Jane Austen’s “dead silence,” or, How Guilty is Sir Thomas Bertram?

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Seventeenth in a series of posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For more details, open Your Invitation to Mansfield Park.

This is Deborah Barnum’s second post for “An Invitation to Mansfield Park.” In the first, back in May, she surveyed the publishing history of the novel: “‘I have something in hand…’ – The Publishing of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.”

Deborah is a former law librarian, now owner of Bygone Books, a closed shop of fine and collectible books in Burlington, Vermont. She is currently the regional coordinator for the JASNA Vermont Region, author of the Jane Austen in Vermont blog, and compiler of the annual “Jane Austen Bibliography” for the JASNA journal Persuasions On-Line

Mansfield Park 2012

Mansfield Park cover (2012)

She says she’s “a firm believer that Mansfield Park is Austen’s greatest work, that Austen felt that way herself, and that because the comedy is overshadowed by the weight of tragedy, it is too often on the bottom of everyone’s favorites list.” And she adds that she’s happy to see my efforts to correct this! I’m grateful to her for lending her support to the cause, too. I trust you all like and appreciate Mansfield Park more than you did, say, this time last year, when we were all wrapped up in celebrating Pride and Prejudice and hardly had time to spare a thought for Fanny Price. I know my own appreciation for the complexities of the novel has been increasing over these last few months, as I’ve been learning so much from all of you. Thank you all for participating in this celebration by reading, writing guest posts, and commenting, and thank you, Deborah, for taking on the daunting task of analyzing the “dead silence” that follows Fanny’s question about the slave trade.

Please visit Deborah’s blog Jane Austen in Vermont, where she has compiled all the passages from Mansfield Park that relate to the slave trade or the West Indies/Antigua. She has also posted a bibliography for further reading on the topic of Mansfield Park and slavery, in which you can find more details about all the sources mentioned in this post.

[Edmund to Fanny] “Your uncle is disposed to be pleased with you in every respect; and I only wish you would talk to him more. – You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.”

[Fanny] “But I do talk to him more that I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?”

“I did – and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it – but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like – I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”

– From Mansfield Park, Chapter 21 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988)

Why I chose this passage, I have no idea! In these two words, “dead silence,” lies the crux of Mansfield Park – they are more analyzed as to the author’s intent than perhaps any other passage in all of Jane Austen. To understand this passage we need a thorough study of the slave trade and the history of the abolition movement in England; knowledge of the conditions of life for the owners and slaves in the West Indies, Antigua in particular; an in-depth view of Jane Austen’s personal connections to this slave-owning culture; some analysis of Austen’s political beliefs with thoughts that her allusions to the slave trade equal the condition of women in the early 19th century; and the generations of controversial critical analysis of this short passage. A heady task for a blog post!

So, I leave others to discuss these complex histories as I focus just on the “dead silence” passage and what Austen might be telling us about Sir Thomas and his connections to the slave trade, knowing full well it is a danger to take Jane Austen out of context – all is connected, each word essential to the whole, a tale told straight-forward but always with clues and nods to deeper meanings. I am doing Austen a disservice here, especially with this overcharged sentence, but I provide you here with a few questions to ponder the wider context of the novel and a bibliography for further reading.

Lord Mansfield

Lord Mansfield, by Jean Baptiste van Loo, National Portrait Gallery (Source: Wikipedia)

Is Mansfield Park named after Lord Mansfield?

(You have perhaps all seen Belle, or read Paula Byrne’s book about the true story behind the movie?) William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield (1705-1793), and the Lord Chief Justice from 1756-1788, raised his two great nieces (see portrait below) Elizabeth Murray (whom Austen met a number of times, as noted in her letters) and Dido Belle, the daughter of Mansfield’s nephew John Lindsay and a slave named Maria Belle. In 1772, Mansfield ruled in the James Somerset case (also spelled Somersett) that no former slave could be removed from Britain and sold back into slavery. This and his ruling in the Zong case (the case portrayed in the movie) that human beings were not “property” were viewed as the beginning of the end of slavery on British soil.

Austen surely knew of Mansfield’s rulings, as we know from her letters that she read Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1808) (see Letter 24, January 1813), and very likely chose this name for the house in Mansfield Park to make a clear statement of her slavery sentiments. (However, it is useful to look to John Wiltshire in his “Decolonizing Mansfield Park” where he gives us these two other options for the title: there is a Lady Mansfield who stays in Mansfield House in Austen’s favorite novel, Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison (1753); and a book titled Amelie Mansfield, a French novel by Sophie Cottin, was first published in 1802.)

Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle

Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle (Source: NPR)

Is Austen equating the slave trade to the condition of women in English society?

Jane Austen must have known of Hannah More’s 1805 pamphlet The White Slave Trade: Hints toward Framing a Bill for the Abolition of the White Female Slave Trade, in the Cities of London and Westminster, about young women “coming out” into society. The introduction of the “slave trade” into the text of Emma (see quotes on my blog) is even more telling here, equating the life of a slave with that of a governess, each really no more than property and badly treated.

Can the reader apply the metaphor of Mansfield Park = the State of the Nation, as many domestic novels of the time did? Fanny as slave, Sir Thomas as landlord/plantation owner, Mrs. Norris as his cruel agent – all fails when the Master is absent.

Was Austen a colonialist, an abolitionist, or both?

Edward Said’s interpretation of Mansfield Park (see bibliography) is the starting point for all discussion of this topic: he posits that Jane Austen was a product of her time, and the true daughter of an England that colonized and brutalized, and that she made only this off-hand nod to the slave trade to underscore her own lack of interest in it. That is, by returning her characters at tale’s end to the “tolerable comfort” of a restored Mansfield Park, Austen seems to condone the way of life it represents. We can read what she read, know what the sentiments were to slavery among her family and close connections, but we can only conjecture what she was intending in Mansfield Park. Is this novel a book about slavery? Or is this passage nothing more than a brief reference to the realities of life in England at the time Austen was writing?

Broadside: Description of a Slave Ship

Broadside: Description of a Slave Ship (from Clarkson’s book)

The Scene of the “dead silence”

Edmund and Fanny are discussing the change in the atmosphere at Mansfield Park since Sir Thomas’ return: all is “sameness and gloom,” and Edmund is lamenting the loss of the Parsonage company and their liveliness. Fanny (who we know to be happier without the Crawfords!), responds by saying

“the evenings do not appear long to me. I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies. I could listen to him for an hour together. It entertains me more than many other things have done….”

(Recall Fanny’s feelings of “dreadful duty” when first appearing before her uncle on his return.)

Edmund continues in response with the rather creepy chat about Fanny’s personal charms – her face, her figure – relating what his father has said of Fanny to him, and then we arrive at the “slave trade” comment (which is a tad ironic after the description of Fanny as a commodity – something to look at, appraise, and perhaps buy and sell?).

Then we have Fanny’s “dead silence” (such a strong phrase isn’t it?), followed by Edmund’s “it would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of further.” Fanny explains her reluctance to question further because she was afraid of slighting her cousins in their indifference to their father: “ – I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”

And then I find this very telling: Edmund goes on to talk of Mary Crawford, as uninterested in the slave trade as they all were the night before. (I am always rather appalled at Edmund. He might offer Fanny her only kindnesses, but he often forgets her quite easily, just as Tom Bertram does. Early on he finds her an “interesting object” [my emphasis]; he gives her horse to Mary without a thought; he never seems to stand up for her when she is constantly badgered by Mrs. Norris; he wishes her to marry Henry as much for himself to have a closer connection to Mary; and why, oh why, does he never insist on a fire in her room?? – but alas! This is a topic for another post….)

Who is Sir Thomas?

Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas

Harold Pinter as Sir Thomas (Patricia Rozema’s MP film, 1999)

The lack of response, the “dead silence,” to Fanny’s question has sent critics off into such contradictory analysis, one wonders if we have all read the same book. Jane Austen gives us very little to go on. We are told only that Mansfield is a “modern built house,” that Sir Thomas is a member of Parliament (but we don’t know if he is part of the established landed gentry or newly wealthy – he is awfully eager to marry off Maria to Mr. Rushworth with his money and connections), and that he has an estate in Antigua. We don’t know how long he has owned the estate, or whether indeed it is a sugar plantation dependent upon the slave economy (most critics assume that it is), or how dependent Mansfield Park is on the income from this estate (Mrs. Norris: “Sir Thomas’s means will be rather straitened, if the Antigua estate is to make such poor returns”). We don’t know exactly the dating of the action, which would help us understand the historical context of the tale.

All we do know is that Sir Thomas needs to go to Antigua to deal with issues that are causing “such poor returns.” He expects to be gone a year. Has he gone before, we might wonder? We only hear of his being gone to Town. He is, in the event, gone for two years, this fact often missed in the reading – he returns a changed man, physically and emotionally, and seems to enjoy talking about his time there (recall his comments later in the novel on the “balls of Antigua”). There was a life there among the colonial gentry and Fanny, unlike the rest of the family, enjoys hearing him talk of it.

So how do we look at Sir Thomas? He is the Master of Mansfield Park; he reigns over all, not unlike the Master on a slave-hold. The major issue of the West Indies plantations was the absentee landlord. The agent or overseer was often the abuser of the slaves and the money-matters and this was where many troubles began: sickness and loss of workers, slave rebellions, etc. Recall here Sir Thomas’s own words on the clergyman needing to live among his parishioners: “… if he does not live among his parishioners and prove himself by constant attention their well-wisher and friend, he does very little for their good or his own.”

Sir Thomas goes to Antigua to solve whatever problems are going on, and in so doing ironically leaves his English home in the hands of a cruel overseer, Mrs. Norris. Why she is so named is another of the Mansfield Park speculations: is she named for the anti-abolitionist slave trader John Norris of Liverpool (referred to by Clarkson), or as Wiltshire points out, is this name a satirical turn on “nourrice” / “norrice,” the French / English word for “to nourish” – certainly not our Mrs. Norris!

Why Antigua?

Map of Antigua

Map of Antigua (source: Gregson Davis article)

Having Sir Thomas absent from Mansfield for two years is of course a plot device. Austen could have used other storylines to send him away, but she does not – she sends him to Antigua. In Sir Thomas’s absence, all manner of ills beset Mansfield Park: the ridiculous Rushworth; the interloping Crawfords who disturb the peace of the “goodly heritage” (though we all are really glad they showed up!); the sexual undercurrents of the theatricals; Mrs. Norris’s cruel (though often funny) antics; Edmund’s obsession with Mary; Tom’s freedom from his father and his duties as elder son; and Henry’s harassing manipulation of Fanny – and the absentee Landlord/Master returns to find all in disarray.

Readings about the slave trade and slavery debates of the time make clear that Antigua was very different from the other slave-dependent colonies. William Wilberforce noted that slaves in Antigua were better treated and were given Christian instruction, which led to “happier” slaves. And not all plantation owners were part of the slave-holding lobby in Parliament. Many, as Christian sons of England, were opposed to the slave trade, believing that its abolition would lead to better treatment of the existing slaves, and that gradually slavery itself would “fade away” (see Boulukos).

Surely the close reader cannot really pass on all these references to Mansfield, Antigua, Norris, Austen’s favorite poet Cowper (a devout abolitionist), and the plot line of Fanny as slave, Sir Thomas as Master, as just coincidence – we know that Austen has no throw-away lines and these are not-so-subtle hints. It may not be clear that Sir Thomas as an MP is for or against the slave trade and slavery, but all these clues seem to indicate that Jane Austen was opposed to slavery and her Mansfield Park stands as her way of addressing the debate.

Is Sir Thomas a bad father?

Jane Austen did not do kindly by her living mothers, but her fathers are a sad and mostly awful lot as well. There are times I feel that Sir Thomas is the twin brother of General Tilney – certainly they are very close in their dictatorial parenting, unkind to their daughters who are treated as property. At other times he is like Sir Walter Elliot, overly concerned with his economic bottom-line and first impressions; he likes to retire to his own space much like Mr. Bennet (and lord knows what he really thinks of Lady Bertram! – it is clear that he does not like to play cards with her!); and though he is thankfully not a hypochondriac, he is often as self-absorbed as Mr. Woodhouse.

But unlike the other fathers, Sir Thomas is a more complicated figure. We don’t know enough about the conditions in and reasons for going to Antigua to really know what he is about. Readers often want to put him squarely in the available historical context of abolitionist-frenzied Britain to get a true sense of him. (Note that the slave trade was abolished in 1807-08 and a law for strict enforcement was passed in 1811, but slave labor in Britain was not abolished until 1833). The time-frame of the novel is important here: Chapman dates the main action as 1805-1809, during the height of the slave trade debate; Brian Southam dates it as 1810-1813, after the passage of the laws, at a time when the country was dealing with the effect of the new laws.

We may too easily look on Sir Thomas as a generous man to his wife’s poor relations: he takes in Fanny and helps William. But Austen is clear in describing him as doing it all for selfish reasons – all to feel good about himself. And lest we forget, Fanny is basically an unpaid servant.

Guilt by “silence”?

If we return to the passage, we find Fanny in her usual self-deprecating mode. By not pursuing the “slave trade” question, she is afraid of “[setting] myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” (Fanny has certainly progressed from the ten-year-old Maria and Julia made fun of for her geographical failings!) And so ends the discussion. But why doesn’t Sir Thomas respond?? Edmund thinks he would welcome more questions, Fanny is “silenced” (her usual state), and we are left with a “Sir Thomas, guilty or not?” and the crux of the conversation about whether Mansfield Park is a book about slavery. Are we made to see, as surely as Sir Thomas does, that it is the “second-class” Fanny who has the gumption to ask the question not perhaps brought up in polite company, where all are rendered silent, much as the wider world chooses not to talk about it?

But I wonder this: Does Sir Thomas respond to Fanny? And Austen, as in her proposal scenes, leaves us out of the hearing? Looking at Austen’s words very closely: first we don’t actually know what Fanny asks about the slave trade – is she asking about its effect on the plantation, or about the slaves themselves, or is she asking about Sir Thomas’ stand on it all, or what the future might bring?

Then we have Edmund’s response: “I was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther” (my emphasis).

Fanny replies about the dead silence of her cousins and her wish not to outshine them “by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his daughters to feel” (my emphasis).

This seems to imply that Sir Thomas does respond to Fanny’s question, but then the dead silence of the rest of the company follows and Fanny chooses not to “inquire farther.” But Austen doesn’t allow us to hear what Sir Thomas says, and we are still left to speculate on his involvement in and views on the slave trade and slavery – and I think this is Austen’s point: she raises the question, but how does one answer it while living off the fruits of a slave-owning system?

“guilt and misery”

Fanny and Edmund, illustration by C. E. Brock

Fanny and Edmund, illustration by C. E. Brock (Source: Mollands)

Sir Thomas, of course, is severely “punished” by Austen at the tale’s end. Mansfield Park still stands, the income for now secure, or so it seems, but he is a less dominant force, made aware of his failings through a passage into self-knowledge: he loses Maria and Mrs. Norris to their sad destiny (and thankfully Susan arrives to take on Lady Bertram duty); Julia is lost to Mr. Yates; Tom the profligate heir might be improved and at last helpful, but will he give Mansfield the heir it needs to continue as it has?; and Edmund wins Fanny, now Sir Thomas’s true daughter (but not the mistress of Mansfield as many writers proclaim).

Austen, always the wit, prefaces her doling out the Fates with: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.”

And the Great Summing Up begins – reminding us that this is a Fiction, a comedy of sorts, its characters are of her Imagination, and she can end it how she chooses. We don’t know what happens after page 473, and perhaps Austen didn’t know either. But it was clear to her that the world of the landed gentry with its obsession with elder sons and inheritance, and the economic funding of a land dependent upon slave labor to sustain itself, was entering a time of great change.

We can look at Mansfield Park as a Cinderella story, complete with the wicked stepmothers and stepsisters and a variety of Regency shenanigans thrown in, and marvel how it all works out in the end with the proper (if dull) Prince (but alas! not the eldest son as Mary so lamented). Or we can look at it as an allegory of a system of patriarchy that controlled the lives and limbs of all the “inferior” beings (that is, slaves, wives, daughters, errant sons, servants) they depended upon to sustain their way of life. I am confused by Sir Thomas, am at turns horrified by him, and then sympathetic towards him – he is a contradiction, surely a product of his time and all too human, and I see here Austen with her broad strokes, posing the questions, challenging us in our turn to not be silent, to not be guilty of inattention….

I have not mentioned Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park film – I love this movie, I love seeing Fanny’s strengths made visible, finding Fanny as Jane Austen, Writer. But the slavery subtext that is made so very visually explicit in this movie, strongly so and not easy to forget, is, I remind you, not in the book….

What are your thoughts on Sir Thomas and the “dead silence” response to Fanny about the “slave trade”?

Please visit Jane Austen in Vermont for more information related to this post:

Mansfield Park text references to the slave trade, Antigua and the West Indies, and slavery.

Bibliography of further reading on the topic of Mansfield Park and slavery.

To read more about all the posts in this series, visit An Invitation to Mansfield Park. Coming soon: guest posts by Laurel Ann Nattress, Lorrie Clark, Elaine Bander, and Maggie Arnold. Subscribe by email or follow the blog so you don’t miss these fabulous contributions to the Mansfield Park party!

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