Blog Post 2: A Lot of Opinions

Today marks the official end of the second phase of my research: secondary source week. Seven books from Swem and countless online articles later, I can now confidently and definitively say that people have a lot of opinions. Furthermore, these opinions are all so contradictory that I have to wonder if they’ve all read the same book. I have found, however, that when it comes to Mansfield Park, these opinions can be boiled down into two camps. The first camp, and the one that initially intrigued me the most, is that Jane Austen was a sneaky secret radical sprinkling clever coded hints about abolition and feminism into her books like breadcrumbs. There are unfortunately a lot of holes in this stance, which I’ll get to later. The second camp is that Jane Austen was a complacent and complicit conservative woman who embraced the values of her class unapologetically, and these supposedly coded hints are simply coincidental or irrelevant. There are also a lot of holes in this stance, so my task this week was to piece together points from each side to find a happy (?) medium.

The first question is that of Austen’s awareness: how conscious of slavery was she, and how attuned to the inhumanity of it despite its geographic distance? Upon examination of her life, her awareness becomes unquestionable: two of her favorite authors (Thomas Clarkson and William Cowper, both of whom she quotes in Mansfield Park) were famous for the abolitionist sensibilities; she had multiple familial connections to the West Indies, including close family friend and slave owner James Nibbs, her brother’s godfather, whose Antigua plantation Austen’s father was a trustee of; and her brother Francis was outspoken in his correspondence about his disgust for the institution of slavery. Furthermore, supporting abolition in 1813 was not exactly what one would call a “hot take.” NYU professor Moira Ferguson’s contextualization of Mansfield Park as a “post-abolition and pre-emancipation narrative” nails the point exactly. As Romantic scholar Clara Tuite points out, “abolitionism was a contemporary option readily available to bourgeois Anglican women.” This was not a taboo or controversial subject by Austen’s time, and in fact slavery had been abolished six years before she began writing Mansfield Park. Why, then, the subtlety, the indirectness, the deflection?

Austen’s aforementioned “coded” references to slavery in Mansfield Park are plenty: Sir Thomas, the distant and authoritarian patriarch of Mansfield Park, owns a plantation in Antigua which he leaves for nearly two years to oversee (an absence heavily implied to be due to the chaos caused by the abolition of the slave trade); when Fanny questions Sir Thomas about “the slave trade” she is met with “such a dead silence” from the family that she drops the subject altogether; the verbally abusive and hilariously obnoxious Mrs. Norris takes her name from infamous slave trader and anti-abolitionist Mr. Norris of Liverpool, one of the “villains” of Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Abolition of the Slave-Trade; and the title itself takes its name from the judge responsible for the ruling which abolished the slave trade in 1807. There are countless minuscule others, but more important than pointing them out is the question of their purpose.

Some authors have concluded that Mansfield Park is about slavery and Austen’s earnest plea for emancipation, but this is disingenuous. Insistences that under her prim surface Austen was a radical and passionate abolitionist is grabbing at loose straws, cramming Austen into a comfortably postmodern ideology, and ignoring the complexities of the original works. However, insistences that she is just another willfully blind and nationalistic conservative ignores these complexities as well, and likewise sacrifices more careful literary analysis for an agenda.

Rather, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Austen is not rejecting the traditionally English structures of patriarchy and of empire, but looking to reform them. University of York professor Jon Mee pins her as a “female patriot” pioneering a kind of “rational feminism,” which values women for the potential of their “domestic virtues” to further the goals of the nation. Austen advocates for the recognition of women’s “capacity for rational and moral action,” and thus for greater autonomy, but not for their complete liberation from the domestic sphere. She keeps black slavery in the minds of her readers, not to advance an abolitionist agenda, but to draw comparisons to Sir Thomas’s treatment of Fanny Price and his daughters and consequently the aristocracy’s treatment of women in general. To sum up my conclusion, Austen did agree with the precept that slavery was morally wrong, as indicated by her literary preferences and various lines in both Mansfield Park and Emma. However, the issue of slavery was not at the forefront of her mind; her priorities lay closer to home. She uses allusions to slavery, something she could assume her audience would disapprove of, to illustrate the plight of her heroine. Ultimately, Mansfield Park’s “controversial” nature was due not to its abolitionist leanings, but its implications that the British patriarchal structure was holding its women– even its upper-class women– in a similar kind of slavery.

 

Comments

  1. Kate,

    I have been reading your posts with great interest and the conclusion you come to here seems incredibly well-supported. Your methodology and dedication to understanding the historical context in which the novel was written is particularly striking to me. I do have a question, (if you have time to answer amid writing and researching!), when you quote Jon Mee’s description of Austen as a “female patriot” and the conclusion he comes to about her attitudes to the extent of female liberation she advocates for, did you find evidence to support his stance in your own reading of the book/other primary sources? I’m curious, because I have never read Austen and have always heard her work lauded as extremely feminist, but the notion that what she advocated for was significantly less than what feminists today advocate for certainly makes sense!

    Best of luck with the rest of your work!
    Lydia

  2. Hi Kate!
    Speaking as someone who has never read Mansfield Park, I am fascinated by this research that you’ve done! Seeing all the different perspectives is always important when trying to make an argument, and in this case, both sides of the argument that you looked at happen to not have the full picture. The conclusion that you draw at the end of this post is particularly interesting to me because the implications of the patriarchy as a similar kind of slavery would have been very daring for her to write in that time period. I agree completely with what you found, though, since the subtlety of the slavery allusions and the character comparisons make it clear that she is trying to make a point with them, but one that wouldn’t benefit from making the allusions more explicit and unavoidable. In order to make her point, they had to be subtle enough to draw attention without shifting the attention to an issue that she wasn’t trying to talk about. Austen is actually being very smart with this, by having her readers draw the conclusions themselves rather than her telling them which connections to make. I think that this is a great argument that you’ve made, and I’m excited to see what else you come up with throughout your project!
    – Rory Edgar

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