a big part of the plot in Volume I of the novel. I was also curious why Austen did include this particular play as part of the plot. Well, reading the play did turn out to be fun; in fact, I thought Mrs. Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows was hilarious! (Recall that the amateur actors of Mansfield required that the play for their production be both tragedy and comedy.)
The play is short—it’s only 60 pages long in the small, close print of the Chapman edition. Lovers’ Vows is an English adaptation of a German play, Natural Son, by Kotzebue. Chapman confirms that the adaptation by Mrs. Inchbald is the Lovers’ Vows of Mansfield Park: The line which was to have been Edmund Bertram’s, “When two sympathetic hearts meet in the marriage state, matrimony may be called a happy life,” was in Mrs. Inchbald’s version; and Count Cassel’s speeches numbered just “two-and-forty.” Chapman further reports that, “Lovers’ Vows had a great vogue and was frequently reprinted.”
In the preface, Mrs. Inchbald says that she made modifications to the play in order to adapt it to the “English rather than the German taste.” Regarding the character of Amelia (played by Mary Crawford), Mrs. Inchbald says, “The part of Amelia has been a very particular object of my solicitude and alteration: the same situations which the author gave her remain, but almost all the dialogue of the character I have changed: the forward and unequivocal manner in which she announces her affection to her lover, in the original, would have been revolting to an English audience.” Also, the character of the Butler was modified so that he preferred to speak in rhyme and verse rather than prose, thus the reference to the “rhyming Butler” in the novel. The effect is simply funny.
A summary of the plot of Lovers’ Vows follows, but one really needs to read the actual play to appreciate the humor. First, the dramatis personae—after reading the play, one realizes that Austen’s casting was perfect:
- Baron Wildenhaim . . Mr. Yates
- Count Cassel . . . Mr. Rushworth
- Anhalt . . . . . Edmund Bertram
- Frederick . . . . Henry Crawford
- Verdun the Butler . . Tom Bertram
- Cottager . . . . Tom Bertram
- Agatha Friburg . . . Maria Bertram
- Amelia Wildenhaim . . Mary Crawford
- Cottager’s wife . . Mrs. Grant (turned down by Fanny Price)
Lovers’ Vows is set in Germany, and the entire play takes place in the short span of a day. Frederick is a German soldier who has come home from war on a leave of absence, and is eager to see his beloved mother, Agatha, after an absence of five years. By happenstance, he meets his mother by a country road, starving and almost dying. In this bittersweet moment of seeing each other again after a long absence, and the discovery of the tragic circumstances of Agatha, it is revealed to Frederick by his mother that he is an illegitimate son and that his father is Baron Wildenheim. Twenty years ago, the young would-be Baron seduced Agatha, who was a poor country girl taken in by his mother. Being young and fearful of his mother’s wrath (it’s all about money), and promising Agatha marriage upon his mother’s death, Wildenheim prevailed on Agatha not to reveal to anyone that he was the father of the child she was carrying. Of course, this meant that Agatha was banished from the Wildenheim castle by her own benefactress. Wildenheim, at the same time went off to France, married well, and had a daughter, named Amelia Wildenheim.
Frederick, of course, is in anguish because of this revelation and the injustice that was done to his mother. But Agatha, at the moment, is in really bad shape and really needs help, so Frederick takes her to a nearby cottage which happens to be inhabited by a kind-hearted, God-fearing (but poor) couple, Cottager and Cottager’s wife, who readily take Agatha in. Because they are but poor, Cottager and his wife do not have any food to offer Agatha for sustenance. So Frederick is forced to go out and beg for money. While Frederick is out begging, Agatha learns from the Cottagers that Baron Wildenheim has been back in the castle for about five weeks. His wife had died and so, after an absence of twenty years, he moved back from France to the Wildenheim castle with his daughter, Amelia.
Count Cassel, who has a “head without brains” and a “bosom without heart” is the suitor of Amelia, staying at the castle for the moment that he might ask for Amelia’s hand in marriage. The Baron and the Count go out hunting and are spotted by Frederick. Naturally, Frederick—who still thinks his father is in France—approaches them to beg for money. The Baron gives him some, but Frederick asks for more. The Baron refuses, and so the desperate Frederick draws his sword and unconvincingly threatens the Baron’s life. Frederick is overpowered by the Baron’s servants and is taken away to be locked up in one of the castle’s towers. But before he is dragged away, Frederick begs for pity for her sick mother, and tells the Baron where she can be found.
Anhalt is the well-respected pastor of the Wildenheim estate, the living being given to him by the Baron himself. Anhalt is also the Baron’s beloved counselor and was Amelia’s tutor when she was younger. Well, it turns out that Amelia is in love with Anhalt (and has no qualms in telling him so in quite a forward manner), and vice versa. Meanwhile, the rhyming Butler has got hold of news that Count Cassel has seduced another woman, and he relates this to the Baron—in verse, to the Baron’s dismay. So the Baron confronts Count Cassel about this, and in the process is reminded of his own youthful indiscretions. Needless to say, Amelia will not be marrying Count Cassel. “Anhalt is not rich but, hey, my daughter will be marrying for love, unlike me,” thinks the Baron.
As it turns out, the Baron has for a long time been remorseful of the folly of his youth and, through Anhalt, had been searching for Agatha for many years so he can atone for his sins, but in vain. So, what a shock it is, indeed, to both the Baron and Frederick, when during an audience arranged by Anhalt, it naturally comes out that they are the long-estranged father and son. The Baron rejoices and embraces his son after recovering from the shock. After a brief battle with his conscience, in which his conscience won with the help of Anhalt, the Baron resolves to marry Agatha and sends for her (poor woman probably still has not eaten at this point). And they all live happily ever after. Finis.
Well, this has been long enough, so I just have one final thought. Recall that Maria Bertram got a lot of flack from her brother, Edmund, for taking on the role of Agatha. Recall also that Henry Crawford was to play the part of Frederick. The novel was explicit that there was impropriety in this. But, but, Agatha and Frederick are mother and son, so what’s the fuss? Well, the fuss is that Agatha and Frederick were constantly hugging and caressing each other when they were in scenes together! At one point, during a tender moment, Agatha presses Frederick to her breast! Sneaky, subtle Austen—without saying anything, she said a lot through Lovers’ Vows. So there you have it. Really funny.
(The images in this post were scanned from my Chapman edition of Mansfield Park.)
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