Austen and Abolition, by Diana J Oaks

Austen and Abolition, by Diana J Oaks

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. It marks the birthdate of one of the great civil rights leaders of our age, and the society we live in today is deeply reflective of all that he did, said and stood for. Whether we realize it or not, we have been shaped by this man in some way.

Jane Austen, however, grew up in a world without MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The struggle today has evolved from Austen’s time, yet there are distinct parallels between Austen and King. Both clearly saw the injustice that was evident in their society and used the means at their disposal to bring it to light.

Many academics have cast Austen as an early voice of feminism for example, due to her repeated themes of the unjust hardship of being a woman in an era where women are considered property. That’s an easy case to make, what with the Bennet’s destined for the hedgerows if they don’t marry well, and the Dashwoods forced to leave their beloved home when the eldest son from another wife inherits the entirety of the estate. There were few options outside of marriage to women of the upper classes when poverty struck.

This reality was repeatedly pointed out by the women of Austen’s novels. Consider this passage from Emma:

Jane Fairfax: “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is by no means my intention; I make no inquiry myself, and should be sorry to have any made by my friends. When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—offices for the sale, not quite of human flesh—but human intellect.”

Mrs. Elton: “Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”

Jane Fairfax: “I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade. Governess trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”

Although Jane Fairfax demurs that she did not mean the slave-trade, Austen undoubtedly meant the comparison to stand. Just as hot topics of our day bring about passionate discourse on various sides of the issues, Austen’s life was indeed touched by the question of the slave trade and abolition.

It is easy to assume that Austen’s knowledge of the slave trade was distant, yet in 1760, her father, the Reverend George Austen, was named a trustee to a plantation in Antigua. The plantation was owned by James Langford Nibbs, who was intimate enough with the family to be later named as Godfather to Jane’s brother, James Austen. Jane had cousins who settled in the West Indies, and there were additionally marriages that tied the Austens to property and politics of Bermuda and Barbados. Her brother Francis, in the course of his naval career, even intercepted a Portuguese slave ship.

Writers are counselled to “write what you know,” and Jane was certainly qualified to work the question of Caribbean plantations into her writing. She gives the topic a light touch in her novels, but she does touch on it, with Mansfield Park bearing the most distinct references to the question of slavery. A review of all the passages in Mansfield Park that refer or allude to slavery gives weight to the idea that slavery was intended to be one of the themes of the work. Even the name of the novel and its setting invite the reader to make the connection between Lord Mansfield and the numerous parallels of the story to his life and family. Lest anyone assume it was just a coincidence, she offsets the name of the park with the name of its cruellest inhabitant, Mrs. Norris.  John Norris of Liverpool was a famous slave trader and anti-abolitionist of the day. If I were to write a contemporary novel and gave my characters surnames like Trump, Sharpton, Cruz or Pelosi, their very names would prove a powerful shorthand in leading the readers to make certain assumptions about the characters.

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield


There are at least two writers of abolitionist literature that we know Jane read and admired,  Thomas Clarkson and William Cowper. Cowper wrote about diverse topics, and many of his works were well known, but one that stands out as linking that day to this is the poem “The Negro’s Complaint” that was likely read aloud and discussed by the Austen family.  It was also read and quoted by Martin Luther King in his speeches.

That thought sets well with me— that the same words of humanity and equality were held in the hearts of and passed through the lips of both Austen and King.

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January 25, 2016 1:18 PM

This was a thought-provoking blog. Thank you! There are times in the world when there is a shift in public opinion. Certainly in Jane’s time, from what I read here in the blog and the comments, there was the beginning of a shift in opinions about slavery. The written word, however subtle that Jane had to be, does have it’s impact. I suspect the readers of her day (99% of them women?), if they paid any attention to current events, very much recognized the hints. As the women were and still are, the biggest influence on children in their formative years, it seems probable that the women who read and loved Jane Austen’s books were in agreement with her abolition views and instilled those same views in their children. Perhaps, in some way, Jane’s contribution to abolition, however subtle, manifested its fruits in the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, when the children born in 1811 were now grown and making their mark on the world. With this in mind, writers must recognize the impact of their words on today’s society and take that responsibility seriously.

Mary Robinette Kowal
January 19, 2016 4:38 PM

I love Jane Austen and think she had interesting things to say about feminism and race, but I don’t think that comparing her to MLK is entirely on point.

January 19, 2016 9:08 AM

Thank you for such a thought provoking piece. I particularly enjoyed the link to Cowper’s poem which was incredibly moving.

Debbie Fortin
January 19, 2016 6:28 AM

Thank you for this insighful post. I find it interesting that MLK read Cowper as well, although I knew Jane loved his poetry. I thank you for the explanation of the use of the name, Norris, and a comparison to today’s contemporaries. This changes he meaning of the character of Mrs. Norris to me.

January 18, 2016 5:10 PM

Diana, thank you for this insightful post.

January 18, 2016 4:43 PM

Mansfield Park, though not my favorite of her novels, was very clever in its subtlety. I think at one point Fanny wants to bring up the topic of slavery in a family discussion, and someone abruptly changes the subject. That part is very telling to me.

Jennifer Redlarczyk
Jennifer Redlarczyk
January 18, 2016 11:31 AM

I also love the connections and I know that some JAFF authors have touched on it as well. Thanks for your timely post. Jen

Brenda Webb
Brenda Webb
January 18, 2016 9:41 AM

Fascinating information Diana. I love when someone makes the connections to reveal what Jane may have been trying to say without really coming out and saying it. Thanks for sharing this with us.

January 18, 2016 12:46 AM

Thank you! I have always thought that JA must have read Wollstonecraft and been versed in the politics of the time with Wilberforce and others agitating for the abolishment of the slave trade, no matter how controversial some people would have thought the subjects. I think every era has its great struggle, and Austen happened to live at a time that was the birth of some of the issues we are still fighting for. I sometimes wonder what she would have thought of how far we have come. I’m certainly grateful that I’m a woman of my time and not hers (no matter how much I love her books). Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

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