books, Deborah Barnum, Fanny Price, Fiction, Jane Austen, literature, Lord Mansfield, Mansfield Park, Mansfield Park 200th anniversary, Sir Thomas Bertram, slave trade, slavery
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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?
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!
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”
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!
Pingback: Quoting Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park ~ The Issue of Slavery and the Slave Trade | Jane Austen in Vermont
Carol Settlage said:
Deborah, I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis of this aspect of Mansfield Park, one of my favorite Austen novels, and look forward to reading more on your blog!
I must admit the “dead silence” statement had not stood out in my reading or hearing the novel read, as many times as I’ve listened to it… Your last suggestion that perhaps Sir Thomas did respond to her, but then no one followed with more discussion or questions so Fanny felt constrained to put herself forward in that way, was always my interpretation of it’s meaning, as well. It is interesting to think about Jane Austen urging us to consider the implications of slavery as well as other cultural norms in more detail… I believe educated folks in those days used to discuss things that they had read among themselves much more than we do now… not having so many other forms of entertainment readily available and easy… such as TV!! So perhaps she did mean it to make one think and be a subject to discuss further, as you say!
Your interpretation/judgement of Edmond is also similar to mine… he is most disappointing in some respects, and only realizes Fanny’s superiority at the end when he is more or less forced into it!
And that 1999 movie of Mansfield Park is also my favorite for the portrayal of Fanny as a vision of Jane Austen, the writer/story-teller! But I cringe at the unfaithful way the rest of the story is presented, and that Sir Thomas is way harsher than in the book! It was interesting to see him as Overseer of his own family, servants, estate as in an Overseer of slaves. But I also like the positive way he is referred to as the admirable head of family and establisher of order and proper conduct. (I can’t recall for sure whether it was Mrs. Grant or Mary that said that?)
Anyway, thank you again for a most stimulating and edifying piece!
Sarah Emsley said:
I cringe at the representation of Sir Thomas in that movie, too, Carol. He’s much more complex, and therefore more interesting, in the novel. In the film he’s just a tyrant.
There are some things I like about the vision of Fanny as the lively story-teller in Rozema’s adaptation. But ultimately I find myself frustrated with the apparent need to change Fanny’s character to make her appeal to audiences. She’s an interesting character in the novel because of the way she’s tested and resists, and I don’t think she needs to be transformed into a version of Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Austen.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Janeite Deb said:
I put that short piece about the movie at the end because I didn’t want it to overshadow what it actually in the book, but it certainly needed a mention! – I agree with Sarah that the change to Fanny as Austen for the movie is done to make her easier on audiences – a sad tribute to our inability to appreciate Fanny as she is written. Sir Thomas is more complicated, and I think Austen’s own conflicted views about him make him an interesting character on the page, but less so in a movie where we need everything to be more black and white…hence a harsher Sir Thomas. Thanks Carol for your thoughtful comments!
Sharon T said:
Thank you Deborah, for this fascinating and thought provoking post. I agree, the ‘dead silence’ passage seems aimed, like much of Austen’s writing, at prodding her reader’s conscience. Here she, through Fanny, seems to be critiquing those who should have been interested and asked questions. Interesting that Fanny thought Sir Thomas would want his daughters to be interested in the subject—not the usual topics thought to interest young ladies back then. Was this implying that the sons already knew all about it, so they were not expected to have any questions? Or was it another example of Austen’s progressive thinking on women and the place they should have had in society? Or both?
Sarah Emsley said:
Is it that Fanny thinks his daughters should be interested in that topic in particular, or that they should take an interest in their father’s ideas in general, I wonder?
Janeite Deb said:
Well, I just think Austen is here showing the all-around shallowness of the Bertram daughters – we already know that Tom is a profligate son with little interest in the affairs of the estate, and that Edmund is of a serious and religious mind – can we assume they have discussed all these topics with their father? Fanny bringing up the topic during the evening just shows up everyone’s involvement in their own little worlds, with little interest in their father’s trip to Antigua or the wider issue of the slave trade. It is Fanny who is afraid of showing up Maria and Julia – we really don’t get a sense yet that Sir T is disappointed in their lack of interest, do we? It is not until the end of the novel that there is a realization on his part for what we as readers have seen all along…
Thanks for commenting Sharon.
Thanks for a great article. Mansfield Park is probably Jane Austen’s most difficult and, for that reason, best novel. I only learned to enjoy it by blogging my way through, writing something on each chapter as I went.
Also, thanks for making the point that is absolutely key in reading Jane Austen, “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….”. Jane Austen does not always present answers but she brings up the questions. The debates have gone on for two hundred years, and will probably continue for another two hundred, but as we debate, we learn. That’s what makes great literature.
The scene with the “dead silence” also continues the emergence of Fanny as an Austen heroine. She is the only one in the room with enough brains, curiosity, and interest to talk about a serious issue in current events. Of course, she is still not willing to push it to far. After Sir Thomas returns and Maria’s marries, Fanny really emerges as a mature, intelligent, and, yes, attractive woman. In this scene. Jane Austen both raises issues of social concern and continues the development of her character. All in about 157 words.
Sarah Emsley said:
I was struck by that line, too — Austen is “challenging us in our turn to not be silent, to not be guilty of inattention.” Great point about Austen raising the questions but not pretending to answer them all.
Janeite Deb said:
Love your 157 words comment! – It is indeed the beginning of Fanny as a separate individual who emerges with her own questions and opinions – she sees the lack in Maria and Julia and is concerned about showing them up. It sets us up for the confrontation with Sir Thomas in refusing to marry Henry Crawford – where her inner strength is made public.
And yes, the same debates still continue! – she raises the questions, and 200 years later, readers are still having these discussions!
Thank you for this fascinating & thoughtful analysis. You have focused on one of the very exchanges that has always shaped my reading of MP (which, btw, I agree is Austen’s finest, deepest work). You make an excellent point in saying that Edmund’s comment that his father would have welcomed further questions implies that Sir Thomas did respond to Fanny’s question, and one which I had not considered before. Sir Thomas must have responded, and engagingly, for Edmund to have said this. That implies that Sir Thomas was not shamed in discussing the issue which I think, in turn, suggests (and no more than suggests) that he was on the side of the abolitionists in Parliament, for had he been on the other, discussing an issue on which his side had so recently lost might well have been uncomfortable for him. I think there are other hints in the novel that Sir Thomas sided with, or at least leaned towards, the abolitionists as well, but it’s very hard to tell.
Sarah Emsley said:
I hadn’t considered that idea before either — that Sir Thomas did answer but that the conversation didn’t continue. It’s an intriguing possibility.
Janeite Deb said:
Yes, I think too that Sir Thomas likely sided with the abolitionists in Parliament – he is not a bad man, just caught in the world of needing to rely on slaves to keep a money-making enterprise going – it is all way larger than just Mansfield Park. How _did_ one justify their life-style in these times? And I think that is Austen’s point…
If one accepts that Austen never wasted a word, and that she chose names with particular care, I wonder if we are meant to read anything into the passing reference to the Lascelles, leading pro-slavery folk, by Mary Crawford…never could work that one out.
PS…I meant to ask…What is a ‘closed’ shop for fine and collectible books?
>>Deborah is a former law librarian, now owner of Bygone Books, a closed shop of fine and collectible books in Burlington, Vermont…
Janeite Deb said:
Ha! a “closed” shop means that it is not a retail “bricks and mortar” establishment that has open hours for customers. I used to have an open shop, but retail nearly killed me with being so tied down. Now I have an online presence as well as hours by appointment.
Ah, thank you. Not heard that term before. I used to have a little bookshop…miss it like crazy…but never did regular open hours.
I have always thought the “dead silence” is just what Fanny says it is: silence of her cousins and the others at the table. The slave trade wouldn’t be considered a proper subject for the dinner table except at the homes of people like Wilberforce . It just means that no one– including Edmund — responded or followed up on her questions.
Slave trade was abolished in 1807 and it is supposed that Sir Thomas goes to Antigua the next year. The sugar plantations were in trouble because of the glut of sugar on the market. The plantations had been producing an abundance of sugar and were suffering from the drop in prices. The lack of the slave trade– slavery had not been abolished– didn’t have an effect on the economy so soon as far as agriculture was concerned. The plantations were able to continue with the slaves on hand. More estates were sold because the income failed due to sugar prices than due to the abolishment of the slave trade.
Sarah Emsley said:
That’s interesting that Edmund doesn’t follow up on her questions either, especially given what he says later. If he really thought his father would welcome additional questions, why didn’t he ask some himself that night?
Janeite Deb said:
Yes, Nancy, it is true that the abolition of the slave trade did not immediately cause the plantations to fail – there were many more reasons that would have sent Sir Thomas to Antigua to straighten things out – but the abolitionists did believe that by abolishing the horrific trade itself, that existing slaves would be treated better because there were no new young ones to replace them – the hope was that this would eventually lead to the end of slavery as an institution and that workers would be compensated for their labors. None of this happened over night – slavery itself was not abolished in England until 1833. And we certainly know what happened here in the US with these thoughts and how much later – I just think that the ending of MP is not a “happy” one, though Austen tries to lighten it all up with her “let other pens… guilt and misery” – but one’s moral beliefs were not compatible with the MP lifestyle and how was that ever to be rectified?
And yes Sarah – Edmund not asking follow-up questions himself just one more example of Edmund’s being not present to anything by Mary!
Hugh K said:
Deborah, your last comment (“I just think that the ending of MP is not a “happy” one, though Austen tries to lighten it all up with her “let other pens… guilt and misery” – but one’s moral beliefs were not compatible with the MP lifestyle and how was that ever to be rectified?”) prompted this random thought about the conclusion of the novel. As you had noted earlier, the hero and heroine don’t get Mansfield Park but go off to another very much less grand establishment financed not by the slave trade but, I presume, out of glebe lands and rights. Fanny and Edmund are happy to be near the few remaining denizens of Mansfield Park so long as it lasts, but will it? Is the reformed Tom up to the task in the new post slavery decades? Is Jane Austen doubting, or at least questioning, whether the MP lifestyle would, as you put it, “ever be rectified”? Might JA have ultimately parked Fanny and Edmond in the Mansfield parsonage as her verdict on the MP lifestyle and all it stood for?
LikeLiked by 2 people
Janeite Deb said:
Yes, Hugh, I think what you write is a great analysis of the ending of MP. The sharpest criticism of Austen has been that in the end she returns everyone to “tolerable comfort” and doesn’t really offer solutions for a moral society in which slavery still exists. But her “tolerable comfort” is the key after all – only “tolerable”?? – all _seems_ back to the way it was, with the offending characters conveniently shoved off the page and out of sight – but is it the same? – will it ever be again? You are right that this is Austen’s “verdict” on a world and a lifestyle morally conflicted…and where does one go from here?
Thank you Deborah for an enlightening post. I’ve always thought that Fanny’s comment on the “dead silence” was meant to highlight the frivolity of the others and their inability to care about anything beyond their little performance. Paying closer attention to the text, I see a distinction should be drawn, as Fanny thinks Sir Thomas would wish his daughters to be more interested. Tom must have seen slavery first-hand on his father’s estate and surely Edmund knew enough to find the subject too sensitive to take part in the conversation. Now, from the fact that the printed matter in Fanny Knight’s pocket-book for 1809 contains an antislavery story, Claire Tomalin infers that most ladies would have been in favour of the abolition – else the publishers would not have included it. So Maria and Julia’s lack of concern would point to a character flaw – and a shortcoming in their education.
We’re not told what Sir Thomas’s answer was, but he can’t have come out in favour of the slave-trade, or a morally minded girl like Fanny would not have found “pleasure in his information” or thought he was on the whole a good man. And I suppose he wouldn’t have been among those that weren’t “greatly at fault.” On the other hand, for Edmund to think he would have liked “to be enquired of farther,” he can’t have been “forced” to say anything he didn’t feel comfortable with. So, in light of this information about Antigua, I guess he would have said something “progressive,” referring to current improvements in the condition of the slaves on his plantation, or hinting at hopes that the bottom line could in future be met by fairer means. Mrs Norris talks of his employing Dick Jackson’s father “all the year round,” which would suggest that, as far as early 19th century landowners go, he wasn’t that bad.
In spite of this interesting mention, I’m afraid MP is not a book about slavery. I can’t help feeling a bit shocked to see private theatricals so openly condemned and sexual misbehaviour prompt such outrage and self-righteous garment-rending while the owning of fellow human beings is so quickly disposed of.
Sarah Emsley said:
I guess Maria and Julia really did give up learning anything new after they turned seventeen….
I’m not sure the topic of owning fellow human beings is so quickly disposed of in the novel (though it is in this passage). While it’s true, of course, that Fanny isn’t a slave, the Bertrams and Aunt Norris do seem to feel that she belongs to them and ought to do exactly as she’s ordered to do. Her resistance at the crucial moment when they’re all saying she must marry Henry does make the point that no one ought to exert absolute control over a fellow human. Fanny is obviously much better off than any slave, yet I do think Austen is making the point about all of us not only *having* a “better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it,” but also having the *right*, and the freedom, to attend to it.
Thank you, Sarah. So good of you to reply. You’re right, I should have said “slavery”. There are degrees of freedom/unfreedom in JA’s novels. Neither Fanny’s situation nor Jane Fairfax’s dire prospects as a governess can ever begin to compare with the horrors of the Middle Passage.
Do Sir Thomas and Aunt Norris think they “own” Fanny? I think they see it more as a deal: “Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to anybody.” A thought that Sir Thomas seems to share, adding “we must secure to the child, or consider ourselves engaged to secure to her hereafter, as circumstances may arise, the provision of a gentlewoman, if no such establishment should offer as you are so sanguine in expecting.” They’ve kept their end of the bargain, now the offer has materialised, so it’s Fanny’s turn – so that her uncle can save the extra expense. Not that Mrs Norris has done much for Fanny, although she must think she’s taught her how to make herself useful, and, after all, it was she who came up with the idea. Now it’s not only her duty to accept, but “every young woman’s,” as Lady Bertram points out. Sir Thomas says he would have expected as much of his daughters: “I should have been very much surprised had either of my daughters, on receiving a proposal of marriage at any time which might carry with it only half the eligibility of this, immediately and peremptorily, and without paying my opinion or my regard the compliment of any consultation, put a decided negative on it.” Fanny doesn’t even owe him “the duty of a child,” but, of course, “if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude” – there you go again. And in case this “moral pressure” is not enough, go back to Portsmouth and see how you like it. So there are different ways to enforce the “deal”, and Fanny’s situation might eventually become untenable – a consequence she doesn’t seem to be quite aware of.
True, Maria would have been allowed to break off her engagement, but to be fair to Sir Thomas, he doesn’t know the whole story of Henry Crawford’s past “misbehaviour”. All in all, Fanny must do what women in general are socially expected to do – with a little extra emphasis on her status as a poor relation. If you can’t support yourself, freedom becomes a fanciful notion, as Jane Fairfax well knows.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Janeite Deb said:
Oh, great conversation you two!
I agree Monica that on the face of it MP is not a book about “slavery” – I think the best defense of this is John Wiltshire’s “Decolonizing ‘Mansfield Park'” [see biblio] – it is too easy to make the slavery subtext paramount by citing all the references and plot analogies, such as Fanny as slave / Sir T as Master, etc… – I certainly don’t take to the extreme of the Rozema film – and by talking about this short passage out of context I don’t want it to be assumed that this is all one should think the book is about – I agree with all the things you say – the Fanny at MP is a “deal” between Sir T and Mrs. Norris which makes her the very typical young woman of the time – fattening her up for the best offer – his handing off Maria to Rushworth is a similar deal, and yes, he doesn’t have all the facts, but the narrator says very clearly he didn’t try very hard to discourage her from marrying, largely because it was too good of a “deal” for him – Sir Thomas is an economic manipulator and it is not until the very end that he realizes that his view of the world might not have been the best thing for his family…
I just think that slavery is just one of the _many_ issues in the novel that Austen raises, asking us to talk about them, to not succumb to any mind-numbing “dead silence.”
As a descendent of freed slaves, a JA fan and an amateur historian I have a hard time seeing the slavery theme in MP. While the words “Slave Trade” appear only once in the novel, grateful and gratitude appear at lease once in almost every chapter and always in reference to Fanny Price; why isn’t that more talked about?
I don’t see a major ‘slavery theme’ either, but I do think it is a state-of-the-nation novel. To me Mansfield Park represents Regency society, all jealous hierarchy and with much of its economic base morally suspect. (The slave trade is the most dramatic example of this but Austen would know the lives of English farmworkers were desperately hard too.)The top people are growing pleasure-and-status-obsessed, and they’re corrupted by idleness and lack of responsibility. (Hello, Henry Crawford!) They have little contact and hardly any insight into the lives of the people below – the ones whose work keeps them in their state of luxury and refinement.
But still you feel that life in MP isn’t intolerable, even to the servants; might not be fair but at least it’s orderly. And you think, if revolution broke out a lot of good stuff would be lost in the general destruction. The only hope for salvation is in the Prices, William and Fanny, who understand the need for work and struggle but have also benefited from what MP can offer – education and the opportunity for intellectual refinement.
It’s a middle-class manifesto 🙂
Sarah Emsley said:
I don’t think MP is primarily about slavery, though I do think Austen, like Fanny, intentionally raises important moral questions. She’s interested in a range of questions about what constitutes moral and immoral behaviour, and I think she raises this one to make her readers attend to it.
Thanks for drawing attention to the words “grateful” and “gratitude” — I’ll think more about these references now as I continue to reread the novel. When is it appropriate to be grateful, and when is gratitude the wrong response? Everyone expects Fanny to be grateful for Henry’s attention.
Janeite Deb said:
Yes, I agree with you both – see my response above about “slavery” being just one of many moral issues raised in the novel – the danger of focusing on one tiny aspect or a short passage leaves everything else in shadow, and that has not been my intention [or Austen’s!] –
I completely agree with you about “gratitude” – I marked each time this word is worked into the text (it seems to be on a par with the number of times “silent” or “silenced” is used) – and that alone can alter the way you look at the book as a whole. Everyone has a reason for gratitude – Fanny most often cited as exhibiting “ingratitude” throughout, especially when faced with Henry Crawford’s proposal. Sarah, you say: “When is it appropriate to be grateful, and when is gratitude the wrong response?” – and this is exactly the question I think Austen is asking…
I’d acquit Sir Thomas of being too eager for the Rushworth marriage – when he notices it’s hardly a love match he offers Maria a way out. Agreed he’s a bit too keen to believe her when she claims to be happy in her choice, yes, because he always has a fondness for a good deal: but then he is running Mansfield Park, so that’s actually his job. But as top man it’s also his job to balance short-term material advantage against longterm good.
Pluses: he is a workaholic (back at his desk asap after arrival), observant (the fire), decisive, thinks ahead and his orders are followed (the carriage for Fanny). Altogether an effective boss, but needs help to see the bigger picture. Help he won’t get from his daughters, who clearly don’t give a damn where the money comes from provided it comes (‘a dead silence’).
Sir T =General Tilney?? Think how General Tilney would have dealt with Mrs Norris after she’d fallen from favour and become a real nuisance. Would she keep her visiting/dining rights at the great house and her cosy rent-free accommodation? I don’t think so.
Sarah Emsley said:
Interesting comparison with General Tilney. Sir Thomas has many faults, but he does have a conscience. That line in the last chapter is quite moving: “the anguish arising from the conviction of his own errors in the education of his daughters was never to be entirely done away.”
Janeite Deb said:
Yes, Rita, Sir Thomas is certainly a better man that General Tilney – you are spot on with all his good points you cited! I was just saying that he exhibits some of the same traits, and a blindness to anything outside his view as he struggles to keep all running as it is, in the face of societal and familial changes. He might seem fairer to us in sending off Fanny to Portsmouth for the edification of her senses – and just a shade nicer than Tilney sending Catherine off to bear the dangers and indignities of coach travel, but he is still a man who works hard to get what he wants with little perception into the characters of anyone is his family or what they might want … he after all only lets Mrs. Norris run the roost because it is the easy way out for him. I agree Sarah that in the end, the conscience that Austen gives us a peek at through the tale, is much stronger at the end, and his saving grace really… and what does indeed separate him from General Tilney!
Fascinating article, Deborah, to extract so much from what appears on the surface to be so little.
I also agree that a trifling small reference to slavery in Antigua does not make M.P. into a treatise on that evil, but Jane Austen mentions that among other injustices of the English class system of that day that she highlights in M.P.
Fanny, by virtue of her upbringing in the Bertram household as not much more than an unpaid companion to Mrs. Bertram and by way of her Mrs. Norris-suppressed and reflective personality, has had a much greater time to think more critically and deeply than her cousins Maria and Julia. While those two don’t think too much beyond their noses, it is Fanny’s patient, curious and analytical personality that wants to learn more from Sir Thomas but she is once again intimidated his imposing presence.
I have always thought that Fanny was a savior figure to the Bertram family and especially to Sir Thomas as she exhibits moral resolve as unbending as an iron bar, even going so far as to accept Sir Thomas’s condemnation so as to protect him from discovering Maria’s and Julia’s very inappropriate behavior with Henry Crawford.
Permit me to make mention of another excellent historical novel that describes the evils of slavery on the sugar plantations of Antigua in graphic detail: Edmund Persuader by Stuart Shotwell.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Hobbie DeHoy said:
Thank you, Jeffrey, for your description of Fanny as “patient, curious, and analytical.” While reading all of these Mansfield-Park-related essays and comments, I have come to the conclusion that Jane Austen made a deliberate choice to turn her usual hero-heroine relationship completely upside-down in this novel. In MP, Fanny is the observer, and Edmund is the blind one. Think of Lizzy Bennett, “wretchedly blind,” and Emma Woodhouse, “doomed to blindness.” Fanny is a strong contrast to these two in many ways, but most markedly, she can see things as they are. She has clarity of vision and the same “penetration” as the Knightley brothers. This is a remarkable quality in Jane Austen’s heroines; in fact, we don’t see it again until we meet Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Edmund, the hero that everyone loves to despise, illustrates that it’s not just charming extroverts like Lizzy and Emma who are blinded by their prejudices, feelings, and hopes. Two other heroes, Mr. Knightley and Mr. Darcy, are both shrewd observers, just like Fanny Price. I am so grateful that Jane Austen achieved something completely different in MP, giving us a heroine who is as morally uncompromising and keenly observant as the gentlemen who wield much more power both in the novels and the society they depict.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Janeite Deb said:
Thank you Jeffrey for your fine defense of Fanny – love her “moral resolve as unbending as an iron bar”! – and where unfortunately Austen loses her sympathetic readers with her too-pure Fanny! What I discovered on my last reading was how very emotional she is – there are very strong words to describe her inner life, all hidden from everyone around her and what effort she undertakes to keep it all inside… you are right that her silent and reflective observance gives her that ability to think deeply and critically, unlike everyone else…
I have heard of Edmund Persuader – thank you for mentioning it here – it might give us all the other side of the picture that Austen only alludes to…
Pingback: How should we read the character of William Price? | Sarah Emsley
Pingback: The Mysterious Sir Thomas – English 151: Reading Jane Austen