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Tuesday, June 14, 2011


The clue to Said's reading of Mansfield Park, and to Rozema's cinematic rendering of it as well, is the fact that Sir Thomas Bertram's "interests" are in the West Indies, specifically in Antigua. In short, the money that supports Sir Thomas, his wife, his four children, his sister and brother in law, and the entire magnificent estate, comes from slave plantations. In 1814, there would have been nothing at all unusual in a fine English estate relying for its wealth and comfort on slavery. Indeed, as the West Indian scholar and later statesman Eric Williams argued in his classic 1944 study, Capitalism and Slavery, the British industrial revolution was in large part financed by the slave trade and the flourishing West Indian sugar plantations. The fact is that in the several generations prior to the setting of the novel, the so-called triangular trade flourished. Slaves were bought in West Africa and transported in hellish slave ships to the West Indies, where they were put to work in the sugar plantations. The sugar cane from those plantations was converted into molasses and then into rum. The rum was carried back to England, where the ships were loaded with trinkets and baubles to be traded for slaves in West Africa, thus completing the triangle. Between 1714 and 1773, when this trade was at its height, imports into England from the tiny island of Antigua were three times as large in value as all of the imports from the New England colonies in those same years. By the time in which Mansfield Park is set, sugar production in the West Indies had peaked and started to decline, and profits had fallen almost to nil -- the background for Sir Thomas' concern for his "West Indian properties."

But a careful reader of Austen would be hard pressed to find much mention of this in the pages of Mansfield Park. I count a total of twelve references to the West Indies, Antigua, or the slave trade, eleven of which are quite fleeting and unremarkable. The first, which is typical of the eleven, is on the second page of the novel, in the context of a letter written by Fanny's despondent and economically distressed mother to her extremely well-fixed sister, Lady Bertram. Casting about for some way in which her more fortunate sister might lend a helping hand, she wonders whether there was any chance that her oldest boy, then ten, might "hereafter [be] useful to Sir Thomas in the concerns of his West Indian property?" [It is this appeal that leads to Fanny being taken into the Bertram household.]

The only reference in the entire novel to the institution of slavery occurs in the course of a conversation between Edmund and Fanny. We readers, by this point, are positively panting for some indication, any indication, that Edmund and Fanny are going to get it on, so the hot topic of slavery may fail to register, but there is no question that it is there. Since we are erecting a rather large edifice on a very slender foundation, it might be best to quote the entire passage. For those among you who are not Janeites [as I discovered the fans of Austen's novels call themselves], this comes from Volume Two, Chapter Three of the novel:

"'Oh! Don't talk so, don't talk so,' cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of; [ed. Edmund has been telling her that she is becoming pretty.] but seeing that she was distressed, he had done with the subject, and only added more seriously, 'Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more -- You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.'

"'But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?'

"'I did -- and was in hopes the question would be followed by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of further.'

"'And I longed to do it -- but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like -- I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by showing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel'."

And there it is. Not much, I must say, although lovers of Austen are accustomed to reading whole worlds into a sigh or a glance. Said's analysis of the novel is so nuanced, so fine, so judicious in its attention to the text itself, that one is tempted to quote at length from what is only a seventeen page section of a book. But this bourse has gone on long enough, so I shall content myself with one passage, simply to give the flavor of his remarks:

"My contention is that by that very odd combination of casualness and stress, Austen reveals herself to be assuming (just as Fanny assumes, in both senses of the word) the importance of an empire to the situation at home. Let me go further. Since Austen refers to and uses Antigua as she does in Mansfield Park, there needs to be a commensurate effort on the part of her readers to understand concretely the historical valences in the reference; to put it differently, we should try to understand what she referred to, why she gave it the importance she did, and why indeed she made the choice; for she might have done something different to establish Sir. Thomas' wealth." [p. 89]

Said says, in the paragraph just preceding this passage, that "Austen seems only vaguely aware of the details of these activities" [i.e. Britain's imperial doings], but in this, he is, I think, mistaken. A little digging into Austen's family affairs reveals that despite leading a sheltered, country existence, she had available to her a good deal of information specifically about slavery and West Indian plantations. In what follows, I am beholden to the published research of N. Gregson Davis, who is currently Professor of Classical Studies and Literature at Duke.

First of all, in 1807, the British Parliament banned the slave trade [but not slavery -- that would come later], and as a consequence, British naval vessels began interdicting English ships carrying slaves. Austen's favorite brother, Francis, served on a British ship charged with intercepting slavers, and in one long extant letter to her, he describes the horrors of slavery, as he has seen them, and voices his opposition to the institution. Austen herself wrote letters showing her to be sympathetic to the abolition of slavery, which was being much agitated for during the years when she wrote Mansfield Park.

Austen was also in a position to gain a good deal of quite particular knowledge about the Antiguan slave plantations. Her father, Reverend George Austen, served for a while as a proctor at St. John's College, Oxford. Among the students he befriended was James Langford Nibbs, who became a prominent Antiguan slave owner and sugar magnate. He remained a close friend to the Austens, serving as godfather to Jane Austen's oldest brother. Reverend Austen was a principal trustee of Nibbs' Antiguan estates, and was thus in a position to gain detailed knowledge of their operations, and of the treatment of the slaves.

We may confidently conclude that Austen was well positioned to learn more than enough about slavery in general and Antiguan slave plantations in particular. If, as is now commonplace in literary critical circles, we acknowledge both Jane Austen's intelligence and her literary skill, we can agree with Edward Said that the subject of West Indian slavery, and thus of British imperialism, is indeed present in the pages of Mansfield Park.

Patricia Rozema, clearly influenced by Said's reading, introduces a number of directorial adjustments to the plot, several of which are designed to make the theme of slavery manifest, rather than latent, in her film rendering of the novel. Some of these cinematic innovations need not concern us, such as the conceit that Fanny is herself a budding novelist, encouraged by Edmund, and clearly figured in the film as Austen herself. The most important interpretative novelty concerns the oldest son, Tom, who, you will recall, is afflicted upon his return from the West Indies with "brain fever." While he is feverish and in danger of dying, a sketch book is discovered, from his time in Antigua, in which he has recorded in charcoal drawings the horrific tortures to which the slaves have been subjected by his father [who, by the bye, is played splendidly in the film by the eminent playwright Harold Pinter.] Rozema represents Tom has having been driven mad by the discovery that these tortures are the foundation of his inheritance -- tortures which his father is able to contemplate with equanimity [Pinter communicates this with some marvelously understated acting.]

And there it is, the case for construing Mansfield Park as a novel inextricably and intentionally intertwined with the subjects of slavery and empire. These evidences seem to me compelling by themselves, but there is one more fact that clinches the case, and it sits, surprisingly enough, on the title page of the novel. This fact is, I warrant, all by itself sufficient to demonstrate Austen's intentions. But you shall have to wait until tomorrow for that penny to drop.

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