Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. The opinions are mine, but I don't claim originality. Much has been written about Austen. Click here for the first in the series.
While novelists portrayed Bristol merchants chiefly in comic terms, today their reputation is tainted, to put it mildly, by the legacy of the slave trade. So what did people think of real-life Bristol merchants, not fictional ones, during the 18th century? The reaction was more nuanced than we might assume. According to this history of Bristol: "Civic pride ran high… during the 'golden age' of the eighteenth century, the business community of Bristol acquired an enviable reputation for shrewdness and entrepreneurial vitality."
On the other hand, one man's "shrewdness" is another man's "underhanded." Bristol merchants also had a reputation for being insular, crafty, and vulgar. And yes, we'll tie this all back to Mrs. Elton, the Bristol merchant's daughter in Emma...
Knight quotes Daniel Defoe, who in 1761 complained of the narrow streets and narrow minds of Bristol. “[Defoe] recommends [Bristolians] to travel to London—‘from the second great trading town to the first; and they will see examples worth their imitating, as well for princely spirit as for upright and generous dealings.’”
One thing to know about Bristol merchants is that there were merchants and there were Merchants with a capital "M". The Society of Merchant Venturers was an influential and exclusive guild who had, back in 1698, successfully lobbied to get a share of the slave trade which was then exclusively controlled by another corporation, the Royal African Company. (In a mercantile economy, it was the norm for people or groups to be granted monopolies on trading or selling various goods, including human beings.) So the word "merchant" could refer to “slave trader,” no question.
Not just anyone could become a Merchant Venturer. This useful website gives us an idea of the social standing of the Merchant Venturers. “They were a close-knit community that allowed only a few newcomers to join the group.” Mr. Hawkins met one of the necessary qualifications; he was born in Bristol. Whether he was prosperous enough to be considered a civic leader is another question.
An 1890 guide to Bristol explains the rules by which the society had long been governed: “Members are elected by the society, but they must be freeman of the city, that is, born within the limits of the thirteen parishes, now the heart of the city. Freeman are becoming scarce, as few now reside in these ancient parishes, they [the parishes that is] all being devoted to business.” I thought it was interesting that this book used the same term, “the heart of the city,” as Emma uses about Mrs. Elton, who was born in the “very heart of Bristol.” The Sucklings, of course, now live on an estate outside of Bristol, probably in Clifton.
"Merchant--he must be called"
Emma believes “it was not unfair to guess the dignity of [Mr. Hawkin’s] line of trade had been very moderate.” He might simply have been a shopowner. As Charles Knight explains: “The Bristol shopkeepers were also merchants—‘wholesale men’ –and they conducted an inland trade through all the western counties… Roger North had observed that at Bristol all the dealers were engaged in adventures by sea; --'a poor shopkeeper that sells candles will have a bale of stockings or a piece of stuff [cloth] for Nevis or Virginia.’”
This may well be a good description of our fictional Mr. Hawkins. He might have been dealing in wool or ale or brass or soap in an economy that was buoyed up by the slave trade, and risked some of his money in speculating in overseas trade.
A sage Philosopher to try
What Pupil saw with Reason’s eye,
Prepar’d three boxes, Gold, Lead, Stone,
And bid three youngsters claim each one.
The first, a Bristol Merchant’s heir,
Lov’d Pelf above the charming fair;
So ‘tis not difficult to say,
Which box the Dolthead took away.
from "Tis Mystery All in Every Sect,"
Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770),
Native of Bristol
The connection between Bristolian prosperity and the slave trade is a topic that has come to the forefront for both history and literature, and that has caused many an Austen scholar to point to Augusta Elton, nee Hawkins, as a signifier of this connection.
One academic has asserted that Mrs. Elton's ten thousand pound dowry "was earned from the traffic in human flesh." If it was really ten thousand pounds and not just “so many thousands as would always be called ten,” then Mrs. Elton is bringing between four or five hundred pounds a year to her marriage with Mr. Elton, which, combined with his income, gives them a comfortable lifestyle with servants and a carriage. But Emma seems to think the dowry is nothing much (remember that Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park has twenty thousand pounds) and therefore the proceeds of Mrs. Elton’s father’s trade must have been “moderate.” Certainly, there were wealthier Bristol merchants, because the term “Bristol heiress” suggested a girl who could attract blue-blooded families willing to overlook her commercial background in pursuit of her hefty dowry.
Two suggestions are often made as underlining the hypothesis that Austen intended us to think of Mrs. Elton's connection to the slave trade.
First, many have suggested, and some have asserted, that Jane Austen chose the name “Hawkins” for Mrs. Elton’s maiden name to remind her readers of the slave trader Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595). Well, possibly. There were Eltons in Bristol as well. This 18th-century Bristol directory lists “Merchants and Traders, etc.” We find Hawkinses and Eltons engaged in selling goods and services.
I read this exchange not so much as a searing indictment of the slave trade, which was abolished eight years before Emma was published, but as a comic poke at people who want to forget their grubby origins.
By 1852, when Frances Trollope (another Bristol native) published her novel Uncle Walter, wealthy families were two generations or more removed from slave-trading, and one generation removed from owning slaves, and she puts this sarcastic reminder in the mouth of her main character:
“Now Lord Goldstable’s grandsire, brother Harry, was a Bristol merchant who made the principal part of his huge fortune by trading in slaves.... It would be a curious examination,” [Walter] continued, “to go carefully through the true Englishman’s vade mecum, the peerage, and to observe how large a portion of the names inscribed there have obtained this glory under circumstances involving anything but honour to the individuals so distinguished."
Austenesque author Diana Birchall wrote a short story, published in booklet form, titled, In Defense of Mrs. Elton. It is not digitized and is not easy to come by, but my review of it is on Goodreads.