It's a conversation between Fanny Price and her cousin Edmund Bertram (whom she secretly loves). They discuss his father, her uncle, Sir Thomas, after his return from a lengthy journey to Antigua.
Fanny tells Edmund "I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies. I could listen to him for an hour together." Edmund tells her, "Your uncle thinks you very pretty.” Fanny turns away in embarrassment, and modern readers are cringing as well. Eeuw, an uncle notices that his young niece has filled out nicely while he’s been away and mentions it to his son. Austen makes it clear that Fanny’s discomfort also arises out of hearing Edmund praise her face and figure. “’Oh! don’t talk so, don’t talk so,’ cried Fanny, distressed by more feelings than he was aware of.” ...
“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do.” [answers Fanny] “Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?”
“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”
“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 shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”
This reminds Edmund of something perceptive that Mary Crawford said, and away he goes, talking about Mary Crawford and so much for the slave trade, or any explanation of what Fanny's question was, or what in Sir Thomas’s answer gave Fanny pleasure, or what she longed to ask her uncle as a follow-up question.
Fanny held herself back, although she "longed to" ask more, because no-one else showed “curiosity” or “pleasure” in the “information” which Sir Thomas gave. She did not want anyone to think that she thought herself wiser, or better, or more dutiful, or more interested in social issues, or the family business, than his own daughters.
That short exchange -- that’s it. An opinion about the slave trade is not expressed.
Here it is again, in condensed form:
- Fanny asks a question about the slave trade.
- Sir Thomas answers.
- Dead silence – no-one else in the room said anything.
- Because of her retiring personality and her take on Bertram family dynamics, Fanny doesn't ask any more questions.
However, if you look around the world of literary criticism for commentary on the “dead silence,” you discover many, perhaps the majority, start with the mistaken premise that the “dead silence” refers to an embarrassed silence on the part of Sir Thomas. There are news articles and books and journal articles and textbooks and study guides and podcasts and videos and tweets and theses repeating the error that Fanny’s question was met with dead silence:
Here’s a collection of quotes erroneously claiming that it was Sir Thomas who was silent (it's quite lengthy, so you can just scroll down):
If I have convinced you that the text says Sir Thomas did answer Fanny, and the "dead silence" refers to his family, I take a leaf from Anne Steele in Sense & Sensibility: "I beg you will contradict it, if you ever hear it talked of" when someone says Fanny Price's question was met with silence.
Some scholars and critics do understand what is being described in the passage -- they correctly state that Sir Thomas answered Fanny, and then the subject was dropped. Sir Thomas's answer, says one critic is "significantly unreported" [by Austen]. Yes, but what does it signify? Interpretations of the meaning and significance of that exchange vary greatly. To be continued.
In my Mansfield Trilogy, Fanny Price meets some abolitionists and also hears some of the arguments made by those who defended slavery. We also meet the sailors tasked with suppressing the African slave trade. In this respect, I tried the same technique used by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin, putting varying opinions into the mouths of the characters. Click here for more about my books.