Austen and Abolition

Austen and Abolition

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It marks the birthdate of one of the great civil rights leaders of our age, and the society we live in today is deeply reflective of all that he did, said and stood for. Whether we realize it or not, we have been shaped by this man in some way.

Jane Austen, however, grew up in a world without MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The struggle today has evolved from Austen’s time, yet there are distinct parallels between Austen and King. Both clearly saw the injustice that was evident in their society and used the means at their disposal to bring it to light.

Many academics have cast Austen as an early voice of feminism for example, due to her repeated themes of the unjust hardship of being a woman in an era where women are considered property. That’s an easy case to make, what with the Bennet’s destined for the hedgerows if they don’t marry well, and the Dashwoods forced to leave their beloved home when the eldest son from another wife inherits the entirety of the estate. There were few options outside of marriage to women of the upper classes when poverty struck.

This reality was repeatedly pointed out by the women of Austen’s novels. Consider this passage from Emma:

Jane Fairfax: “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is by no means my intention; I make no inquiry myself, and should be sorry to have any made by my friends. When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh—but human intellect.”

Mrs. Elton: “Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

Jane Fairfax: “I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade. Governess trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”

Although Jane Fairfax demurs that she did not mean the slave-trade, Austen undoubtedly meant the comparison to stand. Just as hot topics of our day bring about passionate discourse on various sides of the issues, Austen’s life was indeed touched by the question of the slave trade and abolition.

It is easy to assume that Austen’s knowledge of the slave trade was distant, yet in 1760, her father, the Reverend George Austen, was named a trustee to a plantation in Antigua. The plantation was owned by James Langford Nibbs, who was intimate enough with the family to be later named as Godfather to Jane’s brother, James Austen. Jane had cousins who settled in the West Indies, and there were additionally marriages that tied the Austens to property and politics of Bermuda and Barbados. Her brother Francis, in the course of his naval career, even intercepted a Portuguese slave ship.

Writers are counselled to “write what you know,” and Jane was certainly qualified to work the question of Caribbean plantations into her writing. She gives the topic a light touch in her novels, but she does touch on it, with Mansfield Park bearing the most distinct references to the question of slavery. A review of all the passages in Mansfield Park that refer or allude to slavery gives weight to the idea that slavery was intended to be one of the themes of the work. Even the name of the novel and its setting invite the reader to make the connection between Lord Mansfield and the numerous parallels of the story to his life and family. Lest anyone assume it was just a coincidence, she offsets the name of the park with the name of its cruellest inhabitant, Mrs. Norris.  John Norris of Liverpool was a famous slave trader and anti-abolitionist of the day. If I were to write a contemporary novel and gave my characters surnames like Trump, Sharpton, Cruz or Pelosi, their very names would prove a powerful shorthand in leading the readers to make certain assumptions about the characters.

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield

There are at least two writers of abolitionist literature that we know Jane read and admired,  Thomas Clarkson and William Cowper. Cowper wrote about diverse topics, and many of his works were well known, but one that stands out as linking that day to this is the poem “The Negro’s Complaint” that was likely read aloud and discussed by the Austen family.  It was also read and quoted by Martin Luther King in his speeches.

That thought sets well with me— that the same words of humanity and equality were held in the hearts of and passed through the lips of both Austen and King.

18 Responses to Austen and Abolition

  1. This was a thought-provoking blog. Thank you! There are times in the world when there is a shift in public opinion. Certainly in Jane’s time, from what I read here in the blog and the comments, there was the beginning of a shift in opinions about slavery. The written word, however subtle that Jane had to be, does have it’s impact. I suspect the readers of her day (99% of them women?), if they paid any attention to current events, very much recognized the hints. As the women were and still are, the biggest influence on children in their formative years, it seems probable that the women who read and loved Jane Austen’s books were in agreement with her abolition views and instilled those same views in their children. Perhaps, in some way, Jane’s contribution to abolition, however subtle, manifested its fruits in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, when the children born in 1811 were now grown and making their mark on the world. With this in mind, writers must recognize the impact of their words on today’s society and take that responsibility seriously.

    • Excellent points! I think it’s true that we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of our words. Austen was certainly not the loudest voice for these things, but a seed is small when we plant it. Fertile soil and time make all the difference. Thank you for commenting!

    • Thank you for your comment. That thought had occurred to me as well, Mary. Each was a great person in their own sphere, but I agree that a direct comparison is a considerable stretch. The place where I do see a bit of overlap is that Austen — in a day when there were strong political and financial parties that were fighting for the institution of slavery to continue — Austen connected with that injustice and cast some light on it. In no way did I wish to imply that she would qualify as a civil rights leader of the magnitude of MLK, but rather that through her characters, she took a stand in support of abolition and illuminated the issue. As an author whose readers may be swayed by what she wrote, I think we can’t discount her contribution to the growing discomfort of polite society with the institutionalized oppression of an entire race of people.

    • Thank you, Lizzybel. I too think this poem is a treasure. I’m grateful that my post fell on MLK day, as it was the inspiration for the topic and reading up on the topic led me to the poem. Thank you for your kind comment.

  2. Thank you for this insighful post. I find it interesting that MLK read Cowper as well, although I knew Jane loved his poetry. I thank you for the explanation of the use of the name, Norris, and a comparison to today’s contemporaries. This changes he meaning of the character of Mrs. Norris to me.

    • Thank you, Debbie, I would say that the poem was perhaps the thing that struck the deepest chord with me when reading up on this topic. I read it aloud three times, and silently several more. It is a profound and poignant work and certainly merited the attention of Austen and King alike.

  3. Mansfield Park, though not my favorite of her novels, was very clever in its subtlety. I think at one point Fanny wants to bring up the topic of slavery in a family discussion, and someone abruptly changes the subject. That part is very telling to me.

    • Rebecca, that is an interesting passage you reference. We the reader don’t get the dialogue firsthand, but rather Fanny brings the situation up the next day with Edmund. It was the dead silence (with perhaps some chirping crickets in the background) that prevented further conversation on the topic, although Edmund assures her that her uncle would have liked to have had more inquiry on the subject. Considering that at this point the “slave trade” was abolished, I would have loved more of a hint as to what her question actually was. Her response that she didn’t pursue it further because she didn’t want it to seem like she was one-upping his own daughters is an additional illustration of her precarious position in the family. I have, over time, warmed up to Fanny as a heroine. Considering that she was constantly being put in her place as a lesser citizen, barely above the servants, it is remarkable that she turns out to have a backbone at all by the time she’s an adult. I don’t think she would have survived in the household had she been spunky at all. Mrs. Norris was determined to break her spirit from the very start, and it was only by being quiet and obedient that she avoided even worse treatment. The beauty of Fanny Price is that through all of this, she never lost her sense of self.

  4. I also love the connections and I know that some JAFF authors have touched on it as well. Thanks for your timely post. Jen

    • Yes, many JAFF authors have touched on the Slavery aspect of the times. The 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park with Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price and Johnny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram was very overt in making the connections, leaving the viewer in no doubt that Sir Thomas Bertram was the worst sort of man. It would not have been possible for Austen to be as graphic about the abuses of slave-holders in her era as that adaptation was. Even as an anonymous author, there were limits to what was considered publishable. I suspect that Austen went about as far as polite society would allow.

  5. Fascinating information Diana. I love when someone makes the connections to reveal what Jane may have been trying to say without really coming out and saying it. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • One of the things that I love about Austen is that there are so many layers to her writing. I’m grateful for those who have gone before and unraveled some of the mystery – especially as it relates to the culture and politics of her day. Thanks for commenting, Brenda!

  6. Thank you! I have always thought that JA must have read Wollstonecraft and been versed in the politics of the time with Wilberforce and others agitating for the abolishment of the slave trade, no matter how controversial some people would have thought the subjects. I think every era has its great struggle, and Austen happened to live at a time that was the birth of some of the issues we are still fighting for. I sometimes wonder what she would have thought of how far we have come. I’m certainly grateful that I’m a woman of my time and not hers (no matter how much I love her books). Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

    • She lived to see some of the early victories, like the “Abolition of the Slave Trade Act” in 1807, which made it illegal to engage in the Slave Trade throughout the British Colonies, but did not make it illegal to own slaves. America had similar legislation that same year. It was long after Austen’s death however – not until the “Slavery Abolition Act of 1833” that Great Britain made owning slaves illegal.
      In Mansfield Park, there are vague references to financial trouble on the Antigua Plantation, which was their primary source of income. Given the timing of when Austen wrote Mansfield Park – 1811-1812, it doesn’t take much dot-connecting to consider that the 1807 legislation was beginning to impact the distant enterprises of the plantation owners in England. Austen wouldn’t have needed to point that out – they knew full well the source of the financial trouble Thomas Bertram was facing. Thank you for commenting!

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