In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the recent successor to the country estate Sotherton Court, James Rushworth, plays the role of fop in both the rehearsals of Elizabeth Inchbald’s eighteenth-century comedy Lovers’ Vows and in the Mansfield society. While most fops represent a caricature of the “born” gentleman, a few are revealed to be impostors, aspiring members of the middling or lower orders. Yet the born gentleman is actually another pretender.
Like earlier playwrights, Austen uses the political figure of fop and fop-as-pretender to show that the notion of the born gentleman and his inherent prerogative is ultimately not tenable. Both enter the stage to make their claims to birth (and/or fortune), but given the impossibility in the past of verifying lineage (because of the uncertainty of paternity), the fop’s claim is potentially as dubious as the so-called pretender’s. Indeed, Rushworth’s reliance on ostentatious appearance and action to signal his birth both insinuates its dubiousness and reveals the born gentleman to be a product of discourse and performance. While his country house, moreover, invokes historical debates over claims to illustrious births, the world of theater reinforces the idea that the identity of gentleman is not naturally given but the product of role-playing. A teasing Austen, then, asks us to decide whether Rushworth, who, as Alistair M. Duckworth suggests, “has come to his inheritance out of the direct line” (36), is a born gentleman or a pseudo-gentleman, an impostor—only to insinuate that there is no inherent difference between them. Through the use of the roles of fop and pretender, Austen ultimately suggests that rather than an uncertain birth, signalled by self-display, it is virtue, the performance of his duty toward the nation, that makes a man a gentleman qualified for moral and political leadership.
The figure of the comic fop, a caricature of the affected gentleman, rose to popularity on the Restoration stage. Mark S. Dawson observes that “foppish characters, and their later manifestations known as ‘beaux’ etc.,” in the late Stuart theater, “were those guilty of placing too much emphasis on certain things, modish clothes, practised gestures, pampered bodies, as signs of their status” (148). Wearing a periwig, dazzling costumes, and an ornamental, rather than functional, sword, adopting affected gestures, and mincing his steps in high-heeled shoes, the fop would enter the stage to make his claim to innate gentility. Yet, as Dawson argues, in his reliance on visual signs to signify his unverifiable birth, the fop unwittingly put into crisis the notions of inherent gentility and inherited rank (162–63). Susan Staves observes that “from about 1690 on, a number of playwrights are not sure that their fops are well-born after all” (427). With “the increasing availability of fashion to middling and lower orders,” she notes, the ‘pretender’ began to imitate on and off stage the appearance of the gentleman (428). Yet the opposition between the innate gentleman and pretender is not tenable.
The born gentleman’s claim to innate gentility was potentially as false as the pretender’s. As Dawson observes, the fop often presented himself as a man of birth and his “power . . . as a natural inheritance legitimated by lineage” (12). This inheritance was supposedly passed on together with a country estate. Yet birth, succession, and inheritance proved complicated matters at a time in history “when one’s parentage could not be proved absolutely, bloodlines verified” (14). Birth, whether potentially real or pretended, had to be made transparent in accordance with the discourse of gentility. A performance of ostentation, reinforced by ownership of a country estate, was thus construed as a sign of gentility (14). The discrepancy between the fop’s claim to an innate genteel identity and his reliance on cultural signifiers, such as fancy clothes, affected manners, and a country estate to signal it, provoked laughter and ridicule (162–63). In Mansfield Park, Austen warns us that we must not be taken in by signifiers of gentility or, indeed, by the very idea of a gentry distinguished by sustained bloodlines and inherited, innate merit and pre-eminence.
Once Mrs. Norris resolves to find a suitable husband for her niece Maria, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram’s eldest daughter, Rushworth materializes out of nowhere. The aunt seeks to contrive a match whenever “in the company of men of fortune, and particularly on the introduction of a young man who had recently succeeded to one of the largest estates and finest places in the country”—that is, Rushworth (44). Dawson observes that gentlemen were said to be not only “of . . . birth,” but also “of . . . ‘fortune’ or ‘estate’” (12). Yet their definition in terms of fortune only might identify the suitors who are mentioned before Rushworth as pseudo-gentlemen, who have through their economic power risen into the gentry. Given their priority in this introduction, they appear to threaten to usurp the pre-eminence of Rushworth as the true gentleman in this society. Mrs. Norris’s consideration of them as potential suitors for a baronet’s daughter might be an indication of the social recognition they have acquired. Rushworth, on the other hand, appears to be a proper gentleman. His ownership of an inherited landed estate seems to put in evidence his birth and innate superiority, untainted by vulgar monetary transactions.
The reader is warned, however, not to take things at face value. Rather than attest to Rushworth and his mother’s place in a time-honored genteel culture, Sotherton itself raises doubts over it. Indeed, the history of the place puts into crisis the very notion of a legitimate and superior genteel culture. Rushworth’s betrothed, Maria, her siblings Julia and Edmund, their cousin Fanny Price, Mrs. Norris, and Mary and Henry Crawford are invited by the Rushworths to appraise the “ancient manorial residence of the family” (96). In Austen’s novels, the country estate functions “as a metonym of an entire cultural inheritance” (Duckworth 26). Prior to their visit, Edmund tells Fanny that Sotherton dates back to Queen Elizabeth’s rule. Mrs. Rushworth indeed speaks of the family’s “rise and grandeur, regal visits and loyal efforts” (99). She guides their guests through the house and also takes them to inspect the chapel, which, she informs them, underwent changes in James II’s time. Yet both Queen Elizabeth and James II, whose name Rushworth bears, were derided as pretenders. The fact that Mrs. Rushworth has previously consulted the housekeeper on the history of the house reinforces the suspicion that she might not be the widow of its previous owner, the late Mr. Rushworth. Nor might her son be his direct heir. There is, moreover, mention of “family portraits” (99), but Mrs. Rushworth does not draw her guests’ attention to her or her son’s portraits, an omission that suggests their absence. The uncertainty of the Rushworths’ origin, then, suggests the impossibility of an unbroken lineage, which the pretentious gentry insisted legitimized their exercise of power in society.
The history of Sotherton, then, links Rushworth, the potentially false heir, with succession crises in England. It reminds us that even the birth and/or legitimacy of royal heirs and monarchs of the past were the object of heated debates. As noted above, Sotherton invokes the time of Elizabeth and James II. The queen’s career was not unlike that of the socially mobile fop: both were derided as pretenders but rose to power.1 James II was dethroned for his supposed ambition to rule as absolute monarch and restore Catholicism to England; he fled to France. Dawson points to the close connection between the fop of uncertain rank and the exiled Stuarts: “A parodic dialogue seems to have developed between derisive representations of the gentleman-as-fop and propagandistic depictions of the exiled Stuarts, particularly James ‘The Third’ who was otherwise known as the ‘Pretender’” (189). Further, the Pretender, Dawson points out, was seen by some as doubly illegitimate: “Although he bore all the signs of royal pedigree, many believed that the Pretender so-called was not James II’s true heir” (189). Rushworth, too, flaunts the gentleman’s status symbols but might not be the late Rushworth’s direct heir.
Rushworth’s very surname not only alludes to his stage origin but also appears to insinuate his recent gentrification. He might have been an obscure relation with no claim to gentility or a younger son who was not intended to inherit either his father’s country estate or fortune. Dawson observes that such “[younger] gentry sons might turn to urban trades or professions as life alternatives of a rather ambiguous kind” (155). They were, for example, apprenticed to city merchants or men in other city trades (155–56). Their claim to gentility would thus be impaired, although not altogether declared null and void. Yet what makes Rushworth a false heir is not his dubious birth but his picking from a mixed legacy only the vice of idle self-display rather than virtue in the form of service to the nation.
Rushworth is, as noted above, associated with Elizabeth, James II, and the so-called James III, who loved ostentatious self-display, utterly fatal to the coffers of the nation. English Puritan austerity condemned ostentation as a vice imported through the exiled Stuart kings from the court of Louis XIV. On the other hand, Elizabeth also served her country, and under her long rule, the nation, divided over political and religious issues, began to prosper. Yet Rushworth apparently has no desire to serve his country. Mary Crawford, unable to account for his idleness, observes to her sister, Mrs. Grant, “‘A man might represent the county with such an estate’” (189). Mrs. Grant replies, “‘When Sir Thomas comes, I dare say [Rushworth] will be in for some borough, but there has been nobody to put him in the way of doing any thing yet’” (189). Rushworth’s lack of initiative, his failure to assume his duty toward England, marks him as a “fake” gentleman.
The Sotherton episode functions as a prelude to Rushworth’s entrance into the world of theater.2 The theater is a site of role-play, masquerade, and visual spectacle. It highlights not only the dubiousness of Rushworth’s claim to an illustrious birth, but also the performativity of the supposedly inherent identity of gentleman or, indeed, any other social identity.
George Colman the Younger’s The Heir at Law, one among the comedies considered for performance at Mansfield Park and an important intertext in the novel (Byrne 188), seems to reinforce the assumption of Rushworth’s socially ambiguous position. When Lord Duberly dies and his son and direct heir, Henry Moreland, who has been shipwrecked, is falsely reported to be dead as well, an obscure relation, the merchant Daniel Dowlas, inherits both the family estate and title of lord. He is thus transformed into “a fake aristocrat, a pretender” (Byrne 192). Rushworth and his mysterious friend Smith, who, his surname implies, is of plebeian origins though presently the owner of a small estate, appear to have undergone a similar social transformation. What makes Dowlas/Duberly, like Rushworth, a pretender or false heir is his preoccupation with status symbols and his failure to fulfil his inherited duty to the community. When Henry, the true heir, returns to England, Dowlas/Duberly and his family—unlike Rushworth and his friend Smith—are returned to their original position in society.
When the group of amateur players decides to put on Lovers’ Vows, a popular comedy, Rushworth “recollect[s] that he had once seen the play in London” (162). Byrne speaks of the “socially diverse audience of box, pit and gallery” that delighted in comedies presenting reversals of rank (64–65). The absence of any indication as to where Rushworth took his seat in the socially stratified London theater reinforces the ambiguity that pervades Rushworth’s original status. He remembers only the character Anhalt, who seems to him “a very stupid fellow” (162). Anhalt, a poor clergyman, as Amelia tells her father, Baron Wildenhaim, thinks “that birth and fortune are inconsiderable things, and cannot give happiness” (2.2; 581). Rushworth’s social pretensions appear to affect his response to Anhalt.
Rushworth later performs, as one among a socially mixed cast of amateur players, in the rehearsals of Lovers’ Vows at Mansfield Park. The cast also includes the children of a baronet, Tom, Maria, Julia, and Edmund Bertram; the younger son of a lord, Tom’s friend John Yates; the financially independent but socially adrift Mary and Henry Crawford; and the wife of a clergyman, Mrs. Grant. Fanny, a poor relative of the Bertram family, is persuaded, albeit with difficulty, to stand in for Mrs. Grant at the full rehearsal of the play. As this socially diverse group signals, the popularity of the home theatricals spread “from fashionable aristocratic circles to the professional middle classes and minor gentry” (Byrne 3). All—except Fanny—wish to display their leisure, wealth, and cultivation, in short, their gentility. Yet as an actor Rushworth unwittingly deflates his claim to superior birth.
Austen casts Rushworth in the role of the socially ambiguously positioned actor and, more specifically, fop in order to insinuate, once again, his own uncertain origin as he unwittingly exposes the performativity of genteel identity. Straub observes that “the image of the actor was ambiguously positioned in relation to class hierarchies from the outset of the eighteenth century; he is represented, over the course of the century and often simultaneously, as servant or gentleman” (258). Actors were often confused with their costumed performances of socially diverse characters, some among them experiencing reversals of rank. Rushworth’s fancy clothes, which seem to signal his genteel birth, might be misleading as well. He and others among the theatrical group are more precisely suggestive of strolling players, who moved from place to place, performing outside licensed theaters, in makeshift spaces. Similarly, many among the players in the novel travel to Mansfield Park, where, without the consent of the absent Sir Thomas, the billiard room is converted into an “unlicensed” theater. Rushworth arrives from his neighboring estate. Tom and Mr. Yates arrive via different routes from Weymouth. Fanny comes, originally, from Portsmouth, and Henry and Mary from London. The group ultimately embodies a fluid society and the ever on-going process of social ordering.
Like strolling players, the Mansfield players operate outside of the law. In 1737, “the notorious Licensing Act was passed by Parliament, making it illegal for companies to perform without royal patents. . . . The act sought to eradicate the activities of strolling players and all unlicensed theatres, many of which were feared to be disseminating degenerate material and scurrilous attacks on monarchy and Parliament” (Perry 21). The play that the Mansfield Players choose, Lovers’ Vows, might be read as containing “degenerate” or politically “seditious” material as it puts into question the notion of inherited rank. At the play’s conclusion Baron Wildenhaim marries Agatha, a former servant he seduced as a young man, and makes their illegitimate son, Frederick, a poor soldier, his heir. The Baron’s blood lineage thus absorbs, probably not for the first time, a commoner’s blood. He also consents to the marriage of his legitimate daughter, Amelia, to the poor Anhalt, rather than to the foppish Count Cassel. Rushworth, as an actor who plays the fop, unwittingly becomes instrumental in undermining the notion of inherent gentility. Indeed, he is reminiscent of players in the public theater who, wearing fancy costumes as well as adopting affected speech and bodily gestures, exposed the performativity of genteel identity. They became objects of censure and fascination alike.3
Rushworth sees the part of Count Cassel as his chance to flaunt his gentility on the stage. It will allow him, he boasts, to “‘come in three times, and have two and forty speeches. That’s something, is not it?’” (164). Yet, ironically, in an implied act of social castration, his lines have been trimmed considerably by Maria. At a time when one’s parentage could not be certified absolutely, the Frenchified fop that Rushworth is to play seeks to enact his birth through ridiculous self-display. Cassel’s overpowering perfume, his “caper[ing] round” Amelia (2.2; 580), and his elegant gun, the butt inlaid with mother-of-pearl, make the Count an object of ridicule and laughter. Frederick, a soldier, a man of martial strength, self-discipline, and duty as well as feeling, represents the traditional antithesis to the fop (Dawson 185).
In the rehearsals, Rushworth reveals a taste for extravagant costumes, like the Count’s affected manners a vital part of the performance of genteel identity. He is, he announces, ‘“to come in first with a blue dress, and a pink satin cloak, and afterwards am to have another fine fancy suit by way of a shooting dress’” (163). Yet such tastes and manners identify him as both the foppish gentleman obsessed with fancy costumes and the pseudo-gentleman who has availed himself of his social better’s wardrobe. We witness his unwitting exposure of their common attempt to put in evidence a supposedly illustrious birth via such artificial cultural signs as dress. His costumes also expose the reduction of the role of gentleman to idle, narcissistic self-exhibition. His shooting dress implies the hunting gentry’s exemption from productive labor and social responsibility.
Rushworth’s notorious pink satin cloak is by far the more interesting item. Its color and delicate texture imply the effeminacy traditionally, as Staves remarks, associated with the fop (414), who leads a life of ease. The notion of foppishness as effeminate behavior and manners is reinforced by the cloak’s allusion to eighteenth-century actors’ “alleged love of spangled satin,” which, Straub observes, raised anxieties about male identity and sexuality (264). Rushworth’s pink cloak and blue dress underneath, moreover, hint at the fop’s construction as sexually ambiguous. He is also ambiguous in a non-sexual sense as the fop represents a baffling mixture of “culture and selfhood, identity and discourse” (Dawson 22). In other words, the fop insists that his is an innate identity but ironically relies on cultural signs to announce it. Austen suggests that once these signs are removed, we are unlikely to find innate merit.
The fop and pretender both embrace the love of ostentatious self-display inherent in genteel culture. The ideal of the gentleman’s paternal duty toward his community and nation is forgotten. Indeed, Mrs. Rushworth’s efforts to overcome her ignorance of the cultural inheritance emblematized in Sotherton and her son’s inability, in the rehearsals, to remember his lines suggest their lack of a memory. Upon Sir Thomas’s unexpected return from Antigua, both the rehearsals and Rushworth’s aspiration to play a count abruptly come to an end. Rushworth eventually marries Maria, but after her elopement with Henry his marriage and hence his political and economic alliance with the rural gentry ends as well. The cuckold scenario, Dawson remarks, “expressed . . . an inability to identify definitively who belonged where and why [in the social order] in the first instance” (44).
Towards the end of the novel, Austen sorts out who does and does not belong to the rural gentry on account of his (or her) character, rather than according to social standing. But although he is not exposed as a pseudo-gentleman, Rushworth, after his divorce from Maria, is no longer part of the Bertram family’s social circle. His inability to maintain a household and, on a larger scale, to bind together and lead a community, rather than the uncertainty of his origin, brings about the end of his alliance with the rural gentry. When confronted with his wife’s infidelity, he turns to an old friend of Sir Thomas, Mr. Harding, for advice. Mr. Harding seeks to restore the peace in Rushworth’s household, but is “counteracted . . . by the influence of Mr. Rushworth’s mother,” who authorizes her maid-servant to make known to the world Maria’s misconduct (521). Rushworth’s ineffectualness in his own private affairs, then, suggests his inability to lead his community, and as a result he drifts out of the novel.
Yet Rushworth has fulfilled his function as both fop and pretender. His involuntary deflation of genteel birth and self-display paves the way for the gentry’s reformation. Rid as they are of the fop and their own foppishness, the Bertrams absorb, in his place, the initially slighted, poor but virtuous Fanny. Allen Dunn observes that Fanny and her husband, Edmund, rather than the spendthrift elder son, Tom, will inherit Mansfield Park on account of their “moral worthiness” (496). If so, it will be a moral rather than a legal inheritance. Moreover, Fanny’s brother William, who finds a powerful patron and distinguishes himself through his knowledge, ability, and bravery, rises from midshipman to naval gentleman. Austen thus borrows the comic yet highly political fop figure to suggest, in response to the tide of liberalism, that power and leadership in society depend on virtue rather than a dubious birth.
1After her mother, Anne Boleyn, was executed, Elizabeth was declared illegitimate and her claim to the throne nullified. Her elder half-sister, Mary, eventually became queen and, having produced no heir, on her deathbed recognized Elizabeth as her successor.
2Penny Gay and Paula Byrne rehabilitated the allegedly hostile Austen as a lover of the private and public theater, including the fashionable comic theater that represented contemporary social confusion.