Clutching My Pearls is about Jane Austen and the times she lived in. Click here for the first in the series.
Disclaimer: To repeat something I mentioned at the beginning of this series of posts about Mansfield Park, "When I say I disagree that Mansfield Park is an anti-slavery novel, it does not mean I want to shut my eyes and ears and read my dear sweet Jane without troubling my conscience about the ugly underbelly of Regency England." I read Mansfield Park for its literary merit. I read about slavery in books that are actually about slavery.
- "One of the first historicizations of Mansfield Park was Margaret Kirkham’s suggestion in 1983 that the name of the house, and village, was an allusion to the famous judge, Lord Mansfield."
- "Rightly, some of these readings connect Mansfield Park to the important slave trial after which Austen named it: the 1772 case of Somerset against Stewart, heard in the King’s Bench before Lord Mansfield, which freed the enslaved black man, James Somerset,from his master, Charles Stewart."
- Significantly, Lord Mansfield, the noted eighteenth-century jurist whose name is invoked by the title of Austen's novel, did more than lend his name to an important legal case on slavery..."
- "She points out that the title of the novel alludes to Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who stipulated in 1772 that slaves could not be forced to return from Britain to the Caribbean."
Scholar Helena Kelly thinks that using the title might have been controversial -- might even have brought government attention down on Austen's head. Before the novel was published, Austen wrote in a note, "Keep the name to yourself. I should not like to have it known beforehand." Kelly wonders if this is a "sensible precaution in an age when pressure was often brought to bear on publishers to prevent politically or personally damaging material from ever seeing the light of day." But, if the title is a reference to Lord Mansfield, why would an allusion to a law established 40 years earlier be controversial, let alone dangerous?
So how is naming this elegant home after Lord Mansfield illustrative of anything? There are no consequences for the slavery and no-one expresses contrition or determination to change anything. Sir Thomas feels remorse over how he raised his daughters, not about being a slave-owner. (And as I will discuss, interpreting Sir Thomas as an utter villain destroys the narrative arc of the story.) What’s the point, exactly?
We must resort to irony. Austen actually means the opposite of what she says. Lord Mansfield's judgement hangs like a silent rebuke over the Bertram family. However, the Bertrams appear not to have noticed, any more than the critics. This inescapable allusion was first remarked upon in print about 170 years after the novel was published.
It was not Austen's custom to use heavily allusive personal names, although many other authors did. There is no Squire Allworthy, no Farmer Thoroughgood, no Wackford Squeers, no Snidely Whiplash, in any of her books. At most, you could say the upright, sensible women have good old-fashioned names, like Anne, Elizabeth and Elinor, and the shallow or trivial women have fancier names like Augusta, Isabella, Henrietta and Louisa.
When Austen first began to be studied intensively, scholars surmised that she took the title of her third novel from some minor characters named Mansfield in Sir Charles Grandison, the favourite novel of her girlhood.
Professor E.J. Clery notes in Jane Austen: the Banker's Sister that an important patron of Henry Austen's bank lived at Mansfield Woodhouse in Nottinghamshire, which could have supplied Austen with key names for two of her novels. Perhaps she liked the name or it was a friendly shout-out to a important business associate of her brother. Personally, I find this suggestion convincing -- supposing that Austen took the name from anywhere, as opposed to choosing a good, solid English name that sounded well.
Did readers in Austen's time automatically think of fields of toiling slaves when they saw the word "plantation"? I don't think so. An 1801 book about the history of the market-town of Mansfield, of which Mansfield Woodhouse is a part, uses the word "plantations" to refer to areas planted with trees, just as Austen uses the word in Mansfield Park. These plantations were named in honour of men whom modern critics would accuse of being warmongers and imperialists. Maybe the Right Honorable Frederick Montague was being ironic too?
Dr. Kelly also traces a connection to a prominent Anglican churchman named Henry Handley Norris (1771–1850). Norris was a leader of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and he feuded with the more evangelical Bible Society. This Rev. Norris was a High Church Tory at a time when the Church of England actually owned slave plantations in the West Indies.
It is interesting that Mrs. Norris, of all the characters in Mansfield Park -- in fact of all the characters in Austen -- talks the most about charitable activities. She's the only one who talks about the poor-basket (sewing clothes for poor people, a common activity for gentlewomen). She's the only one who talks about nursing servants when they're ill. When she talks about how much she worries about over-taxing the horses, or about poor old Wilcox's rheumatism, we know she is a Pharisee. Because yes, Austen did use irony a lot. There is no ambiguity around the question of whether Mrs. Norris is a warm-hearted person who cares about the poor basket and the servants. And we are certain about this because Mrs. Norris -- unlike Sir Thomas, the actual slaveowner -- gets her comeuppance.
Perhaps she is based on a real person, or inspired by some character trait in a real person. But are we supposed to think of slavery when we think of her? I said that a reference to Lord Mansfield's ruling, made 40 years before Mansfield Park was published, would not be controversial in 1814. But I can't say the same about a comparison of Fanny to a slave. It's true that some radical English writers did occasionally compare women, or the English working poor, to slaves. Mrs. Norris says, "I have been slaving myself till I can hardly stand, to contrive Mr. Rushworth’s cloak without sending for any more satin." But did Austen actually intend an allegorical comparison to chattel slavery? Many, many critics have argued this. For example: "Within the novel’s plot, the [dead] silence instantiates Fanny’s position as a metaphorical slave within the family system. In a sense then, Austen has Fanny Price speak for the slaves as a way of articulating her position as a woman in patriarchal culture." That's Markman Ellis in the Oxford Handbook of the Eighteenth-Century Novel
The idea that Austen intended for us to see Fanny as a slave and Mrs. Norris as an overseer was first broached about 40 years ago. I think comparing downtrodden girls living in elegant mansions to enslaved Africans will become increasingly problematic in the future. Given the rapid evolution of academic discourse around race, this is not a comparison anyone will be comfortable making 40 years from now, perhaps not even one year from now. And insofar as the interpretation relies on the notion that Austen couldn't discuss slavery explicitly, well, that is just not the case -- writers of the time could and did discuss slavery explicitly, so that leg of the argument falls away. And if inductive theories about Austen ("this is what she really meant") can rise and fall, perhaps that means they were never definitive in the first place.
But, other candidates for symbolic references to slavery remain, including Fanny's amber cross on a chain, apricots, madeira and pheasants. Yes, pheasants.
Next post: Is Sir Thomas a villain?