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Empire and Jane Austen:A Contrapuntal Reading

Imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is
impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the
other. (Edward Said:71)

Within his encyclopaedic discussion of the relationship

between imperialism and western literature in Culture and
Imperialism, Edward Said (80-97) refers in some detail to the
novels of Jane Austen, and in particular to Mansfield Park. The
reason for selecting Mansfield Park for such detailed scrutiny is
the frequent reference to Sir Thomas Bertram's Antiguan estate
and its role in maintaining the privileged lifestyle of Sir Thomas
and his family at Mansfield Park. By suggesting a strong link
between Austen and Empire, Said (83) is arguing for a much
earlier, much stronger relationship than has normally been
acknowledged between Empire and the novel.
While admitting that Austen`s work is “improbable as art
involved with empire” (115), Said nevertheless argues that the
importance of foreign reference in Austen`s novels has previously
been neglected, implying that there has been a kind of complicity
of silence by previous critics, who have been “negligent” in
failing to consider the relationship between the values associated
with domestic prosperity and colonial expansion. He points out
that “British colonial possessions in the Antilles and Leeward
Islands were during Jane Austen`s time a crucial setting for
Anglo-French colonial competition” (90). In proposing “a kind of
analysis infrequently encountered in mainstream interpretations”
(95), Said then takes his argument one step further by explicitly
imputing editorial awareness of empire to Austen herself, stating
that “critics have tended to forget or overlook that process, which

has seemed less important to critics than Austen herself seems to
Said emphasizes the importance of space rather than time in
Mansfield Park. Crucial to his analysis is the view that "place
itself is located by Austen at the centre of an arc of interests and
concerns spanning the hemisphere, two major seas and four
continents." (84) Writing at the beginning of this century, Mitton
states the strong form of the traditional contrasting view, when he
refers to Austen`s “minute observation, her unrivalled faculty for
using what lay under her hand”, but contrasts what he calls “...
such a clear, near-sighted mental vision” with “defective mental
long sight” (49/50). Jane Austen`s work is still often presented as
a celebration of exclusive and essentially moral Englishness, an
“affirmation of the superior sense and moderate behaviour of the
English nation” (Lane 11).
Said, however, maintains that Austen herself "sees clearly that to
hold and rule Mansfield Park is to hold and rule an imperial estate
in close, not to say inevitable association with it"(87). Austen's
own modestly stated and often quoted aim of limiting her frame
of reference to "human nature in the midland counties" or to
"three or four families in a country village" also appears to be in
striking contrast to Said's "two major seas and four continents".
The aim of this paper will be to attempt and at the same time to
evaluate what Said calls a “contrapuntal reading” (66), focusing
on all foreign reference in context to assess the extent to which
the main intrigues of the two novels which contain the most
foreign reference, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, can be said to
be set in a global context. Foreign reference in Austen`s major

novels can be divided into three categories, all of which are
interconnected. Firstly, there is non-European reference related to
colonial trade or to the possession of plantations in the East or
West Indies. This reference has the most direct application to
Said`s discussion of Empire. Secondly, both Persuasion and
Mansfield Park contain reference to service in the navy. This
naval service is closely linked to the defence of British overseas
interests and colonial rivalry with the French. Thirdly, there is
reference to European culture, mainly to food, architecture,
health, music, literature or languages. This reference is rather
ambiguous in nature. It can be very positively connotated,
indicating a superior level of education or cultivated behaviour in
polite Georgian society, which might even indicate a close
cultural association with European colonial rivals. However,
whenever social and moral values or behaviour are associated
with Europe, the reference is contrastive and the connotation is
invariably negative.
Said indicates how the different kinds of reference can all be
related to one thesis, providing different perspectives on the same

Between France and Britain in the late eighteenth century there were two
contests: the battle for strategic gains abroad - in India, the Nile delta, the
Western Hemisphere - and the battle for triumphant nationality. Both battles
contrast “Englishness” with “the French,” and no matter how intimate and
closeted the supposed English or French “essence” appears to be, it was
almost thought of as being (as opposed to already) made, and being fought out
with the other great competitor (83).

I initially identified virtually every foreign reference in all six

major novels, but have not attached unwarranted significance to
the actual figures. What represents a “significant” quantity of

reference is in any case difficult to assess and some of the
references are very brief, others much longer. I have, therefore,
attempted a detailed qualitative analysis of the reference, asking
how closely it is related to the central concerns of the novels, how
significant it is in context, how far attitudes expressed appear to
have editorial approval and finally how far Said`s reading is
supported from the unique perspective of the evidence in the
If there is indeed a deliberate artistic intention of limiting the
frame of social reference to a very intimate social circle of upper
middle class society in one part of England, or a “defective
mental long sight”, we might expect to find very little foreign
reference in Jane Austen's novels. No action or conversation in
the novels is set outside England, but in the 1368 pages of the
Oxford complete works, I have counted 112 foreign references.

Figure 1 - Foreign Reference in Jane Austen`s Six Major Novels

Colonial Armed European No. of total
or non- service culture pages
European overseas
Pride and 2 1 3 249 6
Sense and 0 2 4 230 6
Northanger Abbey 2 0 10 146 12
Emma 1 1 8 298 10
Mansfield Park 25 9 15 290 49
Persuasion 2 24 3 155 29
Total 32 37 43 1368 112

Before turning to Persuasion and Mansfield Park, we should

note immediately that the quantity of reference in the other four
novels is very small indeed, as figure one shows. This fact alone
makes it rather difficult for the reader to accord it undue
significance. It is usually only of passing significance and is so

infrequent that it could almost pass unnoticed to the reader who
immerses himself in the psychological and social intrigue. It is
true that a novel like Emma highlights a very English form of
domesticity. Northanger Abbey too does at times express an
emergent view of national identity which is relevant to this
debate. (The notion of Englishness in Austen`s other four novels
is the subject of another study.) Were it not for Persuasion and
Mansfield Park, however, in which there is a foreign reference
every five or six pages, it would still be difficult to argue for even
a limited degree of significant global reference in Jane Austen`s
The central overseas interest in Mansfield Park relates to the
problems on the West Indian Estate that cause the extended
absence of Sir Thomas leading to the destruction of his domestic
felicity at home. We might note that, from the very first reference
(I.III:488)1, the “losses on the West Indian Estate” are set
alongside “his eldest son`s extravagance” as twin causes of the
decline in Sir Thomas`s finances. Mrs. Norris`s comment
(I.IV:495) about “a large part of his income” being “unsettled”,
cannot be relied upon if we consider the immediate context of her
statement, given her typically parsimonious motive of depriving
Fanny of a horse, particularly when Sir Thomas`s most prudent
son, Edmund, sees no need for such stark economy. What is clear
is that the management of the Antiguan Estate has previously

Austen, J.S. The Complete Novels. Oxford:OUP (1994 edition -
based on R.W.Chapman`s Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, 1923;
revised by Mary Lascelles in the 1960s). Volume and chapter
numbers are provided in roman numerals for readers referring to
different editions)

required only minimal exertion by Sir Thomas. For his wife it has
previously been of very limited importance, almost beneath her
consideration, as her response to her sister`s concern indicates.

‘Why you know that Sir Thomas`s means will be rather straitened, if the
Antigua Estate is to make such poor returns.’
Oh! that will soon be settled. Sir Thomas has been writing about it, I know.”

However, the problem soon becomes urgent enough to “fairly

claim some place in the thoughts and conversations of the
ladies”(I.III:493) when Sir Thomas announces his intention to go
to Antigua himself “for the better arrangement of his affairs”.
Again this reference is closely linked to the elder son`s wasteful
behaviour. Sir Thomas decides to take him to Antigua “in the
hope of detaching him from some bad connections at home”.
When the stay on the Antiguan estate is prolonged beyond the
intended twelve months, we learn that “unfavourable
circumstances had suddenly arisen at a time when he was
beginning to turn all his thoughts towards England”. There is also
reference to “the very great uncertainty in which everything was
then involved” (I.IV:496). Edmund (I.XIII:551) refers to his
father being in “some degree of constant danger” while overseas,
without specifying exactly what the danger is, but colonial rivalry
is at least hinted at when “the alarm of a French privateer” is
referred to on his return (II.I:584).
While we never hear what caused the considerable problems on
the estate in Antigua, what is always clear is Sir Thomas`s
unwillingness to be away from England and from the ideal of
domestic felicity he associates with Mansfield Park. After almost

two years` enforced absence managing the Antiguan property, he
writes of his return, “which he was again eagerly looking forward
to”(I.IV:498). On his return, Fanny states that “the repose of his
own family-circle is all he wants” (II.III:594). The general
indifference of his daughters and the scare mongering of their
Aunt Norris, who “depended on being the first person made
acquainted with any fatal catastrophe”(I.IV:494), provides us with
some indication of the emptiness of this domestic ideal and the
true nature of the attention accorded to Sir Thomas`s colonial
endeavour by those who most depended on its benefits. On Sir
Thomas`s much awaited and frequently postponed return, we
learn that “to the greater number it was a moment of absolute
horror” (II.I:581). Maria in particular has reason to dread her
impending marriage. Mary Crawford`s cynical comment linking
the marriage with Sir Thomas`s “great exploits in a foreign land”
is also rather revealing.

‘Don`t be affronted,’ said she laughing; ‘but it does put me in mind of some of
the old heathen heroes, who after performing great exploits in a foreign land,
offered sacrifices to the gods on their safe return.’(I.XI:541)

Later in the novel it is only Fanny who shows genuine interest in

life overseas. Again it is only passing reference which reveals
this, such as her reading about China (I.XVI:571) and her
comment that “in some countries we know that the tree that sheds
its leaf is the variety” (II.IV:602). This is in contrast to her
cousins` obvious indifference in spite of their early education.
The young Fanny Price stands out for her apparent lack of formal
education, having, for example, never learnt French (I.II:482); a
“fault” which is soon remedied (487). But it is the more real

ignorance of Fanny`s “educated” cousins which is the principle
target of editorial irony.

Dear Mamma, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together -
or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia - or she never heard of
Asia Minor - or she does not know the difference between water colours and
crayons!- How strange!- Did you ever hear any thing so stupid. (I.II:484)

Jane Austen presents a picture of girls who think themselves too

clever by half with their superficial rote-learnt knowledge of “the
Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of the
Heathen Mythology...”(485). It is therefore in Fanny that we may
expect to find the editorially approved values of English
education, the “proper opinions of what ought to be”(III.X:720).
The reference to European culture is always double edged in
Mansfield Park. Continental Europe, and in particular the main
colonial rival, France, is always portrayed as being morally
tainted. Mary Crawford is constantly linked to “French” flirtation,
partly in the way she integrates French phrases into her own
language (e.g., “menus plaisirs” II.V:613) , and partly through her
own perception of Frenchness.

If you can persuade Henry to marry, you must have the address of a French-
woman. All that English abilities can do, has been tried already (I.IV:499).

Henry Crawford too is associated with the disreputable moral

behaviour conveniently assigned to a colonial rival. He also
resorts to French -“her air, her manner, her tout ensemble is so
indescribably improved”(II.VI:615) - to justify his own attempts
to amuse himself by seducing Fanny Price.
Similarly, the decision to perform a foreign play, in this came a
German play, Lover`s Vows, is used to represent the decline in
moral behaviour on the English Estate in the absence of its owner

on his approved mission to set his colonial estate in order. The
passing reference to Shakespearian drama - which is not easily
associated with protestant morality - as an established canon of
culture, seems to illustrate that it is not drama itself that is
associated with immorality.

But Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of
an Englishman`s constitution. (III.III:682)

Sir Thomas`s return is associated with the re-establishment of

order at Mansfield Park and the return to a more austere
protestant morality. It is only Fanny who welcomes the changes
on his return and shows real interest in his foreign adventure. “I
love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies”(II.III:594). This
passing phrase also seems to suggest that the West Indies is a
regular subject of conversation, although the West Indies are not
referred to in any conversation in which Sir Thomas takes part. It
is also clear that such genuine interest is partly what sets Fanny
apart from the others “-but then I am unlike other people I dare
In Austen`s work, reference to the supportive role of the navy is
far more frequent than direct reference to colonial possession and
is, in my view, far more promising ground for considerations of
Jane Austen`s degree of either awareness or approval of empire
than the references to Sir Thomas`s plantation in Antigua.The
very positive account of the naval career of Fanny`s favourite
brother, William Price, serves to reinforce the very favourable
picture presented by Jane Austen (strongly reinforced in
Persuasion) of the efforts of the navy overseas in support of
imperial dominance. Fanny`s own enthusiasm knows no limits,

her brother`s naval service overseas being one of the few subjects
that can be guaranteed to animate her.

Her voice was animated in speaking of his profession, and the foreign stations
he had been on, but she could not mention the number of years he had been
absent without tears in her eyes (I.VI:511).

The first palpable reward for William`s efforts is to be an

invitation to share the privileges of Mansfield Park “as soon as
the squadron to which he belonged should be known to be in
England” (I.III:493).
The details of reference to overseas naval service are sometimes
of more than just passing importance even in Mansfield Park,
although it is still the impact of the adventures on those left at
home that is highlighted. Rather than the brief evocation of the
“imminent hazards, or terrific scenes” (II.VI:618) of her brother
William`s overseas career, what is forefronted is “the glow of
Fanny`s cheek, the brightness of her eye, the deep interest, the
absorbed attention”. To Sir Thomas the spirited recital of
William`s adventures is seen as “the proof of good principles,
professional knowledge, energy, courage, and cheerfulness-
everything that could deserve or promise well”(619). This
perception of William`s “glory of heroism, of usefulness, of
exertion, of endurance”, which partly depends on having “known
every variety of danger which sea and war together could offer”
indicates more than just the blind approval of Fanny`s brother, it
also represents the approval of the spirited defence of Sir
Thomas`s own colonial possessions. His support for the efforts of
the less fortunate branches of the family is rewarded by their
enthusiasm in defending mutual interests.

To other members of the family, William`s frequent forays
overseas are seen only as a means of making life at home more
comfortable, the exploitation of “any thing that is worth having”
from overseas territory. Austen`s irony makes it difficult to see
anything but editorial disapproval for this attitude.

William must not forget my shawl, if he goes to the East Indies; and I shall
give him a commission for any thing else that is worth having. I wish he may
go to the East Indies that I may have my shawl. I think I shall have two
shawls, Fanny. (II.VIII:662)

If the open satire of Lady Bertram indicates the author`s

disapproval, Fanny`s more complex attitudes allow the
interpretation that even the most fastidious, responsible and moral
members of society were deeply implicated in the encouragement
of overseas expansion and that this approval can be linked to the
very fabric of family relations. If we feel that it would be difficult
to imagine Fanny or Jane Austen as supporters of the practices of
slavery, their enthusiasm for the navy can hardly be doubted. I
shall delay discussion of Fanny`s reference to the slave trade in
Mansfield Park, which Said discusses in some detail, until all
other foreign reference has been considered.
In spite of the West Indian reference in Mansfield Park, it is
only in Persuasion that we find anything approaching a variety of
reference to “interests and concerns spanning the hemisphere, two
major seas and four continents”(Said 84). Given the central
importance of the navy in the narrative, there is considerable
reference to the global movements of the English fleet, even if it
is often only in passing: the portrait of Captain Benwick was
taken by “a clever young German artist at the Cape” (II.XI:1363);
Mrs Croft had crossed the Atlantic four times, been once to the

East Indies and to Bermuda and the Bahamas. European stations
such as Lisbon and Gibraltar are almost dismissed as being
“places about home” (I.VIII:1262). While Jane Austen herself
never left England, in Persuasion she demonstrates her own
knowledge of places which her own brothers had visited. We can
note for example the gentle irony aimed at the ignorance of Mrs
Musgrove, who, in spite of her son`s service, knew nothing about
the West Indies. In reply to Mrs Croft`s, “We do not call Bermuda
or Bahama, you know, the West Indies”, Mrs Musgrove “had not
a word to say in dissent; she could not accuse herself of having
ever called them anything in her whole life”(I.VIII:1262).
There are echoes of Mansfield Park in the more significant
reference to the West Indies concerning the misfortunes of
Anne`s former school friend, Mrs Smith, now fallen on hard

She had good reason to believe that some property of her husband in the West
Indies, which had for many years been under a sort of sequestration for the
payment of its own incumbrances, might be recoverable by proper measures;
and this property, though not large, would be enough to make her
comparatively rich. (I.III:492)

Significantly, it is the naval man of action, Captain Wentworth

who is instrumental in helping his wife`s friend in “recovering her
husband`s property in the West Indies”(II:XII:1376). This estate
alone seems to be all that is needed to ensure her solvency and
support her for life. The recovery and exploitation of the estate is
portrayed as an act of charity and Captain Wentworth`s efforts
appear to be more unambiguously approved than the more active
intervention on his own behalf of the more austere plantation
owner, Sir Thomas Bertram.

The importance of the taking of prizes by the navy, which is
directly linked to colonial rivalry, particularly with the French, is
of central concern in the central relationship of the novel between
Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth. It is overseas action in the
vicinity of France`s largest colony in the West Indies, “off St.
Domingo” (I.IV:1235) that first distinguished Captain
Wentworth, though at first not sufficiently to enable him to carry
off his noble prize. Anne`s father dismissed Wentworth`s first
proposal as “a very degrading match”(1235). However,
Wentworth`s improvement in both rank and fortune over the next
eight years indicates how rapidly a naval officer, even of lower
rank, was able to make his fortune. The good fortune of his fellow
officer, Captain Benwick, confirms this. Benwick was only “a
year or two waiting for fortune and promotion” and we hear that
his prize-money as lieutenant was “great” (I.XI:1279).
It is Wentworth`s newly-won fortune that is instrumental in
winning the approval of Anne`s brother-in-law.

Charles ‘had never seen a pleasanter man in his life; and from what he had
once heard Captain Wentworth himself say, was very sure that he had not
made less than twenty thousand pounds by the war. Here was a fortune at
once; besides which there would be the chance of what might be done in any
future war; ... Oh, it would be a capital match for either of his sisters.’

Even Anne herself, who is truly attached to Wentworth and

who shares none of her father`s pride or her brother-in-law`s
opportunism, shares the “sense” common to many Jane Austen`s
heroines. There is no feigned indifference to the importance of
fortune, as her awareness that Wentworth “must by successive
captures, have made a handsome fortune” (1237) shows. It seems

that an improvement of fortune alone would long have had a
decisive influence on Anne.

‘Tell me if when I had returned to England in the year eight, with a few
thousand pounds, and was posted into the Laconia, if I had written to you,
would you have answered my letter, would you in short have renewed the
engagement then? ’
‘Would I! was all her answer; but the accent was decisive enough’ (II.XI:

When the narrative focuses on Wentworth`s final return to

England (the “peace” referred to here being for once clearly
calculable as that of 1814), there is no shortage of reference to the
way he had been able to make his fortune at the expense of “the
Great Nation”. “Sent off to the West Indies” (I.VIII.1259) in “an
old sloop”, Wentworth “after taking privateers enough to be very
entertaining”, was able to bring a considerable prize, a French
frigate, into Plymouth. There is nothing to suggest that Anne does
not share Wentworth`s own evaluation of his rapidly acquired
fortune as the result of “honourable toils and just
rewards”(op.cit). Indeed, in the pivotal conversation with Captain
Harville (II.XI.1365), Anne shows the kind of sympathy with the
overseas mission of the navy, that Fanny Price showed in
Mansfield Park. “You are always labouring and toiling, exposed
to every risk and hardship. Your home country, friends all
Persuasion also constantly highlights the social effects in
England of the success of naval officers in taking prizes at the
expense of colonial rivals. While there is a more global
atmosphere in Persuasion, the narrative is still very firmly rooted
in English society. The greatest prize of all for naval officers
seems to be the social prestige that accompanies their success.

The Elliots are portrayed as declining representatives of the
privileged few who can “live in a regular way, in the country,
choosing their own hours, following their own pursuits, and
living on their own property, without the torment of trying for
more”. (1232) Obsessed by his family`s past distinction, and
consumed by his own self-importance, Sir Walter Elliot is a
caricature of the English nobleman who must reluctantly accept
that his prosperity is in serious decline. The Elliot family`s home
and its most accomplished daughter are themselves sought as
prizes by enterprising and successful representatives of the navy.
The initial social contempt and incivility of Sir Walter, who
begrudgingly accepts only the usefulness of the navy -‘The
profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of
mine belonging to it.’ (I.III:1231) - must give way to new social
realities. It is Sir Walter`s own daughter, the heroine of the novel,
who best expresses their new prestige and their right to enjoy the
comforts and privileges previously enjoyed only by the English
aristocracy (1231).

The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim
with any other set of men, for all the comforts and privileges which any home
can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts we must all allow.

Sir Walter`s objection that the navy is the “means of bringing

persons of obscure birth into undue distinction” (1231) is central
to the main intrigue, which is concerned with the successful
conquest of his own daughter by a man who has risen to wealth
and distinction through the ranks. Anne Elliot is initially
persuaded to reject his advances against her own wishes.
Wentworth`s subsequent spectacular successes make it inevitable
that Anne, a highly accomplished and refined representative of

her class, will willingly become his most valued prize. Anne is the
one member of the family who seems to enjoy almost unreserved
editorial approval; a fact that is not unconnected to her
enthusiasm for the navy.
Sir Walter`s own decline in fortune obliges him to accept the
unthinkable: Admiral Croft becomes the tenant of the ancestral
home. The man, who rents, and later improves Sir Walter`s
ancestral property, Admiral Croft, has recently “acquired a very
handsome fortune”(I.III:1232) after distinguishing himself at
Trafalgar and then serving several years in the East Indies. Once
the navy has succeeded in connecting itself to his own estate, Sir
Walter`s pride leads him, albeit with patronising condescension,
to accord them the social status he has previously denied. His
acceptance of Wentworth as his son-in-law is now inevitable.
It is the frequent and almost exclusively positive reference to
actions of the navy and the sympathetic portrayal of the most
important characters who represent its success that, in my view,
make the foreign reference in Persuasion more significant than in
Mansfield Park. By opposing the nobility, energy and enterprise
of the navy to the excesses and wasteful laziness of the Elliots, it
is difficult to detect anything but strong editorial approval of all
their values and actions.
Mrs Croft, portrayed throughout as a down-to-earth and highly
credible sailor`s wife, assures her listeners that “nothing can
exceed the accommodation of a man of war, I speak, you know,
of the higher rates.”(I.VIII:1263). As for the lower “rates”, who
hardly warrant a mention, their conditions were apparently
improving after the mutinies in 1797, but this is only a relative

improvement if we consider what conditions were like not many
years before (in the time of George II).

The fleet had to be maintained by the haphazard and iniquitous compulsion of

the press-gang, because voluntary recruiting was inadequate owing to the
notorious conditions on board the royal ships. The life of the fisherman and
the merchant sailor was hard enough, but it was better than life on a man-of-
war, where the food was foul and scanty, the pay inadequate and irregular, the
attention to health nil, and the discipline of iron. (Trevalyan 363).

It seems unlikely that the sister of navy officers could be

unaware of the cruelties of the press gang, which still persisted in
Nelson`s time, or the appalling conditions that had provoked the
regular mutinies of the rank and file in her own life time.
Trevelyan (512) specifically refers to both William Price and
Wentworth as representative of a new breed of more responsible
naval officers who were appointed from the time of Nelson, but
still points out that many problems remained unresolved. It is still
clear, for example, that merit alone was not sufficient to gain
promotion, as the description of William Price`s difficulties in
this respect shows - Henry Crawford persuaded his uncle,
Admiral Crawford to use his influence on William`s behalf, in the
hope of gaining favour with William`s sister.
Captain Wentworth frequently portrays his overseas action not
only as profitable, but also as pleasant and enjoyable. “Ah! Those
were pleasant days when I had the Laconia! How fast I made
money in her. - A friend of mine, and I, had a lovely cruise
together in the Western Islands.” (I.VIII:1260) While we should
not overinterpret the jocular social tone of the interchanges
between the brothers-in-law, Croft and Wentworth, there is no
evidence of editorial censure of the portrayal of war as a game for
making money. Croft, for example, speculates, “if we have the

good luck to live to another war,...” (1262). Is there any
suggestion that Austen herself had the slightest reservations about
the value of the navy or that she in any way disapproved of any of
its practices or activities? Her heroine, Anne “gloried in being a
sailor`s wife” (1376) and the very last words of the novel link the
“national importance” of the domestic role of the married woman
to the importance of the navy itself.
At the very centre of Said`s interpretation of Austen`s novels is
the reference to the slave trade made in Mansfield Park by Fanny
herself (II.III:595). As a clergyman's daughter, it is difficult to
imagine that Jane Austen was anything but well-acquainted with
the abolitionist movement. There can be little doubt that Jane had
more than just an academic interest in Antigua. Austen's father
was a trustee to a property there, and both of the two brothers
who were pursuing active naval careers also went to the West
Indies during the Napoleonic Wars. Sutherland (xxiii) points out
that Austen`s brother, Frank called at Antigua in 1805 and 1806
and “formed a hostile impression of the treatment of slaves there”.
Pinion's outline of her brothers` naval careers shows that they
were both actively involved in its suppression, but after their
sister's death. While the patriotic historian,Trevelyan, probably
overstates the enthusiasm of the middle classes for abolishing
slavery, it is difficult to imagine that a humanist like Jane Austen
could be anything but an abolitionist.
The hold of Wilberforce and the anti-slavery movement on the solid middle
class in town and country was a thing entirely beautiful- English of the best,
and something new in the world. (509)

However, Mauro (233) clearly situates the sugar plantation

owners like Sir Thomas Bertram as opponents of Wilberforce

who were heavily implicated in the slave trade and who, even as
late as 1833, “sabotaged the application” (my translation) of
measures passed in the English parliament to aleviate the
suffering of plantation slaves. There is also historical evidence
linking Bristol traders to the Atlantic trade. Perhaps the most
pertinent question to ask, however, is whether such limited
biographical information and only two very indirect references in
six novels provide enough evidence to justify any positive
conclusions about Austen`s attitude to slavery.

The reference in Emma, in spite of its embedded context,

exposes Mrs Elton`s apparent susceptibility to any reference to
the slave trade (II.XVII:952/953) and the unnecessary defence of
her Bristol-based “parvenu” brother-in-law, Mr. Suckling - a
character who never actually appears, but for whom we develop a
hearty dislike.
‘There are places in town, offices where inquiry would soon produce
something-Offices for the sale-not quite of human flesh-but of human
‘Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the
slave-trade, I assure you Mr Suckling was always rather a friend to the
abolition. ’
‘I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,’ replied Jane;
‘governess-trade, I assure you was all that I had in view; widely different
certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of
the victims, I do not know where it lies.’

The reader has become accustomed to doubt almost everything

that Mrs Elton professes, so her defensiveness on this point
inevitably makes us suspect the opposite of what she actually
states. Jane Fairfax`s predicament, however, exposes only a
distinctly domestic evil, the treatment of governesses in English
society. Said himself does not refer to the reference in Emma. It is

Fanny`s reference to the slave trade in Mansfield Park (II.III:595)
which he interprets in some detail.

‘I only wish you would talk to him more.- You are one of those who are too
silent in the evening circle.’
‘But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did you not 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 a pleasure in his
information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.’

Said interprets “There was such a dead silence” to mean that

slavery, and by extension the morality of holding a colonial
estate, could not easily be talked about at Mansfield Park, “that
one world could not be connected with the other since there
simply is no common language for both”. Said adds: “In time
there would no longer be a dead silence when slavery was spoken
of, and the subject became central to a new understanding of what
Europe was” (96).
But has Said considered the context of Fanny`s very indirect
reference to slavery? Firstly, the reference is to a conversation
within a conversation. Fanny and Edmund are discussing the
difference in atmosphere in family conversation since Sir
Thomas`s return and cite the conversation about slavery only as
an example. Fanny finds his accounts of the West Indies of
greater interest than the more frivolous entertainment that was
being created by the younger generation in his absence. At the
heart of the conversation is Fanny`s wish to be on the same
intimate terms with Edmund as she was before the intrusion of the
Crawfords and, in particular, before Edmund`s infatuation with

Mary Crawford. A secondary theme - commonly discussed by
Fanny and Edmund - is Fanny`s reserve in family conversation. It
is this reserve that the brief retrospection on the discussion of the
slave trade seems to illustrate.
Within even the immediate context, is it possible to conclude
that the “dead silence” indicates an inability or an unwillingness
to talk about the subject or even a feeling of suppressed guilt or
embarrassment? The slave trade, by this interpretation, would be
taboo as a subject in the refined drawing rooms of the families
who had most benefited from it. What Said does not mention is
the apparent eagerness of both Sir Thomas and Edward to have
the slave trade discussed more. Austin’s meticulous and frequent
portrayal of domestic social interaction abundantly illustrates
Fanny`s unequal status, reflected in her reluctance to
communicate as a full and equal family member. Any
interpretation as to why the subject was not pursued should not
ignore Fanny`s own perception of her inferior social position in
the family and of the role that she felt able to adopt in
conversation. Given the fact that slavery was normal practice on
the sugar plantations in Antigua and, as Said points out, “even the
most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar
plantation were cruel stuff”(96), it would have been extremely
interesting to hear Sir Thomas discussing slavery in the drawing
room at Mansfield Park. In the final analysis, however, little can
be concluded about Austen`s views from such limited evidence.
Said`s aim is to oblige us to re-read and reconsider the whole
moral fabric of the novels.

In Mansfield Park, which within Jane Austen`s work carefully defines the
moral and social values informing her other novels, references to Sir Thomas
Bertram`s overseas possessions are threaded through; they give him wealth,
occasion his absences, fix his social status at home and abroad, and make
possible his values, to which Fanny Price (and Austen herself) finally
subscribes. If this is a novel about “ordination”, as Austen says, the right to
colonial possessions helps directly to establish social order and moral
priorities at home (62).

He makes us consider the link between the “consolidation of

(colonial) authority” which we indisputably see Sir Thomas
practising and the typical homebased concerns of Jane Austen`s
work as a whole, when he suggests that “the consolidation of
authority includes, indeed is built into the very fabric of, both
private property and marriage, institutions which are only rarely
challenged” (77).
Have critics been negligent in failing to give adequate attention
to colonial reference? It is certainly not difficult to identify
ethnocentric complacency even in very recent writing about
Austen, as is exemplified by the following statement:

In her view, the stability of the English political, social and religious
institutions offered the individual the safest degree of freedom within an
ordered framework by which to live a satisfying and worthwhile life, without
impinging on the rights of others. (Lane:11)

The view that the art of Jane Austen depends on detailed

description of the way people conduct themselves in their
everyday lives within their most restricted social circle has long
gained wide support, leading to a tendency to disregard the extent
of the spacial reference in some of her novels. Chapman (120)
suggests that Jane Austen "would not trust herself in a county she
did not know", citing in evidence the advice to her niece, who
was writing a novel. In her letter (no.98), she advised against
situating her characters in Ireland because of the danger of

"giving false representation". This extreme caution about the
accuracy of factual details is of great importance when
considering attitudes about the geographical scope of her writing
even if Chapman (115) warns against overinterpreting "the artistic
economy of her novels and the domestic nature of her extant
letters". Blythe (9) also supports the view that Jane Austen had a
wide range of experience that she chose not to use for artistic
While the essential interactions in the novels restrict themselves
to settings that she is able to describe with absolute confidence,
there has more recently been little critical support for considering
that Jane Austen actually led a sheltered existence, or that she was
either ignorant of or indifferent to the world about her. Pinion
(24) argues convincingly that in a family which kept in close
touch with each other and with two brothers on active naval
service, it would be difficult for Jane Austen to be indifferent to
events as momentous as the Napoleonic wars which were
threatening the peaceful village settings in which her characters
were apparently more preoccupied with resolving their domestic
problems. Might we not add that it would be difficult to argue that
she was unaware of the global dimensions of the rivalry,
particularly when we consider the foreign reference in
Said`s contrapuntal reading of Mansfield Park requires us to
consider whether a reading of Austen`s novels must not take into
account our historical knowledge of the way the “rights of others”
overseas were impinged on. Nevertheless, Said`s enthusiasm does
at times seem to get the better of the evidence when he invests his

arguments with definitive statements about Jane Austen`s own
world view which appears to be suspiciously similar to his own. It
is difficult not to conclude that Said overstates his case by
assuming knowledge of Austen`s intentions or opinions without
support from the text - “I think Austen sees what Fanny does as a
domestic small-scale movement in space that corresponds to the
larger, more openly colonial movements of Sir Thomas, her
mentor, the man whose estate she inherits”(89). Sutherland (xxv)
warns that “we should be careful that we do not enact a further
imperial incursion - this time on the past - and assume that Austen
(or Fanny Price) shares precisely our own view on these things.
The novel`s acts of suppression and relocation are more
complicated than this”.
It is nonetheless indisputable that the deeper appreciation of the
historical and spacial context of the novels that Said provides and
consideration of the comparatively large amount of foreign
reference in two major novels can only enhance our reading of
novels which are demonstrably concerned with the location and
relocation of values underlying social behaviour. Said states that
“the task is to lose neither a true historical sense of the first, nor a
full enjoyment or appreciation of the second, all the while seeing
both together”(97). While attempts at detachment and objectivity
about such emotive issues as imperialism and slavery must always
themselves be questionable, it is still clear that the validity of
more global interpretations of the novel itself does essentially
depend not only on an informed awareness of historical and social
context, but also on the evidence that can be found to support
them in the novels themselves.

The experience of practising a detailed contrapuntal reading
with the focused aim of recording and interpreting only the
foreign reference must be accompanied by an awareness of a
potential danger of overstatement which is inherent in the process
itself. While the novels of Jane Austen are always an expression
of a certain privileged kind of Englishness, it is only in two of the
later novels, Persuasion and Mansfield Park that the significance
of foreign reference can be seriously considered, and even in
these two novels the debate about its importance is, in my view,
far from resolved.
The issues that have been discussed, and require further
discussion, are, firstly, the relative prominence of foreign
reference itself; secondly, the evidence available to support
arguments about Jane Austen`s own world view and, finally, the
significance that can be accorded to the fact that Austen often
does not refer to very significant and current foreign events and
situations that we feel she must have been aware of. All these
issues are central to any discussion of the process of contrapuntal
re-reading itself; a process which resituates the old debate on the
inviolability of literary texts and the importance of social context,
but fails to resolve an essential conflict between the advantages
and disadvantages of deliberately disregarding, even temporarily,
the author`s own contextualization of her narrative.

Works Cited

Austen, J.S. The Complete Novels. Oxford:OUP (1994 edition -

based on R.W.Chapman`s Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen (1923;
revised by Mary Lascelles in the 1960s)

Blythe, R. Introduction to the Penguin Edition of Emma. (1966 -
in London:Penguin, 1985 pp7-31)

Chapman, R.W. Jane Austen Facts and Problems.

Oxford:Clarendon Press (1948)

Lane, M. Jane Austen`s England. London:Hale (1986)

Mitton, G.E. Jane Austen and Her Times. New York:Kennikat

Press (1905 (1970))

Mauro, F. L`Expansion Européenne (1600-1870) Paris:Presse

Universitaires de France (1967)

Pinion, F.B. A Jane Austen Companion. London:Macmillan St

Martin's Press (1973)

Said, E.W. Culture and Imperialism. New York:Vintage Books


Sutherland, K. (Ed) Introduction to the Penguin Addition of

Mansfield Park (vii-xxxiii) London: Penguin (1996)

Trevelyan, G.M. English Social History. London:Longman