Jane Austen, beloved English novelist of the Regency period, is now embroiled in the custody wars over the history and legacy of the British Empire. The Daily Telegraph has reported that the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, is planning an “historical interrogation” of the Austen family’s connections to slavery and colonialism. Museum director Lizzie Dunford pointed out that the Austens consumed tea, sugar, and cotton, all of which were the products of Empire. One of the potential new exhibits is entitled “Black Lives Matter to Jane Austen.”
Unsurprisingly, some Austen fans rejected this idea as decisively as Lizzie Bennet turning down a marriage proposal. During an interview about the row on TalkRadio, Welsh comedian Abi Roberts spoke for many appalled Austen fans when she declared that the museum’s curators had “gone completely bonkers.” “My father was a life-long lover of tea,” wrote one reader in a representative letter to the Telegraph‘s editor. “In addition, he spent four years in Burma and India, albeit as a private in the army … can anyone advise me on whether I should renounce him?” This question spoke to the root of the assumption: although “historical interrogation” is an academic term, an “interrogation” of Jane Austen implies that she is on trial; she stands accused of being a woman of the long 18th century. So, how does she plead?
Fortunately, this is her museum, and the jury is stacked in her favour. The day after the story (and the clamour) broke, the museum issued an unsigned but conciliatory statement, explaining that the new initiative had been “misrepresented.” The presentation of Austen’s life and times, it continued, will be “nuanced and layered” and will employ “long-established, peer reviewed academic research.” The new exhibits will “share the information and research that already exists on [Austen’s] connections to slavery and its mention in her novels.”
The breadth and volume of Austen scholarship is staggering—so much so, that studying how academics study Austen is itself a topic of research. For the first hundred-or-so years after Austen’s death in 1817, she was seen as a writer of “country-house comedy” who barely noticed the Napoleonic War. Popular with both the public and with critics, Austen was established as a canonical author by the mid-20th century, prized for her elegant, assured, witty prose, and her gallery of unforgettable characters. Critics began probing deeper beneath the surface, their questions about Austen reflecting the zeitgeist of the times. Was she a feminist? Was she a conservative or a progressive?
The preoccupation with Austen’s views on slavery didn’t really emerge until the 1990s. At first blush, there is not much to work with concerning slavery “and its mention in her novels.” There are only three references in Austen’s six novels: In Persuasion, the hero helps Mrs. Smith “recover”—that is, receive profits from—“her West Indian property.” The slave trade is mentioned once in Mansfield Park, a novel about a family with unspecified business holdings in Antigua. The entire economy of the West Indies was bound up in sugar and slaves, so in both cases, we are probably talking about sugar plantations, or at least some enterprise dependent on them.
The most explicit mention comes in Emma. Jane Fairfax, morosely contemplating her future, compares employment agencies for governesses to slave-traders, and the prospect of being a governess to the misery of chattel slavery. Mrs. Elton (one of Austen’s comic foils) protests defensively, referring to her brother-in-law: “If you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”
Austen scholars have taken these three references into a little room at police headquarters and interrogated the living daylights out of them, particularly the second and third example. They have also turned to the rest of Austen’s oeuvre in search of anti-slavery symbolism. Did Austen draw the name “Mansfield” from Lord Mansfield, whose 1772 ruling in Somerset vs. Stewart led to the end of slavery in the United Kingdom? This allusion escaped everyone’s notice until about 170 years after the novel was published, and although there is no documentary evidence for or against, academics repeated the suggestion until it became a fact. Thus, we have “long established, peer reviewed academic research” for an unprovable assertion.
How does giving Lord Mansfield’s name to the stately home of a slave-owning family advance an anti-slavery message? Usually naming something after something else is seen as an affinity or an endorsement. There are no consequences for the slavery in the novel. What’s the point, exactly? The answer, of course, is that Austen’s writing is nuanced and layered. Scholars contend that Mansfield Park is all about slavery even though Austen never talks about it in the novel. “The references to Antigua and to slavery may be slight,” Lynn Festa of Rutgers University concedes, “but they suggest that the products and profits of slavery are so ubiquitous as to become invisible.” “This gesture of distanciation is not to be mistaken for unconcern,” argues Marcus Wood of the University of Sussex in his book Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography. William V. Spanos explains that “Sir Thomas Bertram’s sugar plantations in Antigua” are rendered “tellingly invisible” (emphasis in the original). And in an essay entitled “Austen’s Treacherous Ivory” included in The Post-Colonial Jane Austen, University of York professor Jon Mee theorises that, “Slavery may haunt the novel as a negative presence—in the title, in Fanny’s preference for Cowper’s poetry, a noted abolitionist poet, and so on—but Austen keeps it off-stage (as she does with Antigua more generally).”
Of course, Austen did use irony, subtlety, and symbolism. The episode in Mansfield Park in which the characters visit Sotherton, another stately home, is masterfully constructed, and almost allegorical in nature. But not everything has symbolic meaning. We would not assume a modern author wants us to think of the child slaves who mine cobalt in the Congo for lithium batteries every time one of his characters uses a smartphone. It might just be that the plot requires the character to phone somebody. Likewise, when the heroine Fanny Price drinks a glass of Madeira wine, it’s because she has a headache, not necessarily because Austen wants us to think about Portuguese slave colonies.
The Madeira/slave allusion is courtesy of Helena Kelly. In Jane Austen, the Secret Radical (2016), Kelly uncovers symbolism no-one else has noticed in 200 years, and explains why no-one noticed it: Austen had to veil her remarks due to the repressive age in which she lived. “Jane’s novels were produced in a state that was, essentially, totalitarian.” A popular YouTube history episode on Austen repeats the claim that slavery “wasn’t something novels ever talked about.” So, Austen resorted to metaphor and symbolism.
However, that is demonstrably not the case. Let’s compare Mansfield Park, published in 1814, with Mary Brunton’s 1815 novel Discipline. Both feature main characters who are members of parliament, with business ties to the West Indies: Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch of Mansfield Park, and Mr. Maitland, a Scottish laird, respectively. Both Austen and Brunton need to send their characters far away for plot purposes—while Sir Thomas is gone, his two daughters fall for the charming Henry Crawford; while Mr. Maitland is gone, the selfish, coquettish Ellen Percy is disciplined by tribulation.
Only Brunton puts the West India connection to a double use. She tells us that Maitland “opposed, with all the zeal of honour and humanity, this vilest traffic that ever degraded the name and the character of man. In [Parliament] he lifted up his testimony against this foul blot upon her fame—this tiger-outrage upon fellow-man—this daring violation of the image of God.” Having failed to overturn slavery in Parliament, Maitland returns to the West Indies “to mitigate the evil which he could not cure.”
Now, here is Austen: “Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs.” Unlike Brunton, Austen does not take the opportunity to say something about slavery or Sir Thomas’s attitude toward it. In fact, every mention of the trip to Antigua and back refers to the dangers of the sea-voyage and the risk to Sir Thomas’s health and safety.
Kelly explains that Austen’s allusions to slavery are “relentless” but veiled—for example, the reference to pheasants. Pheasants? Yes, when the characters speak of hunting pheasants, says Kelly, this would make Austen’s readers think of slaves because pheasants were “difficult to buy and … couldn’t be legally recovered if they got away and so had to be carefully kept and carefully bred to maintain an adequate population.” A mention of the poet Hawkins Browne would bring slavery to mind because his son attended a dinner party with Samuel Johnson at which slavery was discussed, as mentioned in an abolitionist book published six years before Mansfield Park.
After contemplating these veiled references—veiled, let’s remember, because Austen wasn’t allowed to be explicit—let’s turn to Elizabeth Helme’s 1796 novel, The Farmer of Inglewood Forest. Helme’s book includes enslavement, branding, flogging, the rape and murder of a female slave, and uprisings in which planters are killed. Two emancipated Africans, Felix and Julia, have agency in the novel. They openly condemn their former masters and they criticise English society. This novel was reprinted well into the 19th century.
While some 18th century authors never mentioned slavery and some used it non-politically as a plot device (like the fortuitous acquisition of a West Indian fortune à la Persuasion), other authors did. In addition to Brunton and Helme, Jane West, Mrs. Crowther, Maria Edgeworth, Amelia Opie, Anna Mackenzie, and Sarah Burney discussed slavery or included black characters in their stories. Hannah More wrote abolitionist poetry and essays. Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Priscilla Wakefield wrote popular anti-slavery books for children. If it was all right to discuss slavery with children, then Austen did not have to cloak her abhorrence in opaque references to pheasants.
We are told that we should study Austen in context. I agree. It would be a challenge to find an 18th century novel that is not preoccupied with social class. Yet Pride & Prejudice is held up as a unique and subversive attack on the status quo. Dependent, poverty-stricken relatives were ubiquitous in life and in novels, but Mansfield Park‘s Fanny Price is not just another poor English girl, she’s the “white counterpart” of a slave (an argument made by Moira Ferguson in an influential 1991 essay). In fact, the single most common technique for insisting that Austen is anti-slavery is for the critic to draw an equivalence between slavery and her depiction of social class, or her portrayal of the status of women. To take one of many examples, in a recent article, Sarah Marsh says when Sir Thomas tells Fanny to leave the ballroom with “the voice of absolute power,” Austen is reminding us of a “system that grants English enslavers absolute power over their human chattels.” Opinions in anti-racist discourse are evolving rapidly, so I suggest that anyone planning to compare white girls dancing at balls to enslaved Africans might want to think again.
Museum director Lizzie Dunford told the Daily Telegraph that Austen was a “progressive” in the mould of the abolitionist William Wilberforce. But what about scholars and readers of colour who reject that assessment? In a lengthy tweet-thread, Professor Sunny Singh of London Metropolitan University revealed that she recognised and “experienced the imperial, racialised violence of [Austen’s] texts” in her undergraduate days, although she “had no words for it.” (She explains that this was “before Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993),” an influential collection of essays, one of which accused Austen of indifference to slavery.) Singh is not surprised that “white supremacists” object to the new museum exhibits. The museum curators will need to summon all the nuance and layers at their command to accommodate Professor Singh’s views under the same roof with those who rank Austen as their favourite author.
The much-analysed “dead silence” passage in Mansfield Park concerns an unspecified question from Fanny Price to her uncle about the slave trade. He answers the question, but we are not told what he says. Then a “dead silence” falls. African author Ayi Kwei Armah reacted to the “dead silence” passage with blistering contempt: “One thing at least is clear: In [Austen’s] aesthetic universe … the discomfort of a couple of English sisters is given more weight than the immense suffering of hundreds of Africans reduced to slavery.” I have no problem with Armah’s reaction and I respect his opinion. But I dig in my heels when I’m told that the words on the page don’t mean what they clearly mean. Armah correctly interprets what’s going on in the “dead silence” passage. It is the daughters who are silent, not Sir Thomas. Most discussions of this passage incorrectly report that Sir Thomas was shamed into silence. In fact, he answered Fanny’s question and would have been “pleased … to be inquired of farther.”
Where is the harm if Austen’s modern readers want to believe that Austen hated slavery, patriarchy, and empire with the heat of a thousand burning suns? Only this: When you read Austen as a radical, you inevitably end up insisting that she means the opposite of what she says. An example: if Sir Thomas Bertram is a slaveowner, it follows that he is a terrible person. If so, then whenever Austen or any other characters in the book praise him, this must be dramatic irony. Fanny calls him discerning, honourable, good. His son Edmund defers to his moral views in every respect, and the son who doesn’t nearly dies as a result. Sir Thomas blesses the union of Edmund and Fanny at the end of the novel. Austen tells us: “Fanny was indeed the daughter that [Sir Thomas] wanted. His charitable kindness had been rearing a prime comfort for himself. His liberality had a rich repayment.” By the logic of Sir-Thomas-is-evil, this must be meant ironically. Sir Thomas doesn’t deserve an affectionate daughter-in-law to brighten his declining years. Kelly, in Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, adds that Edmund doesn’t love Fanny, and he’s a fool and a hypocrite. The end.
Austen wrote in an era when it was novelistic practice to bash the reader over the head with the moral message. Eighteenth century authors were careful to point out the wages of sin, and the rewards of virtue. Austen was an innovative genius, but even she never thought of writing a 159,000-word novel where you mean the opposite of what you say from beginning to end. Further, turning Austen upside-down like this drains out her scintillating wit. Austen sometimes teases her readers, but she never breaks faith with them. By that I mean she doesn’t promise them a love story and then give them a searing—but allusive and veiled—tragedy in which the central problem, slavery, is never resolved or even discussed. This isn’t nuance. This is nonsense.
And even if we concede that Austen was pro-abolition (as I believe her to have been) and a humane Christian, is it not risky for the museum’s director to link her name with William Wilberforce? What will the museum curators do when the time comes to interrogate Wilberforce? Don’t they know that Wilberforce punished sex workers? He brought people to court for insulting the Prince Regent. He opposed a free press and he crushed trade unions. He’s another figure of the past who can’t measure up to the standards of the present.
And all the abolitionist authors I mentioned above? Their portrayals of black people, most of whom speak a cringe-making pidgin English, would not be acceptable today. Their plots, with rare exceptions, don’t centre on the sufferings of the enslaved, but on the moral reformation of the white characters. So, they also come up short. It wouldn’t be fair for me to pre-judge the proposed Austen museum exhibits. But I am sceptical about “historical interrogation.” We can see the revisionism that is taking place all around us, in one institution after another. In the words of Lizzie Bennet, “It is not of particular, but of general evils, which I am now complaining.”
Austen’s six novels demonstrate the value of courtesy, propriety, and personal integrity. She artfully skewered the human faults of vanity, hypocrisy, and greed. She created heroines and heroes who did the right thing, sometimes under enormous pressure and through sustained suffering. She did all this with sublime prose that provides “occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.” Her innovations revolutionised the English novel. She managed to produce her masterpieces on little folded booklets, writing on a tiny table in the parlour, because she never had a room of her own. And that’s sufficient reason to go on loving her.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included a reference to “University College Cork professor John Mee” instead of University of York professor Jon Mee. Apologies for the error.
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