Blog Post 1: Austenomics, Slavery, and Silence

In my proposal, I dedicated my first week of research to going over primary sources: specifically, the Jane Austen novel Mansfield Park and a couple film adaptations. In reality, there was so much more to read about Mansfield Park, one of Austen’s only works that mentions slavery, than I thought. “Primary sources” ended up including criticisms of the novel by Austen’s contemporaries; speeches made in Parliament for and against the abolition of the slave trade; anti-slavery treatises written by Austen’s favorite author, Thomas Clark; Regency-era guidebooks instructing young ladies how to behave; several of Austen’s letters; and a family record penned by one of Austen’s descendants.

Originally, I intended to use only passages from the novel which explicitly mention slavery, and incorporate them into a larger overview of Austen’s family history concerning slavery. However, after reading over all of these sources, I decided to focus more on analysis of Mansfield Park itself, and incorporate Austen’s family history to supplement my literary argument and provide context. Upon rereading the novel, I realized that Sir Thomas’s dual roles as patriarch of the Bertram family and as slave owner could be more closely linked than I initially thought. Austen’s subtle references to Thomas’s inhumane trade are often presented in conjunction with his oppressive treatment of the female members of his family. The connection Austen makes between England’s patriarchal social system and its racist economic system is most apparent when Sir Thomas effectively auctions off his female family members in order to leverage opportunities that will benefit his social or economic status. Sir Thomas, in essence, deals in two forms of human chattel: black bodies and female sexuality.

The two film adaptations of Mansfield Park I chose (1999 and 2007) choose to deal with this subtle metaphor in almost polar opposite ways, emblematic of the split interpretations of the literary community. The 1999 film essentially takes Austen’s delicate, hushed whispers and amplifies them with a bullhorn of creative liberties. Described in a blurb on the cover of the DVD as a “fun, sexy comedy,” this film eagerly embraces the grittier and more taboo elements of the novel, prodding it firmly into unmistakably “political” territory. Following a scene in which Sir Thomas proposes a ball to show Fanny off to eligible suitors, Fanny snaps at Edmund: “I’ll not be sold off like one of your father’s slaves.” Perhaps the most outrageous scene to Austen purists, however, is the one in which Fanny discovers the gravely ill Tom’s graphic drawings of his father abusing and raping enslaved people on his Antigua plantation– images not historically implausible by any means, but definitely not implied or approached in the original text. The 2007 film, however, evades the West Indies plot line at all costs, even removing the infamous scene from the novel in which Fanny asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade directly, and is met by a “dead silence” from the entire family. In fact, no mention of slavery is made at all– only vague references to “trouble in Antigua,” as in the majority of the novel. Sir Thomas is presented, not as a villain, but as an admirably moral and sympathetic character, scrubbing the film clean of any feminist as well as abolitionist leanings.

As a side note, I will have to tread pretty carefully in making my argument. While analyzing the way Austen connects a cruelty far removed from her immediate surroundings and a cruelty which she witnesses firsthand, I personally want to avoid equating the plight of enslaved people to that of upper-class white British women at all costs (for obvious reasons). I will also take pains to acknowledge both Austen’s apparent abolitionist leanings and her complicity in and benefits from the slave trade; despite any privately held opinions, she cannot be completely blameless, and I will cite scholars such as Edward Said that stress the importance of remembering this.

Comments

  1. tpham01 says:

    This was a fantastic read! You were very succinct in the explanation of your stance and how you will approach the research. I am a huge Jane Austen fan, and you could not have better capture her essence. Many people (usually males) are incredulous when I say how feminist her writing was (and is!) because the focus of Austen’s writing is the British gentry, but I am so glad that your project will bring to light how it is much more than thaat. I am very excited to see more progress updates and what your end product will be!

    Best,

    Thanh

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