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.
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.