Do Austen’s Novels Reveal Her Views on Slavery?

Do Austen’s Novels Reveal Her Views on Slavery?

My last blog explored the effort in England to abolish the slave trade—the buying and selling of human flesh—which was accomplished in 1807—as well as the effort to eliminate slavery itself throughout all British possessions, which was not accomplished until 1840.

Slave owners were helped through their “difficult” six-year period of adjustment, 1834-1840, with payments of twenty million pounds as recompense for the loss of their “property.”

Before England ended the slave trade in 1807, the selling price for a healthy adult male was about fifty pounds; women and children were less. Four in ten slaves died—one for every two tons of sugar produced. It was less expensive to buy a new slave than to feed an existing slave. The cycle was self-fulfilling. With new slaves constantly arriving, there was no financial incentive to feed current slaves properly. Without enough to eat, women could not reproduce, requiring more slaves to be brought in.

Slave owners portrayed their “workers” as living happy lives, much better than in their native Africa. The reality was horribly different, with four of ten slaves dying from the grueling work.

Twice during Austen’s life, slaves had the chance to earn freedom. The first was during the Revolutionary War, when American slaves were promised freedom if they fought for England against the rebels. When England lost, many of the freed blacks left with other Loyalists. It is estimated that England had about 15,000 freed blacks, mostly in London, where they took up typical lower-class occupations—and suffered many of the privations typical of the working poor.

A similar offer for freedom came in the French wars. By 1802, England had sent more than 90,000 sailors and soldiers to the West Indies. Half of them died of disease, including Tom Fowle, fiancé of Cassandra, Jane’s sister, who served as a chaplain on his cousin’s military ship. These huge losses caused the British army to buy 13,400 slaves locally to reinforce its troops. As before, the promise to blacks was freedom at the end of their service.

Evangelicals, particularly the Methodists, led the fight against slavery. In contrast, the establishment Church of England not only supported the institution—it also owned a slave plantation, bequeathed to the church in the early 1700s. The profit was used to take the message of Christ to America. That’s right: Anglicans sent the black man to his grave to save the soul of the white.

Before the entire slave trade was abolished in 1807, the abolitionist William Wilberforce (image above, with headline) pushed through a Foreign Slave Trade Bill in 1806. Authorizing the Royal Navy to intercept foreign slave ships, the bill was as much about hurting French interests in the West Indies during the Napoleonic Wars as it was about helping slaves.

In an effort to curry favor with the British after his brief return to power in 1815, Napoleon signed a decree to end France’s slave trade. Though it had the effect of ending the slave trade for all the European powers, the edict did not stop England from taking Napoleon down a second time and exiling him to St. Helena in the far south Atlantic.

Slavery was not the only cause for Wilberforce, the Minister of Parliament who led the fight for twenty years. He supported many other charitable causes, providing relief for the poor and the “deaf and dumb” and founding the first society to prevent cruelty to animals. After giving away tens of thousands of pounds to charitable causes, the abolitionist died in poverty after an investment with one of his sons collapsed.

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Mansfield Park undoubtedly concerns slavery, but what does the novel really say about it?



The battle to end the slave trade came when Austen was reaching the height of her creative powers. Mansfield Park, published in 1814, has slavery as a major theme. The wealth of the Bertram family comes from a West Indies plantation, and Sir Thomas Bertram disappears for the middle part of the novel to tend to business there. The critic Edward Said leads a contingent that criticizes Austen for apparently accepting slavery, while author Paula Byrne leads a group that has Fanny Price speaking “truth to power” about slavery.

As proof of her abolitionist views, Austen supporters cite Fanny’s noted comment that when she raises the issue of the slave trade to her uncle in a room with the entire family, she is met with “dead silence!” The inability of Sir Thomas or his children—her cousins and, theoretically, her betters—to respond to her question about slavery is proof of Fanny’s moral superiority.

However, it’s not at all clear that Fanny’s “dead silence!” comment is a rebuttal of slavery and the family’s reliance on its revenue. The entire passage—not just the one sentence—needs to be carefully read and key phrases studied. I challenge every reader to decide what is really happening with the book’s heroine.


18 Responses to Do Austen’s Novels Reveal Her Views on Slavery?

  1. Interesting but I can only comment that the movies seem to take that point about abolition and expound on it. So the screen writers support the idea that the novel Mansfield Park has anti-slavery tones…even if minor.

    • Sheila, you are correct that the 1999 film of “Mansfield Park” brings the slavery issues to the fore. See . I consider MP to be Austen’s most complex work, and so it does not surprise me that filmmakers see it ripe for exploitation. The scenes do not come from the book but are newly invented, a way of separating this film from other adaptations while also bringing out issues that would not be noticed by most modern readers. Austen absolutely touches upon slavery; the question I raised is whether she tells us what SHE personally thought about it. I don’t think she does.

  2. No-one has yet mentioned one JA character who is definitely against the slave trade: Mrs Elton’s brother-in-law.who “was always rather a friend to the abolition” Perhaps not the very best guide to JA’s own beliefs, but Jane Fairfax seems to be echoing this view when she refers to “the guilt of those who carry it on.”

    • Ellen, Mrs. Elton may be sincere in her support of abolition, but this may be another slavery “marker” Austen slips into her novels. Mrs. Elton is from Bristol, one of the major slave-trade ports. Her family, and that of her brother-in-law, are wealthy businesspeople–“merchant, he must be called” implies that one could no longer name their trade but their merchandise was slave related–slaves or their produce, rum, sugar, and cotton. Further, Mrs. Elton’s maiden name is “Hawkins,” which is the name of the Elizabethan man who first involved England in the “triangular trade.” The slave trade had been outlawed in 1807, but enforcement was lax–a couple of leaky old interceptors vs. dozens and dozens of slave ships. My reading is that Mrs. Elton was fashionably abolitionist but in actuality a hypocrite, reflexively reacting to what she thinks is Jane’s imputation of her character while her family continues in the trade.

  3. I wish I could find the writer and the reference I read that suggested that, because of the Napoleonic War and the blockade on travelling to Europe, there were only so many places that Austen could send Sir Thomas to get him out of the story so the intrigues with the Crawfords could proceed in his absence.In other words, although we as moderns want to read great significance into a passing reference to slavery, for Austen’s contemporaries, it was little more than a plot device.

    • Lona, I agree that Sir Thomas’s departure is a plot device to let the mice play in his absence, but the story also makes clear that the family wealth is based on the sugar plantation. The question is whether Austen’s treatment implies a blasé acceptance of that reality–the slave trade represented some 80% of England’s overseas trade–or whether she implies that it is wrong. Though personally opposed to slavery, I don’t think Austen gives the reader her personal view on that topic.

  4. Interesting post. Definitely makes you wonder what her intention was. I agree with Summer and that she was condemning it but had to be subtle about it due to the time.

  5. This is tricky. As honest historians, I think we are obliged to remember that our values are not those of other times. Even if Austen had strong feelings about slavery, and I don’t think there is much evidence that she did, those feelings would not resemble ours on the subject. It was an evil of her day, and even if she condemned it, she also had to live side by side with it, knowing people who kept slaves and personally benefitting from the economy of slavery in the form of cheaper goods. I always ask people if they think about the child miners responsible for the materials in their cell phones every time they use it. Of course we don’t. We couldn’t live with ourselves if we did. No more did Jane Austen think of plantation workers in Georgia whenever she put on a cotton dress. Her references to slavery in Mansfield and Emma I read as a natural reflection of the topics of debate at the time, not political statements. Keep in mind that Sir Thomas Bertram, the only slave holding character in her books, is also the best patriarch she ever gives us. Though still flawed, he is portrayed as a thoroughly good man.

    It’s a great subject for debate. I could go on for hours. Thanks for the post!

    • Alexa, good points all. I agree with you about Sir Thomas. Though he feels intrinsically superior and is tone deaf on many issues, he seems to genuinely care about Fanny and her future, and to me he seems a changed man after his trip to the West Indies, much more sympathetic to her situation. My take is that being directly exposed to people whose lives are entirely, and horribly, run by others increases his sympathy–at least somewhat–to those in dependent situations.

      Even his efforts to marry her off appear, to me, to be guided by his belief in what was in her best interests–and Jane’s sister, Cassandra, seemed to agree with him in terms of who Fanny should have married. His anger, and his banishing her, could have been a nasty power trip, or it may have been the only way he felt he could knock some sense into her re: her future.

  6. Austen wasn’t overt in taking a position through her writing, but looking at Mansfield Park, there are many ways to read between the lines and come up with a clear anti-slavery message. For example, if you consider the symbolism of the three sisters (representing the family of humankind), one who married into wealth and privilege, one who married into poverty and the other who is in between. Mrs. Norris rides on the coattails of her titled, wealthy relatives and fawns on them while snobbishly looking down on her poor relatives. All related, but each at a different social and financial level. In comes Fanny Price, who, under the thumb of her cruel Aunt Norris (the taskmaster) essentially becomes an unpaid servant (aka slave) in Sir Bertram’s (aka the master) household. I could carry one with multiple points of this analogy, but I consider it to be a strong if somewhat covert theme of that novel.

    • Very insightful, Diana. Several commentators have called out the walled in/imprisonment motif that runs throughout the novel. Others have noted the parallel between Fanny’s neither/nor situation as a parallel of that with Lord Mansfield’s mulatto niece–more than a servant and less than a family member. I’m not sure I would go that far, as Fanny’s situation is the classic Cinderella situation, but these motifs do support the general “servitude” view through the novel.

  7. I think you also have to look at the title “Mansfield Park”. The Earl of Mansfield had a ward who was the daughter of a West Indies slave. He eventually issued rulings (as the Lord Chief Justice) that allowed the fight against slavery to proceed. I think we all must remember that we are products of our own times and families, and the majority of people would most likely be conflicted about serious issues such as slavery. It is such a complex issue. I think that Austen threw in names and subtle insinuations about the institution of slavery without taking a stance too strongly, although having Mrs. Norris as arguably the nastiest character in Mansfield Park hints at her opinion on the subject. After all, if she supported slavery, she could have had her hero be Edmund Norris, rather than Bertram. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Yes, “Mansfield” is the big tell. Like “Hawkins” in “Emma,” Hawkins being Mrs. Elton’s family and also the Elizabethan officer who began England’s involvement in the slave trade. And as I showed in my last post, there’s no doubt Austen personally opposed slavery. Her brother Frank, in particular, wrote eloquently on its evils, and his views undoubtedly shaped hers. The question is whether any of her characters, Fanny in particular, take a clear moral stand. There, I think, Austen left it ambiguous. … My belief is that this was conscious. There were many, many novels of the day filled with sermons on morals; Austen’s novels were a fresh break from that tradition. She likely was a canny enough businesswoman to understand that outright denunciation may have really hurt her sales. In either or all cases, she puts the issue on the table for the “smart elves” to see, and left it to them to make up their own minds.

  8. Do you agree that Mrs. Smith’s husband in “Persuasion” also had connects to slavery? Does Wentworth’s ability to assist her rest upon his being a British naval captain and knowing where to look for those who traded in the West Indies? I would love to hear your take on the subject.

    • Regina, yes, Mr. Smith must have been involved with slavery. Anyone with business in the West Indies was tied in. If you imported cotton or rum–both were harvested by slaves. You might be in an ancillary business, but you were involved. I think it was more Wentworth’s being a responsible man with a respectable title that enabled him to wrap up Mrs. Smith’s business, rather than any direct ties with the Islands as a captain. To have won his 20,000 pounds, he must have captured a lot of ships. Pickings were pretty slim in this period in the Caribbean; I think Jane’s brother Charles managed only two small prizes in the same time period, and he ranged up and down the North American Station. So unless he captured the rare gold-filled Spanish galleon, Wentworth must have been in the Mediterranean. Of course, a naval captain would also have a lot of friends in service, some of whom may have had contacts he could use in the West Indies.

  9. It is difficult, isn’t it? I like to think that Jane Austen was condemning slavery through Fanny and in other subtle ways throughout Mansfield Park. That’s how it always read to me. It may not have been as strong a condemnation as we could ask for, but taking into consideration where Austen was writing from and who she expected to read her work, it seems to me she did her best to get the view that slavery is wrong into the novel in a palatable way. If you alienate people too much, they won’t read or listen. Better to have an obviously laudable character seamlessly embody the traits you want your audience to mimic.

    Of course, that is looking back, from now. My perception is colored by respecting Jane Austen’s intellect and my modern sensibility that intelligent, reasonable people are opposed to slavery. It could be I see what I want to see. I’m okay with that, in this case 🙂

    • Summer, I agree that just bringing up the subject in those times must have been seen as a criticism, at least indirectly. “Mansfield Park” is the only one of Austen’s works that was not reviewed, and we wonder why. … What I don’t know is how some of the slavery “markers” would be seen by contemporary readers. Many people would have recognized that “Norris” was the name of a slaver, for instance, but many others would not. How much would these markers really stand out? I think Austen raises the issue but does not actually take a position. She leaves it to the reader. …

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