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Jane Austen, Lovers’ Vows, and the Periodic Press

In an article published in Persuasions in 2016, Sayre Greenfield states, “The major literary source for the private theatricals in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park lies in an article reprinted in magazines from 1788 to 1789” (197).  The article recounts the return of the merchant Abraham Thrifty to his home only to find an amateur production of Hamlet in full swing.  The actors include his sons and daughters, as well as his clerks, and a horrified Thrifty soon asserts his authority and halts the production.  Greenfield connects this article with an “imitation” that appeared in issue number 12 of The Loiterer (18 April 1789), the magazine published by James and Henry Austen at Oxford.  In The Loiterer, an Abraham Steady similarly bemoans a house turned upside down on account of his son and daughters’ obsession with amateur theatricals (200).  The parallels with Mansfield Park speak for themselves.  The Thrifty article was reprinted three times in different journals between 1788 and 1789, and Greenfield makes a persuasive case for the article’s being the source for the private theatricals in Mansfield Park (see also Greenfield and Lint).  I would like to suggest that Austen may have similarly come across Lovers’ Vows, the very play chosen for the theatricals in Mansfield Park, via a magazine or magazines and emphasize the importance of contemporary magazines as potential sources on which Austen could have drawn.  As we shall see, the periodic press could have provided Austen with specific titles, such as Lovers’ Vows, to incorporate into her work, as well as plot themes, narrative structures, and character names.

A brief outline of the history of Lovers’ Vows as well as existing theories as to how Austen may have come across it may be helpful here.  Lovers’ Vows started life as Das Kind der Liebe, literally, the child of love, written by August von Kotzebue (1761–1819).  It was first performed on 10 February 1790 in Reval, Tallinn, in modern-day Estonia, where Kotzebue had founded an amateur theater group in 1784 (Quin 318–19)1 and published the following year in Leipzig.  The translation Lovers’ Vows was written by Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821), herself a distinguished playwright, actress, and novelist.  Inchbald knew no German, and, by her own account, she adapted a literal translation given to her in June 1798 by Thomas Harris, the manager of Covent Garden (Bode 299).  Her version was first performed at Covent Garden on 11 October 1798 and published on November 28 of the same year (Hogan 2116). 

There were at least three other translations produced between this date and 1800.  On October 15, just days after Inchbald’s premiere, Anne Plumptre published her own version entitled The Natural Son, including a trenchant introduction detailing her criticisms of Inchbald’s adaptation.  Plumptre was the daughter of the President of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and an accomplished translator, whose own version, as she points out in her introduction, is closer to the original than Inchbald’s (Bode 298–99).  The year 1798 also saw the publication of Stephen Porter’s translation, and two years later Benjamin Thompson also produced a version (Ford, “It is about Lovers’ Vows”; Barlow 59, 66). 

Of the four versions, only Inchbald’s was performed, running for an impressive forty-two performances at Covent Garden.  In the next six months, it went on to be performed at Bristol, Newcastle, Salisbury, Bath, and Daventry (Pedley 299–300).  The play seems to have had a long life, with performances noted in 1824 at Bristol, 1829 at the Haymarket, and even as late as 1852 at Southampton (Robertson 113).  The text of Inchbald’s version was equally popular, with sixteen editions appearing between 1798 and 1800 (Milhous and Hume 217).  Stephen Porter’s translation does not appear to have been reprinted, although Benjamin Thompson’s version appeared again in 1801 and 1805.  Anne Plumptre’s translation seems to have been more successful as it reached at least a ninth edition in the year it was published.2  The popularity of the play explains why practically all the characters in Mansfield Park (with the significant exception of Fanny) are familiar with the plot and adds a touch of realism to Mr. Rushworth’s statement that “he had once seen the play in London” (162). 

As a number of critics have observed, Austen’s use of Lovers’ Vows indicates that she must have had access to a text of the play that she used as she composed the novel.  Count Cassel’s forty-two speeches have been carefully counted, and the one quotation taken from the play—“When two sympathetic hearts meet in the marriage state, matrimony may be called a happy life” (413, 591)—is quoted word-perfect from Inchbald’s version.  At the moment of Sir Thomas’s entrance, Henry Crawford has Maria Bertram’s hand pressed to his heart, as appears in the stage directions of the play (MP 572).  Tom Bertram is also given a sound knowledge of the play.  He points out to Fanny that as Cottager’s Wife she will “‘have only two scenes’” and notes his inability to play both Anhalt and the Butler because they unluckily “‘are in together’” (171, 169).  All of this leads us back to our original question.  Where could Austen have come across the play? 

As noted above, Lovers’ Vows was highly successful from its first performance in 1798.  When we step back and review the period as a whole, however, Kotzebue was a significant presence, a point made by Susan Allen Ford:  “During the last decade of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, translations of Kotzebue’s plays were extremely popular both in performance and print” (“It is about Lovers’ Vows”).  According to Syndy McMillen Conger, “On the English stage, the years 1798 and 1799 were those of the Kotzebue play.”  She cites F. W. Stokoe’s account of nine translations of Kotzebue for 1798 and twenty-eight for 1799 (101).  The year 1799 could be described as the height of enthusiasm for Kotzebue, with even Matthew “Monk” Lewis producing a translation of a Kotzebue play (Leask).3  Kotzebue held sway for a considerable period.  L. F. Thompson has described the period from 1790 to 1810 as being “the time when Kotzebue’s name was a household word from John o’ Groats to Land’s End and Kotzebue’s plays especially The Stranger, Pizarro, The Birthday and The Natural Son were represented not only in London season after season for twenty-five years, but on the boards of the theater of every market town that could boast such an ornament” (55).  As we will see, further evidence of this intense interest exists in the magazines of the period. 

Aside from these translations and performances of Kotzebue’s work, there was also considerable biographical and critical interest.  In 1800 Anne Plumptre published a translation of his own Sketch of the Life and Literary Career of Augustus von Kotzebue with the Journal of his Tour to Paris at the Close of the Year 1790, which included an appendix containing a general abstract of his work as of 1800 that lists Lovers’ Vows (379).  This was followed up two years later by a continuation, The Most Remarkable Year in the Life of Augustus von Kotzebue, Containing an Account of his Exile into Siberia and of the other Extraordinary Events which Happened to Him in Russia, this time translated by Benjamin Beresford.  There was even an anthology, Beauties of Kotzebue, published in 1800 and arranged in various subject headings accompanied by biographical notes and critical comments.  It contains a synopsis of Das Kind der Liebe and mentions Inchbald’s translation, praising her “great judgement” in her alterations (xvi–xvii).  Beauties was followed in 1807 by three volumes of Historical, Literary and Political Anecdotes and Miscellanies from the German of Augustus von Kotzebue.  In the same year two issues of The Director, a weekly literary journal edited by Thomas Dibdin, referred to the play.  The first, from 2 May 1807, appeared in the form of a letter from a merchant who bewails the ill effect the play had on his son and daughters; another, from 6 June 1807, critiques the morality of the play (69–74, 225–43). 

A point worth considering here is where Austen might have come across Inchbald’s Lovers’ Vows or other plays by Kotzebue.  One potential answer is libraries.4  Austen’s earliest exposure to books would have been her father’s library at home.  It appears to have been well stocked, as before leaving Steventon for Bath, Austen states that her father “has got above 500 Volumes to dispose of” (14–16 January 1801), although unfortunately we know little as to the contents of these volumes.  One of Jane Austen’s own books that dates to this period is William Hayley’s Poems and Plays (1785) in six volumes.  The first five volumes are dated 1791 with the sixth having the more specific date of the 3 April 1791.  Deirdre Le Faye has noted that the sixth volume features a play titled The Mausoleum, which includes a character called Lady Sophia Sentiment.  This name returns us to The Loiterer:  issue number 9 (28 March 1789) includes a letter from a Sophia Sentiment and is thought to have been written by Austen herself (Le Faye, “William Hayley” 25–26).  Further proof of the young Austen’s familiarity with drama is her own juvenilia, which includes three playlets.  A letter of 18–19 December 1798 indicates that she subscribed to a new library in Basingstoke.  In Austen’s later life, there were at least two circulating libraries in Southampton in 1807, both in the High Street; Christopher Skelton-Foord has suggested that Austen’s reference to “changing” a book in a letter of 7–8 January 1807 indicates membership (350).  We also know that Austen was a member of the Alton Book Society from 1812 (Vick 354). 

Unfortunately, few circulating library catalogues have survived today, but such libraries tended to stock more novels than plays.  Thomas Wilson’s The Use of Circulating Libraries Considered (1797) recommended that a modest library in a provincial town should consist of fifteen hundred volumes, including one thousand and fifty novels and twenty plays, the latter being slightly above a mere one per cent (Sutherland 671).  This advice may not always have been taken, as a circulating library at Stamford in 1790 had seven hundred novels and three hundred plays (Raven 249), making it possible that Austen may have come across Lovers’ Vows in such a library.  Another possibility is private libraries, as Austen also had access to the library at Godmersham, her brother Edward’s home.  A catalogue of the library from 1818 listing 1,215 works has survived, although no works by Inchbald or Kotzebue appear.5  Nonetheless, the notion that Austen would have come across Inchbald or Kotzebue through a library, whether public or private, cannot be discounted.  With Kotzebue receiving so much attention at this period, the first possible explanation is that it would have been difficult for Austen not to know of Kotzebue and his work and that she may have come across Lovers’ Vows through any number of means. 

We do know, however, that Austen saw at least two of Kotzebue’s plays performed, both of which have been linked to Austen’s subsequent work.  On 22 June 1799, while visiting Bath, she saw his play Die Versöhnung, translated by Thomas John Dibdin as The Birthday (Le Faye, Chronology 226).  The fact that the play features a daughter named Emma Bertram, whose devotion to her invalid father has led her to resolve never to marry, has been frequently noticed, with connections being made to both Emma and Mansfield Park (Selwyn 237; Honan 361; Kirkham 121–29; Viveash 34).  Many years later, on 14 September 1813, Austen saw The Boarding House: or Five Hours at Brighton, The Beehive, and Don Juan: or The Libertine Destroyed The second play, The Beehive, was based on a work by Kotzebue, Das Posthaus in Treuenbrietzen.  The play features two lovers who have never seen each other but fall in love under assumed names, the name of the lady being Fairfax (Byrne 58–59). 

It is also possible that Austen saw a professional performance of Lovers’ Vows itself, as it was performed at Bath during the time of Austen’s residence from 1801–1806.  The likelihood of Austen’s having seen the play hinges on how many times it was performed during her stay.  Different figures have been put forward, but the most recent assessment puts the figure at ten performances, with there being a fair chance that Austen saw at least one of them (Hussain 271). 

There is also a third, related, option.  Margaret Kirkham has suggested that three letters from 1814 (2–3 March, 5–8 March, 9 March) may indicate that Austen saw an amateur production of Lovers’ Vows (388–90).6  The letters refer to General Chowne as “Frederick.”  Christopher Chowne had changed his name in line with a cousin’s will but was formerly a Tilson, in fact, brother of the James Tilson, Henry Austen’s banking partner (Le Faye, Letters 576–77).  General Tilson, as he then was, is mentioned in a letter by Jane Austen from 1805 as carrying a letter from Mary Gibson to Frank Austen (8–11 April 1805).  Perhaps Austen later referred to him as Frederick because he played the role in an amateur production of Lovers’ Vows that Austen saw performed.  Kirkham suggests that this performance may have dated to around 1798–1799.7 

The above three possibilities for Austen’s familiarity with Lovers’ Vows have all been noted before, but I believe a contemporary magazine or magazines could also have been sources, as can be seen when we examine specific issues of The Lady’s Monthly Museum and The Lady’s Magazine from 1798 to 1799.  Deirdre Le Faye has noted that an article in the January 1799 The Lady’s Monthly Museum features the phrase “Sense and Sensibility” in block capitals (Family Record 112).  This article, titled “Effects of Mistaken Synonymy” (21–24), is sandwiched between two others connected to Lovers’ Vows.  The first one appears in the very opening of the January edition:  a biography of Elizabeth Inchbald (apparently part of a series on female writers), complete with an author portrait (1–10).  Inchbald’s biography, despite some criticism of her, generally depicts her in a praiseworthy light, concluding:  “Her Lovers Vows, a play in five acts, which has been just brought forward and published, and which is an avowed translation from the German of Kotzebue, has also been very favourably received” (10). 

The same issue contains a review of the second edition of Lovers’ Vows (69–71).  The view presented of the play here is a very different one:  the reviewer disarmingly confesses not to have seen the play but grudgingly admits its popularity before lambasting the plot and various characters, suggesting that the play contains “encouragement for servant girls to intrigue with their masters” and taking particular offense at the “old crazy butler, actually staggering with literary inebriety” (71).  The clearly horror-struck reviewer asks, “But what must their taste be who lend their suffrage to such a farrago, and are pleased with the delineations of faculties so sunk and vitiated?” (70).  Curiously, the reviewer exempts Inchbald herself from criticism, describing her as the “accomplished translator.” 

In addition to these two, we find a number of relevant articles in the issues of The Lady’s Monthly Museum immediately preceding that of January 1799.  For example, the December 1798 issue contains a review of a performance of Inchbald’s play.  The review is brief and perfunctory:  “We cannot but declare, that the Dramas of Kotzebue have, in our opinion, a tendency to encourage a laxity of principle that ought to make the English people rather cautious of giving too implicit credit to the sentiments he inculcates” (477)—words that we can easily imagine coming straight out of the mouth of Sir Thomas. 

The periodic press is also a source of information about private performances.  Earlier issues of The Lady’s Monthly Museum contain at least three notices of private theatricals, two of which concern us.  One, from September 1798, mentions the opening of a private theater by E. W. Hartopp of Dalby Hall, Leicestershire (227–28).  The plays performed were Othello and High Life Below Stairs, the latter play being one with which the Austens were familiar, as they performed it themselves during December 1788 (Chronology 120).8 

Another, in July 1798, refers to a private performance at Brandenburgh House in London (57–59).  The play was German, Schiller’s The Robbers, translated by Keppel Craven, who also took the part of Charles de Moor, while the part of Amelia was played by his mother, the Margravine of Ansbach, Lady Elizabeth Berkeley (1750–1828) (Turner).9  Readers familiar with Austen’s biography will be struck by the name of Craven; the Keppel Craven (1779–1851) mentioned was in fact the brother of the 7th baron, William Craven (1770–1825) (Baigent).  Cassandra Austen’s fiancé, Tom Fowle (1765–1797), William’s kinsman, accompanied him on the ill-fated voyage to the West Indies during which Tom died.  The mother of Mary and Martha Lloyd and their aunt Jane (1727–1798), Tom Fowle’s mother, were also Cravens (Chronology 738).10 

The performance received a glowing account.  Various members of the cast were singled out for special praise, and even the scenery got a mention, all of which reminds us of Mr. Yates’s disappointment at the disruption of the Ecclesford party and his dashed hopes:  “To be so near happiness, so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalized the whole party for at least a twelvemonth!” (142–43). 

We find a similar pattern when we examine The Lady’s Magazine, a more established publication, which first appeared in 1770, merging with The Lady’s Monthly Museum in 1832 (Batchelor 263).11  Jacqueline Pearson describes it as “the most popular and longest-lived periodical for women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (4), and Copeland also suggests it was widely read (Women Writing 119).  Although we have no definitive evidence that Austen read it, there is certainly circumstantial evidence to support the idea (Batchelor, Embroidery 9; Copeland, Introduction lvi–lvii).  The issue for October 1798 contains a review of Lovers’ Vows following its opening night (437–38).12  Curiously, it describes “the language and the incidents” as “so well calculated to promote the interests of morality.”  The following issue contains a prologue to the play (517), and December’s issue a biography of Kotzebue (537–39) as well as an “Extract from Mrs. Inchbald’s New Play, entitled Lovers’ Vows,’ Act IV, Scene I” (552–60).  February 1799 contains yet another extract, something of a plot spoiler:  Act 5, Scene 2, the last scene of the play (53–55).  The extract is accompanied by an engraving of the final scene, with Frederick clasping his mother around her waist, his face in her bosom, surrounded by the Baron, Anhalt, and Amelia. 

Of additional interest to readers of Mansfield Park is the fact that a serialization of an account of Lord Macartney’s voyage to China appears in the magazine over the same period spanning two years from January 1798 to the end of 1799.  As Susan Allen Ford has pointed out (“Fanny’s ‘Great Book’”), a number of different accounts were published of the voyage, and we are unsure which of them Fanny was reading, but this serialization was abridged from the account of the Secretary of the Embassy, Sir George Staunton’s An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China, published the year before, in 1797. 

Reviewing these two magazines over this period we therefore find numerous references to Lovers’ Vows and to Elizabeth Inchbald as well as other material that can be linked to Mansfield Park, but it is worth noting Gillian Hughes’ observation:  “Sometimes the women’s magazines were read annually rather than monthly, borrowed from libraries or received as gifts” (469; see also Copeland, Women Writing 119; DiPlacidi 265).  Since issues were bound up and often contained an index, Austen may not have necessarily come across these articles at the time of publication and stored them in her memory; rather, she may have encountered them many years later. 

When we survey the existing literature on the question, we see that Austen may have come across Lovers’ Vows from a number of sources.  As we have seen, Kotzebue appears to have been ubiquitous around the turn of the century, and it is possible that Austen saw the play performed, either professionally or via an amateur production.  It is also possible, however, that Austen may have come across the play through a magazine source.  Although excerpts appeared in print, Austen clearly had access to a text, as she displays a thorough knowledge of the play and even quotes from it directly, as noted above.  Sayre Greenfield remarks: 

Those who trace Jane Austen’s sources tend to look at other books.  Austen herself, after all, makes references to such solid publications or to plays or poems that appear in them.  The brief lives of newspapers and magazines can hardly support allusions.  Yet half or more of any literate person’s reading will consist of periodicals, and this ephemeral material may be no less adaptable for novelistic purposes.  (203) 

Austen’s ephemeral reading has not, to date, been fully acknowledged, even though the evidence is in front of us, as we see in the many varied references to newspapers that appear in Austen’s letters (Letters 637).  In one of her final articles, the late Deirdre Le Faye listed newspapers that the Austens are thought to have read and encouraged researchers to review them (“Biography” 435–36). 

Yet the notion of Austen drawing on, or engaging with, magazine content is not an entirely new one.  In his Cambridge edition of Sense and Sensibility, Copeland references a tale found in The Lady’s Magazine of 1794 entitled “The Shipwreck” that features characters with the names Willoughby and Brandon as well as close verbal parallels with the novel (lvi, 449n1).  The same magazine also published a short tale in November 1802 titled “Guilt Pursued by Conscience,” which featured a Mr. Knightley, who marries an orphan deserted at a boarding school (“Money” 137–38).  Jenny DiPlacidi has also highlighted similarities between Sense and Sensibility and two other works of fiction serialized in The Lady’s Magazine The History of Miss Butler (1777–1778) and Harriet Vernon; or, Characters from Real Life (1807–1809) (267, 269–73).  Other examples have been identified of Austen potentially drawing not just on magazines but also on newspapers, further supporting the notion that readings from what we would consider ephemeral material may well have informed Austen’s writing.13 

If we can imagine Jane Austen leafing through a magazine and catching sight of the capitalized phrase “Sense and Sensibility,” we can also countenance the notion that an article might have given her the idea for a disruptive theatrical party taking place in a country house—and perhaps even the very play that she would use to such effect.  At the very least, we should perhaps think about casting a wider net than historically we have when considering Austen’s reading and how it may have shaped and influenced her own writing.


I would like to thank Dr. John Avery Jones for kindly reading and commenting on an early draft of this article and the anonymous reviewer for Persuasions/Persuasions On-Line for many helpful suggestions.  I am also grateful to Professor Peter Sabor and Nathan Richards-Velinou of McGill University for their assistance with my enquiries regarding the 1818 Godmersham library catalogue.


1Quin states that the first performance was 2 February 1790, whereas the first edition title page states 10 February 1790. It can be seen here: https://www.digitale-sammlungen.de/de/view/bsb11090394?page=1. 

2See British Library Catalogue and Worldcat.org

3Lewis’s play Rolla was a translation of Kotzebue’s historical melodrama Die Spanier in Peru, oder, Rollas Tod (Leask). 

4For a useful breakdown of the distinctions between circulating libraries, book clubs, subscription libraries, mechanics institutes libraries, and parish libraries see St. Clair (263 ff.).  For Austen’s various references to libraries and book clubs see Le Faye, Letters (637). 

5A csv file of the catalogue is available here: https://www.readingwithausten.com/about.html#about_data-description.  My thanks to Nathan Richards-Velinou for sending me a revised version. 

6Deirdre Le Faye makes a similar suggestion (Letters 435n8). 

7This suggestion is also repeated in Byrne (167–168). 

8For a recent reappraisal of the play and the Austens’ performance of it, see Lesley Peterson. 

9Sybil Rosenfeld states in Temples of Thespis that the translation was the work of the Margravine, rather than her son (67).  In 1789 the then Lady Craven published A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople, a copy of which appears in the 1818 Godmersham catalogue. 

10Further details about the Margravine and her children and potential Austen connections can be found in Lanfersieck and Looser.

 11Jennie Batchelor’s The Lady’s Magazine (1770–1832) and the Making of Literary History (2022) was published after I had completed this article.  It is available online via Open Access and can be viewed at https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9781474487665/html#contents.  Although I was unable to benefit from it in my article, what follows overlaps to a certain degree with Chapter 6 “Achievements and Legacies: The Lady’s Magazine in Literary History,” especially pp. 227–36. 

12This is noted by Copeland (“Money Talks” 156), although he states there is an illustration of the whole cast with Frederick and Agatha in warm embrace.  Such an illustration does not appear here, and I believe the illustration Copeland refers to is in the extract that appears in February 1799 (53–55) mentioned above—confirmed by Copeland in Women Writing About Money (118–19).  The review is also mentioned, without reference to an illustration, in the Jane Austen Society Collected Reports 1966–1975 (194–96). 

13Elizabeth Jenkins notes that the names “Elizabeth Steele” and “the Rev. Edmond Ferrers” appear in the March 1810 edition of La Belle Assemblée (46). Deirdre Le Faye states that Austen found the name “Wickham” in The Reading Mercury of 1792 (“Biography, Archives, and Research: Keep Hunting!” [435]) but also notes in the Letters that a newspaper article Austen may have been referring to in January 1801 contained the name Wickham (77, 388n4).  Kirkham points out that a number of names that appear in the novels feature in the “Arrived Here” columns of the Bath Journal in the winter of 1801–1802 (139–40).

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