I suggest that Jane Austen would have approved of this examination. In fact, she might have earlier scolded the museum for being “too quiet” on matters of race.
The abolitionist-minded Austen wasn’t quiet on the slave trade, as she calls it in “Mansfield Park.” She mentions its cruelty in “Emma” and adds an open call for reconciliation in her embodiment of Miss Lambe, her only Black character, in the unfinished novel “Sanditon.”
It is a material fact that Austen had close relatives and family friends guilty of direct participation in enslavement. Moreover, she benefited from these associations — room and board, clothing, upkeep. Most middle-class and well-to-do families of her time did. In the early 1800s, the sugar trade added four dollars to every one earned by other means to the economies of the Western Hemisphere. Many landowners depended on income created from their West Indies holdings to maintain their affluent lifestyles.
For authors and museums, making choices about how to present such history is always difficult. In my biographical fictions, I’ve vividly described the conflicts and attitudes derived from colonialism. But I’ve treaded more cautiously with my Regency romances, prioritizing my characters’ emotional journeys. This means I’ve seeded my worlds with the splendor of indigo-dyed cotton, and harvested chocolates and coffee, while choosing not to belabor the point that my ancestors died in fields in America and the West Indies to bring these comforts to my narratives. Readers come to these stories for the romance and leave more knowledgeable about the era, which sometimes means accepting hidden histories.
The Austen museum’s displays will challenge what is known, what is shared, what is heralded. Many may not realize that Austen was progressive. In family letters, she comments on the writings of her favorite abolitionists and discusses enslavement with her brother, Admiral Francis Austen. Francis is vocal in his disgust over the ownership of men and women, and proud of his capture of illegal vessels, stopping the transport of slaves.
In “Mansfield Park,” Austen bluntly addresses enslavement. The good-guy hero Edmund Bertram wants the pure-hearted heroine Fanny Price to ask more questions about the slave trade and its pains, but she grows quiet, fretting about what others think. “You are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle,” Edmund says. Even the title, “Mansfield Park,” sounds as if Austen is trolling the enslavers and greedy insurance classes by invoking the name of Lord Mansfield, whose rulings — as in Somerset v. Stewart — began establishing rights for the marginalized and the enslaved.
Austen’s father, the Rev. George Austen, was a trustee for an Antiguan plantation owned by his close family friend James Langford Nibbs — whose estate ran into financial difficulties because of his son’s debts. And so: Austen’s character Sir Thomas Bertram in “Mansfield Park” possesses a plantation in Antigua. His holdings become strained because his son Tom has run up debts.
Austen tattled on her family’s history and the world she inhabited in her books. Had she finished “Sanditon,” I believe the text would have balanced the greed inspired by Miss Lambe’s wealth with the rejection stirred by her race — insights Austen garnered from Nibbs’s Black and mixed-race relatives. In that case surely no one would question the Austen museum’s decision to tackle race issues today. Indeed, Austen might ask from the grave why it has taken so long.
Should people fear the end of the world when attempts are made to correct the record? What harm does it do to you personally to acknowledge the sins of the past, the ones that allowed the few to prosper and burdened the many in the yoke of bondage for a cup of sugar, a bale of cotton, a bag of coffee?
History lovers like myself will do the painstaking research to add context and restore marginalized voices to the settings they helped build — and whose blood, sweat and tears scream that they belong.
The Austen museum has decided to do the same. Its curators have chosen not to sit back at the dinner table and quietly enjoy their food, as Fanny’s relations did in “Mansfield Park.” They dare to acknowledge the truth. This should be applauded, not censured. The museum’s actions will keep Austen’s works relevant for the future. In the end, isn’t that what we all want?