The Slave in the Drawing Room
Jane Austen’s Masked Criticism of Slavery in Mansfield Park
Jane Austen’s novels present well-dressed and well-to-do characters. It is true that sometimes they get dirty, like Elizabeth Bennett on one of her famous morning walks, but there is a certain status and world which most of Austen’s characters inhabit. Her characters have servants and houses. While working class or poor characters are sidelined and presented from a distance, if they are even presented at all, the rich or elite are presented upfront and center. If we modernize Jane Austen’s social classes (upper, middle, and lower stations) into our modern vernacular, which include chiefly the elite, middle-class, and poor we begin to notice alarming social inequalities in Mansfield Park. To do this we need to acknowledge R Weil’s argument when he states, “he [Marx] also recognized that like the class itself, which assumes different forms to meet changing conditions, this ideological defense adopts innumerable masks” (29). The changing nature of society ascribes different labels to what amounts to the same things like the upper, middle, and lower stations of Austen’s time. Jane Austen’s repeated declarations on matters concerning money mask sentiments regarding social-economic status and slavery. By refocusing the novel’s center from the capital and wealth of Mansfield Park to what procures said capital we begin to understand the nature of Austen’s representation of the socio-economic model that drives the finances of the Mansfield Park estate and can understand Austen’s critique of the model.
If we are to discuss finances, as they relate to the social class systems, in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, then we must acknowledge that Fanny Price is poor and at the edge of the novel when the novel begins. Sir Thomas contemplates Fanny’s original appearance and her situation in the terms of “the poor little girl” (Austen 1034). In order to further establish Fanny’s condition, we can reference David Shane Wallace’s comments on how Sir Thomas viewed his ward in his essay “White Female as Effigy & Black Female as Surrogate in Schaw and Austen.” Wallace states, “Prior to leaving for Antigua, Sir Thomas views his niece Fanny as little more than a perpetual servant to whom he has extended his benevolence in taking her from her poor parents and providing for her” (127). Fanny does not have property or an inheritance. She does not have a living and she can not bring any material advantage to a marriage. Her riches seem to reside in her steady nature and understanding. Sir Thomas and Edmund ultimately value her maturity and her ability to be guided and taught by them. However, while Fanny Price is poor, she is not saddled by poverty.
Fanny Price is the beneficiary of the Bertram’s elite lifestyle. As she moved from poor to a beneficiary of the Bertram’s wealth Fanny moves from the sides of the novel to the center. William V. Spanos in his essay “Herman Melville’s Pierre or, The Ambiguities and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: The Imperial Violence of the Novel of Manners” writes, “what is essential about the social/political world of Mansfield park is that…its polity is founded principally on the Enlightenment (or anthropological) version of the metaphysical principle of presence — a center or still point — around which every aspect of its being — linguistic, moral, social, political — concentrically revolves” (194). As Spanos points out presence or centrality is important in the world of Mansfield Park. Considered little more than a nuisance and relegated to the attic like a servant when she first arrives Fanny is not the center of attention. However, she is still a recipient of the privilege and wealth of Mansfield Park.
In fact, her improvements in manner and personality are only made possible because of the lifestyle available in the Bertram’s estate, which is at the center of the novel from the beginning. Diane Capitani in her essay “Moral Neutrality in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park” states, “One must acknowledge that the wealth of the Bertrams is what allows propriety and good behavior to flourish.” When Susan, Fanny’s younger sister, moves into Mansfield Park to take Fanny’s place Austen notes, “Susan became the stationary niece, delighted to be so; and equally well adapted for it by a readiness of mind, and an inclination for usefulness, as Fanny had been by sweetness of temper, and strong feelings of gratitude” (1036). Nevertheless, it is only possible to exhibit this readiness of mind and inclination to be useful if the lifestyle, provided by wealth from capital linked to slavery, of the manor is possible. If the Bertrams were people who had to work and make a living outside the house, such as Fanny’s own immediate family, such improvements would not have been possible for her or her sister.
Invariably, Fanny Price’s transfer from the sphere of poverty to the sphere of wealth becomes a self-appointed task. Austen portrays this physically by having Fanny come down from the little white room in the attic and having her take possession of the former school room. Fanny’s appropriation of the former schoolroom indicates her willingness to establish herself within the family emotionally and materially. She speaks about “the deficiency of space and accommodation in her little chamber above” (Austen 334). As she became a young woman Fanny was aware of her inferior status. However, Fanny was not content with her status. Taking over the school-room indicated to the family that she was willing to be seen in a different light if not on equal footing with them. Fanny’s position within the family, because of her lack of living, was not secure, which parallels the insecure nature of the family’s income. Even when she takes over the space of the school-room as her own, Aunt Norris, her most determined critic, “was [only] tolerably resigned to her having the use of what nobody else wanted” (Austen 335). For Fanny, it is a matter of claiming a stake in Mansfield Park. She claims this space to be seen as a person who exists within the fabric of the house and in order to leave the shadows of the attic and poverty. As a person she gains agency and moves from the edges of the novel to the center of the novel in a manner that could demonstrate how the poor were represented on the edge of society as opposed to being the center of attention.
Underneath this seeming upward mobility on Fanny’s side lies the question of where the capital comes from which allows Fanny to flourish under the Bertram’s wealth. The novel makes it clear that Sir Thomas’ capital flows from a plantation in Antigua where “Sir Thomas found it expedient to go to Antigua himself, for the better arrangement of his affairs” (Austen 66). Here is where the riches of Mansfield Park and the improvements of Fanny come to a head. As a poor girl from a father and mother, who can barely sustain themselves with their numerous children, Fanny is forced into, and later adopts, the lifestyle of the elite. However, ironically, her own situation is closer to the poor than even the middle-class. She supposes that she will have a home in Mansfield Park, but the estate itself is under threat of financial mismanagement.
Fanny serves as a representation of the underlying financial system that upholds Mansfield park. Moreland Perkins in “Mansfield Park and Austen’s reading on Slavery and Imperial Warfare” states, “as the master of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has ultimate responsibility for years of humiliation and pain inflicted upon Fanny by her authorized overseer, Mrs. Norris, yet he does not fully understand or intend this evil.” The necessity of capital drives Sir Thomas’ use of the plantation system and slavery. However, his removed status from the plantation, when he is at Mansfield Park, located at a great physical distance from the manor it maintains is telling. Necessity, in a moral sense, drives Sir Thomas to undertake his niece’s charge. However, he again relegates his duty’s to another, in this case, Mrs. Norris. Perkins continues arguing, “Sir Thomas [is] also responsible for leaving his Antigua sugar plantations under the control of an overseer who will have inflicted more humiliation, pain, and probably even death upon plantation slaves than Sir Thomas would have allowed if he had had full cognizance of this brutality.” Austen uses Sir Thomas to disengage the system of slavery from the capital that maintains Mansfield Park.
Austen’s society was slave owning. Her peers lived in a world where slavery was illegal at home but legal abroad. Michael Steffes in “Slavery and Mansfield Park” shows us that “although… England profited, and virtually all used cotton, sugar, and other products of the labor of slaves in their lives daily, anti-slavery sentiment was very wide-spread” (24). Jane Austen managed her critique of slavery within the need of her times and expectation of wealth in her society. The manifestation of wealth like the one in Mansfield Park hid the underlying fountain of capital, slavery. Like Fanny — hidden upstairs away from the center of family life–slavery was hidden away in Antigua. In “The Chronology of Mansfield Park” J.A. Downie explains, “Sir Thomas would have been in the West Indies throughout the period when
abolition became a burning issue after the unexpected death of Prime Minister William Pitt, on January 23, 1806” (430, 431). This absence allows Austen to mask the issue of slavery throughout the novel. It is convenient and a critique on a society that is willing to look the other way on the most disagreeable aspects of the acquisition of capital.
Disengaging the subject of slavery from the Mansfield Park estate seems to be the implied critique of slavery in Austen’s Mansfield Park. Jane Austen sets the novel against the backdrop of changing attitudes politically and socially towards slavery, but then, ironically, centers much of the plot on the whimsical play of the elite (the Bertrams). The young Mr. Bertram exclaims, “we must raise a little theatre at Mansfield” and the company with the exclusion of Fanny set off on the work of acting out Lover’s Vow (Austen 272). The play is an allegory to the undetached nature of capital removed from its source of labor in society at large. By giving the play the center of attention in the first part of the novel Austen shifts the focus of the reader and the characters from matters of conscience. The edges society are then passed over and can be ignored in order to support the structured society that priced propriety highly but allowed slavery as a necessary evil.
There are two interesting points to be made about Austen’s use of the play. The first point is the exclusion of Fanny. Fanny’s original lack of knowledge regarding the play suggests English society’s removal from the source of so much wealth. However, as Fanny “acquaint herself with the play” she suffers “intervals of astonishment, that it could be chosen… [and] that is could be proposed and presented in a private theatre” (Austen 304, 305). Fanny, in this case, represents the morally capable aspect of Austen’s society that could point out the corrupt nature of a system that employs slavery to produce its wealth. In this instance, those in society who found slavery reprehensible made minor protestation while allowing the financial system to continue and maybe even be entertained (profit) from it in one fashion or another. This is represented when they are discussing the play and “Fanny looked on and listened, not unamused to observe the selfishness” (292). Like Fanny, many in English society might have been appalled by the evils of slavery but amused at the selfishness of those partaking in slavery for capital’s sake.
The second critique that can be taken from Austen’s use of Lover’s Vow is the lack of apprehension or sensibility to the play from Mrs. Norris and the youth at Mansfield Park. The shocking nature of slavery, with its repulsive treatment of men, women, and children, is glossed over by a society bent on entertainment more so than on serious moral considerations. The elite do not care how they come across their capital. In fact, “in Sir Thomas’s absence, Mansfield Park is left under the supervision of Mrs. Norris, a character whose name…connects her to the worst anti-abolitionist… John Norris” (Kelly 178). All this is to say that Austen presents the opulence at Mansfield and the unconstrained temperament of the youth and Mrs. Norris as a critique of the British system which foundation and social structure was heavily dependent on slavery. Austen acknowledges that this kind of attitude was widespread in English society when Tom Bertram decides on the play he says, “why should not Lovers’ Vows do for us as well as for the Ravenshaws” (293). The young people and Mrs. Norris are not the only ones who are morally questionable. The Ravenshaws represent the general acceptance of capital from slavery by society. Mr. Yates’ other group allows the young people at Mansfield Park to feel at ease about their play. Therefore, there is a general excuse of moral accountability regarding slavery because other families also partake in slavery.
Austen’s use of the moral indifference in Mansfield Park’s young people and Mrs. Norris allows us to see the socio-economic divide though character engagement with the topic of slavery. The topic of slavery is a rare subject in Mansfield Park and when Fanny finally broaches it “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” (431). This silence is indicative of both Sir Thomas and his children’s attitude towards slavery. George E. Boulukos in “The Politics of Silence: Mansfield Park and the amelioration of Slavery” states, “the silence is produced by the moral indifference of Fanny’s young cousins, not by his shock or discomfort. Austen, then, makes a moral point about Fanny’s cousins… that silence about slavery in early nineteenth-century Britain can only be seen as a moral failing” (362). The moral failing lies in the use of capital from a morally unacceptable source. The British had outlawed slavery in the English mainland in 1772 and according to Steffes, “slavery was not a morally neutral issue for Austen’s contemporaries” (23). However, the disconnect from the issue of slavery by those in Mansfield Park might highlight the disconnect of a society that valued cheap goods rather than pay the price of giving agency to those suffering under slavery. Austen highlights this disconnect by divorcing the moral failing of slavery from the carefree opulence of the theater and pleasures or the party that visits the grounds of Sotherton in Mansfield Park.
Having focused on the Lover’s Vow in the preceding paragraphs let us shift out attention the general pleasures of Mansfield Park. The issue of capital is ever present to the family of Mansfield Park. Austen chooses to underline this subject by Sir Thomas precipitous and important physical removal from Mansfield Park to Antigua. The novel includes references to the poor returns generated by the Antigua plantation almost from the very beginning, allowing us to ascertain the risky nature on which the whole of the lifestyle of Mansfield Park rested. Mrs. Norris hints at Sir Thomas’ spending power when speaking about how he will provide for the family, but Lady Bertram replies, ““Why, you know, Sir Thomas’s means will be rather straitened if the Antigua estate is to make such poor returns” (Austen 62). Even after this sobering statement Lady Bertram and her children do not seem inclined to make lifestyle changes. In fact, after Sir Thomas’ leaves the novel continues, “Mrs. Norris [continued]… promoting gaieties for her nieces, assisting their toilets, displaying their accomplishments, and looking about for their future husbands… and Mrs. Grant’s wasteful doings to overlook, left her very little occasion to be occupied in fears for the absent” (71).
Similarly, Fanny moves about her life in relative indifference of the state of the business in Antigua as she falls into the habits and activities of her cousins. They dine and invite guests over among other expenditures that do not worry them in the least. (151–153). The general sensation of freedom and activities juxtapose the invisible nature of what makes all those things possible, namely, slavery. Behind each walk, conversation, and dinner the capital is bloodied by the toil, sweat, and death of slaves on the island of Antigua. Austen, thus, critiques the model that allows all this wealth by contrasting Sir Thomas’ absence with the activities of the Mansfield estate. There is no real worry for Sir Thomas or — as Austen here subtly injects — for labor that creates the capital to allow such pleasures at Mansfield Park.
The grounds at Sotherton also represent another subtle critique of the underground nature of slavery in the novel. Many of the characters spend quite some time thinking and speaking about how those grounds can be improved and even suggests “the expense need not be any impediment” as Mrs. Norris notes, “If I were you, I should not think of the expense. I would have everything done in the best style, and made as nice as possible” (Austen 114). The gravitas which the grounds of Sotherton take in the novel suggests that Austen was implicitly moving the grounds to the center of attention. By moving Sotherton and its grounds to the center of attention Austen reveals the lack of good judgment principally in Mrs. Norris and the other characters that want to alter the grounds in the representation of her society and its focus on improving grounds, houses, and other material things while avoiding larger ethical questions. The expense of such projects did not worry some because they were disconnected from the source of capital which said expense required. The capital passing hands did not assume the real value of its worth. Mrs. Norris’ comments reveal that she did not truly understand, or care to understand, how that capital was obtained. She and other characters in Mansfield Park only want to enjoy the capital while being divorced of the ethical ramifications of its origins.
In the world of Mansfield Park, as in most of Jane Austen’s novel, capital and finances play a central role in the plot but also in the subtle critique of Austen’s contemporaries. The encounters between the youth of Mansfield Park and their genteel affairs hide the unsavory aspects of the financial world that sustain their adventures. Austen pushes the affairs and representations of the poor and working class aside in order to demonstrate the self-indulgence of the elites in a world supported by slavery. The financial woes of the Bertram family are solved by the end of the novel but the ethical and moral consideration of capital by slavery are left wide open. The struggle between appeasement of the rich and the rights of the poor becomes an anagram of Fanny and the world she leaves behind. Austen recognizes the duplicity of the elite’s excesses and unbridled comfort thanks to the marginalization and abuse of human’s in slavery. In decoupling the capital from the labor Austen recognizes the need for a society to move past capital produced by slavery. However, she does not hash out definitive judgments but, rather, she provides us with a steady critique of the system and its source of wealth.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. Claire Lamont, and James Kinsley. New York: Oxford UP, Toronto. Print.
Boulukos, George E. “The Politics Of Silence: Mansfield Park And The Amelioration Of Slavery.” Novel: A Forum On Fiction 39.3 (2006): 361–383. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Capitani, Diane. “Moral Neutrality In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line 23.1 (2002): MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Downie, J. A. “The Chronology Of Mansfield Park.” Modern Philology 112.2 (2014): 427–434. Academic Search Premier. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Kelly, Helena. “Mansfield Park Reconsidered: Pheasants, Game Laws, And The Hidden Critique Of Slavery.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal (2008): 170. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Perkins, Moreland. “Mansfield Park And Austen’s Reading On Slavery And Imperial Warfare.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line 26.1 (2005): MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Spanos, William V. “Herman Melville’s Pierre; Or, The Ambiguities And Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: The Imperial Violence Of The Novel Of Manners.” Symploke 1–2 (2011): 191. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Steffes, Michael. “Slavery And Mansfield Park: The Historical And Biographical Context.” English Language Notes 34.(1996): 23–41. Humanities Source. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Wallace, David Shane. “The White Female As Effigy And The Black Female As Surrogate In Janet Schaw’s Journal Of A Lady Of Quality And Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.” Studies In The Literary Imagination 2 (2014): 117. Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Weil, R. “Contradictory Class Definitions: Petty Bourgeoisie And The “Classes” Of Erik Olin Wright.” Critical Sociology 21.3 (1995): 3–37. Alternative Press Index. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.