Summary Post!

In this post I’m going to cover the ways in which the conclusions of my final paper deviated from my original intentions.

When I began research for my paper, I planned on digging into Jane Austen’s letters and family records, thinking I could deduce from those her role in the slave-run British Empire and her opinion of said role. However, after reading many of these letters and records, I came to the conclusion that the answers I was seeking could be better found in her novel Mansfield Park. In all of her novels, Austen pens each word and each sentence so carefully, layering them with social commentary, it was inevitable that the clearest lens into her personal beliefs would be found in one of these works. Her preferences, priorities, and values are set out deliberately, though it often takes some dissection to understand them.

When I first read Mansfield Park a few years ago, I picked up on a few of the slavery references, and came to hasty conclusions similar to that of director Patricia Rozema– that the notoriously delicate and pure Fanny was a closeted abolitionist and thus a morally superior foil to the cold, materialistic, slave-owning Bertram family. I overlooked, however, the jarring fact that Fanny ends up (incestually) marrying into this same family. The takeaway should not have been focused on the morality of Fanny, but on the immorality of the Bertrams.

The controlling, dismissive, and authoritarian traits of slave owners are most evident in Sir Thomas, the patriarch, but also in the rest of the family, who continually deny Fanny’s autonomy. Fanny ostensibly does not possess the mental or physical constitution to resist the demands of her superiors– until she refuses to marry Henry Crawford. This is not taken well, and she is essentially exiled. So far, so metaphor for the slavery of the patriarchy. However, when the family asks for her return, she happily complies, and willingly accepts her cousin’s proposal despite his ill treatment of and condescension towards her throughout the novel. This is evidently at odds with our estimation of Austen’s intentions in employing the metaphor of slavery. It seems to indicate that the error of the Bertrams was not keeping Fanny metaphorically “enslaved,” but in their attitude towards and treatment of their “property.” This mirrors a contemporary “paternalistic” approach to slave-owning, in which the master’s “guardianship” is an act of kindness on behalf of dependents who cannot act for themselves.

So why would Austen make Fanny’s “happy ending” so depressingly confined?

Long story short, the British Empire ran on slavery. It needed slavery, economically and politically, to function. However, the good people of England did not appreciate having the ugliest side of their beloved country thrust in their faces in their own land. This explains why so many voices advocating abolition died down once slavery was abolished on English soil. Not many people cared to carry their cause further, to extend their compassion into the furthest reaches of the empire. If it was done right, they reasoned, what was the harm in it? After all, it needed to be done. After all, it was a kindness to these people, with such limited capacities.

Likewise, the British Empire needed women. Specifically, it needed them in the domestic sphere. Many women, including Austen, took issue with exactly how women were treated within this sphere– the economic strictures, the romantic strictures, the social strictures– but not quite with their place in the sphere itself. Austen knew better than most the necessity of keeping enslaved peoples and women in their place. She comfortably placed the Bertrams’ slaves within their sphere– away from England, away from her comfortable country setting– and Fanny within hers– cousin-wife, content with her lot.