It was only today, when I read the following in an otherwise brilliant 2014 article about the movie Belle by Prof. Tricia Matthew... " In the twenty years since Edward Said’s focus on the “dead silence” [in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park] in his post-colonial manifesto Culture and Imperialism scholars and other storytellers are paying more attention to the presence of people in color in historical British narratives.." ...that it occurred to me that I ought to finally self publish my 2006 article (which I'll update some time in the near future), exactly as I wrote it then, in order to tell the true story of the many twists and turns in the evolution of the idea of Jane Austen's really being focused on English colonial slavery in MP, both literally and also as a metaphor for the servitude of many subtler kinds which are depicted in MP, her least romantic novel.
With that brief intro, then, I give you:
"Jane Austen's Dead Silence: The History of Slavery Subtext in Mansfield Park" (2006) by Arnie Perlstein
For almost two centuries, Mansfield Park has been Jane Austen’s problem novel, in the sense that the term “problem play” is used to describe some of Shakespeare’s plays. Like All’s Well That Ends Well, Mansfield Park defies categorization as either comedy or tragedy. Both are love stories that seem to end well, but not decisively. Austen even flags this parallel by giving her irresolute male hero the surname Bertram from that play; just as, for other reasons, she also gives him the Shakespearean first name Edmund.
Controversy among readers about Mansfield Park goes back a long way, but in recent years, the perennial Fanny Wars have been upstaged by one major controversy: the existence and/or meaning of what may be called the novel’s slavery subtext. This refers to oblique textual references to the real world of slavery and abolitionism, a social issue to which Jane Austen has long been thought by many to have been indifferent.
That controversy has piqued the interest of many readers, but even one familiar with the novel would be hard-pressed to describe all its contours, let alone make an informed decision as to their opinion about it. The flurry of words written on the topic from a range of lay and scholarly (particularly feminist and postcolonialist) perspectives during the past fifteen years is confusing and nearly impenetrable even to an Austen scholar. Ideology has further clouded matters, because some have seized upon its controversial aspects and dismissed the entire subject as an ivory tower confabulation, with little connection to the novel’s text, or meaning for most Austen readers.
One can readily discern why this has happened; the stakes are high. The existence of significant and potentially disturbing slavery references in a novel by the author of widely cherished love stories, is the hottest of buttons. It goes to the heart of the matter: what is Mansfield Park really about?
Amidst the ideological conflict, insufficient attention has been paid to the prosaic, detail-oriented questions of whether (and, if so, how) that subtext was embedded in the novel by Austen. Periodically, there have been claims of detection of references to slavery in Mansfield Park, and also in Emma, involving character surnames. However, no single example, standing alone, seems truly convincing, and no previous commentator has presented a unifying principle for linking them all as a group that cannot be gainsaid.
This article claims to be the first definitive intellectual history of the idea of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park. Delightfully, such history turns out to have its own intrinsic interest, filled with the same sorts of ironies, reversals, secrets, near-misses, unintended communications, and suspense that we find in every Austen novel.
The Slavery Text in Mansfield Park
The starting point for study of slavery subtext must be the only two specific instances that everybody acknowledges to be some sort of reference to slavery in Mansfield Park:
1. Sir Thomas Bertram has business in Antigua that requires him to spend two years there. Mrs. Norris expresses concern that the loss of income from Antigua may materially adversely affect the high standard of living at Mansfield Park. (30-34) It is clearly implied that Sir Thomas’s income from Antigua arises from an enterprise related, directly or indirectly, to the raising of sugar cane on plantations relying on slave labor.
2. Later on, Edmund has just gently chided Fanny for not speaking up more with her father, and Fanny defends herself: “Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?” and adds that her question was met with “such a dead silence”. (196)
The meaning of this exchange has been debated for years, and the cause is obvious: the extraordinary ambiguity of what Brian Southam has called “the silence of the Bertrams”. Their silence may be a reflection of narcissistic boredom; or of horror at a taboo subject explicitly raised; or something else. Austen’s narrator exceeds even her normal coy reticence; she never explains that silence. Given that all the other references in the novel to slavery are oblique or implicit, the reader is left in an information vacuum.
Why would Austen tantalize readers with a pointed reference to the slave-trade, but then leave that reference ambiguous and never subsequently explain it? We cannot imagine such an omission from an author so meticulous with even seemingly trivial details.
So, is Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua merely a Hitchcockian “McGuffin”? A plausible plot device designed to get the cat away for an extended time, so that the naughty mice can have sufficient time to (put on a) play, only to be trapped by the cat in the act? Or is it a Stoppardian inversion, with Antigua the submerged bulk of the iceberg, of which the Mansfield Park action comprises the exposed tip? I suggest that the answer is both, that Austen’s dead silence on this subject is intentional, and that it would have pleased her greatly to have us be brave, follow Edmund’s sensible advice (which maybe Fanny did, but we never were told), and inquire of it farther. Let us start with the history.
Nineteenth Century Sources:
With some other authors, we might look to their correspondence to learn about a major literary strategy such as concealing references to large-scale world phenomena like slavery. It’s not so easy with Austen. If she ever explicitly wrote in a letter about subtext in any of her novels, it did not survive. Similarly, the opinions about Mansfield Park that Austen collected upon its publication contain no explicit references to slavery or Antigua. Nor do any nineteenth century writers, fiction or nonfiction, take any explicit notice of it, we find only a couple of vague associations.
Not much to show for an entire century, but this nineteenth century indifference to slavery in Mansfield Park is not surprising. Once Austen’s own generation has died, followed decades later by the end of English colonial slavery itself, any contemporary awareness of allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park has faded as well. The world’s issues with slavery focus on the U.S. Civil War. And so a century and more passes in silence on that subject. It remains for the latter part of the twentieth century for Mansfield Park to begin to yield up its secrets.
On Looking Into Chapman’s Austen
Within ten years after the 1932 publication of R.W. Chapman’s first edition of the Letters, one of them plays a role in the origination of ideas about the slavery subtext. Her January 24, 1813 letter states:
We quite run over with books. She [Mrs. Austen] has got Sir John Carr's Travels in Spain, and I am reading a Society octavo, an Essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written and highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the author as I ever was with Clarkson or Buchanan… (198)
Chapman’s 1932 edition includes the following entry in its “Other Persons, Places, Authors, etc.” appendix, implicitly explaining Austen’s reference to the book by Clarkson which generated her great admiration for him: "Clarkson, Thomas, 1760 – 1846, perhaps Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1808), or more probably Life of William Penn (1813)” Chapman does not explain why he believes the later book of Clarkson’s would be the more probable reference.
There matters lie until 1942, when Sheila Kay-Smith and G.B. Stern intone that “the shadow which has fallen over Mansfield Park is nothing less than the Evangelical Revival”. (40) They get this idea from an ironically improbable source---Mary Crawford.
In Chapter 40, an impatient Mary sarcastically explains Edmund’s delayed arrival: "There may be some old woman at Thornton Lacey to be converted." (394) Then an agitated Mary varies and expands upon that theme in Chapter 47, this time directing her sarcasm at Edmund: “At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.” (458)
Smith and Stern do well to realize that Mary’s jibes at Edmund are significant subtextual clues, and much has been made since, pro and con, of their speculation that Austen became an Evangelical in 1810. But, what concerns us here is that they fail to ask whether there might be a second meaning of those clues, beyond the purely religious meaning they perceive.
What they do instead is akin to discovering an oblique reference to Martin Luther King in a novel set in the Sixties, inferring therefrom only that the author became a Southern Baptist, but never asking whether he also marched in Selma. The Evangelicals were the leading lights of the English abolitionist movement, and few, then or today, would have known Clarkson’s name had he never led that great struggle.
During the next twenty five years, the former silence reemerges, but those claims have not been for naught, because Chapman makes subtle changes in his appendix note, which is reproduced below exactly as it appears in his 1955 edition: “Clarkson, Thomas, 1760-1846, abolitionist. JA may refer to his Life of Penn 1813 (too late?) or to his Abolition of the …Slave Trade 1808” (221)
Chapman now describes Clarkson as an abolitionist. Plus, he downgrades Life of Penn from priority of likelihood, and also suggests that it may have been published too late to have been read by Austen before January, 1813. We read between his carefully worded lines that he has read Mary’s jibes, and the gloss thereon by Smith and Stern, and has detected that second, antislavery meaning in them that they did not. However, he seems too cautious or ambivalent to dispense with the Penn safety net.
The Slavery Subtext Unveiled, Then Reclothed
The pioneer who first publishes an explicit claim of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park is Avrom Fleishman. His 1967 article ends the 153-year dead silence, and initiates the process of finally answering Fanny’s question. He begins by placing Mansfield Park in the historical context of a “crisis” or “turning point in the gentry’s fortunes.” (15) Per Fleishman, Mansfield Park depends on Antiguan income, and Sir Thomas is Antiguan. Fleishman then writes: “And if a question about off-stage action may be admitted, what does Sir Thomas do in Antigua to make secure the sources of his income?” (16)
Fleishman goes on to provide economic history and claims that Antigua was an exception to the rule of absentee ownership that prevailed elsewhere in the British West Indies, but that it had just been adversely impacted by the abolition of the slave trade. He wonders whether it is economic necessity that drives Sir Thomas “to improve conditions for the slaves,” and he believes that the “strange business. . .in America” that Tom mentions to Dr. Grant (Mansfield Park, 119) is a reference to Sir Thomas’s crisis in Antigua. (17)
Fleishman combines the best ideas of Smith, Stern and Chapman when he points out the importance of Austen’s familiarity with Clarkson’s The Abolition of the African Slave Trade. He then takes the step that Chapman did not, arguing that the Evangelically-driven abolitionist movement must have been very much in Austen’s awareness as she wrote this novel. Regarding Sir Thomas’s startling display of affection for Fanny, Fleishman writes that “it is inescapably significant that she is the only member of the family interested in hearing from him about the slave trade.” (17)
Fleishman thus presents persuasive and unequivocal advocacy for Sir Thomas as absentee plantation owner, and for Clarkson’s abolitionism on Austen’s radar screen. However, as valuable as these explicit insights are, his indirect implications are even better. His approach implies that there can be offstage, unreported action in an Austen novel worthy of serious thematic consideration. There is enormous power in this approach, and, so energized, he goes on to achieve what seem to me to be four distinct insights:
1. Sir Thomas’s “bullying” (14) of Fanny—this is the first conceptualization, however indistinct, of the allegory of Fanny as slave and Sir Thomas as master, which Kirkham will make explicit in 1983, and is fundamental to much thinking ever since about Austen’s slavery references.
2. Sir Thomas’s children as “bitter fruit” (15). This is a prescient grasping of the pervasive allusive import of Paradise Lost in the novel, the image of bitter fruit being specifically and ironically tagged by Dr. Grant’s deriding Mrs. Norris’s Moor Park apricots as “insipid” and inedible (Mansfield Park 54) .
3. “The large and airy rooms” (16) of Mansfield Park-- the central symbolism of the magical power of English air stated in the slave-freeing 1772 Mansfield Judgment.
4. Fleishman’s quoting D.W. Harding, who in turn is clearly riffing on Mary, about Austen’s intentions as a writer: “Her object is not missionary” (18). Mary’s mocking portrayals of Edmund as a missionary comprise one instance among many in Austen’s novels in which Austen ventriloquistically uses a character as a mouthpiece for her reflections, in this case on her own role as a writer in morally sick Regency Era England. Does Mary speak of Austen? Harding thinks not, but others like Smith and Stern might disagree.
Fleishman’s article fertilizes the examination of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park, but its gestation will be long and difficult. Despite the wealth of his radically new ideas about slavery in the novel, no commentator will, until 1982, respond positively to him. However, he does, in the interim, have a few particular, adverse respondents.
Writing in 1969, B.C. Southam never acknowledges Fleishman by name, but seems to be reacting to Fleishman’s provocative imagining of Sir Thomas as absentee Antiguan planter. Whatever prompts Southam to check Vere Langford Oliver’s obscure 1896 history of Antigua, it is fortunate, because it is where Southam finds the name of George Austen, mentioned in 1760 and 1788 entries, as trustee of the Haddons plantation in Antigua owned by James Langford Nibbs. That appears to be the same Mr. Nibbs whose portrait hung at Steventon, and whom Chapman was unable to identify even as late as his 1952 edition of the Letters.
This is the first mention in print of the Austen family’s Antiguan connection, a dramatic validation of Fleishman’s ideas. However, Southam promptly minimizes the significance of his own discovery:
“These facts are trivial and add nothing to the meaning of Mansfield Park. But they do enable us to see Jane Austen’s reliance upon the known world and her fond habit of introducing family associations into her fiction.” (19-20)
Southam’s words echo Fanny Price’s letter to Mary (“The rest of your note I know means nothing”) ( ) and Fanny’s struggle to shield herself from Henry Crawford’s powerful and dangerous charm. There is a finality to his dismissal of slavery subtext, but, to paraphrase Blake on Milton, perhaps Southam was of the party and didn’t know it, because his later words on this subject--twenty six years later—will evidence a very different point of view.
In 1975, A. Walton Litz explicitly rebuts Fleishman: “Surely if Jane Austen had thought them [details of the English colonial slavery crisis] crucial she would have included them in her description and dialogue.” (678) Litz explicitly rejects Fleishman’s contention that Jane Austen was dropping hints to contemporaries sophisticated about history and current events.
And in 1977, David Monaghan seems to echoes Litz, in passing, as he rebuts Kaye-Smith’s claims of Austen as evangelical :
“Fanny’s questioning of Sir Thomas about slavery cannot be taken as evidence of Jane Austen’s sympathy with the abolition campaign because it tells us no more than that she was aware of the problem….The subject [of whether Austen was alluding to Evangelicalism in Mansfield Park] can be illuminated only if we begin with coherent statements of the religious and social positions adopted by the Clapham Sect [the key Evangelical abolitionists, to be discussed later in this article] and by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park” (219)
Very Strange Business in Antigua
Things do not heat up again until Frank Gibbon, in 1982, starts from Southam’s kernel of discovery about Reverend Austen’s Antigua connection, and adds to it a wealth of well-organized data about what turns out to be an extensive and decades-long Austen-Nibbs family connection. Gibbon’s facts go far beyond the simple trusteeship first described by Southam. He recites that Southam’s “odd little item of information has lain buried ever since” but then dryly suggests that “the role of the Nibbs family is not quite so trivial a factor as Mr. Southam believes.” (299) Gibbon does not merely show the real lives of the Nibbses, he shows several major parallels between their lives and the lives of characters in Mansfield Park. He does not cite Fleishman’s discoveries, but surely they’ve inspired him, as he broadens them to include private family allusions that seem to only have significance for those who know the Austen and Nibbs family histories.
Gibbon introduces several other noteworthy insights. He explicitly connects the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park and Emma, when he mentions Austen’s use of Bristol, a main slave-trade port, as the hometown of the Hawkinses and Sucklings. Gibbons also and infers “that the Sucklings were retired West Indian merchants with at least an indirect financial interest in the slave trade.” (303)
He is the first to bring Mrs. Norris into the slavery mix. He suggests that Austen “possibly nam[ed] Mrs. Norris after its [Clarkson’s History’s] most obnoxious character.” (303) He does not try to match all attributes of Mrs. Norris to Robert Norris, her slaver namesake (who will be discussed later), but recognizes that Austen’s art of allusion is too flexible for that. Gibbon’s only error seems to be that of not grasping all the implications of his discoveries. Had he done so, he might have noticed other character (or even place) names which alluded to other names prominent in the world of slavery, which will be described in my companion article.
Gibbon expands Fleishman’s allegorical implication: “[Sir Thomas’s] estate must be handled by managers, who, as a class, were about as efficient and kindly as Mrs. Norris turned out to be in her managerial role during Sir Thomas’s absence from the Park.” (302) In so doing, Gibbon, like Fleishman fifteen years earlier, comes close to realizing that even the genteel life at Mansfield Park is itself an allegory for a metaphorical plantation, where the “slaves” pick spouses, instead of sugar cane, at the whim of their overseers.
Lastly, he takes a deep dive into the murkiest depths of the subtext of the novel when he writes “Jane Austen would certainly have been aware of the likelihood of a family such as her fictional Bertrams having numerous mulatto relatives in Antigua…” (304-5)
Gibbon’s ideas, surprisingly, receive little critical reaction, and the ship of slavery subtext study seems stalled once again. However, things are finally about to change.
Traffic in Female Flesh
Margaret Kirkham does not cite Fleishman, Gibbon or even Southam, but her chapter on Mansfield Park nonetheless is a turning point in the study of its oblique slavery references. First and foremost, she trumpets Austen’s application of the metaphor of slavery to the condition of women in England, famously championed by Mary Wollstonecraft who died thirteen years before Mansfield Park. “The resemblance between Wollstonecraft and Austen as feminine moralists is so striking that it seems extraordinary that it has not always been recognized, but that is to leave out of account the Great Wollstonecraft Scandal of 1798.” (48) That last refers to the scandal which polarized women in England and seriously set back the cause of women’s rights.
Kirkham is also the first to refer to the Mansfield Judgment as an allusive source for the novel, and to link them both to Wollstonecraft:
“The title of Mansfield Park is allusive and ironic, but the allusion in this case is not to philosophical fiction like Emile or to the theatre, but to a legal judgment, generally regarded as having ensured that slavery could not be held to be in accordance with the manners and customs of the English….Jane Austen follows an analogy used in [Wollstonecraft’s] Vindication between the slaves in the colonies and women, especially married women, at home.” (116-7)
In summarizing Clarkson’s book, which would have been an important source for Austen in its detailed description of the Somerset case (decided by the Mansfield Judgment), Kirkham briefly but indelibly inscribes the Mansfield Judgment on the map of Mansfield Park scholarship. Kirkham also breaks new ground when she notes that “at the house of her brother Edward Knight, she [Austen] met Lord Mansfield’s niece on a number of occasions,” (118) thereby establishing an Austen personal connection to Lord Mansfield’s family, the significance of which is addressed in the companion article.
Finally, she shows how the actual words (both proper and ordinary names) of Mansfield Park constitute a language of slavery--the “captivation” of Miss “Ward” of “Huntingdon”--and of law--the “air” of Mansfield Park (118) echoing the famous words of the Mansfield Judgment. Kirkham shows a sharp sensitivity to Austen’s creativity in detecting the subliminal aura of slavery into the novel.
Although Gibbon and Kirkham both blaze new paths, Kirkham is the one who ignites a fire, perhaps bcause her frank feminism is timely at that moment in history, with the result that this short section of her book has been cited in most of the hundred-plus articles that have addressed this issue since 1983.
The Discreet Charm of Edward Said And The Feminist Wave
As the Eighties progress, the slavery subtext begins to appear regularly in print, mostly pertaining to the feminist metaphor, but the discourse about Austen and slavery is completely altered by the entrance of Edward Said. Per Fraiman, “Mansfield Park takes relatively little space in the vastness of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), yet one reviewer after another has seized on Austen’s novel as emblematic of the cultural tradition Said shows to be inextricable from European colonialism.” (805)
This is good news and bad news. A lot of people who have never given a second thought to slavery in Mansfield Park become aware of the issue, and the novel begins to be more widely viewed in a new light. However, as stated earlier, the slavery subtext becomes entangled with Said’s ideology, such that those who oppose his ideology use it to deny the existence of the slavery subtext altogether.
What did Said actually say about Mansfield Park? I quote at length, because of the singular impact of his enigmatic words on the study of the even more enigmatic shadow of slavery in Mansfield Park:
It would be silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave….Yes, Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all, I would argue, if we….make connections, to deal with as much of the evidence as possible, fully and actually, to read what is there or is not there…Mansfield Park is a rich work in that its aesthetic intellectual complexity requires that longer and slower analysis that is also required by its geographical problematic, a novel based in an England relying for the maintenance of its style on a Caribbean island. . .But precisely because Austen is so summary in one context, so provocatively rich in the other, precisely because of that imbalance, we are able to move in on the novel, reveal and accentuate the interdependence scarcely mentioned on its brilliant pages. A lesser work wears its historical affiliation more plainly. …..Mansfield Park encodes experiences and does not simply repeat them. (366)
With a poet’s voice, Said captures subtle aspects of Jane Austen’s mystery-generating art. It will be very hard, but also very rewarding, work, to struggle to grasp the experiences encoded beneath the surface of the novel. Whatever else his impact, Said’s penetration is undeniable.
In 1993, a new element is introduced by Maaja Stewart, who adds to the catalogue of historical antecedents of Mansfield Park two fictional stories by Inchbald and Edgeworth, respectively, which Stewart sees as congruent with the slavery subtext of the novel. Here is her metaphorical reading of Lady Bertram as a planter’s wife:
Lady Bertram is further mirrored in Maria Edgeworth’s portraits of these wives in The Grateful Negro: ‘Mrs. Jeffries was a languid beauty, or rather a languid fine lady who had been a beauty, and who spent all that part of the day which was not devoted to the pleasures of the table, or to reclining on a couch, in dress.’ (129-30)
Stewart’s breakthrough to an entirely new domain of the slavery subtext, and beginning to flesh out the Bertram family portrait in the slavery album, is significant. However, she fails to realize that the resemblance that Lady Bertram bears to Mrs. Jeffries in The Grateful Negro is no coincidence.
In the same vein, Deirdre Coleman and Moira Ferguson, two other influential Nineties feminist commentators write about the complex interface between antislavery and feminism in Jane Austen’s and other novels.
Antiracism and Feminism Then & Now
The ideas of Kirkham, Stewart, Coleman and Ferguson, as well as those of Fleishman two decades earlier, illustrate the crucial role that contemporary politics then and now have played in all this. Austen’s creation of an elaborate slavery subtext in Mansfield Park seems to have been an outgrowth of the abolitionist movement’s galvanization of early women’s rights advocates such as Wollstonecraft. The modern decoding of her slavery subtext seems to have been an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and its galvanization of modern feminism.
The Return of Southam & Other Recent Highlights
Brian Southam returns to slavery in Mansfield Park in 1995 with a bang. As we read his “The Silence of the Bertrams”, we see a shift from denial to acceptance. Southam now takes as given that the Nibbs family allusion in Mansfield Park is intentional, although he remains enigmatic as to exactly what sort of meaning in the novel might be implied by that allusion:
A silence not unlike the ‘dead silence’ at Mansfield Park may have begun to gather over Mr. Austen’s West Indian connections—connections which extended deeper into the household. . .Like Sir Thomas Bertram, Mr. Nibbs had a spendthrift elder son, James Junior; and like Tom Bertram, James junior was taken off to Antigua by his father to detach him from his ‘unwholesome connections’. (14)
The greatest portion of Southam’s article provides a welcome and extensive analysis of the chronology of Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua in the context of world politics, particularly involving the colonial slavery system. Surprisingly, he fails to mention Gibbon, but perhaps more surprising, he not only mentions Edward Said, but even pays tribute to Said’s vision of Austen’s global perspective.
In the last decade, there have been a number of articles on the subject of slavery in Mansfield Park. It remains as lively an area as any in Austen studies, although radically new ground is not broken in them. Here are two highlights.
In 2000, Elaine Jordan follows Stewart’s lead in her application of Antiguan patterns of behavior to the actual characters of the Bertrams. She sees Sir Thomas as a nouveau riche from the West Indies trying to buy himself legitimacy and gravitas, but she also extends Gibbon’s 1982 insights in one intriguing respect: “James Langston Nibbs. . .took his son and heir, named after himself, out to Antigua to cure his extravagances in England. Unlike Tom Bertram, this son did not return. His half-brother, Christopher, a slave, also died in Antigua.” (40) .
Moreland Perkins, in 2005, convincingly establishes the depth of the allusions by Austen to her “loves” Clarkson and Pasley, but, even more important, Perkins looks all the way back to Chapman and Fleishman, and makes an open-and-shut case for Austen’s profound ambivalence between Pasley’s strength-through-empire theories and Clarkson’s abolitionist eloquence.
In The Opposition:
There are still those who continue to deny and/or limit the significance of slavery subtext in the novel. The most articulate and prominent is John Wiltshire. In 2003, he draws a bead on what he calls the “postcolonial criticism” of Said and Rozema. He asserts that the postcolonial critic “actively colonises the novel by placing more value on the ‘history’ within which the text is putatively embedded than on the artifact of the novel itself.” (Decolonising Mansfield Park 317), and that Rozema’s film is “an attack on colonialism, it is itself a neo-colonialist enterprise, the promotion of ‘Jane Austen’.” (Recreating Jane Austen 136) Wiltshire gives alternative interpretations for the association of the names Mansfield and Norris with slavery in the novel. But even he allows a metaphorical reading of slavery applied to women in England.
Rozema’s Film Adaptation
Chronological order has been breached slightly to devote the last words hereof to Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park. Its impact on perceptions of slavery subtext in the novel cannot be overstated. She foregrounds the issue of slavery for the first time in the awareness of people who have never read a Jane Austen novel, and has heated up the controversy. Rozema both depicted slavery subtext implied in the novel, and also frankly wove in her own inventions as well, radically altering the character of Fanny Price, and those two creative decisions have often been conflated by critics. Just as the brilliance of Said’s suggestions have been overshadowed by his ideology, so too Rozema’s sensitive grasp of Austen’s slavery subtext has been widely dismissed as merely Rozema’s own inventions.
Despite all of this, the film is a milestone in the history of understanding slavery references in Mansfield Park, with its horrific depictions of slavery and its practice by Sir Thomas, giving painfully vivid reality to Clarkson’s and others’s written descriptions, Rozema also brilliantly encapsulates Austen’s likely intentions when she states "I actually believe that Mansfield Park was Austen’s meditation on servitude and slavery . . . She was kind of exploring what it is to treat humans as property, women, blacks, and the poor especially." (audio commentary) With her film, the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park goes public, nearly two centuries after publication.
That completes the history of the slavery subtext in Mansfield Park up to publication of this article. With the perspective of this detailed history, we can see how, and how far, our collective understanding of Austen’s slavery subtext has grown, even though the ending of this history is, like the ending of the novel itself, not decisive.The rest of the story of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park remains to be told.
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_________. Jane Austen: Selected Letters. Ed. Chapman 1st ed., Oxford: OUP, 1932.
_________. Jane Austen: Selected Letters. Ed. Chapman 2nd ed., Oxford: OUP, 1955.
_________. Mansfield Park. Ed. R. W. Chapman 3rd ed., Oxford: OUP, 1934.
_________. “Opinions: Collected by Jane Austen” in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1811-1870. Ed. Southam, London: Routledge, 1979.
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Jordan, Elaine. “Jane Austen goes to the seaside: Sanditon, English identity and the ‘West Indian schoolgirl’ “ in The Postcolonial Jane Austen, Ed. You-Me Park & Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, 39-41, London: Routledge, 2000.
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