July 2014 meeting: Fictionalising the legacy of slavery in Mansfield Park

July 20, 2014

JASACT members were treated to a wonderful talk this month by ex-member (whom we hope will return one day) Roslyn Russell, author of the Mansfield Park sequel novel, Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park. In this novel, she imagines that some ten years after being banished to the country, and upon the death of her companion Aunt Norris, Maria Bertram goes to Barbados and learns about slavery and the abolition movement. Ros titled her talk Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park: Fictionalising the legacy of slavery in Mansfield Park.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and Slavery

Ros commenced by telling us that most of the characters in her novel are fictional, but some are based on real people. Before discussing this further, however, she read the excerpt from Mansfield Park which contains the only reference to slavery:

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?”

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like— I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” (MP)

She noted how this shows Maria and Julia’s lack of interest in the source of their family’s income. She then referred to cultural theorist Edward Said’s discussion of the novel and his statement that it is not appropriate “to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave”. Said, she told us, did not apply 21st century attitudes to his assessment of Austen, but suggested that her work, as that of an author who belonged to a slave-owning society, should be analysed in context and in terms of what she does and doesn’t say rather than simply attacked as being complicit.

Ros then briefly outlined some of Austen’s known or probable connections with plantations:

  • the family’s close relationship with her father’s friend, the plantocrat James Langford Nibbs who was also Austen brother’s godfather. Nibbs apparently took his son out to his plantations in Antigua to settle down his unruly behaviour, which rather mirrors Sir Thomas’ taking Tom out to his plantation.
  • Austen’s aunt-by-marriage, Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was born in Barbados, though went to school in England.
  • Mrs Skeet who is mentioned in Austen’s letters. Skeet is a common name in Barbados, suggesting she had a connection to slavery*.
  • the Holder family of Ashe Park, also friends of the Austens. Holder, too, is a common name in the Caribbean.

The title Mansfield Park, itself, could also reflect Austen’s awareness of the slavery issue, as it may have been inspired by Lord Mansfield who was famous for adjudications which contributed significantly to the eventual abolition of the slave trade. (This is the Lord Mansfield who became guardian of his mulatto niece Dido, fictionalised in the recent film, Belle).

Barbados and Maria Returns

Russell then turned to her own book, first addressing the question of why she had set it in Barbados and not Antigua, where the Bertrams’ plantation was. Firstly, she said, she has been to Barbados several times and knows its history. She couldn’t, she said, write about a place she didn’t know. And Barbados is also the location of a historical event she uses in her novel.

Mansfield Park was written 20 years before emancipation (i.e. the formal abolition of slavery in 1834). Maria Returns is set about 15 years after MP, and so during the time when the abolition movement was becoming more vocal. Ros explained that the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did not seriously affect the Caribbean plantations as they were “breeding” their own slaves and were essentially self-sufficient. However, the abolition of slavery was a major threat and the plantation families were deeply concerned. By the 1820s the abolition movement was becoming active – mostly among Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists and Quakers. At the close of her talk, Ros told us that slave owners in the Caribbean were, in total, given £20m compensation, while the slaves received nothing. One hundred years later they were still earning the same dollar figure (i.e. not adjusted for inflation) they were paid after emancipation. Barbados is extremely poor and is now asking for reparation.

Ros talked about how her book, though fiction, draws from history. For example, at the dinner party in the English village where Maria first meets abolitionist John Simpson, he talks of a trial in Barbados in which slaves were apparently unjustly convicted of and executed for a murder. This trial did occur and is a reason Russell chose Barbados for her setting. The trial was witnessed by James Stephen** who, though he lived a little earlier than our fictional Simpson, is Russell’s model for her character.

Simpson also talks at this dinner about a slave rebellion, led by African-slave Bussa, that occurred in Barbados in 1816. Bussa was killed in the rebellion. Such slave rebellions resulted in plantation owners becoming harsher. Simpson makes it clear which side he is on. This is a wake up call for Maria who:

had not been aware of the strength of feeling in the wider community against the institution of slavery, from which her own family had benefitted so materially. (MR)

After Maria arrives in Bridgetown she meets or hears of other abolitionists, such as the historically real free coloured man, Sam Prescod (who, with Bussa, is now a national hero) and plantation owner Josiah Thompson. Thompson is fictional but, as a former owner who downsized his estate and treated his slaves-now-servants well, he has historical antecedents. Men who behaved like he did faced hostility from other Barbadians – and so, in the novel, Thompson is a lonely man who is keen to host Maria and her friends at his home. His willingness to import a teacher from England to teach his slaves also has precedents, Ros said. Maria realises again that she’d never wondered about her father’s plantations, but she begins now to wonder what her father might think about the people she’s meeting.

Ros then spoke about the treatment of slave women by their white owners, particularly in relation to sexual predation. This forms an important part of the story – but I won’t spoil it here for those of you who haven’t yet read the book. However, she again spoke of historical precedents – not that we really needed any for this one!  We weren’t, though, quite prepared for the example she gave us, one Thomas Thistlewood who kept a diary of his plantation life. Wikipedia confirms what Ros told us: his diary chronicled “3,852 acts of sexual intercourse and/or rape with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves”.

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Ros illustrated her talk with some wonderful illustrations, such as the painting used on the cover of her book, Agostino Brunias’ The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl, and a contemporary painting of Bridgetown by Percy William Justyne. She also mentioned some of the sources she used in her research, like Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the blood: A family’s story of slavery and empire.

The talk concluded with more discussion of her novel:  how she drew from the Mansfield Park characters, how she developed and used those characters in her story, and how she tried to keep it historically accurate.

Q & A

Several questions were asked, in the short Q&A that followed, about both Barbados and the novel.

One point that intrigued us was her point early in her talk that Barbados had been first settled in 1627. “First settled?” our politically aware Australian ears wondered? Yes, said Ros, there was no-one there when the British landed. (There is evidence of Amerindian occupation but they had disappeared long before the British arrived). Ros also filled us in on the role of transportation, convicts and indentured labour in the Caribbean. These people formed another community, and were known as “Redlegs“.

Regarding a question concerning Sir Thomas and sexual behaviour in Barbados, Ros said she wanted to preserve him as an upright person. She was also, we discussed, kind to Tom, by showing him to have feelings for his slave paramour and by letting him off lightly in the novel in terms of the repercussions of his behaviour. We felt that Ros’s depiction of her Austen characters was credible, and we liked the way she wove the slave plantation history through her novel.

There was more … but this has hopefully provided a good enough summary for our absent members who missed a highly enjoyable and informative meeting. We concluded by thanking Ros and Bill for, respectively, giving us a wonderful talk and providing an excellent venue for it – and we then enjoyed the afternoon tea provided by Bill’s venue!

* Names that are common in slave areas are usually so because slaves tended to take on the surnames of their masters.

** Wikipedia tells that Stephen was great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf.

June 2014 Meeting: The Clergy in Jane Austen’s novels

July 2, 2014

The topic of discussion at the June Meeting was the clergymen in Jane Austen’s novels. Members had consulted a number of secondary sources in preparation for the discussion, including

  • Christopher Brooke, Jane Austen: Illusion and Reality
  • The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen
  • Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy
  • Michael Giffin in Sensibilities December 2012
  • Various blogs and websites as well as the primary sources of the six novels

The ensuing discussion was both lively and wide-ranging, beginning with the observation that, in the masculine world of Jane Austen professions were becoming more respectable, reflecting a change in attitude and the move from Regency to Victorian values.

Clergy were considered gentlemen, as they were landowners with the right to vote. However the role of the clergy in the novels would not be recognised by us, as there seems a distinct lack of vocation and no training per se. Although all clergy had to attend either Oxford or Cambridge, the degree course, largely based on the classics, was very general.

In his address to the Jane Austen Society AGM in 1993, Dom Nicholas Seymour, an Anglican Benedictine monk, commented that

 Jane Austen’s clergymen fit into the overall moral world of her novels as men first and clergymen second: they are not seen as examples of “clergymen” for study as such. They are largely speaking, socially presentable members of a well defined social group . . I feel that her clergymen are in her moral universe as moral beings . . . they are products of their experiences – witness her frequent link between a lack of early education and a later lack of social poise – and their clerical life is part of what they are.

while Irene Collins ponders

Readers of Jane Austen’s novels can be excused for wondering what duties her clergymen . . . were supposed to perform since they seem to have endless amounts of time and leisure to devote to their private concerns.

And Michael Giffin in Sensibilities, December 2012 commented

Like other members of Austen’s real and imagined society, her priests are flawed and Anglicans accommodate priestly flaws by maintaining the Catholic principle of ex opera operato in Article XXVI of the 39 articles- this acknowledges that within the church “the evil be ever mingled with the good and sometimes the evil have chief authority”. Austen’s priests are often unworthy of their office but their unworthiness does not detract from the efficacy of the sacraments they mediate or the word they preach, because they are “of Christ’s institutions and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

This background helps us understand Austen’s attitude towards her priests. She took their office seriously but did not defer to them as persons. She did not require them to be paragons of holiness or remain separate from society: however she expected them to fulfill their priestly role.

To Irene Collins

 Jane Austen combined a high regard for the role of the clergy with a total acceptance of their leisured existence: to her, they were more important for what they were than what they did.

Discussion then turned to the specifics of Jane Austen’s clergy men: the quiet nature of Edward Ferrars, although he had no sense of calling, means that the church suits his character and ensures for him a profession and an income so that he can marry; the inimitable Mr Collins could have been based on Jane Austen’s cousin, the Rev Edward Cooper who sent his sermons to her. Cooper believed that there should be no indulgence in any form of worldly pleasure on a Sunday. Austen disagreed and perhaps in creating Mr Collins she was making a private joke for her family as the famous letter Mr Collins sends to Mr Bennet after Lydia’s disgrace was rather like the letters of Rev Cooper. Discussion of Mr Collins inevitably led to discussion of patronage.

Mr Collins however is a dutiful clergyman as is Mr Elton. Neither of them shirked their duty.

One member then pointed out that Jane Austen suggests in Mansfield Park that the role could improve the man, saying through Fanny about Dr Grant:

 A man – a sensible man like Dr Grant, cannot be in the habit of teaching others their duty every week, cannot go to church twice every Sunday and preach such very good sermons in so good a manner as he does, without being the better for it himself. It must make him think, and I have no doubt that he oftener endeavours to restrain himself than he would if he had been any thing but a clergyman.

Having established that most clergymen didn’t write their own sermons and that clergymen in a country parish were not expected to celebrate Holy Communion more than once a month, the discussion moved to the role of the clergy in local government, in upholding the Poor Laws and dispensing charity.

Christopher Brooke describes the rector:

as a central figure in the village community . . . second only to the squire in status, helping . . . to preserve social harmony or . . . as an instrument of social control.

 And finally the role of the parson’s wife and her expectations of poverty after the death of her husband with old Mrs Bates the obvious example from the novels.

We agreed with Dom Seymour that Jane Austen creates her clergymen with realism, with imagination and with charity.

After afternoon tea, an entertaining and instructive meeting finished with a quiz and quotes.

June Meeting

June 16, 2014

The June Meeting will take place this Saturday, June 21st, in the Friends’ Lounge of the national Library at 1.30pm. The topic for discussion is the clergy in Jane Austen’s novels.

May 2014 meeting: Jane Austen Festival Australia Discussion

May 30, 2014

Prepared by member Cheng

Canberra’s 2014 Jane Austen Festival Australia, held from 10-13th April at University House, was the topic for discussion at JASACT’s 17th May meeting. Most members attended the Sunday Symposium, however, one member had also spent Friday at the Festival and she enthusiastically regaled us with her adventures and personal impressions. After the amusing saga of discovering the route to the Stanner Room, she described Tony Miller’s brilliant lecture on Josephine as being so good that she forgot to take notes. Nevertheless, we still heard some extraordinary facts and anecdotes about the Empress. Our member declared it her favourite session of the Festival!

Afterwards she had watched, in awe, the Country Dancing class led by John Gardiner-Garden and decided that she would have needed a brain programmed by IBM and the constitution of a de Castella before she even stepped into an 18th c. ball room. Just to browse through the ten tomes of historic dance patterns on sale was exhausting enough. Despite her being one of the few not clad in Regency garb she still felt that she was made welcome and found it easy to chat to those who were costumed – they were just as willing to explain the construction of their gowns as she was to admire them. It was definitely a family event with young people of all ages participating in the dancing with their parents and a really friendly atmosphere.

The Jane Austen Festival Book Club lead by Alison Goodman was a lively discussion of Mansfield Park, with a surprising range of opinions. As we have already studied this novel thoroughly at our meetings, she found it interesting to listen to some fresh ideas and gained a couple of possible areas for future research.

Lunch was a treat for her because as a vegetarian she is accustomed to having to forage at most public gatherings but on this occasion different diets had been catered for and she grazed gratefully. It was a good example of the care and thought that Aylwen Gardiner-Garden lavishes on the Festival. If only all conferences handed out booklets at Registration containing useful information on every facet of the event! (Though perhaps next time it could contain a map…..to that shy and elusive Stanner Room…)

The Market Tables drew lots of attention during the lunch break and Festival goers had a diversity of temptations from which to choose.

John Potter’s talk on the Napoleonic era Canadian-American War of 1812 was the last session that our member attended that day and we learnt many odd facts about the NSW Corps which had re-formed into the 102nd Regiment of Foot and participated in this war. The chief one being that an Australian, Andrew Douglas White, the son of naval surgeon White, had enlisted and gone on to become the only Australian present at Waterloo! Another member had just returned from a holiday in Toronto, Canada and was able to tell us about Fort York and battle sites relating to this war that she had visited.

Mansfeld Park Symposium

The Sunday morning Symposium started with apologies from the two male speakers, Markus Adamson and Will Christie, which disappointed many of the attendees. However, the four female lecturers were so engaging that everyone felt well satisfied and even wondering whether the scheduling of six might have pushed us into overload.

Janet Lee spoke on the importance of letters and letter writing in Mansfield Park. With liberal examples she drew our attention to the many instances of Jane Austen’s using letters to drive the plot. In fact, Jane Austen used them in this novel far more than in any of her others to inform both the characters and the reader.

“Mansfield Park and Education” was the subject for Heather Neilson’s talk and it overlapped and complemented that of the following speaker, Gillian Dooley’s “No Moral Effect on the Mind: Music in Mansfield Park”. Our discussion tended to blend both talks and covered the contrast between an education that produced a character of true moral worth and that which resulted in merely sophisticated, superficial ‘accomplishments’ – the difference that was illustrated by the moral intelligence of Fanny versus the cleverness of her cousins and the Crawfords and that eventually had to be acknowledged by Sir Thomas Bertram.

We particularly appreciated the musical examples that Gillian Dooley used and wished she’d brought more. It was an interesting point that musicians in Mansfield Park were seen at a disadvantage. The characters with musical accomplishment having serious personal flaws. So was Fanny’s want of emulation a sign of her strength?

One of our members had been surprised to discover that a harp cost five times as much as a piano, or the same as employing a housemaid for 10 years or buying a house in London.

The final talk, “Mansfield Park and Landscape Gardening” by Christine Alexander was the one of most interest to our group because we had recently researched this subject with reference to Gilpin and the concept of the Picturesque and the Sublime. Improvement of the estate and the country house ideal are strong themes in Mansfield Park. In both literature and poetry of the times there was the town life versus country life debate – the longing for a return to nature.

Whilst London was the home of liveliness and gaiety, social manners and graces, it was also a scene of debasement and filth. Fanny’s situation in Portsmouth was described as ‘alien to proper moral growth’, whereas her love of Cowper was a sign of her embracing his belief in the natural world of the countryside bringing peace of mind with free and luxurious solitude. The natural landscape could inspire virtue.

Accomplishing this transformation on one’s estate was usually done with the aid of a landscape gardener such as Repton. However, Jane Austen subtly sketched the difference between respecting ‘the genius of the place’ and imposing upon it a ‘naturalistic’ vista. That Sotherton’s chapel had fallen into disuse revealed the loss of the family’s, and therefore the house’s, solid spiritual basis that no cosmetic landscaping could replace.

At Mansfield Park, on the other hand, it was Fanny’s presence and values that brought integrity and true worth back to the property.

Our meeting ended with the usual swapping of ‘show and tell’ items, a round of quotes and a devilishly hard quiz.

Yes, we did indeed enjoy the April excursion to the Festival and look forward to attending it again next year, perhaps with even a full day Symposium? Congratulations and sincere appreciation go to the dauntless Aylwen Gardiner-Garden and her team of volunteers for such a successful weekend. That gleeful Friday attendee of ours has even been glimpsed fingering frock patterns…….


May Meeting

May 13, 2014

The May meeting is this Saturday, May 17th, at 1.30pm in the Friends’ Lounge of the National Library. Members will report back and discuss their experiences at the Jane Austen Festival of Australia held last month.

April 2014 “meeting”: Jane Austen Festival Australia

April 15, 2014

Prepared by member Cheng.

Our April meeting was an excursion to ‘Mansfield Park : 200 years’ – an enthusiastic four day celebration of the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication, held by our sister society, the Jane Austen Festival Australia, at University House, Canberra. From Thurs 10th to Sun 13th April the program was packed with talks, demonstrations, tours, workshops, balls and a half-day symposium.

Our next meeting on Saturday 17th May will be a discussion of this wonderfully successful Festival. Our thanks go to its director, Aylwen Gardiner-Garden, for so kindly inviting us to share the event* and indulge our fascination and love of Jane Austen and her world.

* We did of course pay our way, but our attendance was inspired by Aylwen’s attendance at our January meeting at which she outlined the Festival for us.

March 2014 Meeting: Servants in Jane Austen’s novels, with a look at Jo Baker’s Longbourn

March 16, 2014

Having enjoyed last year’s theme of looking at how Jane Austen explored specific emotions – such as anger, desire, envy and jealousy – in her novels, we decided to turn to roles, starting this month with servants. The theme was partly inspired by the publication last year of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice, the Servants’ Story, so we included a discussion of this book in our meeting.

Male servants

We began by sharing some interesting snippets of information. One member was intrigued by the reference to “footboy” in Persuasion, as she, like others of us, hadn’t heard the term before. (The term more common to us is “page”). This led to a discussion of taxation on male servants because of the war. Judith Terry states that the number of male servants in a household was “a mark of rank and wealth”. Taxation on male servants was introduced in 1777, at one guinea per head. By 1808, this had been increased to £7 per head in households that had 11 or more male servants. (Note that a dairymaid at that time would earn 8 guineas per annum so this tax was significant). Only the wealthy would have a male cook – and we noted that Bingley’s cook in Baker’s Longbourn is male! We also noted that the gender of Serle, Mr Woodhouse’s cook in Emma, is not identified.

Naming of servants

We discussed the way people in power presume to give names to those less powerful. Housemaid Polly, who was christened Mary, was given the name Polly because Miss Mary (Bennet) already had that name. Bingley’s footman, the mulatto Ptolemy, had the last name of Bingley because:

If you’re off his estate, that’s your name, that’s how it works. (Longbourn)

We also talked a little about servants being called either by their first or last name in Austen’s novels, but rarely with their title – Mr, Mrs, Miss.

Servants as watchers and spies

One member commented on how closely servants watched their masters, while their masters were often oblivious of them (beyond the tasks they performed). Watching was in the servants’ interest of course because their future was often tied to the fortunes of their masters. Baker demonstrates this in Longbourn through Mrs Hill’s concern regarding who would take over Longbourn when Mr Bennet died. Unlike Mrs Bennet she was reasonably happy with Mr Collins’ choice of Charlotte Lucas:

The future was no longer such a terrifying place. Charlotte Lucas was a steady young woman, who knew the value of a good servant, and who had far too much sense to replace staff simply for the sake of appearance or fashion. (Longbourn)

But servants could also be gossips, as Elizabeth was only too aware at the time of Lydia’s “elopement”. She and the Gardiners were pleased when Mrs Bennet withdrew to her room

for they knew that she had not prudence enough to hold her tongue before the servants, while they waited at table. (P&P)

Servants and employers

A member quoted Judith Terry’s comment that, in her novels, Austen suggests that “too much intimacy with servants is a bad thing”. In Longbourn, we noticed, it was bad-boy Wickham who behaved most familiarly with the servants, and while doing so, cast his eyes particularly in Polly’s direction!

One of the servants most visible in Jane Austen’s novels is the housekeeper of Pemberley, Mrs Reynolds. We all remembered Elizabeth Bennet’s reaction to Mrs Reynolds’ praise of Darcy:

What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant. (P&P)

The book in which servants play the greatest role is Mansfield Park, largely because of Mrs Norris. The servants provide plenty of opportunities for her to demonstrate many of her unappealing characteristics, such as her bullying. A member noted that Mansfield Park is the only Austen novel in which a servant levels a criticism at his superiors – when Baddeley, with a half-smile (this half-smile being the criticism), makes it very clear to Mrs Norris that it is indeed Miss Price whom Sir Thomas wants, not her!

We, like Terry and Mullan, discussed the fact that Austen often uses servants in the novel to provide commentary on her characters. Her best characters in other words, such as Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, treat servants well, while her worst, such as Mrs Norris and Lady Catherine de Burgh, do quite the opposite.

Specific critique of Longbourn

Several members felt that Jo Baker generally made the Bennet and Lucas families poorer than they were: Longbourn is presented as smaller and “meaner” than the Bennets’ house would have been; the descriptions of horses and carriages (chaises and calashes) did not accord with the “reality” of the novels; the housekeeper of Hunsford parsonage is unlikely to have used a term like “dolly-mop” (slang for prostitute or strumpet) for Sarah.

One member shared her research into Eau de vie and the Cordial Balm of Gilead. She suggested that the cost of the Balm of Gilead – a small bottle would cost the same as one week’s wage for a labourer – emphasises Mrs Bennet’s frivolousness.

Some members found the novel a rollicking read, while others enjoyed the historical information but felt the story was “wrong” or too melodramatic. All agreed that Baker was sensible in not attempting to emulate Austen’s style.


Baker, Jo (2103) Longbourn: Pride and Prejudice, the Servants’ Story. London: Doubleday
Mullan, John (2012) What matters in Jane Austen. London: Bloomsbury
Terry, Judith (1988) “Seen but not heard: Servants in Jane Austen’s England”, in Persuasions #10, 1988, pp. 104-116

Other business and next meeting

The meeting concluded with a quiz focusing on servants in Austen (which we managed better than usual due to many of the answers having been revealed during the meeting!) and our quotes.

Various pieces of information were shared, including:

  • the invitation to the launch of Roslyn Russell’s book;
  • an article on the television miniseries, Death comes to Pemberley;
  • a Sotheby’s ad for an auction of 18th century postilion boots; and
  • information regarding Dale Spender’s book about women novelists before Austen, Mothers of the novel.

There will be no formal meeting in April, enabling members instead to attend some or all of the Jane Austen Festival of Australia (JAFA). Our May meeting, 17 May, will be devoted to a discussion of our JAFA experiences.


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