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Editors’ Note: Beyond the Bit of Ivory: Jane Austen and Diversity

Was Jane Austen racist? 

Have we grabbed your attention?  Probably, and not just because it’s provocative to hurl this label at anyone, living or dead person, deserved or otherwise.  This equivalent of scholarly click-bait is as much to lead with the weakest, most superficial summation of our theme as it is to raise your intellectual hackles and ready you to dig into the variety of essays that we would curate under such a tagline.

As much as we enjoy good intellectual provocations, we equally loathe fruitless ad hominem—or ad feminam—attacks.  And yet for some particularly defensive champions of the British Empire, in all its imperial pomp and circumstance, the very existence of this special issue is precisely that:  an insistence that Jane Austen was racist, or that enjoying and celebrating Jane Austen is racist, or some intermingling of the two.  If we might use a word du jour, there are a number of people triggered by the suggestion that now is a time more deliberately to bring Jane Austen and her Regency into conversation with the urgencies of our racially complicated moment, that we should foreground inquiries of identity as they apply to this corner of the literary landscape.  In short, for a hearty population of people, it is an act of aggression to suggest that, following the murder of George Floyd, we must reckon with our own imperative:  even scholars and lay readers, imaginatively ensconced in a world geographically and temporally removed from the exigencies of Black Lives Matter, have some work to do, examining the long unexamined, acknowledging and confronting the long-endured silences in our particular circles of thought. 

Why is this realization perceived as an indictment?  This defensive posture may be because it’s uncomfortable to grapple with the likelihood that a figure whom many of us love undoubtedly harbored notions of race that are not only arcane but passively and implicitly violent.  Or it may be because any intellectual inquiry into the sorts of questions that we would shoehorn under the umbrella of “diversity” makes some of us deeply uncomfortable, given the necessary interrogation of our own subject positions in relationship to the topics in question.  For all of us, the privileges of class and education, however critically exercised, are no less ambivalently acknowledged. 

When we began working on this special issue, our speculation over the alarmism surrounding a racially contextualized Jane Austen might have remained precisely that:  speculation.  However, a range of publicly inflated controversies—not the least of which was the announcement of the readymade-for-controversy forthcoming exhibit at Jane Austen’s House “Black Lives Matter to Austen”—has done us the favor of eliciting this hysteria in real time.1  We need only read Dwight Lindley III’s earnestly intoned “In Defense of Jane Austen” in The National Review to gain a sense of the degree to which such encounters with contemporary race discourse have, for some, existentially poisoned the author’s afterlife.2  Why must we “drag a great author into the cultural disputes of our present moment” when, according to Lindley, we would be wiser to “seek her guidance in how to transcend them”? 

It would be easy to dismiss this frenzy as the effect of, in the textbook sense of the word, an unsophisticated and reactionary conservatism.  It would also, however, be intellectually dishonest to suggest that the more nuanced expressions of this same catastrophizing, pitched for a more highfalutin’ audience, is any less reactionary or alarmist.  Jane Austen engages our finer feelings, and it is unsurprising that these finer feelings, pleasurable for their absence of critical rigor, are highly sensitive to challenge and change, even among the self-defined intelligentsia. 

Rescuing “alt-right Jane Austen” 

This issue of Persuasions On-Line is unlikely to quell accusations of intellectual activism for those inclined to make or believe such charges.  Such resistance makes sense in the most consequential terms, if we consider what silences ensure when people successfully resist such conversations.  With the international trend towards nativist politics, there are competing stories about the rights, roles, and realities of people with black and brown skin, those categories we think of when someone (often in a voice of dread) says that a conversation “about race” is on the horizon.  A resistance to conversations about race is really a preference for a certain version of the ideological story, a way of shading in who qualify as heroes and who qualify as villains, as much to do with what we say as what we refuse to acknowledge. 

But what does this conversation have to do with Jane Austen?  She didn’t take on the project of racial politics in her stories.  And yet, even sanitized of racial politics, Austen not only existed in a world in which race mattered but was a citizen of the empire most responsible for defining precisely how race matters globally, in the most destructive and mercenary terms.  As it happens, there are many men and women who fantasize about what they perceive to be Regency-era racial politics, who are keen for a racial politics reminiscent of Jane’s own time.  We needn’t look any further than Nicole M. Wright’s Chronicle Review evaluation of “Alt-Right Jane Austen,” the construction of a fringe group of Austen fetishists who politicize her novels as sentimental relics of a time when men and women, white and black, knew their place.  In fact, Austen’s memory and corpus are weaponized on the very same web forums used to coordinate communities of affinity ranging from right wing book clubs to attempted coups. 

Certain proponents of white nationalism with a taste for Austen aside, what of our own community of Janeites?  One hopes that we would exceed the expectations of a New York Times headline that supposes that, at the prospect that “Jane Austen Has Alt-Right Fans,” we would collectively reach for our smelling salts while vapidly exclaiming, “Heavens to Darcy!” (Schleusser).  In 2021, at a moment when the implications of race feel more life-and-death than they have in decades, those of you reading this introduction think that it is worth pausing to, at a minimum, read the foreword and intellectual justification for a journal-length volume of essays that contemplate race and the Regency.  It’s good to know—most especially for Danielle, who feels her own mortality and precarity every time she encounters a white nationalist text as a part of her research—that alt-right nationalists aren’t the only people insisting that we contemplate and celebrate the meaningful intersections between race and Austen’s Regency (even if we’re celebrating entirely different things).  The prospect of the only people talking about these intersections being the group of people who would use Austen’s stories as instruments of assault is extremely disheartening.  Conversations like the ones that have been organized under the auspices of this special issue (and elsewhere) rescue the integrity of the conversation on race and the Regency, whether an anecdote about trade in enslaved people or a more incisive look into the Bridgerton series is the order of the day.3 

The essays and authors “beyond the bit of ivory” 

Despite our recognition that now is a time to bring Jane Austen and her world into conversation with our moment, we are not claiming here something entirely new.  In 1975, in a collection of essays for Jane Austen’s bicentenary, Donald Greene described “the myth of limitation” dominating both the scholarship and the popular image of Jane Austen.  Those of us who remember that far back understand how our notion of Austen’s rootedness in and responsiveness to many dimensions of her larger culture has deepened over the past forty-six years.  It’s rarer now than it used to be to take seriously Austen’s own self-mocking, miniaturized description of her work as the “little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour” (16–17 December 1816).  But we must pay attention to that metaphor, to those bits of ivory—not merely to the artistry that decorates the smooth white surfaces but to what lies beneath those painted images, to where the bits of ivory originate and the processes that deliver them.  How can we achieve a fuller understanding of what’s painted on the surface, what’s beneath that has been obscured? 

Over the same period of time, the audience for Austen’s writing has grown—partly due to the popularity of film and televised adaptations.  What does this expanded audience bring to the understanding of Jane Austen’s work?  Beyond that bit of ivory, what other metaphors for Austen’s extraordinary art might be more helpful, more inclusive?  How and why can we—indeed, we—still celebrate her artistic achievement and articulate the value of reading and studying her works today more than ever? 

The essays in this issue, each unique in their own right, coalesce around a few primary themes.  The first set of essays—by Price Grisham, Kathleen James-Cavan, Anne-Claire Michoux, and Judith Stove—resituate Austen in terms, variously, of physical disability or difference, class, and the evangelical movement’s involvement with abolition; Grisham’s and Stove’s essays bookend the set in their focus on Austen’s family and social circle. In the second group, “Slavery and (Post)Colonial Contexts,” essays by Marsha Huff, Danielle Christmas, Erin M. Goss, and Susan Allen Ford consider the intersection of slavery with Austen’s corpus, with particular attention to its place in the narrative background of Mansfield Park and Persuasion; Margie Burns and Veena P. Kasbekar trace the complex “work” done by both Austen’s fiction and the reputation of her fiction in colonial and postcolonial contexts.  In the third section, “Diverse Disruptions of Pride and Prejudice,” essays by Veena P. Kasbekar and Christina Henderson Harner examine adaptations—on both the page and the screen—of Austen’s most popular novel, with particular attention to the South-Asian cultural context, while Mridula Sharma considers Austen’s reinvention of masculinity in Pride and Prejudice

“‘Racing’ the Regency and Popular Culture” begins with an investigation by Nancy Marck Cantwell of how the treatment of Austen’s “half-mulatto” character, Miss Lambe, is embedded in Regency culture.  Essays by Damianne Candice Scott and Sharmini Kumar emerge from the resurgence in screen adaptations set in the Regency and the associated racial politics embedded in their production and popularity; they include not only the screen adaptation of Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, and the attending controversy over its treatment of Miss Lambe but also the cultural synergy surrounding the Netflix adaptation of the Regency romance series Bridgerton with its reimagined, inclusive Britain and multiracial casting choices.  The recent announcements of a two-season renewal of PBS’s Sanditon as well as the renewal of Bridgerton at least through season four are ample testimony to the appeal of Regency representations, even—and, some reviews would suggest, especially—when they’re inflected with racially nuanced contexts and subplots, controversies and all.  Emily C. Friedman and Emily N. M. Kugler extend this focus to the world of Austen-inspired gaming. 

As a complement to these articles, and so that this issue is useful beyond the intellectual pursuits of this immediate moment, we include a section on praxis, with essays by Sofia Prado Huggins and Juliette Wells that consider the implications of the questions this issue raises for teaching Jane Austen—and indeed for any form of discussion group.  And, at the end of the section on slavery and post-colonial contexts, Marsha Huff provides a bibliography of previously published Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line articles on slavery, abolition, and empire.  This contribution, the result of her review of the journal’s long history, has value beyond its use as a reading guide for those looking to explore related topics further:  it also shows us the fullness of conversations that our publication has hosted thus far as well as perhaps revealing the absences of other conversations that we should confront as we move forward.  It bears saying that, however “special” this issue is for our journal, there are any number of scholars long-engaged in pursuing this urgent and important work in book-length studies, in other periodicals, and on the web. 

In this issue, we have taken a multivalent approach, aiming for not only diversity in content, but a cross-section of voices and genres.  You will indeed find much of the sort of writing familiar to the audience of a peer-reviewed journal.  You will also find essays focused on arguments offered in the spirit of prescription and praxis, on the stage or in the classroom (Kumar, Huggins, and Wells) as well as ideas anchored in life experience, anecdote, and memoir (Grisham, Kasbekar, Scott, et al.).  These ideas are born from a group of thinkers diverse in race, gender, nationality, age, ability, and profession.  In other words, you will find a collection of essays by an assembly of people that, while intentionally different, are all curious, contemplative, challenging, and invested in the belief that this shared and overlapping conversation matters.  If you are reading these words, we count you among the participants in just such a multivalent conversation.  Scholar of Jane Austen’s archive or Black postmodernism, enthusiast of eighteenth-century romance or Regency reenactments, constant rereader of Austen’s novels, you are the intended audience and interlocutor for these contemplations and critiques. 

In light of the personal investment foregrounded in so many of these essays—a response, no doubt, to the urgency of this conversation—we offer our own individual perspectives on our involvement with this issue. 

From Danielle Christmas 

It is crucial to acknowledge the degree to which my participation in organizing and co-moderating the recent series “Race and the Regency,” sponsored by Jane Austen & Co., has had on my conceptualization of the landscape surrounding our themes.4  My introductory caveat at every event was an account of my scholarly biography that highlighted the degree to which I am, myself, an unlikely member of this kind of committee.  I’m a contemporary Americanist whose archive typically includes representation of slavery and Holocaust perpetrators in film and fiction, along with a generous helping of white nationalist media discourse.  In other words, if you find my role as co-editor of this issue on that basis a bit suspect, you’re arguably wise to do so. 

With that in mind, by what authority have I accepted just such a role?  What scholarly training am I leveraging to suggest my ability to curate the kind of issue we offer here?  There are two answers to this question:  first, I assert myself as an “authority” only on the terms I can reasonably claim it.  I am a woman and person of color who enjoys reading Jane Austen because I find pleasure in doing so; I am a scholar who, even in pleasure reading, brings a capacity and instinct for intellectual inquiry to a text; and I represent one small fragment of the diverse demographic to which we address this issue.  If we want the multiplicity of Jane Austen’s readers to find relevant threads of conversation in these pages, then what better way to ensure such relevance than the editorial participation of a person who isn’t among the usual suspects.  I am Jane Austen fangirl and literary scholar, sometimes more one than the other, shameless in this space, as I’ve found so many of my peer “unusual suspects” to be. 

And yet, it would be dishonest to ignore another core part of my subject position as a reading, thinking person, a part that shades some of this enjoyment with guilt:  I am a scholar of slavery and racial violence, narratives of genocide and atrocity.  I spend most of my time reading and writing about the long-term realities of a world that has been poisoned by, among other things, the imperialist values and global practices of a Great Britain celebrated and romanticized in the pages of Austen and the preponderance of adaptations.  When I participate in the fun of Austen fan culture, am I complicit in the erasure of its ugly inflections?  It would be letting myself off the hook to say anything beyond:  perhaps. 

But engaging the righteousness of this moral ambivalence isn’t the point, at least not within the context of this issue.  Rather, as a person mired in this vortex—how to preserve my social and critical ethics while owning my fangirl status, for better or worse—I’m in need of a framework for doing this considered work.  This issue exists because, as our hundreds of “Race and the Regency” speakers series attendees demonstrate, I’m far from the only one looking.  This introduction isn’t a ready summation of the collective conclusions offered by these essays, a solution for readers looking to understand and, forever after, gloss over the tensions embedded in our clever title.  It is our admission that this issue is a single, modest contribution to an under-prioritized discussion that has been simmering all along; for many of us, myself included, it’s always been just below the surface. 

From Susan Allen Ford 

To some degree my presence here is less surprising than Danielle considers hers to be.  I have served as editor of Persuasions and Persuasions On-Line since 2006 and was a member of the editorial board a few years before that.  But, as a number of people have pointed out, I do not have a particular expertise (academic or otherwise) in race or ethnicity or difference.  As a white woman of privilege, all I can claim is a multiracial extended family and thirty-five years of teaching at a small regional university in the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest and most racially diverse (and, to some degree, divided) areas in the United States.  As an editor and a teacher, my greatest strength is a willingness to consider other perspectives than my own, to listen, to learn. 

A few words on the genesis of this project:  in July 2020 I was isolating at home, gardening, and working on my book project, when JASNA’s President, Liz Philosophos Cooper, called to float an idea for me to consider—a special issue of Persuasions On-Line focusing on diversity.  As we spoke, ideas of what such an issue could conceivably include began to spark.  In the following days I consulted the members of the editorial board of Persuasions/Persuasions On-Line.  There was unanimous and enthusiastic commitment to the idea.  I then sold the notion to Danielle Christmas, whose earlier work on Mansfield Park and the slave ship Zong I had heard and admired at the Jane Austen Summer Program in 2016.  We also shared the draft of our call for submissions with JASNA’s Equity, Diversion, and Inclusion Committee and asked for input.  With the editorial team in place, we were ready to send out the call for submissions. 

We were excited, awestruck, challenged by the results.  In addition to our gratitude to the authors, who have shared a passionate willingness to ask hard questions and confront uncomfortable answers, Danielle and I are very grateful to the large group of people who donate their time and their intellectual and emotional energies to Persuasions On-Line:  the members of the editorial board (listed at the bottom of the Table of Contents); Marsha Huff, who proofread every essay; Carol Moss, who built (and corrected) our pages with unfailing patience and good cheer; and Iris Lutz, who solved technical problems that I don’t even have the language to describe.  I am proud of the depth of commitment that this issue represents. 

Ending, or beginning 

Despite that expression of pride, we acknowledge that neither the editors nor the contributors deserve plaudits for foregrounding this conversation in this particular forum.  Many of the voices here as well as others outside of these pages have been participants in such conversations long before our publication.  While we recognize and appreciate the willingness of these writers to bring their voices to this particular forum, we don’t overestimate the conclusiveness that this compilation provides.  It is, indeed, a modest effort, taking place in a fraught social moment; we are enlightened by its undertaking, and we hope that it offers something of substance to this evolving, troubled, and ultimately rewarding reevaluation of what it means to read—and love—Jane Austen’s literature and to consider the context of her life and its creative afterlives in this complicated place and time. 

So was Jane Austen racist?  Maybe.  Answering this question with any confidence would require a dispassionate interrogation of how our contemporary notion of racism is reframed in the context of Regency Britain and by what measure we evaluate the inner life of an author deceased for two centuries.  While some may find this a worthwhile argument to pursue, we ultimately consider it a less interesting one.  Our featured essays show that there is much less speculative, much more rich and compelling discussion to be had.  In a moment that calls for less indulgent speculation and more ambitious intellectual conversation, we’ve elected for the latter. 

We close this introduction with our own ambition that, while limited in scope, is ultimately and more quietly significant:  we hope that this issue inspires for one reader at a time a more capacious, contextualized reading of and engagement with the literature and imaginative world of Jane Austen.  This mode of reading grows exponentially in its use and is contagious in the communities of readership that we inhabit.  Some, or all, of these ideas may be new to you.  Find the ones that provoke and inspire, destabilize and encourage, your most deeply held ideas about diversity and its relationship to the world of Austen, and, at a moment of the worst kind of strife and contagion, let’s engage our niche community in a conversation that matters more than ever.



1For Jane Austen House’s response to the furor in the press, see “A Statement from Jane Austen’s House,” which does not mention the title—or, indeed, a special exhibit.  Instead, it talks about “refresh[ing] our displays and decoration” to include “the Regency, Empire and Colonial contexts in which she grew up.” 

2See also Craig Simpson’s article in the Telegraph, which fanned the flames, and Jenny Gross’s assessment of the controversy in the New York Times

3Jane Austen & Co.’s “Race and the Regency” series presented—to an international audience—a series of nine lectures during the first five months of 2021:  https://www.janeaustenandco.org/recorded-events.  Many JASNA regions also hosted programs looking at different aspects of race and the Regency—as will JASNA’s 2021 AGM. 

4For videos of the lecture series, go to https://www.janeaustenandco.org/recorded-events. 

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