Re-visiting Jane Austen

How do you perceive Jane Austen’s novels?

I have something to say on this topic, and am prompted to say it by this New York Times story about the new approach that’s being taken within the Jane Austen museum in England.

The museum’s people have decided to confront slavery and slave trading within Austen’s immediate world. O horror! say a bunch of Janeites. The article discusses the horror and the reality: Austen’s family had connections to an estate in Antigua the profits and product of which — sugar cane — were due to the slaves who labored on the plantation.

By and large, Janeites don’t and can’t dispute that slave labor is part of the coded subtext of Mansfield Park, since a major character, Sir Thomas Bertram, leaves the novel for an extended time to see to his estate(s) in what they called the West Indies. While no mention is made of slaves, neither is there denial.

In 1807, England passed a law abolishing the slave trade. Slavery itself was abolished in England and its territories (with exceptions in the Far East, dominated by the virtual empire which was the East India Trading Company) in 1833, when slaves in the West Indies were liberated.

Austen finished Mansfield Park in 1813; it was published the following year. The abolitionist movement had been active in England throughout Austen’s lifetime. Austen doesn’t inform us about the purpose of Sir Thomas’s long absence except to hint why he left England. When he returns, he expresses satisfaction that the Antigua problems have been resolved. We can all imagine Sir Thomas had to go to his Antigua plantation to reckon with the new reality: although he could keep his slaves, he could no longer bring in new slaves.

I’ve been reading and re-reading Austen for many years. To anyone who perceives Austen’s novels as encircling us with a charming, intimate, protected and naive ladies’ world, I say you haven’t read Austen. Slavery is only one of the monstrous realities in her stories and Sir Thomas is only one of the seriously compromised characters she created.

Among the pathologies among Austen’s characters are narcissism, stupidity, dishonesty, bullying, infidelity; there are abusive or neglectful parents; and every novel has at least one charming sociopath who does grievous damage. Unpleasant, even criminal (by our standards) sexual harassment and adventurism abound.

Passionate sexuality is woven into every story. Austen may have been an unmarried woman but she knew the essence of sexual attraction, and how sex can run rampant, wrecking lives in the process.

In Mansfield Park, there is a discomforting pair of siblings whose behavior toward each other feels incestuous. I have the sense that, as exposed as Austen makes them on the page, there is something more that goes on behind the novel, behind the doors. And the brother’s cynical approach to the abjectly undefended Fanny, the novel’s quiet main character, is bordering on sexual assault.

I don’t say that lightly; indeed, I find a couple of scenes in Mansfield Park so creepy and troubling I can barely read them, even though I know how it’ll all turn out and that Fanny will be OK.

Yet, despite all that, Austen’s six great novels are also romances; a couple of them are romcoms.

But disabuse yourself of the idea that they will transport you out of the awful complexities of today and pull you into a simpler, sweeter, less angsty world. Although, if you haven’t the 21st century guts to face Regency reality, you can skip to the end of Persuasion and thrill to one of the two greatest literary love letters ever written.

I’ll leave you to figure out which is the other one.


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