That Austen was profoundly shaped by the literature she read as a youth—that hers is an art that begins in imitation, parody, and creative adaptation—has been a matter of critical consensus and intensive scholarly investigation for as long as critics have been writing about her work. It is striking, then, how little thought has been given to what she read as an adult and how it shaped the very different kinds of novels she wrote as an adult.
William Deresiewicz, Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets (3)
Part I. Mansfield Park and Austen’s Reading on Slavery
To be in the best position to judge the likelihood that Austen had slavery much in mind in writing Mansfield Park, one needs to have read a book published in 1808 by Thomas Clarkson that we have good reason to believe she read and admired: History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament. How Austen’s imagination may have been affected by Clarkson’s book one cannot even try to imagine without reading at least parts of it. This we shall presently do. The chief purpose of Part I is to make portions of Clarkson’s book known. (A similar aim regarding a very different book that Austen admired motivates Part II.)
A secondary aim of making representative parts of Clarkson’s work accessible is to persuade my readers of his book’s potential relevance to the reading of Mansfield Park. To this end, I will first briefly develop several analogies between Clarkson’s report on British enslavement of Africans and Austen’s rendering of life at Mansfield Park. Next I notice analogies between harsh aspects of Fanny Price’s beginnings and a slave’s. Then readings from Clarkson’s narrative follow.1
Three analogies stand out. The most obvious one is this: as the master of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has ultimate responsibility for years of humiliation and pain inflicted upon Fanny by her authorized overseer, Mrs. Norris, yet he does not fully understand or intend this evil. Now suppose we infer fictional likelihood from real-life probabilities in Austen’s time, as her contemporary readers might do. We will then imagine Sir Thomas also responsible for leaving his Antigua sugar plantations under the control of an overseer who will have inflicted more humiliation, pain, and probably even death upon plantation slaves than Sir Thomas would have allowed if he had had full cognizance of this brutality.
Here is a second analogy. The practice of slavery in British dominions had been sustained in part by actions of the British government that variously supported the capture, transportation, and enslavement of African men, women and children. This institutionalization of African slavery relied upon a vicious distinction between white and black persons which declared that the welfare of whites required and justified the eternally subordinated service of blacks in the interests exclusively of whites. There is analogy at Mansfield Park. Upon her arrival at Mansfield Park ten-year-old Fanny Price is classified as an inferior being by her aunt Norris, and made to understand that her role is service. Mrs. Norris is carrying out a malicious version of the project “‘of great delicacy’” that Sir Thomas had irresponsibly assigned to her in anticipation of Fanny’s arrival: she was to help insure that Fanny knew that her status in the household differed from his daughters’ (10-11). Early on, Sir Thomas’s two very young daughters implicate themselves in their aunt’s condemning Fanny to membership in an inferior human species by participating in exchanges like this one: “‘How strange!—Did you ever hear of anything so stupid?’” asks a cousin, and “‘But, aunt, she is really so very ignorant!’” To this Mrs. Norris replies, “‘Very true, indeed, my dears, but you are blessed with wonderful memories, and your poor cousin has probably none at all’” (18-19).
A third analogy between Clarkson’s and Austen’s narratives breaks down into a three-part resemblance between the appraisals and explanations each book offers of actions it ascribes to representatives of Britain’s ruling orders.
First, there is analogy in institutionally shaped motivations. The British stake in the desecration of African humanity in Africa, on the high seas, and in the colonies expressed an imperial culture and political system that—until the success of the British people’s campaign against the slave trade—made material interest the decisive factor in determining national policy. So too, Mansfield Park’s intermittent but ongoing humiliation of Fanny Price throughout her first eight years at the Park, Tom Bertram’s huge expenditures on his own entertainment at the cost of the Mansfield Park rectorship for his younger brother, and Maria Bertram’s approved marriage to a wealthy Rushworth for whom she felt only contempt were analogously expressive of a family’s participation in a national culture of materialist values in which Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, and her sister Mrs. Norris figured as sustaining and sustained agents. In the novel’s last chapter, Sir Thomas recalls his conduct when he had visited Sotherton, discovered the emptiness of Mr. Rushworth, and observed Maria’s coldness toward this young man to whom she was engaged. Now he knew that “he ought not to have allowed the marriage . . . that in so doing he had sacrificed the right to the expedient, and been governed by motives of selfishness and worldly wisdom” (461).
The second part of this complex analogy is a similarity in the explanations given in the two narratives for the moral failures of those who are represented as wielding power over others. According to Clarkson’s narrative, member of Parliament William Wilberforce concluded in the following way a major speech in support of ending the slave trade:
Whatever [Parliament] might do [this session], the people of Great Britain, he was confident, would abolish the Slave Trade when, as would then soon happen, its injustices and cruelty should be fairly laid before them. It was a nest of serpents, which would never have existed but for the darkness in which they lay hid. The light of day would now be let in on them, and they would vanish from the sight. (448)
An ignorant public is here treated as Britain’s ultimate ruler; yet the suggestion is implicit that this ignorance figured in Parliament’s default as well. In Austen’s novel, Maria’s fall made Sir Thomas recognize his great error in delegating so much supervisory power over his daughters to their Aunt Norris. He came to feel Mrs. Norris’s presence “as an hourly evil,” and he concluded that in raising his daughters, “Something must have been wanting within . . . He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting . . . ” (465; 463). In the failure of Britain’s real-life and fictional masters of others’ lives, each book gives credence to the idea that ignorance of an evil that is hidden from sight—ignorance of geographically distant brutality in the slave trade, ignorance of the absence of religious principles within the Bertram children—enabled the evil to continue.
The last element in this tripartite analogy between Clarkson’s and Austen’s representation of rulers is the bestowal of credit upon the real and the fictional wrongdoers for belatedly reforming themselves. The British government aided and protected the horrendous commerce in slaves. Nevertheless, after a campaign that extended over twenty years had at last persuaded a long-resistant British cabinet to lead parliament into outlawing the ghastly trade, one leader of this arduous effort, Thomas Clarkson, who held no office, celebrated the victory with a tribute in his book to leading members of the British government (and surprised this reader) by dedicating his long book to two prime ministers and ten cabinet members!
So too, Austen exhibited a close analogy with Clarkson (and also surprised this reader) when, three paragraphs from the end of her book, she found for the story a double moral in the meritorious conduct and reflection of Sir Thomas, master of Mansfield Park, who, though ultimately responsible both for Fanny’s years of humiliation and for his elder daughter’s tragic moral emptiness, could nonetheless find just satisfaction from his enabling aid to his Price nephews and nieces and from his tardy enlightenment about the reciprocating values of at least selective solidarity between England’s “higher” and “lower” orders. Although “the anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters, was never to be entirely done away,” nevertheless:
In [Susan’s] usefulness, in Fanny’s excellence, in William’s continued good conduct, and rising fame, and in the general well-doing and success of the other members of the [Price] family, all assisting to advance each other, and doing credit to his countenance and aid, Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all, and acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure. (463; 473)
If we are to think knowingly about slavery’s possible importance to Mansfield Park, we need also to hold concretely in mind fictional Fanny Price’s harsh start in life. Although Fanny’s troubled beginnings are fully presented to us in Austen’s novel, they are easily undervalued by readers. Because they become present for us only retrospectively, after we have already come to know Fanny as a young woman of substantial culture, we tend to read their visibility to us during Fanny’s teenage visit to her Portsmouth family as merely rendering a brief present travail for grown-up Fanny. In truth, her visit to the Price home provides for us a “flash back” into the start of Fanny’s life that shows some resemblance to a slave’s by creating in Fanny both a lasting diffidence and a “consciousness of being born to struggle and endure.”
We are told that although “Sir Thomas Bertram had interest,” the profession of his brother-in-law, Mr. Price, “a Lieutenant of Marines, without education, fortune, or connections . . . was such as no interest could reach” (3-4). Receiving that report long before we encounter Mr. Price, we infer a social inferiority to Sir Thomas that our meeting him late in the novel makes certain. When Mr. Price comes into the darkened hallway of his house after Fanny and her brother William arrive, he does not at first see Fanny, who is now eighteen and hasn’t been home since she was ten. He enters directly into excited talk with his sailor son about William’s ship. William shifts his father’s attention from himself:
“But here is my sister, Sir, here is Fanny;” turning and leading her forward;—“it is so dark you do not see her.”
With an acknowledgement that he had quite forgot her, Mr. Price now received his daughter; and, having given her a cordial hug, and observed that she was grown into a woman, and he supposed would be wanting a husband soon, seemed very much inclined to forget her again.
Fanny shrunk back to her seat, with feelings sadly pained by his language and his smell of spirits; and he talked on only to his son . . . (380).
After this opening, the novel renders for us little of her father’s behavior with Fanny. However, when she has been with him long enough to be sure of his attitude to her, she finds that he “scarcely ever noticed her, but to make her the object of a coarse joke” (389)!
What do we learn of Fanny’s early life with her father? “She had never been able to recal anything approaching to tenderness in his former treatment of herself. There had remained” in her memory of him, after her growth out of childhood during the years at Mansfield Park, “only a general impression of roughness and loudness.” We surmise that during Fanny’s first ten years her father at home had been much as she finds him now. He was not interested in her; he “talked only of the dock-yard, the harbour, Spithead and the Motherbank; he swore and he drank, he was dirty and gross” (389).
Using her narrator’s words, Austen composes grown-up Fanny’s present judgment of her mother’s character thus: Fanny “might scruple to make use of the words, but she must and did feel that her mother was a partial, ill-judging parent, a dawdle, a slattern, who neither taught nor restrained her children, whose house was the scene of mismanagement and discomfort from beginning to end . . . ” (390).
What of her mother’s feeling for Fanny? Fanny finds that her mother has “no affection towards herself; no curiosity to know her better, no desire of her friendship, and no inclination for her company.” Moreover, the present largely reproduces the past: “Her daughters never had been much to her. She was fond of her sons, especially of William, but Betsey [now “about five”] was the first of her girls whom she had ever much regarded” (389-90).  The first!
For Fanny’s first ten years her father had been rough, loud, coarse, lewd, and uninterested in Fanny. Her mother had been a slattern who felt no affection for Fanny.
One can justly find it a puzzle that Austen should choose to create a heroine with so awful a start in life. Moreover, when Fanny’s Aunt Norris and her female cousins suspect newly arrived, ten-year-old Fanny of belonging to an inferior species of humanity, when she is submitted to years of tyranny and servitude under Mrs. Norris, some of it in Sir Thomas’s presence, it is not unreasonable to look for further evidence that the novel intends some analogy between Mansfield Park and the order of things on Sir Thomas’s slave-worked sugar plantation in Antigua. For external, indirect evidence—very indirect, indeed, yet in its own way powerful—my exhibit in this essay will be a sample of the book by Thomas Clarkson that Austen could not have read earlier than two or three years before beginning Mansfield Park.
Did Austen in fact come to the writing of her own book with slavery in mind? Perhaps we shall never be sure. However, concerning the slave trade we can feel confident that there is an experience she shared with the British public at large and another that she shared with readers of Thomas Clarkson’s book. During the period from 1811 to 1813 when Austen was writing Mansfield Park, the multitude of white persons in the British “sugar islands” who exercised absolute rule over a vaster multitude of black persons held there as slaves by perpetual armed terror were much in the public mind. The long-running, popular movement to end the British trade in slaves—in which Austen’s favorite poet Cowper figured prominently and with which she could not have failed to be familiar—had reached a triumphant first conclusion when in 1807 Parliament at last banned this trade throughout the British empire. In the banning legislation, however, there were deficiencies in provision for enforcement that evoked continued public preoccupation with their nation’s not yet totally ended slave trade.
This public interest had been partly sustained by publication of an account of the campaign to end the trade. A year after the successful Parliamentary conclusion of the long civic effort to end it, Thomas Clarkson published an account of this movement that was partly a memoir of his own leading role in it. We conclude from one of her letters that Austen read Clarkson’s book with enthusiasm. While she was writing Mansfield Park, in a letter of 24 January 1813 to her sister Cassandra she associates this man of peace, Thomas Clarkson, with a man of war:
I am reading a Society-Octavo, an Essay on the Military Police [Policy] & Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the Author as I ever was with Clarkson . . .
If we will ourselves today read Thomas Clarkson’s 1808 history of the abolition of the slave trade, and if we then imagine Austen reading it soon after it came out, hence not long before she started Mansfield Park but when this emotionally wrenching subject of civic interest was still much alive in Britain, we shall find ourselves able to believe that Clarkson’s book would have made a terrific impact upon her imagination. Without reading Clarkson this impact is hard for us to believe in and impossible even partially to share. Today Clarkson is not easily accessible. Sampling his work will bring our own present experience of his work into some alignment with a similar experience of Austen’s two centuries ago. We will then be in a position to understand how her reading Clarkson might have influenced her thinking about her next novel, Mansfield Park.
The reader will understand that in presenting quotations from Clarkson’s book on the fight to end the slave trade, I myself am not engaged in making an argument about the slave trade or about the struggle to end it. Indeed, in the course of offering these quotations I am making no argument at all. I am trying to bring into my reader’s experience a simulacrum of Jane Austen’s own experience in reading Thomas Clarkson’s book.
To be sure, I do hope that after reading these excerpts from Clarkson my readers will be sympathetic to the idea that Austen’s reading him may have influenced her thought of her next novel. But the case for that sympathy I intend to be found entirely in the excerpts themselves when taken together with my sometimes summarizing an omitted part of Clarkson’s narrative and occasionally suggesting likely reasons why Austen would be receptive to his account.
Thomas Clarkson came upon the anti-slavery movement by accident. In his last year at Oxford he entered a contest for the Latin dissertation prize, hoping to repeat a first-prize victory of the year before. His aspiring to the prize was independent of the assigned topic. Translated, the topic turned out to be: “Is it right to make slaves of others against their will?” He knew nothing of the subject, but he got hold of Anthony Benezet’s Historical Account of Guinea. Clarkson writes (and Austen reads):
Furnished then in this manner, I began my work. But no person can tell the severe trial which the writing of it proved to me. I had expected pleasure from the invention of the arguments, from the arrangement of them, from the putting of them together, and from the thought in the interim that I was engaged in an innocent contest for literary honour. But all my pleasure was damped by the facts which were now continually before me. It was but one gloomy subject from morning to night. In the day-time I was uneasy. In the night I had little rest. I sometimes never closed my eye-lids for grief. It became now not as much a trial for academical reputation, as for the production of a work, which might be useful to injured Africa. And keeping this idea in my mind ever after the perusal of Benezet, I always slept with a candle in my room, that I might rise out of my bed and put down such thoughts as might occur to me in the night, if I judged them valuable, conceiving that no arguments of any moment should be lost in so great a cause. Having at length finished this painful task, I sent my Essay to the vice-chancellor, and soon afterwards found myself honoured as before with the first prize. (137-38)
Jane Austen could remember as a girl the “innocent contest for literary honor”” in which she had successfully engaged within her family circle. In much later years when visiting her wealthy brother’s family at Godmersham, sometimes Austen “would “sit quietly . . . beside the fire in the library” engaged with her needlework, and then she “would suddenly burst out laughing, jump up and run across the room to a table where pens and paper were lying, write something down, and then come back to the fire and go on quietly working as before” (Family Record 184). We can understand how Thomas Clarkson’s recital of his collegiate transition from intellectual exercise to passionate commitment might hold her eager interest.
Clarkson writes that on the way to London after a public reading of his essay at Oxford,
[T]he subject of it almost wholly engrossed my attention. I became at times very seriously affected while upon the road. I stopped my horse occasionally, and dismounted and walked. I frequently tried to persuade myself in these intervals that the contents of my Essay could not be true. The more, however, I reflected upon them, the more I gave them credit. Coming in sight of Wades Mill, in Hertfordshire, I sat down disconsolate on the turf by the roadside and held my horse. Here a thought came into my mind, that if the contents of the Essay were true, it was time some person should see these calamities to their end. Agitated in this manner, I reached home. This was in the summer of 1785. (138)
Because Clarkson did in fact undertake at a young age to “see these calamities to their end,” this scene too would be persuasive to a reader who knew something of the man’s later achievements. Also, there would have been something fascinating for so morally motivated and religiously committed a woman of genius as Austen was to witness in this author’s memoir his male freedom and power of public action tied so directly to serious meditation and inspiration. The novelist-like detail with which Clarkson recaptured his intensely felt ride home after graduating from Oxford could hardly fail to hold Austen to his text.
Clarkson reports that his Oxford essay came to the attention of an informal organization of persons—many of them Quakers—who had formed a small group committed to working against the slave trade. He did not know of their existence, but they heard of his Latin essay, read it, contacted him, introduced themselves to him, informed him of the work they had done and were doing, and invited him to join them. He was so excited to discover such a group, that he promised them to devote himself to the cause. Then he realized he might have overstepped the bounds of good sense:
The next morning, when I awoke, one of the first things that struck me was, that I had given a pledge to the company the day before that I would devote myself to the cause of the oppressed Africans. I became a little uneasy at this. I questioned whether I had considered matters sufficiently to be able to go so far with propriety. (146)
He went through all the objections to his moving forward with the cause, and examined both the obstacles and the helps he knew of. The objection that gave him the most trouble was this one:
That I had been designed for the church; that I had already advanced as far as deacon’s orders in it; that my prospects there on account of my connexions were then brilliant, that, by appearing to desert my profession my family would be dissatisfied, if not unhappy . . . the sacrifice of my prospects staggered me . . . I had ambition. I had a thirst after worldly interest and honours, and I could not extinguish it at once. I was more than two hours in solitude under this painful conflict. . . . I felt certain that if ever the matter were to be taken up, there could be no hope of success, except it should be taken up by some one who would make it an object for the business of his life. I thought too that a man’s life might not be more than adequate to the accomplishment of the end. But I knew of no one who could devote such a portion of time to it . . . and the question was, whether I was prepared to make the sacrifice. In favour of the undertaking, I urged to myself, that never was any cause, which had been taken up by man in any country or in any age, so great and important; that never was there one in which so much misery was heard to cry for redress; that never was there one in which so much good could be done; never one in which the duty of Christian charity could be so extensively exercised; never one more worthy of the devotion of a whole life towards it; and that if a man thought properly, he ought to rejoice to have been called into it, if he were only permitted to become an instrument in forwarding it in any part of its progress . . . At length I yielded, not because I saw any reasonable prospect of success in my new undertaking (for all cool-headed and cool-hearted men would have pronounced against it), but in obedience, I believe, to a higher Power. (147-48)
One can believe that Austen could have reacted to this passage (already knowing of the campaign that ensued) rather as she would make Henry Crawford, in one of his moods, react to the stories of young William Price, back from six years service in the wartime Navy “describing any of the imminent hazards, or terrific scenes, which such a period, at sea, must supply,” with their implied “glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance”: Austen would write that Crawford’s “heart was warmed, his fancy fired, and . . . he wished he had been a William Price, distinguishing himself . . . with so much self-respect and happy ardour . . . ” (236)! One imagines her finding in herself a similar response while reading of Thomas Clarkson, just out of Oxford, entering his different kind of field “of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance.”
The committee for effecting abolition of the slave trade decided to publish and distribute an English translation of Clarkson’s prize Latin essay; asked him to visit various persons of influence, including members of Parliament to discuss his findings with them; and authorized him to undertake trips to Lancaster, Bristol, and Liverpool to gather information that could be used when, as they trusted, a Parliamentary inquiry eventually would be started into the slave trade.
Before setting out on his expeditions from London to other cities, Clarkson reports that he was asked to visit William Wilberforce, member of Parliament, to ask him whether he would take on the burden of calling for a Parliamentary inquiry into the slave trade. The group Clarkson was working with was unwilling to go forward in a more formal way without assurance that their cause would be adopted by someone as persuasive and respected in Parliament as William Wilberforce, who was also a personal friend of Prime Minister William Pitt. So broaching the subject with Wilberforce could be understood to be a moment of crisis in the movement’s birth. Clarkson was asked to do this job, as being by now master of many elements of the subject, and as already having had much useful conversation on it with Wilberforce. Clarkson reports that he agreed to try to engage Wilberforce. One understands how the writer who would soon create a Fanny Price who would pause before a drawing room door hoping “for a courage which the outside of no door had ever supplied her” (177) might respond to Clarkson’s account of this venture:
In consequence of the promise I had made, I went to Mr. Wilberforce. But when I saw him, I seemed unable to inform him of the object of my visit. Whether this inability arose from a sudden fear that his answer might not be favourable, or from a fear that I might possibly involve him in a long and arduous contest upon this subject, or whether it arose from an awful sense of the importance of the mission, as it related to the happiness of hundreds of thousands then alive, and of millions unborn, I cannot say. But I had a feeling within me for which I could not account, and which seemed to hinder me from proceeding; and I actually went away without informing him of my errand. (160)
Clarkson’s anti-slave-trade group found another way to get Wilberforce’s consent, and with it in hand they sent Clarkson forth on the first of many trips criss-crossing England, on which he would over the years cover tens of thousands of miles. As the movement gained momentum and renown, knowledgeable witnesses in centers of the slave trade such as Liverpool and Bristol became harder to get because of the risk of losing their jobs. Nevertheless he writes:
I began now to think that the day was not long enough for me to labour in. I regretted often the approach of night, which suspended my work, and I often welcomed that of the morning, which restored me to it. When I felt myself weary, I became refreshed by the thought of what I was doing; when disconsolate, I was comforted by it. (193)
Clarkson made the acquaintance of a ship’s surgeon who had made four trips on slave ships to Africa. He got invaluable information from him. But would he testify in public?
I was fearful lest, when I should put the question to him, his future plan of life . . . would prevent him from giving his testimony, and I delayed asking him for many days . . . [W]hen I thought I was . . . probably in some little estimation, with him, I ventured to open my wishes on this subject. He answered me . . . that he had left the trade upon principle, and that he would state all he knew concerning it, either publicly or privately, and at any time . . . This answer produced such an effect upon me, after all my former disappointments, that I felt it all over my frame. It operated like a sudden shock, which often disables the impressed person for a time. So the joy I felt rendered me quite useless, as to business, for the remainder of the day. (210-11)
The author who created the vivid post-crisis relief of Elinor Dashwood attending Marianne in her illness could find Clarkson’s account both convincing and endearing.
Liverpool was a major center of the slave trade. Thomas Clarkson became well known there during an extended visit involving intensive investigations among seamen:
The temper of many of the interested people of Liverpool had now become still more irritable, and their hostility more apparent than before. I received anonymous letters, entreating me to leave it, or I should otherwise never leave it alive. The only effect which this advice had upon me, was to make me more vigilant when I went out at night. I never stirred out at this time without Mr. Falconbridge [the former slave-ship surgeon]; and he never accompanied me without being well armed. Of this, however, I knew nothing until we had left the place. (240)
Clarkson went on in his working travels, and in Manchester he discovered, first that he himself was already known, and second that his cause was gaining publicity and that petitions were being sent in to Parliament:
The news, as it astonished, so it almost overpowered me with joy. I rejoiced in it, because it was a proof of the general good disposition of my countrymen; because it showed me that the cause was such as needed only to be known, to be patronized; and because the manifestation of this spirit seemed to me to be an earnest, that success would ultimately follow. (243)
I think it believable that Clarkson’s uplifting success with his fellow citizens would be in Austen’s mind in her 2 September 1814 letter to her friend Martha Lloyd when she reports dire predictions from London about the war with America (our “War of 1812”) but affirms, “I place my hope of better things on a claim to the protection of Heaven as a Religious Nation, a Nation inspite of much Evil improving in Religion . . . ”
Now Clarkson was called upon in Manchester by local supporters, “understanding that I had been educated as a clergyman,” to preach on the next day, Sunday, on the subject of the Slave Trade. “I found myself embarrassed at their request.  Foreseeing . . . that this cause might demand my attention to it for the greatest part of my life, I had given up all thoughts of my profession. I had hitherto but seldom exercised it.” He was not confident that giving the sermon was either a right thing for him to do or one he could execute with credit. But his new associates “would not hear of a refusal, and I was obliged to give my consent, though I was not reconciled to the measure.” The author-shortly-to-be of the discussion between Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram of how sermons should be given (and the appraising auditor of two brothers’ sermons) could hardly help finding herself much interested in this account of Thomas Clarkson’s experience:
When I went into the church it was so full that I could scarcely get to my place . . . I was surprised, also, to find a great crowd of black people standing around the pulpit . . . The text that I took, as the best to be found in such a hurry, was the following:—“Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
I took an opportunity of showing, from these words, that Moses, [was] endeavoring to promote among the children of Israel a tender disposition towards those unfortunate strangers who had come under their dominion . . . For they could not have forgotten that the Egyptians “had made them serve with rigour; that they had made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field; and that all the service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.” The argument, therefore, of Moses was simply this:—“Ye knew well, when you were strangers in Egypt, the nature of your own feelings. Were you not made miserable by your debased situation there? But if so, you must be sensible that the stranger, who has the same heart, or the same feelings with yourselves, must experience similar suffering, if treated in a similar way. I charge you, then, knowing this, to stand clear of the crime of his oppression.” (244-45)
So far as we know, Austen never wrote in this vein, but things she did write within and outside of her novels—not least about the situation in England of dependent unmarried women like herself—make one believe that this sample of a sermon could find resonance in her response to it.
Jane Austen will have viewed a fold-out drawing of a cross-section of a slave ship with Africans schematically pictured packed into a narrow space, which Thomas Clarkson and his associates had drawn by looking at ships’ plans and calculating the space assigned to Africans, the latter’s exact number ascertained by checking ships’ documents—a number the reader was invited to verify by counting the depicted individuals! This picture alone would convert to the abolition cause virtually any reader not hardened by a vested interest in the slave trade.
In this book that Austen so admired, Clarkson reproduced some of the most painfully telling arguments given in Parliament for abolition of the slave trade. Quoted at greatest length were the words of abolition’s leader in Parliament, William Wilberforce. Also reported were those of the famous Charles James Fox, and of the most powerful friend of Wilberforce, prime Minister William Pitt, who in 1792 finally concluded at six in the morning the lengthy speech that preceded passage in the House of Commons of a resolution to abolish the slave trade. In fact, this did not end the debate, since the Commons had to renew the resolution the following year and the House of Lords had to agree, which neither did—nor the following year, nor the following; and so on. The effective bill to end the slave trade was at last passed some fifteen years later, on March 24, 1807, and was signed by the king on March 27, 1807, some twenty years or so after Wilberforce had agreed with Clarkson’s associates to help in Parliament with the effort to end this enormously profitable trade.
Transcripts of those 1792 speeches of the Parliamentarians were the chief concluding documents of rhetorical power presented in Clarkson’s book. I offer a sample from a relatively early speech by William Wilberforce summarizing some of the evidence that had been presented to Parliamentary and royal committees of inquiry. The full speech occupies twenty pages in the book that Austen read. Thomas Clarkson reports Wilberforce speaking as follows:
Captain Wilson and Captain Hills, of His Majesty’s navy, and Mr. Dalrymple, of the land service, had concurred in stating, that in the country contiguous to the river Senegal, when slave-ships arrived there, armed parties were regularly sent out in the evening, who scoured the country, and brought in their prey. The wretched victims were to be seen in the morning bound back to back in the huts on the shore, whence they were conveyed, tied hand and foot, to the slave-ships . . . Individuals were kidnapped whilst in their fields and gardens. There was a universal feeling of distrust and apprehension there. The natives never went any distance from homes without arms; and when Captain Wilson asked them the reason of it, they pointed to a slave-ship then lying within sight. (428-29)
However, Wilberforce points out that staying close to home was of no avail:
An agent was sent to establish a settlement in the country, and to send to the ships such slaves as he might obtain. The orders he received from his captain were, that “he was to encourage the chieftains by brandy and gunpowder to go to war, to make slaves.” This he did. The African chieftains, in turn, performed their part. The neighboring villages were surrounded and set on fire in the night. The inhabitants were seized when making their escape; and being brought to the agent, were by him forwarded to his principal on the coast. (429)
For those English men and women who thought of themselves as constituting the nation—and Austen’s family were among them—here was evil of proportions unimagined by many of them, and for which the men directly and the women indirectly had responsibility through their representatives in Parliament, since it was within the power of this body to stop it.
Wilberforce moved on from slave acquisition in Africa to the brutalities upon the high seas. Here he listed again what he had already cited in an earlier speech about the miseries of the Middle Passage:
The same suffering from a state of suffocation, by being crowded together; the same eating by compulsion; the same despair; the same insanity; and all the other abominations which characterized the trade. New instances however had occurred, where these wretched men had resolved on death to terminate their woes. Some had . . . thrown themselves into the sea; and more than one, when in the act of drowning, were seen to wave their hands in triumph, “exulting” (to use the words of an eye-witness) “that they had escaped.” (433)
Early on, a central pillar of the defense of the slave trade had been the claim that the natives of Africa were (at best) of an inferior race of humans whose thoughts, attitudes, dispositions, and feelings should not be supposed analogous to our own. Much evidence had been presented that had conclusively repudiated this proposition. Clarkson continues reporting Wilberforce’s speech:
But upon whom did the cruelties . . . arising out of the prosecution of this barbarous traffic, fall? Upon a people with feeling and intellect like ourselves. One witness had spoken of the acuteness of their understandings; another, of the extent of their memories; a third, of their genius for commerce; a fourth of their proficiency in manufactures at home . . . The argument that they were an inferior species had been proved false. (434)
Turning to the condition of the slaves on the islands, Wilberforce remarks that it might be that the worst treatment of slaves on the sugar plantations was, in part, because of the “the non-residence of the planters. Sir George Yonge, and many others, had said, they had seen slaves treated in a manner which their owners would have resented if they had known it. Mr. Orde spoke in the strongest terms of the misconduct of the managers” (437).
Fictional Sir Thomas Bertram is, of course, Austen’s conception of an absentee planter whose plantation manager may have been brutal with slaves.
Moved by the same mercy for my readers that shortened William Wilberforce’s evidence, I repeat only one of the particular horrors Thomas Clarkson reproduced and we must believe that Jane Austen read. Local legislators in the Caribbean sugar-islands who wanted to block abolition of the slave trade offered to pass new local laws to lessen suffering of slaves by regulating their treatment. Wilberforce asks:
How could any laws . . . be effectual, whilst the evidence of Negroes was in no case admitted against White men? What was the answer from Grenada? Did it not state, “that they who were capable of cruelty, would in general be artful enough to prevent any but slaves from being witnesses of the fact?” (444)
In Barbados the law stated that no master could give more than thirty-nine lashes to a slave at one time. Here was the effect, Wilberforce reports:
A wretch in Barbados had chained a Negro girl to the floor, and flogged her till she was nearly expiring. Captain Cook and Major Fitch, hearing her cries, broke open the door and found her. The wretch retreated from their resentment, but cried out exultingly, “that he had only given her thirty-nine lashes (the number limited by law) at any one time; and that he had inflicted this number three times since the beginning of the night,” adding, “that he would prosecute them for breaking open his door; and that he would flog her to death . . . if he pleased; and that he would give her the fourth thirty-nine before morning.” (445)
Most readers of Austen today have not been in a position to imagine her reading this record. Those who have joined me in sampling Clarkson—and in calling to mind analogies with her next work of imagination, Mansfield Park—can understand how this reading might have affected her thought of that novel.
Part II. Mansfield Park and Austen’s Reading on Imperial Warfare
That generations of Britain’s rulers, with the people’s implied consent, had incurred direct responsibility for “much Evil” in supporting the capture, transportation, and enslavement of millions of Africans did not mean to Austen that either the nation or its rulers were evil. On the contrary, as she implied in her 2 September 1814 letter to her friend Martha Lloyd that acknowledged “much evil” in Britain’s actions, Thomas Clarkson’s book gave her reason to believe that both the leaders of the nation and the nation as a whole were, as she remarked of Britain in that letter, “improving in religion”: Britain’s outlawing the slave trade demonstrated that at long last it showed a national will for righteousness and a capacity radically to reshape regulation of its trade out of respect for the humanity of devastated Africa. Encouraged by her nation’s dramatic moral progress in treatment of the slave trade, Austen could strongly believe Britain capable of honorable dominion over lands (allegedly) needed for its own prosperity—and (allegedly) needed for its safety too, as she might be helped to believe when reading a book by Charles Pasley: Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire. Pasley’s book could invigorate her belief in the warfare on behalf of imperial interests in which her beloved naval-officer brothers Frank and Charles had sometimes been actively engaged. Let me return to Austen’s 24 January 1813 letter—written to her sister Cassandra when Austen was composing Mansfield Park—and extend the quotation already given sufficiently to complete her expressed appreciation of Charles Pasley:
I am reading a Society-Octavo, an Essay on the Military Police [Policy] & Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written & highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the Author as I ever was with Clarkson . . . The first soldier I ever sighed for; but he does write with extraordinary force and spirit.
Pasley’s book made the case for a necessary connection between the expansion of Britain’s widespread colonial dominions, on the one hand, and success in the long defensive war against France, on the other. A short excursion into Captain Charles Pasley’s way of characterizing the new, martial Britain for which he argued will bring us close to a vicarious military experience Jane Austen enjoyed that is otherwise unavailable to us. Critically more important, our reading portions of what Austen herself read in Pasley’s book can help us appreciate a political dimension of Mansfield Park that the book she admired by Thomas Clarkson on the slave trade cannot suggest.
In her novel Austen implicitly affirms the legitimacy of Sir Thomas Bertram’’s rule despite its moral failure’s accounting for irreparable evil. Consistently with her belief in the moral acceptability of the current leadership of the nation, she means to give Sir Thomas credit for seeing the enormity of his failings, and for achieving some success in undertaking to reform himself. So we find her, through her narrator, saying of Sir Thomas’s failure to make Fanny’s childhood less unhappy that “it had been an error of judgment only”; and after affirming that “the anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters, was never to be entirely done away,” she composes the unpredictable tribute Sir Thomas gets from the story’s narrator a mere three paragraphs from the very end of the novel, a tribute reported earlier but that bears repeating in part:
In [Susan’s] usefulness, in Fanny’s excellence, in William’s continued good conduct, and rising fame, and in the general well-doing and success of the other members of the family, all assisting to advance each other, and doing credit to his countenance and aid, Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all. (463; 473)
This mixture of mitigation for Sir Thomas’s failings and praise for his reform is analogous to Clarkson’s account in his book of William Wilberforce’s attributing to ignorance of slavery’s horrors Britain’s acquiescence in the atrocities perpetrated on Africans in pursuit of profits, and Clarkson’s dedicating his book to a group of government Cabinet members despite the long resistance of the government (Pitt importantly excepted) to the public campaign to end the slave trade that Clarkson had helped lead. Almost at the end of her book, Austen makes out Sir Thomas also to be “inspite of much evil” perfecting the legitimacy of his rule at home and abroad by “improving in Religion.”
Reading a sample of Charles Pasley’s attempted proof of the necessity for making Britain’s army as mighty and its disposition as “martial” as the Royal Navy’s may help undergird with a political basis our appreciation of Austen’s creative loyalty to Sir Thomas as the empire’s representative in her novel.
The circumstances that Austen’s favorite soldier, Captain Pasley, perceives as compelling him to exhort Britain to become a martial nation on land as it is already on sea are roughly these: land war against Napoleon has so far been unsuccessful both as fought by Britain and by those she has helped with money subsidies. If Napoleon’s domination of the European continent is allowed to continue to consolidate and expand, then fairly simple political-military arithmetic—which he works out for his readers—tells Pasley that eventually French sea power will exceed Britain’s. Then, if Britain’s military policy remains as it has been in recent times, Britain will inevitably succumb to Napoleon’s ambition. The long-term logic of the international situation, writes Pasley, is this: either Britain conquers Napoleon’s France or France conquers Britain. Moreover, this generalization gets support from present and past military experience worldwide. Wherever comparably powerful nations coexist in a competitive atmosphere, each must permanently keep increasing its power, and therefore its empire, in an effort, at best, to scare off attack by the other, or, at worst, to defeat it in any unavoidable combat. Therefore, from the aggressive defense required of Britain by Napoleon’s continental domination, Charles Pasley derives an argument for offensive warfare that entails expansion of British imperial rule.
Captain Pasley’s chief immediate task is concretely to spell out for his readers what it would mean for Britain to become what it has refused in recent times to be: a warlike—specifically a military—nation, as distinguished from a merely naval power, which an insular, mercantile nation always becomes if it can, and which Britain already is:
Ambition . . . by which I mean the wish to extend the power and dominion of a nation, is only criminal, when it passes the limits of necessity; but before it passes these limits, it is a virtue, and the want of it a most pernicious defect, both in the character of a people and of its rulers . . . The time is arrived, or is rapidly approaching in which . . . like other great nations, which have preceded us on the theatre of the universe, we must become a warlike people by land as well as by sea; . . . we must . . . conquer upon both elements, or in all probability we shall, on both, be conquered. (114-15)
Pasley takes care to show that he believes that Britain’s constitution is a prime source of the nation’s preeminence in imperial reach. He shows, too, his appreciation of the importance, in defining Great Britain’s military potential, of its unique blending of the commercial and the landed interests among its ruling orders, a blend that Austen has taken care to build into the circumstances of Sir Thomas Bertram, Baronet, who is master of both a colonial business enterprise and (partly supported by that enterprise) an English county estate from which he takes his seat in Parliament:
What has raised Great Britain to a rank, amongst the nations, so much higher than other states originally of greater resources: What is it, that has preserved her existence, whilst the nations around her have been destroyed by France? Let us speak with proper veneration and gratitude of the constitution with which Divine Providence has blessed us; the superior excellence of which over a more popular form of government, has been allowed even by the citizens of other free states. The British constitution alone has been the source of our grandeur; that alone has preserved our independence. (456)
Pasley offers a partially economic interpretation of this constitution:
From the very nature of things, in a free country, commercial merit will always be at the head of the mercantile body. Integrity forms the very soul of commerce; perseverance, and even entreprise, are essential to it; qualities all highly congenial to the military character. In Great Britain, the hereditary nobility and gentry, composing the landed interest, by their weight in the state and personal respectability, form, at all times, a useful and a necessary check upon the mercantile body . . . Hence the merchants of this country, probably out of generous emulation, have displayed a munificence and a liberality of mind, which it is in vain to look for in those of other commercial states . . .
However, the men of business whose enterprise so often motivates imperial expansion—yet who for business reasons often prefer the predictability of peace to the chaos and taxes of war—must not be allowed to forget the military foundation of their success:
[W]e must take care . . . not to allow the supposed interests of our merchants to divert us from carrying on war with vigour: that can never be in their real interest; for by the sabre and the bayonet, and by these alone, we may establish a free market wherever we please; opening an outlet for our wares as wide as the coasts of the whole world . . . (472-73)
As Austen would have known, it is by the sabre and bayonet—and by naval guns—that Britain has sustained both its access to the massive capture in Africa of persons to be enslaved, and its possession of the sugar islands where the slaves labor—including on Antigua, the imagined site of Sir Thomas’s sugar plantation.
At one of several places in his book, Captain—later to be General—Pasley articulates “the true principles of martial policy”:
The history of mankind has proved that war is an inevitable evil. The justice of going to war, for a necessary object, has never for a moment been disputed in any age or country, except by a few fanatics. War should not be lightly entered into, nor should any warlike entreprise be rashly undertaken: but when once undertaken, those who have drawn the sword should never give way to despair, on account of difficulties or dangers, foreseen or unforeseen. The art of war is the art of surmounting difficulties, and of setting danger at defiance; and the only test of great statesmen, and of skillful generals, is, the being able with smaller means to surmount greater difficulties than those of some rival nation. (231)
In reading Pasley today, Austen’s characterization of his writing as showing “extraordinary force and spirit” will time and again strike us as on the mark, and also as interesting for the insight it gives us into the content of her enthusiasm. Here is another example of Pasley’s “extraordinary force and spirit”:
Till we shall send forth our armies to fight the enemy on the banks of the Ebro, the Elbe, or the Loire, with as much confidence as we believe we should feel in fighting upon those of the Thames; till we plant the British flag on the mountains of Sicily, on the Appennines, or on the plains of Champagne, with the same undaunted hearts, with which we now display it on the ocean, or on some beggarly rock that is encircled by its waves; till we come forward in the face of the universe, with a view to the applause of the present and of future ages, and, throwing the gauntlet to our adversary, boldly challenge him to meet us hand to hand in any part of the known world; it is my opinion that we shall see all the efforts of our armies . . . terminate, as they have lately done, either in disappointment or disgrace . . . From the want of this daring spirit in our national councils and policy, all our failures, all our disasters by land have arisen. (118-19)
Charles Pasley was personally a courageous fighter who, by the time he wrote his book, had been twice-wounded in a single battle. However, in the passage just quoted he has not yet as a writer quite scaled his literary peak of martial fervor. Perhaps in what follows he does:
The business of an army is to destroy the enemies of its country; nor can it ever be justified in yielding any point, with a view to saving itself . . . It is better for a nation to risk every thing than to give up an object in war; better for an army, a corps, or detachment to perish, than by capitulation, or otherwise, to abandon, without resistance, any country, position, or garrison, which it was sent to occupy or defend against an enemy, however superior in numbers or resources . . . If . . . we apply the same energy to our military, with which we have conducted our naval affairs, we shall become the most warlike nation, by land, as we are by sea, that every existed. (526; 524; 529)
Reading these words, Austen was reading “the only soldier I ever sighed for.” One can sometimes doubt that even her most scholarly readers live much with the idea of her spirit resonating sympathetically to these words during the days in which she was writing Mansfield Park.
Pasley calls for honorable conduct in war, one point of contact in his book with a salient motive in Thomas Clarkson’s narrative:
I have generally recommended a system of conquest . . . but in using the word conquest, it was very far from my meaning, that we should treat the people of other countries as conquered nations. Where they have good laws, and are contented with them, let them enjoy them . . . Where they have bad ones, let us improve their condition, by granting them the same happy security of person and property, which we ourselves enjoy, retaining only the necessary supremacy in their political and military affairs. The ambition of Great Britain, were we to conquer on these principles, would be a blessing to mankind . . . (526-27)
Pasley’s long book is full of details of the military significance of various colonial policies, of wars and battles and national characters and policies in the modern and even classical past and in the present; and it is full of the comparative strengths and qualities of national armies and navies past and present, and of the effects of different political constitutions. Therefore it is misleading to say the passages I have quoted are representative of the entire book. They are, however, representative of his discussions of current—and his proposals for future—British military policy, as historian Asa Briggs’s brief reference to the book as a “fiery criticism” of British military policy implies (161,n.1).
Clarkson and Pasley were both drawing upon the experience of their early manhood in exhibiting for their readers massive details—in one book of humanitarian campaigns, in another of wars—each man working in a mercilessly harsh world: Clarkson worked for British national morality without loss of empire (as he understood that), Pasley strove for British martial imperialism without loss of honor (as he understood this). Austen read these details with interest and entered with enthusiasm into the humanitarian political project of one author and into the imperialistic military project of the other. I take it that whereas Thomas Clarkson’s book inspired her empathic imagination, Charles Pasley’s invigorated her imperialistic sympathies. Yet each also contributed to the passion more native to the other, for the success of Clarkson’s reforming project reassured her about the justice of Pasley’s imperial ambition, and the charisma of Pasley’s zeal helped her to empathize with the strenuously challenging life of England’s sometimes ruthless rulers. Fictionally, Sir Thomas Bertram is one of these rulers of both domestic and foreign dominions. The sources within the author from which sprang both the legitimacy of Sir Thomas’s rule despite its evil aspects and the redemption of his character are, perhaps, the same as those from which sprang Austen’s capacity to read with enthusiasm—even with affection—the two authors we have sampled, one celebrating both the virtues of vigorous martial energy and the unique fitness of British dominion over foreign peoples, the other exhibiting “much evil” in Britain’s support of the institution of slavery, and yet showing the high morality of Britain’s action in legislating an end to its own prosperous trade in slaves.
1. Taking some account of connections between Sir Thomas’s ownership of slaves in Antigua and life at Mansfield Park is by now common among critics. The first author I have read who gives them serious consideration is Avrom Fleishman in his 1967 book, A Reading of Mansfield Park: An Essay in Critical Synthesis (37-40). Among other treatments of the theme, the following are of interest: Edward Said, “Jane Austen and Empire” (1989); Moira Ferguson, “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender” (1991); Maaja A. Stewart, “The Shadow Behind the Country House: West Indian Slavery and Female Virtue in Mansfield Park” (1993); Joseph Lew, “‘That Abominable Traffic’: Mansfield Park and the Dynamics of Slavery” (1994); Susan Fraiman, “Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture and Imperialism” (2000); John Wiltshire, “Decolonising Mansfield Park” (2003).
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1934.
_____. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1995.
Austen-Leigh, William and Austen-Leigh, Richard Arthur. Jane Austen: A Family Record. 1913. Rev. Deirdre Le Faye. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1989.
Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement. London: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1959.
Clarkson, Thomas. History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament. 1808. Ed. John W. Parker. A New Edition, with Prefatory Remarks on the Subsequent Abolition of Slavery. London: John W. Parker, 1839.
Deresiewicz, William. Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets. New York: Columbia UP, 2004.
Ferguson, Moira. “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender.” Oxford Literary Review 13 (1991): 1-2, 118-39.
Fleishman, Avrom. A Reading of Mansfield Park: An Essay in Critical Synthesis. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1970. Originally published: Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1967.
Fraiman, Susan. “Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture and Imperialism.” Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Ed. Deirdre Lynch. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. 206-23.
Lew, Joseph. “‘That Abominable Traffic’: Mansfield Park and the Dynamics of Slavery.” History, Gender & Eighteenth-Century Literature. Ed. Beth Fowkes Tobin. Athens and London: U Georgia P, 1994. 271-300.
Pasley, Charles W. Essay on The Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire. November, 1810. 4th ed., 1812. Re-issued (with author given as Major-General Sir C. W. Pasley), London: John Weale, 1847.
Said, Edward. “Jane Austen and Empire.” In Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Terry Eagleton. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press in association with Basil Blackwell, 1989. 150-64. Also, with some new matter, in Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993. 80-97.
Stewart, Maaja A. “The Shadow behind the Country House: West Indian Slavery and Female Virtue in Mansfield Park.” Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions: Jane Austen’s Novels in Eighteenth-Century Contexts. Ed. Maaja A. Stewart. Athens and London: U Georgia P, 1993.
Tuite, Clara. “Domestic Retrenchment and Imperial Expansion: The Property Plots of Mansfield Park.” The Postcolonial Jane Austen. Ed. You-me Park and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
Wiltshire, John. “Decolonising Mansfield Park.” Essays in Criticism 50 (October 2003). 303-21.