Jane Austen and BLM: an historical interrogation
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a long-dead author who is beloved by millions will, eventually, find themselves dragged into controversy
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a long-dead author who is beloved by millions will, eventually, find themselves dragged into controversy. And so it has proved with Jane Austen. After the minor controversy that arose last year from the bare-buttocked nudity from recent adaptations of Sanditon and Emma, everyone’s favourite chronicler of late-Georgian social mores has found herself in the news once again, two centuries after her death. This time she has been dragged into the slipstream of one of the biggest movements of our age: the Black Lives Matter organisation. How has this come to pass?
The only Austen book in which the subject of the slave trade is raised is Mansfield Park
The Jane Austen House in the Hampshire village of Chawton is a fine red-brick building that was her home for the last eight years of her life, and rejoices in a Grade I listing, indicating its historical importance. It has been run as a museum about Austen’s life and work since 1949, and has attracted tens of thousands of Janeites, as the most committed aficionados of Austen’s writing term themselves. It organised a well-drilled publicity campaign during lockdown last year in order to sustain itself and raised £75,000 in a matter of days from a crowdfunding campaign. Many, such as myself, applauded its energy and drive while wishing that equally deserving literary institutions such as the Dickens Museum and Charleston would receive the same level of exposure. Yet Austen’s perennial popularity has meant that the idea that her former house could ever be forced to close shocked many into making generous donations almost immediately.
Yet when thousands of people choose to give money to an organisation, there is the implicit condition attached that the institution will not simply use the funds to maintain the status quo, but will instead use the cash for forward-looking purposes. Therefore, it was no surprise that Lizzie Dunford, the director of the Jane Austen House Museum, informed the Daily Telegraph that: “At Jane Austen’s House we are in the process of reviewing and updating all of our interpretation, including plans to explore the Empire and Regency Colonial context of both Austen’s family and her work.”
This so-called “steady and considered progress of historical interpretation” will reassess Austen’s role in “Regency-era colonialism”, on the grounds that a writer in her era would always be expected to have an opinion about it. Dunford has promised that “all our future planning and interpretation” of Austen’s life will take place through this prism, and that at least one new display, Black Lives Matter to Austen, will look at her own interest in colonialism and slavery, and the way in which it affected her writing.
There is no other textual evidence anywhere else in Austen’s works for any opinion about slavery
So far, so very twenty-first century. Needless to say, the museum’s intentions were guyed and exaggerated by the press, leading to headlines along the lines of “Jane Austen museum launches BLM-inspired ‘interrogation’ of author’s love for drinking tea and wearing cotton due to slave trade links.” Accordingly, the museum put out a pained statement: “The plans for refreshing the displays and decoration of Jane Austen’s House have been misinterpreted,” and that, while “it is appropriate that we share the information and research that exists on her connections to slavery and its mention in her novels … we would like to offer reassurance that we will not, and have never had any intention to, interrogate Jane Austen, her characters, or her readers for drinking tea.” The statement concluded that, after “long established, peer reviewed academic research … we firmly believe that placing Austen in the context of her time at her home will only make her genius shine more brightly”.
My first response upon reading the statement was that there was a forgotten Austen novel that somehow explicitly dealt with slavery and colonialism. However, the only book in which the subject of the slave trade is raised is Mansfield Park, obliquely through the character of the wealthy plantation owner Sir Thomas Bertram and more directly through a brief conversation between the protagonist Fanny Price and Sir Thomas’s son Edward. This is it in its entirety:
“Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?”
“I did — and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”
“I longed to do it — but there was such a dead silence!”
When one comes to attempted revisionism of Austen’s views on colonialism based on her novels, this “dead silence” remains, even as the phrase itself is debated and given considerable weight amongst literary critics. Although the 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park was considerably more explicit about Sir Thomas’s status as a slave trader, there is no other textual evidence anywhere else in Austen’s works for any particular opinion about slavery. Even a fleeting reference to it in Emma, in which Jane Fairfax bemoans “the sale — not quite of human flesh — but of human intellect” is immediately nullified as any kind of comment on the industry itself.
The institution is arguably placing too much stress on one far from central aspect of her work
There is undeniably historical and biographical evidence for placing Jane Austen within the context of the colonial age in which she wrote. It seems likely that she herself sympathised with the abolitionists, given her admiration for two writers who frequently dealt with the topic, William Cowper and Thomas Clarkson, and her brother Francis was himself pro-abolition. Nonetheless, her father George Austen was a trustee of an Antigua sugar plantation, meaning that the family’s wealth came, in part, from tea importation that would have been carried out by slaves. It is this far from atypical ambiguity that, in this era of statues of plantation owners being torn down and thrown into harbours, has led to this debate regarding Austen’s own sentiments and ideas. Yet there is the possibility that, in its eagerness to remain topical, the institution is placing too much stress on one far from central aspect of her work.
Lizzie Dunford took up her position at the Jane Austen House Museum at the beginning of the pandemic after a decade working at similar institutions, including the beleaguered National Trust. It is right that she should wish to bring energy and focus to a much-loved institution celebrating one of Britain’s greatest writers, and to revitalise a building that perhaps has too long been regarded simply as a cosy place to soak up the suitably Austenian atmosphere. But it is tempting to imagine that, should its former resident see her relatively mild allusions to colonialism become the museum’s guiding focus, she would arch an eyebrow and remark: “Angry people are not always wise.”
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe