As I promised in yesterday’s blog post, “Mansfield Park in Montreal,” I’m posting the second part of Diana Birchall’s “The Scene-Painter,” in which she imagines the details of the story that lies behind Jane Austen’s brief reference in Chapter 20 of Mansfield Park to the man who leaves the house having “spoilt only the floor of one room, ruined all the coachman’s sponges, and made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied.” You can find Part One of “The Scene-Painter” here.
And if you’re going to be in Montreal this weekend for the JASNA AGM, you’ll be able to see another of Diana’s explorations of what’s “behind the scenes” at Mansfield Park, if you come to the play she and Syrie James co-wrote and are co-producing, “A Dangerous Intimacy.”
It did not appear, in succeeding days, that Edmund had influenced Tom in the slightest. The scene-painter spent hours in his chamber, and as Edmund had prophesied, it became a place where the maids and men of the house congregated, joined at all hours by Tom and Yates. Drinking went on and laughter was heard late at night, much to Fanny’s alarm, but as her cousin Tom was at the center of the revelry, she would not be afraid for her own safety, and did not like to speak of the matter. She was aware that any complaint would bring the wrath of Edmund, and she shrank from being the occasion for any high words between the brothers.
Sometimes the doings in Sharp’s rooms went on very late indeed, and then he slept much of the next day, so that the painting was going on very slowly. Perhaps, as he was being paid by the day, that was his intent; but it was the only aspect of the scene-painter’s residence that at all troubled Tom.
“If we don’t get forwarder with the scenes, our theater never will be complete,” he fretted. “Can’t you hurry it up a bit, Sharp?”
“Oh, art takes time to develop,” he said easily. “Never you fear, Tom, we will have a brilliant production. We cannot fail.”
Sharp was, like Tom, a talker, but his topics ranged farther than Tom’s usual gossip about people in town and the horses he was racing. Sharp professed to be interested in ideas, and finding a receptive audience among the maids and men, he was soon lecturing Sarah and Ellen, as well as the three young menservants who were moths to his candle, and loved to hear about the revolutionary new social currents and their spread in enlightened London circles.
“Only think, the shops and the picture-galleries, and going to the theatre every day. How grand London must be!” exclaimed Sarah, a fair-haired eighteen-year-old with round cheeks.
“And all the fine talking, the salons and coffee-houses Mr. Sharp speaks of. Oh, how I do long to see it all!” sighed pretty Ellen, her bright brown eyes aglow.
“Oh, quite. You must go there. It is only in these slow country places that people are so hidebound and old-fashioned. Quite intolerable. Buried here, you have no idea what freedom really is.”
“But if things are so very free, don’t the girls get into – trouble, Mr. Sharp?” Ellen asked hesitatingly.
“To be sure they do, sometimes, but that happens everywhere, in the country as well as the city, and thinking people don’t pay any heed. They know that women have as good minds, and capacities, as men, and ought not to be only mothers, but valued for their work. Have you never read Mary Wollstonecraft, Ellen?”
“No; who is she?”
“Why, she is one of the finest women writers and thinkers that ever lived. Wrote a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and you ought to read it, and learn all about your natural rights. Every woman should. She didn’t bother with marriage, when having her children, I can tell you, but thought and acted like a man.”
“What happened to her, Mr. Sharp?” Ellen asked breathlessly.
“Well, she did marry in the end, to Godwin, the enlightened philosopher. Perhaps you have heard of him? No? – and then, well, she died,” he said. “But surely you girls don’t want to be kept down, in service. In the city, you can always find something to do, and a clever woman can make or marry a fortune.”
“What about men?” asked Rufus, the second footman, a strapping young fellow who spent his days arranging Lady Bertram’s shawls and walking her Pug. “I have sometimes thought I might do better in London, than in service.”
“No doubt of that,” Sharp assured him, “there are so many more chances in town. And after all, man, service is degrading! There’s no reason at all, you know, why one set of people should be masters, and others slaves.”
“Slaves!” exclaimed Tom jovially. “We pay all our people very well, I’ll have you know, Sharp.”
The men fell silent, but Sarah said thoughtfully, “But Mr. Sharp, isn’t it in the Bible, that we are to be content, in whatever state of life we have been called?”
“My dear Sarah, we are living in the nineteenth century,” he said kindly. “There has been a revolution in America, and in France. All men are created equal, you know. Have you not read Tom Paine and his Rights of Man? It is the right of every man, and woman too, to seek happiness, and do the best for himself he possibly can, without knocking under to other people.”
“That sounds fine to me,” said Samuel, the boot-blacking boy, his eyes glowing. “Do you think I might get a job in the theatre in London, and be an actor?”
“Why not? You’re a good-looking lad, and you are welcome to stay in my quarters whenever you do make your way to London.”
“See here, Tom, he’s going to have all your servants departing your employ at once,” laughed Yates.
Tom scoffed at that. “Phoo, phoo. Our people know when they’re well off. We don’t oppress any body at Mansfield Park, I can tell you, Sharp.”
“No, of course not. But servants are not always so fortunate in their masters as yours are. When you consider political justice, Bertram, you must admit that aristocratic privilege is a pernicious thing.”
“I agree that society must be changed,” drawled Yates, “certain sure. Nobody ever has enough money, that I can see. I know I have not.”
“If we don’t change our institutions voluntarily, they must be completely overthrown. Peaceably, of course; there’s no need for a Reign of Terror as there was in France. We are not that sort of a people, here in England. We are rational, and can see the merits of equality without violence.”
“I see the merits in a drink,” said Tom, “here, open another bottle of port, will you, Atkins,” he addressed the second coachman, who had been drinking in Sharp’s words eagerly.
Ellen had been following another line of thought. “What did you say that lady’s name was – how did she take care of her natural children, then? How did she live?”
“Mary Wollstonecraft? Oh, she was a governess or something of the sort, and lived with several gentlemen before marrying Godwin. She was none the worse for all that, and she was very well respected, because of being so clever. There’s nothing shameful in having a lover or two, you know. People of sense don’t think any thing of it, nowadays.”
“But the children,” murmured Ellen, blushing.
“The sins of the father, or mother for that matter, aren’t the fault of the sons,” said Tom airily.
“But see here, bastards are still disgraced in society, you know they are,” protested Yates.
“Not so much, any more. Look at Agatha in our play, isn’t she a heroine despite having a natural son?”
“I would not wish the life of Agatha on any young woman!” protested Rufus the footman, “from what I have seen of the play.”
“Perhaps not; but the real point is, that you have seen the play. It has been shown dozens of times. The subject of love without marriage, and of natural children, is growing everywhere more acceptable. And at any rate, one does not have to have children. There are ways to prevent….”
He looked down at Ellen, and she moved closer to him. “Are there, Mr. Sharp?”
Samuel was thinking hard. “I vow, I will start saving my pay at once, and hope to go to London one day, and go on the stage,” he declared, with a glance at Tom. But Tom was playing with Sarah’s hair, and not listening.
“All this talk is making me tired. Another drink, Sharp?” asked Yates, and passed the port.
Fanny lay awake long that night, trying not to heed the sounds coming from next door. They were such as she had never heard before, and filled her with the utmost horror and shame. She tried to decide what she must do in the morning; there was only Edmund to consult, but she knew she could not speak to him on such a subject, for the world. It might, however, be possible to make some slight hint, and for many hours Fanny feverishly turned over, in her agitated mind, what she must say. Dawn found her still awake, though the sounds through the wall had diminished to heavy snores. Trembling with agitation and sleeplessness, she dressed herself, and went down stairs.
Fanny might bravely resolve to speak to Edmund, come what might, but opportunity was lacking. There was to be a rehearsal of the first three acts entire. To her misery about the shameful revelry she had heard in the night, was added her pain at being forced to see Edmund and Mary Crawford acting together for the first time, and rehearsing a scene of love. At mid-morning she was able to get away from her aunts, and she sought her refuge in the East Room. Unluckily, peace was not to be hers. First Miss Crawford, and then Edmund himself, came to her sanctum for purposes of rehearsing, an exercise that was nothing but torment to Fanny; and then after dinner there was the much-dreaded rehearsal.
Her cousins had been importuning her to read the part of Cottager’s wife, in the absence of Mrs. Grant, and Fanny was, with the greatest reluctance, ceasing to demur, almost more from sheer exhaustion than any thing else; when Julia entered the theatre all in affright, and announced that her father had come.
It could not have been at a worse moment. Henry Crawford was holding Maria’s hand, and Sharp, who had got oiled paints on the floor, was unsuccessfully trying to wipe up the mess with sponges provided by Atkins the under coachman, who was badly hung over.
Mrs. Norris, with great presence of mind, whisked Mr. Rushworth’s pink satin cloak away.
“Damn it all. We must get rid of these filthy sponges,” exclaimed Sharp.
“But what will we do about the floor, sir? That parquet is ruined.”
“Ellen, throw me that piece of green baize, will you? We can toss it over the spill.”
“It belongs to Mrs. Norris, sir, I don’t think she would like – .”
“Bother the old lady. Look here, Ellen, I suspect this job is up. Did you really mean that about wanting to come to London?”
“I did, that is, if you – .” She stopped.
“Of course, of course. So, if you ever get there, just make your way to Covent Garden and anybody can tell you my direction, will you do that?”
“Oh, yes, sir,” she breathed.
The young coachman carried off the sponges, and the company scattered, some to welcome Sir Thomas, others to leave the family to itself at this important moment. Only Yates continued rehearsing, oblivious to any impending unpleasantness.
Who can be in doubt as to what followed? When he heard the whole story of the theatre, Sir Thomas’s anger and disapprobation were very great. He said enough to make his displeasure felt, and then went about, destroying every trace of the theatre, and restoring his house to what it used to be, and ought to be.
Active and methodical, he had not only done all this before he resumed his seat as master of the house at dinner, he had also set the carpenter to work in pulling down what had been so lately put up in the billiard room, and given the scene painter his dismissal, long enough to justify the pleasing belief of his being then at least as far off as Northampton. The scene-painter was gone, having spoilt only the floor of one room, ruined all the coachman’s sponges, and made five of the under-servants idle and dissatisfied.
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