Jane Austen and Slavery

by Ibn Warraq (July 2007)


Edward Said’s most egregious misreading of a literary work concerns Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park [1814].  Even before mangling Austen, Edward Said was responsible for having created an atmosphere of hostility and prejudice against the West and Western culture—from painting to literature.  In such an atmosphere, Jane Austen is unlikely to get a fair trial.  This is important, since the pusillanimous have accepted without question or qualm the terms of debate set by Said.

There are several references to Antigua and Sir Thomas’ plantation in Mansfield Park, but only a single explicit reference to the slave trade.  From such flimsy textual evidence it is unwise to deduce authorial intent.  Certainly one cannot conclude that Austen condoned slavery.  But Said, realizing that there is little textual justification, brings other novels written later, in some cases a hundred years later, to bear upon Mansfield Park:

We must first take stock of Mansfield Park’s prefigurations of a later English history as registered in fiction.  The Bertrams’ usable colony in Mansfield Park can be read as pointing forward to Charles Gould’s San Tomé mine in Nostromo, or to the Wilcoxes’ Imperial and West African Rubber company in Forster’s Howards End [1910], or to any of these distant but convenient treasure spots in Great Expectations, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea [1966], Heart of Darkness—resources to be visited, talked about, described, or appreciated for domestic reasons, for local metropolitan benefit.  If we think ahead to these other novels, Sir Thomas’s Antigua readily acquires a slightly greater density than the discrete, reticent appearances it makes in the pages of Mansfield Park.”[1]


So Jane Austen’s “discrete” reticence must be filled out by reading ahead a hundred years.  In other words, there is nothing that would justify describing Austen as condoning slavery, but we must look to works written by others, not Austen herself, and written a hundred years later to do so!

Said covers his tracks, using a common ploy laid bare by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in Intellectual Impostures.  Intellectual impostors often, in willfully vague language, try to have it both ways.  “Indeed, they offer a great advantage in intellectual battles: the radical interpretation can serve to attract relatively inexperienced listeners or readers; and if the absurdity of this version is exposed, the author can always defend himself by claiming to have been misunderstood, and retreat to the innocuous interpretation.”[2]  Here is how Said does it, denying his own thesis:

“All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff.  And everything we know about Jane Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery.  Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, “there was such a dead silence” as to suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both. That is true.”[3]

In a recent article, Susan Fraiman, takes to task Said’s lazy and unwarranted reading of Jane Austen:

“Yet had Said placed Sir Thomas Bertram, for example, in line with the deficient fathers who run unrelentingly from Northanger Abbey through Persuasion, he might perhaps have paused before assuming that Austen legitimates the master of Mansfield Park.  If truth be told, Said’s attention even to his chosen text is cursory: Austen’s references to Antigua (and India) are mentioned without actually being read, though Said stresses elsewhere the importance of close, specific analysis.  Maria Bertram is mistakenly referred to as ‘Lydia‘ [p.104]—confused, presumably, with Lydia Bennett of Pride and Prejudice.  And these are just a few of the signs that Mansfield Park’s particular complexity—including what I see as its moral complexity—has been sacrificed here, so ready is Said to offer Austen as ‘Exhibit A’ in the case for culture’s endorsement of empire.”[4]

Gabrielle White devotes an entire book to defending Jane Austen from Edward Said.  She examines Austen’s last three novels, and sets them in the context of the world of the abolitionists.  Ms White writes, “The last three novels, the so-called Chawton novels [Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion], were written in the decade after the 1807 Abolition.  Amongst Jane Austen’s favourite writers were people who were passionately anti-slavery, such as William Cowper, Doctor Johnson and Thomas Clarkson.  One of her naval brothers was known to be abolitionist.  I use the term ‘abolition’ in connection with both the slave trade and slavery.  Cowper’s tirade against slavery in lines 37-39 of Book Two of his epic poem The Task is severe, and leads up to the question: ‘We have no slaves at home—then why abroad?’  Jane Austen would have been aware of the popular campaign for abolition.”[5]

For White, Mansfield Park “challenged the pro-slavery lobby amongst readers in a context after slave trading had been made a felony; it gave succour to the anti-slavery campaigners; and it told the story of a young girl that could retain readers’ interest once the hopes of abolition and emancipation would be achieved.  It is only after change that the author is prepared to have done with everything else and restore all to ‘tolerable comfort.’  The narrator stipulates a change for the better ‘for ever’ in the eldest son and heir, Tom, who is reformed.  The fictional world of Mansfield Park in the context of abolition warrants portraying the novel as a subversive view of English society and as undermining the status quo of slavery.  The upshot of Mansfield Park is relative to the abolitionist climate in which it was written.  That a tone is set and an agenda bruited by references to Antigua and the West Indies becomes apparent as the plot unfolds.”

In the novel, Fanny Price recounts a conversation she had with her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram: “‘Did you not hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?’ she asks her cousin Edmund, and then adds: ‘—but there was such dead silence!'”  Not only Sir Thomas, but his children sat in the room “without speaking a word.”  Brian Southam has argued that Sir Thomas’s silence indicates that he was unable to answer her satisfactorily, and that by simply daring to raise the question at all, Fanny was able to make her abolitionist sympathies clear—she was indeed “a friend of the abolition.”[6]  Fanny Price also approves of anyone who speaks up for the oppressed.  “To be the friend of the poor and oppressed!  Nothing could be more grateful to her…”[7]

The dialogue on the slave trade in Emma [Vol.II , Ch. XVII] also leads to an abolitionist reading.  Jane Fairfax, in talking of agencies through which one can hire governesses, says, “There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”  To which Mrs. Elton, obviously horrified, replies, “Oh! my dear, human flesh!  You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”  It is evident from the context and Mrs. Elton’s reply that all present were clearly against the slave trade; otherwise, why would Mrs. Elton so hastily rush to make it clear that no acquaintance of hers could possibly be for slavery?

In Persuasion, Austen celebrates the Royal Navy and “by implication its impending work to enforce in law over slave trading.”[8]  We know Jane was very proud of her brothers in the Royal Navy, which played its part in the suppression of the slave trade.  Frank, her brother, wrote home condemning slavery after a visit to Antigua in 1806.[9]  Fanny Austen, Jane’s niece, kept a diary for 1809, which contains an anti-slavery story, further evidence that women in Jane Austen’s family and circle were in favor of abolition.[10]  White also suggests that the title Mansfield Park is itself a reference to Lord Mansfield and his famous verdict of 1772 that ruled that a black defendant, James Somersett, could not be taken against his will back out of England and returned to slavery in the colony of Virginia, already quoted but which bears requoting: “The state of slavery…is so odious….Whatever inconvenience, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore, the black must be discharged.”

As White says, Edward Said was “way off the mark,” since he is insensitive to the satire present in Austen.  Said was not known for his sense of humor.  He is even less sensitive to irony; as Rajan put it, “Said’s reading [of Mansfield Park] is not without problems, both as a matter of interpretation of Austen’s style (he overlooks, for example, the operation and effects of irony), as well as in historical understanding (of her position on abolition, for instance).”[11]  Finally, White notes, “Jane Austen’s untimely death in 1817 meant she would not live to see further outcome of the popular resolve for abolition during the reappraisal of early years, both in her undermining the status quo of chattel slavery, and in celebrating the abolition of the British slave trade.”[12]

Did Edward Said even have a coherent thesis in his section on Jane Austen and Empire in Culture and Imperialism?  He tells us that “[t]he first thing to be done now is more or less to jettison simple causality in thinking through the relationship between Europe and the non-European world, and lessening the hold on our thought of the equally simple temporal sequence.”[13]  He cannot even manage to tell us straightforwardly to jettison these two things; we are “more or less” to do so.

If we are to jettison simple causality, does he mean we ought to adopt complex causality—or rather, causality as such?  No answer is forthcoming. A few lines above, Said informs us that European culture did not “cause” imperialism. Does he mean “cause” simply or complexly?  If there is neither a causal nor a temporal relation, what relation does he have in mind?  He evades the latter question by introducing the metaphor of “counterpoint.”  But counterpoint is a concept drawn from music. How can it apply here?  No answer is given. In the same paragraph, we are told incoherently that “[t]he inherent mode for this counterpoint is not temporal but spatial.”  Does he mean “simple spatiality” or “complex spatiality”?  How can there be space without time or causality?

If we now ask the question, “What is the relationship between a European novel and European imperialism?” we find that Said has not even pretended to tell us.  Said does recognize that this is a fundamental issue, but evades it by introducing irrelevant and obfuscating side issues and metaphors. Without an answer to that question, Said does not have a coherent thesis.[14]


[1] Edward Said.  Culture and Imperialism.  London:Vintage, 1994, p.112.

[2] Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.  Fashionable Nonsense.  Post-Modern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science.  New York: Picador USA, 1998, p.189.

[3] Edward Said.  Culture and Imperialism.  London:Vintage, 1994, p.115. 

[4] Susan Fraiman.  Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture and Imperialism

in Deidre Lynch ed..  Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000,p.213, quoted in Gabrielle D.V.White.  Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition.  ‘a fling at the slave trade’.  New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2006,  p.4.

[5] Gabrielle D.V.White.  Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition.  ‘a fling at the slave trade’.  New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2006,  p.1

[6] Brian Southam.  The Silence of the Bertrams, in The Times Literary Supplement, 17 February, 1995, pp.13-14, referred to by Claire Tomalin  Jane Austen.  A Life.  Harmondsworth:Penguin Books 1998 ,p.234, p.333.

[7] Jane Austen.  Mansfield Park, Ware [U.K.]: Wordsworth Classics, 1992, Chapter 41, p.290.

[8] Ibid.,pp.  2-3.

[9] Marilyn Butler, Introduction , Jane Austen.  Selected Letters 1796-1817, ed.  R.W.Chapman, Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1985, p.xviii.

[10] Claire Tomalin .Jane Austen.  A Life.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1998.  p.332

[11] You-me Park & R.S.Rajan.  edd.  The Postcolonial Jane Austen, London: Routledge 2000, p.8., quoted in Gabrielle D.V.White.  Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition.  ‘a fling at the slave trade’.  New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2006,  p.4.

[12] Gabrielle D.V.White.  Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition.  ‘a fling at the slave trade’.  New York:Palgrave Macmillan, 2006,  p.172.

[13] Edward Said.  Culture and Imperialism.  New York: Vintage, 1994.p.97

[14] I owe these points to Irfan Khawaja.


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