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.