Gabrielle White offers an abolitionist reading of Austen's work, and of Emma specifically. Part of the evidence is circumstantial. Some of Austen's best-loved writers favored not only the abolition of the slave trade (which happened in 1807) but also the abolition of chattel slavery in British colonies (which didn't happen until the 1830s, well after Austen's death).
Samuel Johnson pondered, "how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" and once gave a toast at Oxford, "Here's to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies."
In "The Negro's Complaint," Cowper detailed the injustice of slavery:
FORCED from home and all its pleasures
Afric's coast I left forlorn,
To increase a stranger's treasures
O'er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though slave they have enrolled me,
Minds are never to be sold.
Still in thought as free as ever,
What are England's rights, I ask,
Me from my delights to sever,
Me to torture, me to task ?
Fleecy locks and black complexion
Cannot forfeit nature's claim;
Skins may differ, but affection
Dwells in white and black the same.
Why did all-creating nature
Make the plant for which we toil?
Sighs must fan it, tears must water,
Sweat of ours must dress the soil.
Think, ye masters iron-hearted,
Lolling at your jovial boards,
Think how many backs have smarted
For the sweets your cane affords.
Is there, as ye sometimes tell us,
Is there One who reigns on high?
Has He bid you buy and sell us,
Speaking from his throne, the sky?
Ask him, if your knotted scourges,
Matches, blood-extorting screws,
Are the means that duty urges
Agents of his will to use?
Hark! He answers!--Wild tornadoes
Strewing yonder sea with wrecks,
Wasting towns, plantations, meadows,
Are the voice with which he speaks.
He, foreseeing what vexations
Afric's sons should undergo,
Fixed their tyrants' habitations
Where his whirlwinds answer--"No."
By our blood in Afric wasted
Ere our necks received the chain;
By the miseries that we tasted,
Crossing in your barks the main;
By our sufferings, since ye brought us
To the man-degrading mart,
All sustained by patience, taught us
Only by a broken heart;
Deem our nation brutes no longer,
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted powers,
Prove that you have human feelings,
Ere you proudly question ours!
And "Pity for Poor Africans," he attacked the economy of slavery with bitter irony:
I OWN I am shock'd at the purchase of slaves,
And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of thcir hardships, their tortures, and groans
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea!
Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes,
Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains;
If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will,
And tortures and groans will be multiplied still.
Cowper's views were summarized in his question, "We have no Slaves at home - then why abroad?"
White suggests that a brief conversation about the slave trade in Emma shows that Austen sympathized with such views: "I begin by suggesting an allusion to the Biblical phrase 'one flesh' for the phrase 'human flesh' that is used by Jane Fairfax. The obnoxious Mrs Elton interjects that the governess-to-be must mean by the sale of human flesh 'a fling at the slave trade.' Within the context of the novel, and related to discourse about the nouveaux riches at Maple Grove, the setting of the dialogue on the slave trade suggests that just as Mrs Elton was not after all much of a friend to Jane Fairfax, so the owner of Maple Grove, Mr Suckling, may not have been much of a 'friend to the abolition.' Since the respect in which governesses are compared to slaves is in being traded, both may be regarded as commodities. Furthermore, since these objects of trading are said to be victims and to be caused misery, in the case of the slave trade its guilt also being affirmed implies its victims should be freed from their misery."
Though White's argument is a fairly standard attempt to associate Austen with every right cause, and though this exchange hardly places abolition at the center of the novel, there is definitely something to it. If the "governess trade" produces misery and if, as Jane suggests, the slave traders have greater guilt, then it seems reasonable to conclude that Jane Fairfax (and presumably Jane Austen) is an opponent of the slave trade (already abolished when Austen published the book).
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Friday, August 10, 2007 at 05:26 PM
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