The Macksey Journal


“‘I shall be most happy to play’: Performance, Desire, and Spectatorship in Mansfield Park” explores textual examples of performance and expression of desire and agency in Jane Austen’s critically overlooked 1814 novel. Scholar Joseph Litvak notes that "theatricality inhabits Mansfield Park before, during, and after the theatrical episode” (Urda 282). Austen’s preoccupation with theatre permeates Mansfield Park; theatricality informs not only action and plot, but the characters themselves. Shown through a failed production of Lovers’ Vows, the flirtatious and bold Mary Crawford, and the performatively moralistic Edmund, Austen shows desire and performance to be one and same. But our heroine, Fanny Price, refuses to perform. How then can we parse Austen’s understanding of desire? In a novel that views desire through performance, what can we say about the audience of that performance? Fanny Price’s constant spectatorship and her role as a reader are tied to her expressions of desire and autonomy. This role of an affected spectator is both active and subversive for a woman. Through Fanny, Austen invites her readers to be active, desiring, empowered participants in the narrative, allowing the reader to see and experience the power of performances of desire. Overall, Mansfield Park encourages the reader to rethink spectatorship and readership as passive and instead imagine readers as active through their reactions and desires.