In 1993, Edward Said published Culture and Imperialism, a splendid collection of essays exploring the connection between the great works of modern European culture and the imperial adventures of the major European nations. [Said spent virtually his entire career at Columbia, and from 1964 to 1971, I was privileged to be his colleague on the Columbia faculty, and to know him, although not as well as I would have liked. I still have a warm and very gracious note that he sent to me in 1990, long after I had left Columbia.] One of the most striking essays is a dramatically deviant reading of Mansfield Park concerning Jane Austen's relationship to the English slave trade and slave plantations of the new world. Since neither "slavery" nor its cognates appears in the novel [there is, in fact, only one direct use of the term in any of Austen's novels, in Emma], Said's essay was, as literary critics would say, a "strong reading."
Six years after the publication of the book, Patricia Rozema, a Canadian film maker, released her stylish rendition of Mansfield Park with none other than Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas Bertram. Susie and I saw the movie at the Amherst Cinema, a small "art film" theater in downtown Amherst, MA. We were only a little way into the movie when it became obvious to me that Rozema had been powerfully influenced in her cinematic rendering of the novel by Said's essay. She had taken the allusions to Sir Bertram's "interests" in Antigua [i.e., his ownership of slave plantations], which in the novel serve principally to account for his absence from Mansfield Park during the critical middle portion of the novel, and turned them into the moral and emotional pivot of the story. [Readers of the novel will recall that its centerpiece is the anxious question whether Fanny and Edmund will ever get it on.]
Not long after I saw the movie, my sister, Barbara, invited me to come to Washington, D.C. to give a talk to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program in which she had been teaching sophisticated courses on evolution and microbial genetics. I chose to combine Said, Rozema, and Mansfield Park in a talk entitled "Jane Austen and the Dark Underside of British Capitalism." Some library research turned up fascinating information about Austen and the abolitionist struggle against British slavery of which Said may have been aware but to which he made no allusion in his essay. Austen, despite leading a famously reclusive life, in fact had several sources of detailed information about slavery. Her favorite brother served on British naval vessels charged with interdicting the slave trade, and her father was close friends with, eventually the executor of the estate of, the owner of several slave plantations in the New World. There was thus every reason to suppose that she was quite well aware of the role of slavery in the development and flourishing of the British economy. [For those who are unaware of this role, I recommend the splendid old book by Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery.]
The boffo ending of my lecture was my recounting of the landmark Somersett case. Briefly, an Englishman, Charles Stuart, bought James Somersett in Virginia and in 1769 brought him to England. In 1771, Stuart decided to send Somersett back to Virginia to be sold. Somersett escaped and with the aid of three abolitionists managed to bring the his plea for freedom into an English court. The judge, in a landmark decision, freed Somersett. The core of his opinion is contained in the following words:
"The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say that the case is allowed or approved by the law of England: and therefore the black must be discharged." [The Justice is here contrasting Positive Law with the unwritten Common Law.]
The judge who handed down this decision was none other than Lord Mansfield. Who can doubt that therein lies the origin of the title of Austen's novel?
Which brings me to Belle.
I wanted to see Belle [even though it is a "good" film] because I was attracted by the theme of a young woman of mixed race being brought up in an aristocratic English family of the 18th century, and because the trailer revealed it to be a visually gorgeous film. Save for the explicitly racial theme, the story could have come straight out of Austen: the daughter of an English aristocratic naval officer and a slave woman is raised as the companion of a young White girl of the same age on a lavish estate. By a twist of fate, the Black girl has an inheritance, from her long deceased father, of "two thousand a year" [recall Piketty], although she is of course not at all a suitable bride for a man of high birth. Her sister, despite her impeccable breeding, is penniless because the entire estate of her father is entailed elsewhere. Much of the film is devoted to the completely open and mercenary machinations of the White girl's mother, who seeks a husband with a sufficient fortune to compensate for her lack of an inheritance, and by the complex marital fate of the Black girl [Belle], who has the requisite fortune but the wrong color skin.
BUT: The master of the lavish estate, father of the White girl and guardian of Belle, is none other than England's Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield! Well, as soon as I realized that, the movie took on a much deeper and richer meaning for me, and I found myself struggling to hold back tears through much of it.
In the movie, the dramatic counterpoint to the marital prospects of the girls is Lord Mansfield's struggle to decide how to come down on a major case before him, earlier than the Somerset case, involving a slave ship, the Zong. The Lord Chief Justice, played by the always admirable Tom Wilkinson, eventually decides against the ship owners in a decision that struck at the heart of the British slave trade.
The premise of the movie, by the way, is historically accurate. There actually is a painting of the two young women that for many years hung in the Mansfield estate, and the Zong case is a real case of English law, decided by Lord Mansfield.
Two thumbs up, as Siskel and Ebert would have said.