We will never know for certain how Jane Austen would have developed the character of Sanditon’s Miss Lambe, who nonetheless attracts critical attention as Austen’s only character of color. The unfinished novel continues to provoke speculation about the writer’s intentions, particularly regarding Miss Lambe’s importance in our ongoing consideration of racial and colonial themes in Austen’s work. Margaret Doody’s remark that the West Indian heiress appears as “a lamb ready to be thoroughly fleeced” (207) opens the issue of exploitation as it links the plantations of the West Indies and the novel’s seaside tourist resort.
When Austen describes Miss Lambe as “half mulatto” (Later Manuscripts 202), the very indeterminacy of the term points to British uncertainty about race and the status of citizens of mixed heritage, an uncertainty heightened during the period following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and prior to the abolition of slavery in 1833. This uncertainty also reflects an evolving national identity marked by increasing public discomfort with the inhumanity of the triangular trade that circulated commodities—including staples like sugar as well as enslaved persons—among Britain, Africa, and colonies in America and the West Indies. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the eighteenth-century usage of the term “mulatto” as specific to the Indies, indicating a person of mixed African and Indian race, although J. R. Ward cites the term to Edward Long’s 1774 The History of Jamaica, where it means a person who is “one-half white” (Ward 192n17). The term in Sanditon does not connote any outwardly stigmatized associations for Miss Lambe, as it does for the biracial Jamaican heroine Olivia Fairfield in The Woman of Colour.1 It does, however, provoke important questions. If England truly offered “too pure an Air for Slaves to breathe in,” as was first declared in a 1569 judgment, what then was the social status of British colonials of African descent, and was their wealth to be eschewed as morally tainted?2
In his study of mixed race persons in the British colonies, Winthrop D. Jordan concludes that since interracial relationships were far more common in the West Indies than in the American colonies, children of mixed Afro-British heritage there were less stigmatized, even regarded as legitimate inheritors of the vast wealth gained from the exploitation of African labor: in the West Indies, “no island legislature prohibited extramarital miscegenation and only one declared against intermarriage” (194). Jordan documents both a more pronounced stratification of racial categories and a greater chance of racial assimilation in the West Indies, as opposed to the American colonies, noting that in his history Long “wrote that those beyond the third generation were ‘called English’” (199). In this context, the term Austen applies to Miss Lambe, “half mulatto,” suggests an identifiable racial category with slippery meanings; although other characters notably do not comment directly on Miss Lambe’s complexion, it is understood both to evoke and to elide contemporary discomfort with two contradictory impulses—a desire for the wealth produced by West Indies plantations and a revulsion at the immoral practices associated with the plantation system.3 I read this ambiguity as evidence of the novel’s broader preoccupation with social and economic uncertainties, revealing the difficult project of refashioning national identity during a period that saw both economic crisis and the growing pressure to achieve full abolition. Indeterminacy becomes integral to the novel’s commentary. As E. J. Clery notes, “the name ‘Sanditon’ appears to have been chosen to highlight the changeable, provisional, and vulnerable quality of place and circumstance within the story.” Austen’s marking Miss Lambe’s heritage makes it important, and since “half mulatto” may be set alongside the implied whiteness of other characters, Austen’s ambiguous term also implicates Englishness, distinguishing Miss Lambe’s tempting (and troubling) wealth while calling attention to the impact of colonial practices on national identity.
Wealth from the West Indies was important to the national economy, but it vexed the unfolding of a new national narrative of progress and enlightenment following the Napoleonic Wars. R. B. Sheridan offers a conservative estimate—“from 8 to 10 per cent of the income of the mother country came from the West Indies in the closing years of the eighteenth century” (306)—shifting Britain’s economic focus from the land to the sea, just as Austen’s resort town of Sanditon looks away from agriculture and towards seaside tourism as a new means of economic survival. Amanda Himes observes that Sanditon illustrates “an embracing of new socio-economic modes of being,” modes that may actually be destructive of the very wholesome English identity the town attempts to reconfigure and market to tourists; she aptly points to the tension between Mr. Parker’s blind enthusiasm for development and Farmer Heywood’s contempt for resort towns like Sanditon. Desperate to stay afloat in an unstable economy, the seaside town depends on the wealth of leisure class tourists like Miss Lambe, wealth produced by and circulating as a result of the triangular trade.
The early decades of the century were turbulent, marked by economic depression following the Napoleonic Wars and increased discussion of human equality in the aftermath of revolutions in France and America, a discussion further complicated by a growing abolitionist sentiment that boldly interrogated the morality of Britain’s colonial enterprises. Together these factors spurred a desire for refashioning national identity, projecting a narrative of national pride in a victorious Britain whose economic recovery and future prosperity would be ensured by superiority on the seas, returning colonial investments home, so that Austen’s novel “points to the larger world her smaller island nation defines itself against” (Kuwahara 147). However, this vision of progress was increasingly fraught by the troubling moral consequences attending plantation dependency on slave labor. At the same time, “scientific” considerations of race entered into public discourse through studies of racial difference like those of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and his apostles, James Cowles Prichard and William Lawrence, as the Creature in Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein attests.4 All of these conversations played a role in redefining English identity in response to the economic and social crises of the day, and all contribute to Austen’s 1817 treatment of Miss Lambe in Sanditon.
Recent discussions of Miss Lambe’s race have generally attempted to address Edward Said’s claim in Culture and Imperialism that Austen’s work accedes to the aims of early nineteenth-century imperialism. Although much of this debate bears on Mansfield Park and the representation of enslaved labor in Antigua, some studies also consider the economic importance of the West Indies to the resort town in Sanditon and therefore illuminate Austen’s scant description of its most promising tourist, Miss Lambe. Both novels demonstrate Austen’s awareness of the basic conditions of colonial production and its potential impact on Britain’s economy and therefore on the daily lives of its citizens. Along these lines, while Sara Salih argues that the West Indies “remains remote, vaguely alluded to and important as an economic entity rather than as a social actuality” (351), James M. Morris finds that Austen’s works demonstrate “an awareness of global context, and advocate the need for change both at home and abroad,” observing that Miss Lambe “creates an elision between exploitative economics in the Caribbean and gender relations at home” (235). Victoria Baugh goes further by advocating that Miss Lambe “must be understood on her own terms and becomes less part of the collective ‘West Indian heiresses’ literary type” (454). Although I would qualify Baugh’s point that “Austen imagines a progressively inclusive English society into which a foreign-born woman can fully integrate,” her remarks invite this exploration “of what is being said, [and] not said,” about the wealthy young woman of color, specifically as she helps to define how tourism, an emerging national enterprise, both affected and reflected attitudes about race and Englishness (451, 455).
Miss Lambe may well be English by birth. Her family owns property in Surrey, and she is educated in a girls’ school in Camberwell, but she is repeatedly referred to as “‘a young West Indian of large fortune’” (LM 199–200). We do not know how far back her family’s ties to the West Indies go, only that their involvement there continues to produce great wealth and the multiple associations of that wealth cling to her, including the implication that her illness is a sign of the debilitating effects of colonial enterprise. The tag “West Indies” links her family identity to exploitation, conducted primarily through the triangular trade and, as the phrase buzzes through the town, to a certain public assumption that wealth produced in the colonies should be earmarked for the benefit of the homeland. Sheridan confirms the accepted belief that colonial wealth stimulated by English investment should circulate back to benefit England: “If the West India trade was in effect a home trade, it was to be expected that the income from this trade should centre in the mother country” (304). A similar sense of entitlement can be detected in Sanditonian efforts to appropriate Miss Lambe, to provide her with consumer goods and satisfying touristic experiences, and to secure her ongoing patronage of the resort—particularly in order to compete with the French tourist sites that became popular following the Napoleonic Wars and thus keep colonial wealth circulating within the domestic economy.
Naturally, the success of the seaside town depends on its ability to attract a wealthy clientele, ideally one unaffected by recent downturns and uncertainties in the British economy. Edward Copeland pinpoints the chief vulnerability of the national move from gold and bullion to a system of paper money and credit as “the confidence of the public in the soundness of the nation’s affairs” (122). The system, he writes, could only remain intact if enough people accepted the abstract notion of credit and did not make a run on banks, a danger Austen experienced firsthand by witnessing the 1816–1817 collapse of her brother Henry’s bank.5 Sarah Dustin identifies these indications of a “severe anxiety about the financial future” as a sea change, explaining that “the landed classes would not be recovering their influence and status” (79). In contrast to the satisfactory economic resolutions of other novels, she concludes that “not a single character in Sanditon appears immune from the ravages of the new financial system,” again reminding us that the focus was shifting from the land to the sea and to the influx of money from colonial plantations (79).
Given the substantial risk taken by Sanditon’s investors, the news of “‘[a] West Indy family’” (LM 170) provides a sense of relief, but that relief is based on cultural assumptions about the West Indies, race, class, and money. The Parkers and Lady Denham receive “West Indies” as a metonym for great wealth derived from plantation production, which by this time was well understood to rely on the exploitation of enslaved laborers by white landowners. They appear to take this association in stride, not commenting on Miss Lambe’s heritage, a situation that Baugh takes as a sign of increasingly progressive attitudes toward race (341).6 Immediate economic anxiety, however, outweighs any broader moral consideration that Mr. Parker and Lady Denham might together muster. By overlooking the obvious implications of the Lambe fortune (the brutality routinely practiced on plantations), the investors prioritize the flow of tourist income into the local economy. Lady Denham calculates, “‘A West Indy family. . . . That will bring money,’” while Mr. Parker adds, “‘No people spend more freely, I believe, than West Indians’” (170). They feel quite justified in converting the expendable income of tourists like Miss Lambe into a solid community infrastructure, even more so when the money comes from a known and reliable source—the colonial plantation system. In his study of the profitability of British plantations in the West Indies, J. R. Ward finds “an annual profit on sugar production of £800,000 in Jamaica and £1,700,000 in the British West Indies as a whole,” further observing that the “the growth of anti-slavery feeling in England” provoked an increasing decline in profitability (209). Mr. Parker and Lady Denham, then, accordingly assume the right to redirect colonial profit to shore up a flagging local economy.
Enit Karafili Steiner similarly argues that exploitation that excuses itself in the name of public benefit still often prompts an internal conflict. Writing of The Woman of Colour (1808), another novel featuring a mixed-race heiress, she notes:
Self-interest and solidarity feature prominently in the transatlantic abolitionist discourse. They are both present from the early days of abolitionist sentiment in the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century. Self-interest would principally appear as financial benefit and as a religious fear of divine retribution. Self-interest as fear invoked a Christian God that would reckon with the slave-trading nations for the sins ingrained in slave labour. (51)
Self-interest has two faces, one preserving the self from the moral taint of slavery and the other promoting solidarity with other whites dependent on enslaved labor. By appearing not to discriminate against Miss Lambe, Mr. Parker and Lady Denham, as a matter of personal advantage, seem to welcome her to Sanditon on an equal social footing, outwardly resisting ingrained (and contemporary scientific) notions of the inequality of racially mixed persons and adopting the attitude of tolerance by necessity practiced in the West Indies. Indeed, self-interest leads Lady Denham to regard Miss Lambe as the “‘monstrous scarce’” heiress she has been hoping to match with her nephew Sir Edward Denham (179). Lady Denham reveals her true class solidarity, complaining that heiresses are no guarantee of financial security because “‘not one in a hundred of them that have any real property, landed or funded.—An income perhaps, but no property’” (178). The pedestal upon which Lady Denham places landed interests has already begun to collapse in Austen’s world, however, and it serves as yet another indication of national uncertainty. As with Persuasion, we must question the habit of reading Austen as unequivocally aligned with tradition and landed interests. In Sanditon she presses even further by destabilizing one of the most basic assumptions about Englishness in her novels, the importance of property and primogeniture. She challenges the primacy of these institutions through the introduction of tourism.
Miss Lambe is essentially a “health tourist,” someone who travels to Sanditon to improve or recover from a medical condition, in her case described imprecisely as “delicate health” (200). Austen gives her a fleeting assortment of traits: she is “about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths” (201–02). The focus on Miss Lambe’s race and her privileged status might be expected to link her identity to property and the prospect of a good match, as it does in The Woman of Colour. Austen instead suggests uncertainty: Miss Lambe is “chilly and tender,” reserved and responsive; her economic power can command the “best lodgings,” and her health can dictate the next move, perhaps away from Sanditon.
Interestingly, the proposition of tourism depends on mobility, on not owning property but still consuming goods as a sign of being simultaneously “at home” and “away from home”: a tourist uses expendable income to secure a temporary residence that can be enjoyed for leisure or recreation or used to promote recovery from illness. Sanditon’s development as a site for health tourism therefore parallels the national narrative of progress and recovery from crisis, and it posits wholesome contact with the sea as a source of cleansing and renewal, since sea-bathing was popularly believed to support the healing process in carefully mediated encounters, often using artificial means like the bathing machine. The seaside health tourist like Miss Lambe purchases an experience that may affect a cure but waives any more lasting responsibility to the community than the consumption of goods, particularly luxury goods like the blue boots Mr. Parker takes as a marker of his success. The tourist therefore may actually perpetuate community instability, creating a continually (or seasonally) revolving population with a varying demand for commodities—an unknowable community, to rephrase Raymond Williams.7 Because it depends on many unpredictable factors (like weather, medical advice, and fashion, to name those most pertinent to Sanditon), tourism may only temporarily ease economic uncertainty, while it continually stimulates self-interest. Mr. Parker recognizes this need to cater to fluctuating tastes by reconsidering the name of his new home, “Trafalgar House,” in light of popular trends in tourism: “‘for Waterloo is more the thing now. However, Waterloo is in reserve’” (156). Clara Tuite correctly identifies this responsiveness to a changing national identity as “the commodification of history,” since Mr. Parker anticipates that he might yet benefit from a future desire for a past that can be commemorated and sold in the form of experiences and souvenirs (612).
Self-interest and transience explain the willingness of the opportunistic, venal characters to accept Miss Lambe as a social equal. As Salih observes, “Apparently, all that is required for social acceptance is a fortune large enough to pay for one’s chronic medical condition” (351). A dependable tourist economy is something that Sanditon’s regular clientele—the “‘clergymen,’” “‘lawyers from town,’” “‘half-pay officers,’” and “‘widows with only a jointure’”—can scarcely guarantee. As Lady Denham asks, “‘And what good can such people do anybody?—except just as they take our empty houses’” (179). Two distinct classes of tourist emerge here. The less affluent class is practically useful for assuring that the less opulent lodgings are regularly taken, but clergymen and lawyers must return to their duties, and half-pay officers and widows on limited incomes cannot offer the more necessary, ongoing financial support of the more affluent Miss Lambe, a level of support that requires substantial and certain backing by the high profit margin of the plantation. As Thorstein Veblen puts it, “The consumption of luxuries, in the true sense, is a consumption directed to the comfort of the consumer himself, and is, therefore, a mark of the master” (72). To “fleece” Miss Lambe, then, implicates exploitation as part of a larger national project to redirect wealth gained from the colonial plantation to the rising entrepreneurial classes at home, who in turn are working to transform a traditional agrarian economy to one based on service and leisure—in this case, seaside tourism geared to the infirm.
This new service economy is far from morally neutral, as Austen’s satire on the hypochondriacs proposes, and it plays a role in the formation of a new narrative of English identity that both reorients national space toward the coast (away from the agricultural inlands) and smooths over anything inconvenient, like the institutionalized cruelties of the plantation system that bestows Miss Lambe’s fortune, her heritage, and even possibly her illness. To Miss Diana Parker a West Indian family is “‘the best of the good’” (187) and when the “family” turns out to be only a single, isolated, and sickly sixteen-year-old (rather than an entire family plus a school, as she supposed), she embraces this “happier catastrophe” (200)—a catastrophe because there are not more Lambes to fleece, but a happy one since Miss Lambe is unprotected and vulnerable. Morris correlates moral and physical health in the novel, reading in the heiress’s sick body “the changing composition of British commerce” (245). The “fleecers” surrounding Miss Lambe are therefore provoked to compete for her consumer attention as a matter of both personal and national interest.
Accordingly, consumer goods and experiences intended to improve health also implicate the national narrative of recovery. In the competition to serve as the wealthy tourist’s guide, English commercial interests vie with landed authority to influence how Miss Lambe will spend her money to restore her health:
Lady Denham had other motives for calling on Mrs. Griffiths besides attention to the Parkers. In Miss Lambe, here was the very young lady, sickly and rich, whom she had been asking for; and she made the acquaintance for Sir Edward’s sake and the sake of her milch asses. How it might answer with regard to the baronet, remained to be proved, but as to the animals, she soon found that all her calculations of profit would be vain. Mrs. Griffiths would not allow Miss Lambe to have the smallest symptom of a decline, or any complaint which asses’ milk could possibly relieve. “Miss Lambe was under the constant care of an experienced physician;—and his prescriptions must be their rule—” and except in favour of some tonic pills, which a cousin of her own had a property in, Mrs. Griffiths never deviated from the strict medicinal page. (203)
As the novel’s representative of the landed gentry, Lady Denham tries to assert the traditional privileges conferred by class and land ownership, but Austen defeats her intended economic exploitation. By securing Miss Lambe’s marriage to her impecunious nephew, Lady Denham proposes to revive the family estate with a transfusion of West Indies wealth. The means to this end, the rejected milch asses who graze her property, also belatedly propose the land rather than the sea as a source of cure.
Although Lady Denham has, as Roger Sale observes, “proved her credentials as a speculator” by making two successful marriages, she is blocked here by the increasing influence of the rising middle and manufacturing classes, represented by Mrs. Griffiths (202). As the head of a girls’ school in Camberwell, Mrs. Griffiths emerges as a figure of self-interested female enterprise, and her invoking of medical authority signals both allegiance to the professional class and a confidence in scientific knowledge as part of the new national narrative of progress.8 Further, her willingness to make an exception for the “tonic pills” supports not only family financial growth but also the larger manufacturing economy, part of which now turned to the production of medicinal goods as well as creations like the bathing machines, intended to superintend the invalid’s encounter with nature. In Sanditon, the sea, not the land, becomes the focus of restoration and recovery, despite its troubling associations with the triangular trade and the plantation economy. Despite her early claims that the sea air is dangerous, Miss Diana Parker intends to intervene in Miss Lambe’s first attempt at sea-bathing, becoming yet another competitor for Miss Lambe’s attention and her income as the fragment ends.
Like William H. Galperin, I find Austen articulating a more melancholy view of the changing nation in Sanditon, where “the radical otherness to which the West Indian refers us . . . cannot be underestimated” (239). Though a fragment, Sanditon nonetheless effectively and starkly details the uncertainties of its time through the many efforts to exploit Miss Lambe’s colonial wealth, to commodify her as a rich West Indian, to employ health tourism as a means of preying on the sick, and to reshape agricultural practices to suit the services required by a new and ailing leisure class. Economic, moral, and bodily health become intertwined in the novel’s existing chapters, but the tangle of self-interested motives encumbers and dissolves any coherent effort to form either a progressive personal or a national narrative of recovery from crisis.
1In The Woman of Colour, Olivia Fairfield encounters widespread discrimination when she travels to England. In one key scene, she instructs her young nephew in racial tolerance, calling attention to a variety of skin tones: “The same God that made you made me . . .—the poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of this world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine. God chose it should be so” (79).
2David Olusoga, in Black and British: A Forgotten History, notes that this 1569 ruling was cited as precedent in a 1637 Star Chamber trial but that the intention of the phrase remained ambiguous, even following Justice Mansfield’s decision in Somerset v. Stewart (1772), where he ruled in favor of the former slave James Somerset because, as he put it, “I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England” (qtd. in Olusoga 118).
8William H. Galperin identifies three groups of characters that together confirm that “something is wrong” in the nation—the meliorists willing to trust in institutions (Mr. Parker), the problem (landed gentry), and the hypochondriac Parker siblings, who refuse and are therefore least affected by “the discourses of medicine and professionalization” (243).