What Jane Austen’s Work Can Tell Us About the British Imperial Project

The novelist Jane Austen lived out her final days in the Hampshire village of Chawton. Just 4 miles from Sir Thomas Baring’s residence at Stratton Park, Chawton is, like East Stratton, a manorial village, In the 1740s, the surrounding lands were enclosed by the dominant Knight family, who adopted Jane Austen’s brother Edward and made him the legal heir of Chawton House. When this Elizabethan manor came into Edward’s hands, in 1809, Jane moved into a roomy cottage on the estate. Living there with her mother and sister, Jane wrote and revised her six major novels.

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Today, the cottage and manor house are the ultimate destination for Austenophiles from all over the world. Chawton itself is a cluster of houses with climbing roses and elegant gardens surrounded by chalk streams and pastureland. Still a tiny village, it is dominated by the manor house, a church and a library. The cottage, which still houses the tiny desk at which Jane wrote, is now the Jane Austen’s House Museum, a square building of mellow red-brick fitted with elegant white sash windows, surrounded by modest lawns and deep-filled flowerbeds: a study in rural Englishness. From here, Jane and her sister Cassandra would take daily walks, following footpaths through the surrounding fields and woodlands. It was a quiet life, punctuated by the occasional gathering at their brother’s house nearby.

Readers of Austen’s novels will immediately come across allusions to slavery; many more would have been picked up by Austen’s contemporary readers.

A short walk from the cottage, St. Nicholas church is set amidst hedgerows on the estate’s lush parklands. This is where Jane and her sisters worshipped (though it doesn’t look quite as it did in Jane’s time: later in the nineteenth century it was devastated by fire, then rebuilt in classic Victorian style). At the churchyard entrance you meet a statue of Jane clutching a book, her expression quizzical, challenging (appropriately enough: she didn’t suffer fools gladly). In the churchyard itself, two simple tombstones stand side by side, marking the graves of Jane’s mother and sister. Jane herself was interred in Winchester Cathedral, in the city some 15 miles to the south-west, where she died at the age of forty-one, possibly from Addison’s disease, Hodkin’s lymphoma or lupus.

In 1993, around 176 years after Austen’s death, the academic and intellectual Edward W. Said wrote a landmark essay called “Jane Austen and Empire” about her novel Mansfield Park. Said’s piece sparked what remains an ongoing debate about Austen’s attitude to slavery. Said believed that Mansfield Park failed to take an ethical position on the links between sugar plantations and the handsome houses and splendid grounds of English country estates. He argued that the novel’s protagonist, Fanny Price, ultimately embraced the worldview of her uncle Sir Thomas, whose Antiguan plantations funded his rural retreat.

Some disagree with Said’s view, pointing to Austen’s abolitionist sentiments and her partiality for William Cowper, who wrote anti-slavery poems. Others feel that Said underestimated Austen’s aversion to polemical writing about the issue, and that he failed to grasp the widespread support for abolition among women of Austen’s generation. But perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. For Austen and her family reflected Britons’ variable and inconsistent responses to slavery at the time: silence and complicity on the one hand, and anti-slavery sentiment and action on the other.

Yet Said’s essay was a game-changer. Its forensic attention to the colonial world in which Austen was immersed forced Austen-lovers, however reluctantly, to acknowledge the deep-rooted presence of colonialism and slavery throughout Regency England. It was woven into the fabric of everyday life. And this was true for Jane Austen’s family, as well as for so many others.

You barely have to scrape the surface of Austen’s family to reveal these colonial associations. Jane Austen’s father, the Reverend George Austen, was close friends with James Langford Nibbs, the owner of an Antiguan plantation. The reverend was named by Gibbs as a co-trustee of his plantations, meaning that he shared with other trustees a legal responsibility to ensure that the plantation—and enslaved peoples—were inherited by Nibbs’ heirs when the time came. Neither was this tangential to Jane’s world: scholars have pointed out that this family connection was the inspiration for her portrayal of Sir Thomas’s Antiguan plantation wealth in Mansfield Park.

Austen’s sailor brothers, meanwhile, fought colonial battles, including in the Caribbean; her novels contain many references to their ships. After the 1807 abolition of the slave trade, as part of their naval duties Francis and Charles Austen also patrolled the seas to stop the newly illegal trafficking of people. In his unpublished diary, Francis Austen wrote emphatic anti-slavery statements: in his view, slavery in all forms was wrong, and he objected to its continued existence in “modified” form in various British colonies.

Meanwhile Jane’s favorite brother, Henry Thomas Austen, was directly involved in the anti-slavery movement, representing Colchester at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention, which sought an end to global slavery. The conference was addressed by Thomas Clarkson, another figure who Jane Austen admired. None of this can confirm Jane Austen’s personal views on slavery, but her father’s legal association with Antiguan plantations and the brothers’ anti-slavery activities reminds us that the issue of slavery was a constant during the period. The shift in attitudes, moreover, was generational: while Jane’s father was involved in the slavery business, her brother Francis believed that slavery was “to be regretted.”

The British-based Afro-Guyanese poet John Agard drew on Said’s essay in his poem “Mansfield Park Revisited” (which features in his 2006 collection We Brits). The poem jokes that slavery history is unfit for “polite conversation,” echoing the line in Mansfield Park which depicts “a dead silence” in response to a question about slavery in Antigua. Agard encapsulates the dilemma of heritage sites—from country houses to literary museums—whose incomes are at least partly premised on an escape to the rural idyll: who dares to interrupt this “polite conversation”?

Yet in the intervening years since Agard’s poem, things are starting to change—in the teeth of some entrenched opposition. In 2021, Chawton’s Jane Austen’s House Museum announced that museum staff would be incorporating colonial history into its displays. It would focus on the material culture around Jane Austen herself—muslin, cotton, tea and sugar—and would use these as a prism through which to explore wider issues, from her father’s plantation trusteeship to her brothers’ colonial sea battles. At the time, the museum’s plan met with outrage in the mass media. Claire Fox, now Baroness Fox of Buckley, tweeted “No, no, no,” adding, “this guilt-ridden revisionism linking her [Austen] to slavery feels like barrel-scraping. PS. Ignore. Just read her novels.”

Yet, as we’ve seen, readers of Austen’s novels will immediately come across allusions to slavery; many more would have been picked up by Austen’s contemporary readers. Dislikeable characters share their names with slave-traders: the spiteful Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park has the same surname as the brutal slave-captain John Norris, who was condemned by Austen’s admired anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson. (In the same novel, the fickle Maria Bertram moves into the former home of the slave-owning Lascelles family.)

In Emma, Mrs. Hawkins shares a surname with the slaver John Hawkins; her maiden name is Elton, another slaving family from Bristol. The novel also hints at Mrs. Hawkins’s father being a slave-trader. A mixed-heritage character called Miss Lambe in Austen’s unfinished Sanditon resembles Dido Belle, the daughter of an enslaved woman whose father was a British naval officer. Austen knew Dido Belle’s cousin and possibly met Dido herself, who was brought up in Kenwood House.

In the face of vociferous opposition and historical denial, Jane Austen’s House Museum has given Austen fans the chance to explore slavery’s relevance to the author’s intellectual life and social world—and, in so doing, to gain a considerably fuller picture of both. It is not alone. In the last few years, British institutions and heritage organizations—which hitherto largely avoided exploring their colonial histories—have started to acknowledge the crucial importance of addressing them. There still is a long way to go, but some of these have shown responsibility and courage in doing so, the National Trust among them.

It is, or should be, everyone’s birthright to enjoy the countryside without their presence being questioned.

As we’ve seen throughout this book, colonialism’s influence in Britain was not limited to ports and cities. It permeated country houses, islands, coastal hamlets, wool-making villages, mill-towns, copper-mining settlements, countryside landownership and electoral boroughs. The British Empire had major impacts on the rural history of England, Scotland and Wales. Now, as we refamiliarize ourselves with our shared history in this postcolonial age, we are faced with a choice. We can either address the colonial history of the British Isles or we can deny and dismiss it.

When I found myself in the midst of the international media story about the National Trust report, I came across a book of Martin Luther King’s old sermons. Reading them reminded me that the culture war, as it is now known, is nothing new, but was present in the American Civil Rights struggle to throw off centuries of enslavement and its associated thinking. King’s sermons diagnosed the challenge as proceeding from “soft-minded” thinking. Whereas, he said, the “tough-minded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions,” the soft-minded person “reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced.”

King concluded that a lack of independent critical thinking makes people vulnerable to political manipulation, and correspondingly liable to commit all kinds of misdeeds in the name of patriotism or defending the nation. This cohort is easily misled by fiery rhetoric, misrepresentation or smears. Meanwhile, those who stir up fear and division—many of them politicians and opinion-leaders—are, in King’s words, “cold and arrogant men whose hearts were hardened by the long winter of traditionalism.” In the face of these threats, King suggested that fighting fire with fire is ineffective: it only serves to stoke the flames of mutual suspicion and prejudice.

For this reason, he advised, the civil rights movement should meet violence and aggression with courage and critical independence of mind, but that this should also be paired with compassion and altruism. In the terrifying circumstances in which he operated, King’s approach required exceptional bravery, using emotional as well as political and intellectual astuteness. Such qualities abound in each of my walking companions throughout this book.

All my life I have walked through the countryside, just as Jane Austen did, without any sense of being out of place. But the same cannot be said for my walking companions, who have consistently and courageously raised the issue of rural racism, both blatant and subtle. It is, or should be, everyone’s birthright to enjoy the countryside without their presence being questioned. My fellow walkers bear witness to the fact that this is not the case.

Things may be shifting, however. In 2022, 400 Black and Asian Britons participated in Kinder in Colour, a commemoration of the 1932 Kinder Scout Trespass. Back in the 1930s, this act of mass civil disobedience highlighted the issue of ownership and access to land. The trespassers were met by gamekeepers. Arrests were made, but an outpouring of public sympathy eventually led to the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. With their resonant symbol of trespass, the 2022 Kinder in Colour event made history; it was the largest-ever gathering of people of color in the British countryside. I hope that this book will inspire and resource many more countryside walks across and beyond Britain’s final frontier of belonging.


Excerpted from The Countryside: Ten Rural Walks Through Britain and Its Hidden History of Empire by Corinne Fowler, originally published in Great Britain in 2024 by Allen Lane as Our Island Stories: Country Walks Through Colonial Britain. Copyright © 2024 by Corinne Fowler. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, LLC.

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