Whatever happened to adultery?

By December 5, 2012Books, History, Religion, Society

The leaps in my post the other day from the Turkish influence on Mozart’s music, to Beethoven and the German playwright Kotzebue, and then to Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, caused me to re-read that novel. I think it is the least enjoyable of her small set, but it does have, at its core, the developing sexual relationships of five young people that could be the basis for a modern television series.

I’d set it out like this. Family A has two sisters, Maria and Julia, a brother, Edmund, and a cousin, Fanny. Family B has a brother and sister, Henry and Mary, who are new arrivals. Apart from Fanny, they are all well off, and live in two houses close to each other. Maria is already engaged to someone else. Henry decides to flirt with the two sisters, who are most willing to be flirted with. Mary is attracted to the brother, who thinks she is gorgeous. There is a problem, however, since Edmund is about to become a clergyman, and Mary is a worldly young woman who doesn’t find the prospect of being married to a clergyman at all attractive.

Fanny is the observer of what happens, which is that in the long absence of the the father of Family A the young people engage in amateur theatricals that to a degree prefigure, and bring on, their various attractions to one another. Julia is furious because her sister already has a man, and she feels that Henry should be paying proper attention to her, not to Maria. Maria, for her part, finds Henry much more attractive than the man to whom she is engaged, since he has nothing to recommend him but a stack of money. Mary and Edmund rehearse their parts, which are those of lovers. The return of the stern father ends Act One, before anything much happens, though it gets pretty close.

Henry decides to go away for a while, which infuriates Maria, who marries and goes off on an extended honeymoon and then to other houses. Julia leaves too, which reduces the group but allows the developing relationship of Mary and Edmund to prosper, to the great but silent distress of Fanny, who has loved Edmund ever since she met him when she was ten. She becomes however, important to the stern father, and grows in beauty and self-confidence to the point where Henry, having returned, first decides to flirt with her and then, having started down that path, falls for her and wants to marry her. Fanny won’t have him, to the horror of her uncle. She has her reasons. Not only does she love her cousin, but she has seen enough of Henry to realise that he is a philanderer. Nettled by the refusal, Henry becomes even more determined, decides to reform his way of living and to win her on his own merits as a new-look good guy.

He gets a fair way in this direction, and has impressed Fanny enough for her to wonder about his character after all, when Henry’s fresh meeting with the now married Maria leads to a renewed flirtation, and then an affair, with Maria’s eventually leaving her home and going ‘under the protection’ of Henry, which was much more than he had in mind. The climax leads to the rupture of the Edmund/Mary relationship, which never quite got to the point of Edmund’s asking her to marry him. Fanny is saved from a marriage with Henry, and in the medium term gets Edmund as her husband, because he realises that he had depended on her all along, and that he really loved her… The forces of good triumph.

Given the right accompaniments, settings and actors, I think this would work quite well in modern clothes. In the very early 19th century setting of the novel, however, Maria’s punishment is extreme. Her father banishes her, when she has lost Henry as well as her husband, to a small establishment in the country somewhere, where her sole companion for the rest of her life is the horrible aunt who is Jane Austen’s nastiest  creation. It sounds ghastly, a form of Hell. Mary’s earlier suggestion to Edmund that everybody chill out and let the wicked pair sort things, perhaps marrying after Maria’s divorce comes through, is the cause of the rupture between Mary and Edmund, who is horrified at the suggestion, as is Fanny. They are, to my mind, impossibly upright.

What would happen in the modern television series? Nothing much. The rich husband would find someone else, Maria, bruised and unhappy, would learn from the experience. She would have a variety of options — find a new career, move to a new place, take up a new hobby, and of course and in time find a new guy. Our sympathies might not be with her, because she is in many ways the architect of her own disaster, but we would know that she will, and needs to, move on. The sequel to the series might be her exploration of those options, through which she becomes a more adult and more interesting character, who finally gets a good guy, with whom she will be happy.

Adultery is no longer grounds for civil action (‘criminal conversation’) as it was in England when Jane Austen wrote her novel, but in our society it remains painful, nonetheless, and it still leads to the break-up of marriages and relationships. Lots of people are unhappy as a consequence, most especially children. But adultery no longer leads to a life sentence of the kind that Jane Austen’s Maria was given. Why? Because marriage in the early 19th century was so much about the linking of families through property. Legitimate descent within marriage was essential for inheritance. Of course, if you had no property then marriage was much less important, though for a woman there was always the question of who would look after you if you became pregnant.

Today, the contraceptive pill, the possibility for women to have interesting and well-paid careers, and the operation of the family court system in dividing the wealth of the family when there is a rupture, have all helped to change the end of a story like that of Mansfield Park. It hadn’t occurred to me before my re-reading of the novel, but when I next hear a feminist complaining that ‘nothing whatever has happened’ I’ll ask her has she read Mansfield Park.

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