"Habit, the tyrant of nature and of reason, is deaf to the voice of either; here she stifles humanity, and debases the species—for the master of slaves has seldom the soul of a man.”
– Savillon, in Henry MacKenzie’s Julia de Roubigné (1777)
Mansfield Park, as previously discussed, is not explicit about slavery. In fact, as I discussed, references to Sir Thomas Bertram's trip to Antigua in the novel tend to be sympathetic to him, the poor guy who must make the journey away from his family.
Critics nevertheless insist that Austen's third novel is all about slavery, and they prove this by pointing out that Austen never talks about slavery in the novel.
- "The second major social issue that Austen makes notable by its absence from discussion is slavery."
- "Austen "mask[s] the issue of slavery throughout the novel."
- "Disengaging the subject of slavery from the Mansfield Park estate seems to be the implied
critique of slavery in Austen’s Mansfield Park."
- "Slavery plays an important, though subverted, role in the novel."
- "Austen's art is ironic and subtly allusive"
- More scholarly quotes are in my article here:
- "whatever political and colonial critique might have been implied by Fanny’s statement about Sir Thomas’s silence is subordinated to the familial drama of surrogacy and marriage and parenting... The world of the colonies is represented or subsumed by the terms of representation by the other world of the domestic."
- "the text disintegrates at 'dead silence,' a phrase that ironically speaks ..."
- “Austen deliberately invokes the dumbness of Mansfield Park concerning its own barbarity precisely because she means to rebuke it."
- "The unanswered question is a kind of Machereyan silence which ‘uncovers what it cannot say’ (Macherey 1978: 84). Slavery may haunt the novel as a negative presence - in the title, in Fanny’s preference for Cowper’s poetry, a noted abolitionist poet, and so on - but Austen keeps it off-stage..."
Below are some examples of novels which are not quite so subtle, There were also many plays which touched on the West Indies and the subject of enslaved persons, but for reasons of length, I'll stick with novels. In these novels the topic of slavery was raised without symbolism, allegory, implication, irony, haunting, veiling, or cloaking. As well there are many examples of people of colour being portrayed with sympathy, if not authenticity.
In the Advantages of Education (1793) by Jane West, Mrs. Williams joins her husband in the West Indies but leaves her daughter behind in England with a guardian. She doesn’t want her daughter exposed to the unhealthy climate, or to her dissolute father. “His faults,” [said Mrs. Williams of her husband], “are no more than the common vices of the island. The planters, generally speaking, countenance each other in irregularities, at which an English libertine would blush. The redundant fertility of their tropical climes, and the bad habits which slavery introduces, are not favourable to the cause of virtue. The Lord of the soil, accustomed to the mean subservience of those around them… soon overcomes every restraint of conscience."
It is clear that she is referring to sexual concubinage. Mrs. Williams also blamed the “too great distinction,” that is, the power disparity, between slave-owners and the enslaved, which led to “pernicious examples of pride, cruelty, and luxury, which is unhappily prevent.” The emphasis is more on the harms to English virtue than to the enslaved persons, but if Jane West could say this in 1793, in a novel aimed at mothers and daughters, how can critics claim that Austen had to be more reticent in 1814?
A young African tells how he was abducted from his parents while the girl he loved was murdered before his eyes in Cephisa, A Moral Tale (1802) by Mrs. Crowther. Unusually for this type of literature, the boy speaks in eloquent, grammatical English, instead of a cringe-inducing pidgin English. He is so grateful to the planter who freed him that he sits and pines to death by the planter's grave.
The sufferings of black people in Cephisa and in the next two examples are used to provide a moral awakening to selfish white people.
The Barbadoes Girl: A Tale for Young People (1825) by Barbara Hofland is about the spoilt daughter of a West Indian planter who comes to live with a family in England. Her moral reformation is the central theme of the book, not emancipation. The tale includes graphic detail about the cruelties of slave-owners and there are discussions of emancipation.
In Elizabeth Helme's Modern Times (1814) a selfish girl orders her slave, Juba, to jump into the ocean to rescue a whip she dropped which the waves are carrying away. He protests, but obeys, and is killed by a sea-monster. Fanny eventually becomes a better person through the good examples of others.
Maria Edgeworth’s 1804 short story The Grateful Negro tells of an enslaved African man who is purchased from a cruel planter by a more humane one. In gratitude, he alerts his master to a pending slave revolt.
The story is problematic for modern readers, but there is also a brief but significant passage where Edgeworth has her two planters debate the economic rationale for slavery: “Granting it to be physically impossible that the world should exist without rum, sugar, and indigo, why could they not be produced by freemen, as well as by slaves?” the kind planter asks. Likewise, Henry MacKenzie’s Julia de Roubigné (1777) features an extended section in the second volume in which the hero, Savillon, improves the conditions of life on the plantation. He also wonders if paid labour or using cattle would work as well or better.
The wife of a plantation owner brags about her way of life in Eleanor Sleath's The Bristol Heiress (1809). You can read the conversation here. John Moore's potboiler Zeluco (1789) also features a slavery debate; a humane doctor argues with a cruel slaveowner. This kind of debate between a defender of slavery and an abolitionist also occurs in Charlotte Smith's Desmond (1792). Smith repeated her anti-slavery message in The Wanderings of Warwick (1794). Sarah Scott's The History of Sir George Ellison (1766), is an admiring account of a reform-minded West Indian planter. It details how he manages his plantation and how he attempts to protect the enslaved persons from maltreatment after his death.
In The History of the Life and Adventures of Mr. Anderson (1754), by Edward Kimber, a rebellion of enslaved persons is portrayed sympathetically. Slaves are punished with death for attempting to help the heroine escape. The uprising occurs just as the heroine is about to be ravished by the plantation owner’s son, so the actions of the slaves are used by the author to effect the rescue of the heroine.
The Memoirs Of The Life And Travels Of The Late Charles Macpherson (1800) compares the outcome of two different attempts to improve the situations of enslaved persons, but I can’t enter into the details without causing offense to modern sensibilities. Suffice it to say that one attempt at reform results in rebellion and another, different approach, doesn’t. The novel makes an argument in favour of education and moral instruction; amelioration, in other words.
Sarah Burney's Traits of Nature (1812) features a servant, Amy, who is devoted, but not slavishly so, to the heroine. Amy speaks her mind freely, (although in pidgin) and has some agency in the novel. The heroine's brother (who is a jerk to everybody) refers to her appearance in insulting terms, but Amy retains her dignity and self-possession. The most remarkable thing about Amy is that she is not presented as being anything remarkable. The same author featured a black servant in another novel, Geraldine Fauconberg (1808). Caesar is repulsed by a Welsh servant girl when he tries to flirt with her. The encounter is presented comically.
In The Farmer of Inglewood Forest (1796), by Elizabeth Helme, Julia and Felix are emancipated from servitude. In the novel they serve a similar role as "Noble Savages" -- they are virtuous and wise, yet innocent. They provide commentary on English society. Felix is sent to sell a valuable watch so his friend Mrs. Palmer can bury her child. He explains she “must sell [the watch] to pay those rites which your country’s custom demands before the body of her child can be permitted to mingle with the dust; to hire men who assume the semblance of sorrow with a black coat, and pay for a peculiar spot of earth, as if all on which the sun shines was not equally hallowed!”
Julia and Felix also have agency in the novel -- they serve, rescue, and otherwise support the white people to whom they are devotedly grateful. Julia, more recently arrived in Jamaica, speaks in pidgin English. She defends a young lady from abduction at the risk of her life. ("Bad white man -- wicked Christian -- me die before let take away Missey.") This novel features branding, flogging, rape, and slave uprisings but even these lurid events are a minor sub-plot compared to the main plot of the story which focusses on an English family.
Elizabeth Helme wrote about slavery repeatedly, including child slavery in India, and she wrote approvingly of African society (the Hottentots) at a time when Africans were inevitably referred to as savages. She also outsold Austen in her day.
Africans are actually main characters in Anna MacKenzie's Slavery, or The Times, (1793). The novel features an inter-racial marriage between an Englishwoman and the son of an African prince.
Lastly, I'd like to compare Mary Brunton's Discipline with Austen's Mansfield Park. Discipline came out the year after Mansfield Park. Both have main characters who leave England for an extended period to manage their plantations. In both cases, these characters are not portrayed as villains (Maitland is the hero) but they are enriched by their colonial holdings. In both books, the slavery connection is a minor part of the plot. Broadly speaking, female rectitude is the theme of both Discipline and (leaving the "symbolic" argument aside for a moment) Mansfield Park.
Brunton and Austen both need to remove characters from the action for plot purposes -- while Sir Thomas is away, the Crawfords get up to mischief at Mansfield; while Maitland is away, the selfish, coquettish heroine is disciplined by tribulation. But Brunton puts the West India connection to a double use -- she speaks out against slavery. She tell us Maitland is a “West India merchant and interested [that is, benefitting from] the continuation of the slave-trade, he opposed, with all the zeal of honour and humanity, this vilest traffic that ever degraded the name and the character of man. In [Parliament] he lifted up his testimony against this foul blot upon her fame—this tiger-outrage upon fellow-man—this daring violation of the image of God.”
After failing to overturn slavery in Parliament, Maitland returns to the West Indies “to mitigate the evil which he could not cure.”
Compare that explanation to the one which sends Sir Thomas to Antigua: "Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs."
Unlike Mackenzie and Brunton, Austen does NOT take the opportunity to say something about slavery or Sir Thomas's attitude toward it. The explanation is short as possible, and quite vague.
There is no need to search for symbolic allusions to slavery in the novels I've listed above. There is no need to produce essays about how the absence of mentions of slavery means the book is actually about slavery. But then, none of the books I've listed above have been as read, studied, commented upon, or pored over nearly as much as Mansfield Park.
To sum up:
None of the novels I have listed above would be considered equal to Austen in terms of literary merit. But all of them are much more explicit on the subject of slavery and abolition.
I think Jane Austen had abolitionist sympathies but she chose not to be explicit about slavery in Mansfield Park. Why? We can only speculate, but I trust I have demonstrated that it could not have been out of fear of government censorship or social sanctions.
This is a charming tribute to Austen, but no fan of Elizabeth Helme would be reduced to pointing to references to apricots to demonstrate her "bravery" about speaking up about slavery.
The Cambridge University Press Orlando database was a valuable source of information.
Campbell, Elaine. “Oroonoko's Heir: The West Indies in Late Eighteenth Century Novels by Women."
Caribbean Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 1/2, 1979, pp. 80–84. JSTOR
Moretti, Franco. Atlas of the European Novel,1800-1900, 1998
The managers of the colony for freed slaves at Sierra Leone were hard-pressed to accommodate the influx of freed slaves and to provide them with food, clothing and housing. The struggles of the West Africa Squadron are vividly portrayed in Sweet Water and Bitter by Siân Rees. This book was inspirational in helping me to write the second volume of my Mansfield Trilogy, A Marriage of Attachment. Click here for more about my books.