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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Jane Austen was poetically aWakened to the unhappy fate of women pushed to jump at husbands

I’ve recently revisited one of Jane Austen’s short poems:

Camilla, good humoured, & merry, & small
For a Husband was at her last stake;
And having in vain danced at many a Ball
Is now happy to jump at a Wake.

As I reread it for the first time in over a decade, I quickly realized that there was much more to these four lines than met my still scholarly naïve eyes in 2006, and this post presents to you the fruits of my consequent delvings into its deeper, darker, and very subversive meanings.

FIRST, I noted that this poem appears in the text of Letter 77 written by JA to Martha Lloyd on 11/30/1812. I’ve long recognized that the handful of surviving letters written by JA to Martha are much more likely to contain overtly subversive material than the large cache of surviving letters to Cassandra. It seems it was only while writing to Martha that JA felt free to include edgy material like “ejaculations about cocks and hens” and hating the Prince Regent, although it’s also possible that CEA later destroyed any and all comparably edgy letters that JA wrote to her.

SECOND, I took a closer look at the pun on the word/name “Wake”. Le Faye’s footnote states that JA was marking the engagement of the 38 year old Camilla Wallop to the “elderly curate” Reverend Henry Wake.  Le Faye thereby delicately implies that in marrying a much older man, Camilla Wallop’s marriage baked meats (pace Hamlet, but in reverse) might well shortly furnish forth the funeral tables for her husband. Thus, the pun on the imminent wake for Revd. Wake would appear to express the identical sentiment as the non-joking comment we find in Letter 60 to CEA dated over four years earlier, on 10/25/1808:  “Tomorrow I hope to hear from you, and tomorrow we must think of poor Catherine.”

As I noted in 2015, Le Faye, in her typical editorial obscurantism, minimally footnotes that line thusly:
Catherine: “Bigg”.       One must read Le Faye’s bio note for Revd. Herbert Hill in order to deduce that poor Catherine Bigg (age 33) and Revd. Hill (age 59) were united in marital “bliss” on (surprise, surprise) the very same date as JA’s Letter 60!  

JA, in writing the “Wake” poem, would thus initially appear to be registering a protest at the desperate decision of a single woman -- in the eyes of her family already long past her “bloom” --- making a decidedly unromantic marital choice, under pressure, when faced with the looming prospect of falling into Miss Batesian genteel poverty and social isolation. This reminds us of the fictional Charlotte Lucas stooping to marry a man like Mr. Collins, and also of the real life Jane Austen in 1802, when she almost married Catherine Bigg’s less-than-desirable brother Harris under comparable circumstances.

THIRD, I noted that JEAL went out of his way, in his 1869 Memoir, to spin JA’s “Wake” poem as her mockery of “the marriage of a middle-aged flirt with a Mr. Wake, who, it was supposed, she would scarcely have accepted in her youth”. JEAL also altered “Camilla” to “Maria”, seemingly in order to obscure the connection to the real life Camilla Wallop.

Hmmm… Given that I’ve shown in a dozen different ways over the past decade how Le Faye’s misleading obscurantism is only a misdemeanor in comparison to JEAL’s numerous outright editorial “felonies”, i.e., his whopping lies and Bowdlerizations. So I guessed there must be more hidden ore to be mined from the poem, for JEAL to have wielded his deceitful red pen so forcefully on it. In particular, the Jane Austen I know would not have meanly mocked the plight of a 38 year old single woman, especially when writing to her dear friend Martha who was single and even older. What else, I wondered, might JEAL have been trying to hide?

FOURTH, I also noted that Camilla Wallop was the niece of Lord Portsmouth, who (as I’ve recognized since I learned Lord Portsmouth’s sad story a decade ago) was one of Jane Austen’s principal sources for the character of Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion --- an ageing aristocrat of very weak intellectual capacity, who was vulnerable to being captured in marriage by a fortune-hunting woman. And so, how curious that the misogynist portrait JEAL painted in the Memoir of Lord Portsmouth’s niece as a fortune hunter, resembled JA’s fictional Mrs. Clay in that significant aspect.

FIFTH, I checked to see whether any other Austen scholars had ever looked at JA’s “wake” poem, and found two instances:

This excellent observation several years ago by Barbara Seeber: “[I]n the 4-line stanza "Camilla, good humoured, & merry, & small", occasioned by the impending marriage of her friend Urania Catherine Camilla Wallop, 38 years of age, to Reverend Henry Wake, Austen puns on the groom's name and connects marriage to death: Camilla "having in vain danced at many a Ball / Is now happy to jump at a Wake."

And this informative gloss by Kathryn Sutherland: “…The reference is to a four-line quatrain written in anticipation of the marriage of the middle-aged and, to Austen’s comic mind, desperate Urania Wallop and the elderly Revd Henry Wake. Like others of her comic verses, the joke hangs upon the punning associations of the victims’ names…The text as reproduced by Chapman and more recently by Margaret Doody comes from Austen-Leigh’s Memoir, and presumably is the version improved by James Austen, Austen-Leigh’s father, and handed down in the family .. a variant text preserved in the diary of Stephen Terry, father in law to Anna Lefroy’s fourth daughter, Georgiana, confirms that two versions were circulated in the family…”.  How interesting that the “Wake” poem was considered significant enough by others in JA’s family that it was passed from hand to hand to hand, and was not treated as disposable ephemera.

With all that background in hand, I decided to dig further into the real life of Revd. Henry Wake, and I quickly learned that I was right to mistrust Le Faye’s May-December explanation. Google and Google Books showed me that the Revd. Henry Wake was actually only 4 years older than Miss Wallop, a totally insignificant age difference when she was 38 and he was 42! So, if Jane Austen knew, as she surely did, that Camilla Wallop was actually entering into a May-June marriage, what else could JA have meant by her dark pun on “wake”?

It took me a few minutes of checking my own assumptions to realize that it wasn’t Mr. Wake’s wake JA was winking at, but Camilla’s! And not just a wake for a metaphorical death in a marriage to a much older man –which Henry Wake was not--- but Camilla’s grave risk of literal death upon marrying a still-virile man who might get her pregnant and thereby “murder” her in childbirth! That would fit all too perfectly with both the death-in-childbirth theme which I’ve argued countless times is, in the ghostly character of the late Mrs. Tilney, at the center of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey; and also with the repeated sarcastic references to numerous English gentlewives in JA’s social circle, imprisoned in the endless cycle of serial pregnancy whiich afflicted so many of JA’s married “sisters in Lucina”.

That in turn led me to check a little further online, to see if I could determine the order of “wakes” which actually occurred in the wake of the 1813 marriage of Camilla Wallop and Henry Wake. It will give you a shiver.

From his obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine, I learned that Henry Wake died four decades later at the ripe old age of 82; but I also learned a more revealing fact --- i.e., that he “was presented…to the rectory of Over Wallop in 1813 by the Earl of Portsmouth”. Do you see what that latter factoid tells us? It means that he was given a desirable living by his new cousin by marriage, the Earl of Portsmouth, at the same time as he married the Earl’s niece Camilla.

This adds an even darker and more subversive shade to JA’s meaning in her poem, because it suggests that the grant of the living was a form of “payment” by her patriarch to Henry Wake, in exchange for his marrying Camilla Wallop, and thereby taking her off the hands of the Wallop family. Now we come to the point of JEAL’s editorial deception -- the actual “fortune hunter” in this instance would appear to have been Henry Wake, not Camilla Wallop! JEAL, himself a clergyman who was given wealth and position which he did nothing to earn, seems to have been motivated to spin JA’s “Wake” poem backwards, and turn the bride into the fortune hunter – so as not to see himself in the mirror when looking at the fortune-hunting Henry Wake!

Which brings me to the most chilling part --- the death of the real life Camilla Wallop, the 38 year old woman who was at her last marital stake, and therefore jumped at a Wake. She died less than two years after her wedding day, and only a month after turning 40! Whether she died in childbirth, we may never know, but I’m pretty sure JA was saddened and angered, but not surprised, when she heard that tragic news about the death of her old friend, only a year older than JA herself. Camilla gambled her life, and lost, because the sexist odds of her country were stacked against her.

Old friend, you ask? Did Le Faye ever mention Camilla Wallop was JA’s old friend? No, she did not, nor, for that matter, did any Austen biographer other than Seeber, as far as I can tell. So, why do I nonetheless feel so confident that this was indeed the case? Because I found strong evidence for that inference hidden in plain sight in another one of JA’s letters, a letter written 7 ½ long years before JA wrote Letter 77:

Letter # 43 dated 04/11/1805 to CEA from Bath to Godmersham near the end of the Bath years, includes the following playful passage:
“I was not able to go on yesterday, all my Wit & leisure were bestowed on letters to Charles & Henry. To the former, I wrote in consequence of my Mother’s having seen in the papers that the Urania was waiting at Portsmouth for the Convoy for Halifax;--this is nice, as it is only three weeks ago that you wrote by the Camilla.—The Wallop race seem very fond of Nova Scotia…”

Le Faye’s footnote states: “The surname of the Earls of Portsmouth was Wallop, and many of the ladies of that family were Camilla or Urania—the ships so named reminded JA of this”. That might just take the cake, when it comes to Le Fayean editorial misdirection. How so? Because while it is certainly true that “many of the ladies of that family were Camilla or Urania”, I’d be willing to bet that only one member of the “Wallop race” living during the Regency Era had a name that included both of those names, and that one lady was Urania Catherine Camilla Wallop, the “heroine” of JA’s Wake poem written much later!

So, if JA was punning on two of Camilla’s names in an 1805 letter, and then punning on Camilla’s prospective husband’s name in a poem in an 1812 letter, this strongly suggests, at a minimum, an ongoing personal relationship between JA and her peer Camilla Wallop. It also suggests more to me –it speaks to an affection strong enough to induce JA to pun on both to her sister and to Martha. Why Le Faye would wish to obscure that close relationship is a question only Le Faye can answer for sure, but I believe it sounded uncomfortably romantic to the redoubtable protector of the Myth of Jane Austen.

And that’s when it all came together for me, and I realized the final forbidden element hidden in plain sight in that poem by JA --- like JA herself, I imagine that Camilla did not wish to marry at all, and, at age 38, had held out nearly to the end of her childbearing years, but then was forced to jump at it, and thereby, within a year, into the pregnancy that led to her own death. And that’s when I also realized that it is no coincidence that Jane Austen wrote her “jump at a Wake” poem in November 1812, during the exact same time period when JA was lopping and cropping First Impressions into Pride & Prejudice.

How so? Because I see, in Camilla jumping at a Wake, precisely the same punning import as I saw a few years ago in Elizabeth Bennet “jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.” The common theme is of women jumping at the order of men, like slaves on a slave ship forced by their sadistic captors/ transporters into “dancing” in their shackles.

I’ve previously argued that Caroline Bingley’s mockery of Elizabeth’s sunburnt skin and dirty petticoats is coded racist sneering at Elizabeth being biracial , as also is Mr. Darcy’s sarcastic “Every savage can dance” riposte to Sir William Lucas’s admiration of dancing at Lucas Lodge::  .

For Jane Austen, as for one of her inspirational mentors, Mary Wollstonecraft, marriage was in many ways a form of metaphorical slavery for women; but in JA’s sharper, more radical feminist imagination, she extended that metaphor far beyond Wollstonecraft’s usage, by hinting at women being made to “jump” into marriage and “dance at a ball” (i.e., submit to sex leading to pregnancy).

In conclusion, then, I believe that Jane Austen’s seemingly trivial “Wake” poem was in actuality a coded, radical feminist complement to her undisguised expression of feminist hatred toward the Prince Regent, contained in Letter #82, also written to Martha, less than three months after Letter 77. It shows yet again that JA was fully awakened not only to the dangerous, everyday reality of womanhood in her profoundly sexist society, but also, with her utter clarity and freedom from illusion, to the danger to the career of any female writer who dared to openly express such awareness. Indeed, unless expressed in code, no such radical feminist message could successfully run the gauntlet of misogynist critics (like Hazlitt, who savagely attacked Burney’s Wanderer, with its overt catalog of women’s “difficulties”). Jane Austen was determined that her "darling children", i.e., her novels, would survive, and live on to spread her message throughout the world.


I will now respond to the two wonderful replies I received to my post earlier today:

Diane Reynolds wrote: “Arnie, Great post. You should publish this, though I too wouldn't take out to the last leg, so to speak, on Elizabeth Bennet--and you don't need that! You have plenty to work with!!”

Thank you very much, Diane. Perhaps I will give that a try, but you know that for me, the real payoff is that last leg. 😊 (and wait till you read the end of this post)

Diane also wrote: “ I have to say when I read about the 38 yo Camila married to the "elderly" Mr.Wake with no date given, all my red flags began to quiver: How old is the guy???? Even I was stunned at age 42!”

When I initially looked at Le Faye’s Bio entry for Henry Wake, expecting to see how old he was when he married Miss Wallop, I knew something was fishy when there was no date of birth or date of death. But my first suspicion
was like yours—I figured that he must’ve been* so* old that Le Faye did not want to give any sign of the age differential.  I too was shocked at what I learned, but simultaneously thrilled, because then I knew there had to be
an interesting reason for the editorial deception – and I believe I sleuthed it out.

Diane: “I agree with you on JEAL: "In particular, the Jane Austen I know would not have meanly mocked the plight of a 38 year old single woman, especially when writing to her dear friend Martha who was single and even
older." Agreed, agreed, agreed. And I agree it is interesting to see this attempt to distort the age difference. You might jump to the conclusion that a pun on wake meant the man was old ... but a little checking???? I
also liked your catch on the poem being circulated. ”

The bottom line is that hardly ny mainstream Austen scholar has ever thought to check hardly anything in Le Faye’s annotations, even though my probings over the past decade demonstrate that it is often required in
order to their true significance. I will pay her a backhanded compliment -- Le Faye was quite skilled in using selective omission and emphasis in order to misdirect all but the most suspicious readers (like me) from
learning inconvenient (at least, from Le Faye’s conservative perspective) truths about JA and people in her world.

Diane: “It would be great if you could find more evidence of a friendship between Camilla and Austen: it makes sense since they were a year apart, both single women most/all of their lives and because JA wrote the poem. As
you know, I love this kind of sleuthing.”

I’d love it too, and your comment gives me the idea to inquire to find out if there is an archive of the Wallop family papers (a family which, I see in Wikipedia, is still going strong, with the current patriarch being the 10
th Earl of Portsmouth) which just might contain some letters written by Camilla – but I’d guess that is a very long shot, as I suspect that she lived and died a largely invisible female life of the kind that Thomas Gray poignantly wrote of (and Mrs Elton partly misquoted).

Elissa Schiff also replied: “Well, I certainly thought this long, tangled posting was surely leading to a veiled reference to a "jumping the broom ceremony" as a customary wedding among Africans enslaved in the Americas.”

What’s wonderful about these groups is there’s often at least one person reading along, who knows something very relevant to what you wrote, which you never heard of. So thank you very much, Elissa, as indeed, to use your
words, I do believe “this can be added to the numbered list as an additional referencing to Eliza Bennet's "biracial" heritage.” Like everyone else my age, I saw the original *Roots *in 1977,  but I had absolutely no recollection of that term “jumping the broom” being used to describe marriages between black slaves in North America, nor did I know
that the term has come to be used since then by modern African Americans. tells me that this expression was around in Jane Austen’s lifetime, and would fit with uncanny aptness with Jane Austen’s dubious take on Camilla’s impending marriage to Henry Wake:

“ ‘Jumping the broom’ is a phrase and custom relating to a wedding ceremony where the couple jumps over a broom. It has been suggested that the custom is based on an 18th-century idiomatic expression for ‘sham marriage’, ‘marriage of doubtful validity’ “

And apropos JA’s particular, longstanding interest in the Prince Regent, this caught my eye in that article as well:  “In 1789 the rumoured clandestine marriage between the Prince Regent and Maria Fitzherbert is similarly referred to in a satirical song in The Times:  ‘Their way to consummation was by hopping o’er a broom, sir.”

But working on this reply also prompted me to think about yet another meaning of the word “wake”, one  which would have been well known to the sister of two future admirals:
“the waves that a ship leaves behind as it slices through the water.”

A new shiver ran down my spine as I connected that particular nautical meaning to my previous interpretation of Darcy’s “every savage can dance” as a thinly veiled allusion to the savage practice of forcing captive slaves en route on the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas to "dance", in order to keep them healthy enough to get a better price for them on the auction block.

I shivered because I recalled another unimaginably horrific historical fact, which I readily retrieved from the Wikipedia page on the Middle Passage, information which I believe was accessible to JA and the rest of
the English public via abolitionist literature:

“Slaves resisted in a variety of ways. The two most common types of resistance were refusal to eat and suicide. Suicide was a frequent occurrence, often by…jumping overboard…Both suicide and self-starving were prevented as much as possible by slaver crews…slaves were kept away from means of suicide, and the sides of the deck were often netted. Slaves were still successful, especially at jumping overboard. Often when an uprising failed, the mutineers would jump *en masse* into the sea. Slaves generally believed that if they jumped overboard, they would be returned to their family and friends in their village or to their ancestors in the afterlife. Suicide by jumping overboard was such a problem that captains had to address it directly in many cases. They used the sharks that followed the ships as a terror weapon...”

So, “jumping at a wake” could very plausibly be read as describing that heroic act of self-destruction in order to avoid a life of slavery. And so I believe JA meant to say that in the case of Camilla Wallop, faced with a metaphorical version of that Catch-22, marriage to Henry Wake was a form of suicide.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


I can no longer stay silent, Janeites & Bardolaters will just have to wait for my next post about Will and Jane, I must exercise my First Amendment rights, come what may. Are you sitting down? 

The real significance of the recent escalation in sheer, unadulterated idiocy that has been belching out of the White House chimney in the past few weeks continues to be missed, and it's my patriotic duty to reveal it. The real issue is Russia, but I'm not talking about petty issues like destroying our democratic governmental and electoral processes. No, I'm talking about really paying attention to history, because you know what they say, right?? "They" say a lot of stuff to Trump, of course, but it's about time we started listening, too!

Remember when the Ruskies' Sputnik launches caught America by surprise in the Fifties, and we were lucky to catch up in the Space Race? Well, what's being missed by all the so-called pundits today is that while America thinks it's getting a leg up on the rest of the world with advances in computers, in particular in Artificial Intelligence, Putin, that sly bear, has been quietly making dramatic advances in the unrecognized but crucial field of Artificial Stupidity.

When we listen to the words (and read the Tweets) coming out of the Oval Office, the West Wing, and (at times), clearly from the Fearless Leader while sitting on The Throne, is it not obvious that the Russians have managed to slip a deadly Artificial Stupidity virus into the air via the a/c ducts?

How else to explain the astonishingly consistent level of stupid s-t pouring out of the White House on an hourly basis?

So, get with it, America, it's time to make sure we keep up with the Russians before we fall fatally behind in Artificial Stupidity!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

John McCain's revenge on Donald Drumpf is now complete indeed

I am certain Jane Austen would have approved of the following creative appropriation of Mr. Darcy's letter after his botched first proposal, had she witnessed politics in the USA during the past 2 years:

"I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on Trump was a strong additional inducement for McCain to surprise everyone, just when the bad guys thought they finally had their evil goal (of destroying ObamaCare, and depriving tens of millions of Americans of decent and affordable medical care) seemingly within their grasp. McCain's revenge on Trump (and all Republicans who have worked with Trump) for trashing McCain's war heroism IS NOW complete indeed."

Jane Austen's Dead Silence: The History of Slavery Subtext in Mansfield Park

Eleven years ago, I submitted the following article to the editor of Persuasions & Persuasions Online, the two JASNA journals, but it was not accepted for publication. In the intervening eleven years, I can't count how many times I have seen articles, whether scholarly or popular, which give credit to Edward Said for being the first scholar to point out what is now commonly referred to as the "slavery subtext" of Jane Austen's third published novel, Mansfield Park. That honor, as you will see as you read along, below, belongs to Avrom Fleishman, who first wrote about that topic a quarter century before Said said what he said (sorry, I couldn't resist)

It was only today, when I read the following in an otherwise brilliant 2014 article about the movie Belle by Prof. Tricia Matthew... " In the twenty years since Edward Said’s focus on the “dead silence” [in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park] in his post-colonial manifesto Culture and Imperialism  scholars and other storytellers are paying more attention to the presence of people in color in historical British narratives.....that it occurred to me that I ought to finally self publish my 2006 article (which I'll update some time in the near future), exactly as I wrote it then, in order to tell the true story of the many twists and turns in the evolution of the idea of Jane Austen's really being focused on English colonial slavery in MP, both literally and also as a metaphor for the servitude of many subtler kinds which are depicted in MP, her least romantic novel.

With that brief intro, then, I give you:

"Jane Austen's Dead Silence: The History of Slavery Subtext in Mansfield Park" (2006) by Arnie Perlstein

For almost two centuries, Mansfield Park has been Jane Austen’s problem novel, in the sense that the term “problem play” is used to describe some of Shakespeare’s plays. Like All’s Well That Ends Well, Mansfield Park defies categorization as either comedy or tragedy. Both are love stories that seem to end well, but not decisively. Austen even flags this parallel by giving her irresolute male hero the surname Bertram from that play; just as, for other reasons, she also gives him the Shakespearean first name Edmund.
Controversy among readers about Mansfield Park goes back a long way, but in recent years, the perennial Fanny Wars have been upstaged by one major controversy: the existence and/or meaning of what may be called the novel’s slavery subtext. This refers to oblique textual references to the real world of slavery and abolitionism, a social issue to which Jane Austen has long been thought by many to have been indifferent.
That controversy has piqued the interest of many readers, but even one familiar with the novel would be hard-pressed to describe all its contours, let alone make an informed decision as to their opinion about it. The flurry of words written on the topic from a range of lay and scholarly (particularly feminist and postcolonialist) perspectives during the past fifteen years is confusing and nearly impenetrable even to an Austen scholar. Ideology has further clouded matters, because some have seized upon its controversial aspects and dismissed the entire subject as an ivory tower confabulation, with little connection to the novel’s text, or meaning for most Austen readers.
One can readily discern why this has happened; the stakes are high. The existence of significant and potentially disturbing slavery references in a novel by the author of  widely cherished love stories, is the hottest of buttons. It goes to the heart of the matter: what is Mansfield Park really about?
Amidst the ideological conflict, insufficient attention has been paid to the prosaic, detail-oriented questions of whether (and, if so, how) that subtext was embedded in the novel by Austen. Periodically, there have been claims of detection of references to slavery in Mansfield Park, and also in Emma, involving character surnames. However, no single example, standing alone, seems truly convincing, and no previous commentator has presented a unifying principle for linking them all as a group that cannot be gainsaid.  
This article claims to be the first definitive intellectual history of the idea of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park. Delightfully, such history turns out to have its own intrinsic interest, filled with the same sorts of ironies, reversals, secrets, near-misses, unintended communications, and suspense that we find in every Austen novel.
The Slavery Text in Mansfield Park
The starting point for study of slavery subtext must be the only two specific instances that everybody acknowledges to be some sort of reference to slavery in Mansfield Park
1. Sir Thomas Bertram has business in Antigua that requires him to spend two years there. Mrs. Norris expresses concern that the loss of income from Antigua may materially adversely affect the high standard of living at Mansfield Park.  (30-34)  It is clearly implied that Sir Thomas’s income from Antigua arises from an enterprise related, directly or indirectly, to the raising of sugar cane on plantations relying on slave labor.
2. Later on, Edmund has just gently chided Fanny for not speaking up more with her father, and Fanny defends herself: “Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?” and adds that her question was met with “such a dead silence”. (196)
The meaning of this exchange has been debated for years, and the cause is obvious: the extraordinary ambiguity of what Brian Southam has called “the silence of the Bertrams”. Their silence may be a reflection of narcissistic boredom; or of horror at a taboo subject explicitly raised; or something else. Austen’s narrator exceeds even her normal coy reticence; she never explains that silence. Given that all the other references in the novel to slavery are oblique or implicit, the reader is left in an information vacuum.
Why would Austen tantalize readers with a pointed reference to the slave-trade, but then leave that reference ambiguous and never subsequently explain it? We cannot imagine such an omission from an author so meticulous with even seemingly trivial details.
So, is Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua merely a Hitchcockian “McGuffin”? A plausible plot device designed to get the cat away for an extended time, so that the naughty mice can have sufficient time to (put on a) play, only to be trapped by the cat in the act? Or is it a Stoppardian inversion, with Antigua the submerged bulk of the iceberg, of which the Mansfield Park action comprises the exposed tip? I suggest that the answer is both, that Austen’s dead silence on this subject is intentional, and that it would have pleased her greatly to have us be brave, follow Edmund’s sensible  advice (which maybe Fanny did, but we never were told), and inquire of it farther. Let us start with the history.    
Nineteenth Century Sources:
With some other authors, we might look to their correspondence to learn about a major literary strategy such as concealing references to large-scale world phenomena like slavery. It’s not so easy with Austen. If she ever explicitly wrote in a letter about subtext in any of her novels, it did not survive. Similarly, the opinions about Mansfield Park that Austen collected upon its publication contain no explicit references to slavery or Antigua. Nor do any nineteenth century writers, fiction or nonfiction, take any explicit notice of it, we find only a couple of vague associations.
Not much to show for an entire century, but this nineteenth century indifference to slavery in Mansfield Park is not surprising. Once Austen’s own generation has died, followed decades later by the end of English colonial slavery itself, any contemporary awareness of allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park has faded as well. The world’s issues with slavery focus on the U.S. Civil War. And so a century and more passes in silence on that subject. It remains for the latter part of the twentieth century for Mansfield Park to begin to yield up its secrets.
On Looking Into Chapman’s Austen
Within ten years after the 1932 publication of R.W. Chapman’s first edition of the Letters, one of them plays a role in the origination of ideas about the slavery subtext. Her January 24, 1813 letter states:
We quite run over with books. She [Mrs. Austen] has got Sir John Carr's Travels in Spain, and I am reading a Society octavo, an Essay on the Military Police and Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers, a book which I protested against at first, but which upon trial I find delightfully written and highly entertaining. I am as much in love with the author as I ever was with Clarkson or Buchanan… (198)
Chapman’s 1932 edition includes the following entry in its “Other Persons, Places, Authors, etc.” appendix, implicitly explaining Austen’s reference to the book by Clarkson which generated her great admiration for him: "Clarkson, Thomas, 1760 – 1846, perhaps Abolition of the African Slave Trade (1808), or more probably Life of William Penn (1813)”  Chapman does not explain why he believes the later book of Clarkson’s would be the more probable reference.
There matters lie until 1942, when Sheila Kay-Smith and G.B. Stern intone that “the shadow which has fallen over Mansfield Park is nothing less than the Evangelical Revival”. (40) They get this idea from an ironically improbable source---Mary Crawford.
In Chapter 40, an impatient Mary sarcastically explains Edmund’s delayed arrival: "There may be some old woman at Thornton Lacey to be converted." (394) Then an agitated Mary varies and expands upon that theme in Chapter 47, this time directing her sarcasm at Edmund: “At this rate you will soon reform everybody at Mansfield and Thornton Lacey; and when I hear of you next, it may be as a celebrated preacher in some great society of Methodists, or as a missionary into foreign parts.”     (458) 
Smith and Stern do well to realize that Mary’s jibes at Edmund are significant subtextual clues, and much has been made since, pro and con, of their speculation that Austen became an Evangelical in 1810. But, what concerns us here is that they fail to ask whether there might be a second meaning of those clues, beyond the purely religious meaning they perceive.
What they do instead is akin to discovering an oblique reference to Martin Luther King in a novel set in the Sixties, inferring therefrom only that the author became a Southern Baptist, but never asking whether he also marched in Selma. The Evangelicals were the leading lights of the English abolitionist movement, and few, then or today, would have known Clarkson’s name had he never led that great struggle.
During the next twenty five years, the former silence reemerges, but those claims have not been for naught, because Chapman makes subtle changes in his appendix note, which is reproduced below exactly as it appears in his 1955 edition:  “Clarkson, Thomas, 1760-1846, abolitionist. JA may refer to his Life of Penn 1813 (too late?) or to his Abolition of the …Slave Trade 1808”  (221)
Chapman now describes Clarkson as an abolitionist. Plus, he downgrades Life of Penn from priority of likelihood, and also suggests that it may have been published too late to have been read by Austen before January, 1813. We read between his carefully worded lines that he has read Mary’s jibes, and the gloss thereon by Smith and Stern, and has detected that second, antislavery meaning in them that they did not. However, he seems too cautious or ambivalent to dispense with the Penn safety net.
The Slavery Subtext Unveiled, Then Reclothed
 The pioneer who first publishes an explicit claim of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park is Avrom Fleishman. His 1967 article ends the 153-year dead silence, and initiates the process of finally answering Fanny’s question. He begins by placing Mansfield Park in the historical context of a “crisis” or “turning point in the gentry’s fortunes.” (15) Per Fleishman, Mansfield Park depends on Antiguan income, and Sir Thomas is Antiguan. Fleishman then writes: “And if a question about off-stage action may be admitted, what does Sir Thomas do in Antigua to make secure the sources of his income?”  (16)
  Fleishman goes on to provide economic history and claims that Antigua was an exception to the rule of absentee ownership that prevailed elsewhere in the British West Indies, but that it had just been adversely impacted by the abolition of the slave trade. He wonders whether it is economic necessity that drives Sir Thomas “to improve conditions for the slaves,” and he believes that the “strange business. . .in America” that Tom mentions to Dr. Grant (Mansfield Park, 119) is a reference to Sir Thomas’s crisis in Antigua. (17)
Fleishman combines the best ideas of Smith, Stern and Chapman when he points out the importance of Austen’s familiarity with Clarkson’s The Abolition of the African Slave Trade. He then takes the step that Chapman did not, arguing that the Evangelically-driven abolitionist movement must have been very much in Austen’s awareness as she wrote this novel. Regarding Sir Thomas’s startling display of affection for Fanny, Fleishman writes that “it is inescapably significant that she is the only member of the family interested in hearing from him about the slave trade.”   (17)
Fleishman thus presents persuasive and unequivocal advocacy for Sir Thomas as absentee plantation owner, and for Clarkson’s abolitionism on Austen’s radar screen. However, as valuable as these explicit insights are, his indirect implications are even better.  His approach implies that there can be offstage, unreported action in an Austen novel worthy of serious thematic consideration. There is enormous power in this approach, and, so energized, he goes on to achieve what seem to me to be four distinct insights:
1. Sir Thomas’s “bullying” (14) of Fanny—this is the first conceptualization, however indistinct, of the allegory of Fanny as slave and Sir Thomas as master, which Kirkham will make explicit in 1983, and is fundamental to much thinking ever since about Austen’s slavery references.
2. Sir Thomas’s children as “bitter fruit” (15). This is a prescient grasping of the pervasive allusive import of  Paradise Lost in the novel, the image of bitter fruit being specifically and ironically tagged by Dr. Grant’s deriding Mrs. Norris’s Moor Park apricots as “insipid” and inedible (Mansfield Park 54) .
3. “The large and airy rooms” (16) of Mansfield Park-- the central symbolism of the magical power of English air stated in the slave-freeing 1772 Mansfield Judgment.
4. Fleishman’s quoting D.W. Harding, who in turn is clearly riffing on Mary,  about Austen’s intentions as a writer: “Her object is not missionary” (18).  Mary’s mocking portrayals of Edmund as a missionary comprise one instance among many in Austen’s novels in which Austen ventriloquistically uses a character as a mouthpiece for her reflections, in this case on her own role as a writer in morally sick Regency Era England. Does Mary speak of Austen? Harding thinks not, but others like Smith and Stern might disagree.
Fleishman’s article fertilizes the examination of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park, but its gestation will be long and difficult. Despite the wealth of his radically new ideas about slavery in the novel, no commentator will, until 1982, respond positively to him. However, he does, in the interim, have a few particular, adverse respondents. 
Writing in 1969, B.C. Southam never acknowledges Fleishman by name, but seems to be reacting to Fleishman’s provocative imagining of Sir Thomas as absentee Antiguan planter. Whatever prompts Southam to check Vere Langford Oliver’s obscure 1896 history of Antigua, it is fortunate, because it is where Southam finds the name of George Austen, mentioned in 1760 and 1788 entries, as trustee of the Haddons plantation in Antigua owned by James Langford Nibbs. That appears to be the same Mr. Nibbs whose portrait hung at Steventon, and whom Chapman was unable to identify even as late as his 1952 edition of the Letters.
 This is the first mention in print of the Austen family’s Antiguan connection, a dramatic validation of Fleishman’s ideas. However, Southam promptly minimizes the significance of his own discovery:
These facts are trivial and add nothing to the meaning of Mansfield Park. But they do enable us to see Jane Austen’s reliance upon the known world and her fond habit of introducing family associations into her fiction.”  (19-20)
Southam’s words echo Fanny Price’s letter to Mary (“The rest of your note I know means nothing”) (   ) and Fanny’s struggle to shield herself from Henry Crawford’s powerful and dangerous charm. There is a finality to his dismissal of slavery subtext, but, to paraphrase Blake on Milton, perhaps Southam was of the party and didn’t know it, because his later words on this subject--twenty six years later—will evidence a very different point of view.
In 1975, A. Walton Litz explicitly rebuts Fleishman: “Surely if Jane Austen had thought them [details of the English colonial slavery crisis] crucial she would have included them in her description and dialogue.” (678) Litz explicitly rejects Fleishman’s contention that Jane Austen was dropping hints to contemporaries sophisticated about history and current events.
And in 1977, David Monaghan seems to echoes Litz, in passing, as he rebuts Kaye-Smith’s claims of Austen as evangelical :
“Fanny’s questioning of Sir Thomas about slavery cannot be taken as evidence of Jane Austen’s sympathy with the abolition campaign because it tells us no more than that she was aware of the problem….The subject [of whether Austen was alluding to Evangelicalism in Mansfield Park] can be illuminated only if we begin with coherent statements of the religious and social positions adopted by the Clapham Sect [the key Evangelical abolitionists, to be discussed later in this article] and by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park”  (219)
Very Strange Business in Antigua
Things do not heat up again until Frank Gibbon, in 1982, starts from Southam’s kernel of discovery about Reverend Austen’s Antigua connection, and adds to it a wealth of well-organized data about what turns out to be an extensive and decades-long Austen-Nibbs family connection. Gibbon’s facts go far beyond the simple trusteeship first described by Southam. He recites that Southam’s “odd little item of information has lain buried ever since” but then dryly suggests that “the role of the Nibbs family is not quite so trivial a factor as Mr. Southam believes.” (299) Gibbon does not merely show the real lives of the Nibbses, he shows several major parallels between their lives and the lives of characters in Mansfield Park. He does not cite Fleishman’s discoveries, but surely they’ve inspired him, as he broadens them to include private family allusions that seem to only have significance for those who know the Austen and Nibbs family histories.
Gibbon introduces several other noteworthy insights. He explicitly connects the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park and Emma, when he mentions Austen’s use of Bristol, a main slave-trade port, as the hometown of the Hawkinses and Sucklings. Gibbons also and infers “that the Sucklings were retired West Indian merchants with at least an indirect financial interest in the slave trade.” (303)
He is the first to bring Mrs. Norris into the slavery mix. He suggests that Austen “possibly nam[ed] Mrs. Norris after its [Clarkson’s History’s] most obnoxious character.” (303) He does not try to match all attributes of Mrs. Norris to Robert Norris, her slaver namesake (who will be discussed later), but recognizes that Austen’s art of allusion is too flexible for that. Gibbon’s only error seems to be that of not grasping all the implications of his discoveries. Had he done so, he might have noticed other character (or even place) names which alluded to other names prominent in the world of slavery, which will be described in my companion article.  
Gibbon expands Fleishman’s allegorical implication: “[Sir Thomas’s] estate must be handled by managers, who, as a class, were about as efficient and kindly as Mrs. Norris turned out to be in her managerial role during Sir Thomas’s absence from the Park.”  (302) In so doing, Gibbon, like Fleishman fifteen years earlier, comes close to realizing that even the genteel life at Mansfield Park is itself an allegory for a metaphorical plantation, where the “slaves” pick spouses, instead of sugar cane, at the whim of their overseers.  
Lastly, he takes a deep dive into the murkiest depths of the subtext of the novel when he writes “Jane Austen would certainly have been aware of the likelihood of a family such as her fictional Bertrams having numerous mulatto relatives in Antigua…” (304-5)   
Gibbon’s ideas, surprisingly, receive little critical reaction, and the ship of slavery subtext study seems stalled once again. However, things are finally about to change.  
Traffic in Female Flesh
Margaret Kirkham does not cite Fleishman, Gibbon or even Southam, but her chapter on Mansfield Park nonetheless is a turning point in the study of its oblique slavery references. First and foremost, she trumpets Austen’s application of the metaphor of slavery to the condition of women in England, famously championed by Mary Wollstonecraft who died thirteen years before Mansfield Park. “The resemblance between Wollstonecraft and Austen as feminine moralists is so striking that it seems extraordinary that it has not always been recognized, but that is to leave out of account the Great Wollstonecraft Scandal of 1798.” (48) That last refers to the scandal which polarized women in England and seriously set back the cause of women’s rights.
Kirkham is also the first to refer to the Mansfield Judgment as an allusive source for the novel, and to link them both to Wollstonecraft:
“The title of Mansfield Park is allusive and ironic, but the allusion in this case is not to philosophical fiction like Emile or to the theatre, but to a legal judgment, generally regarded as having ensured that slavery could not be held to be in accordance with the manners and customs of the English….Jane Austen follows an analogy used in [Wollstonecraft’s] Vindication between the slaves in the colonies and women, especially married women, at home.” (116-7) 
In summarizing Clarkson’s book, which would have been an important source for Austen in its detailed description of the Somerset case (decided by the Mansfield Judgment),  Kirkham briefly but indelibly inscribes the Mansfield Judgment on the map of Mansfield Park scholarship.  Kirkham also breaks new ground when she notes that  “at the house of her brother Edward Knight, she [Austen] met Lord Mansfield’s niece on a number of occasions,” (118) thereby establishing an Austen personal connection to Lord Mansfield’s family, the significance of which is addressed in the companion article.
Finally, she shows how the actual words (both proper and ordinary names) of  Mansfield Park constitute a language of slavery--the “captivation” of Miss “Ward” of “Huntingdon”--and of law--the “air” of Mansfield Park (118) echoing the famous words of the Mansfield Judgment. Kirkham shows a sharp sensitivity to Austen’s creativity in detecting the subliminal aura of slavery into the novel.
Although Gibbon and Kirkham both blaze new paths, Kirkham is the one who ignites a fire, perhaps bcause her frank feminism is timely at that moment in history, with the result that this short section of her book has been cited in most of the hundred-plus articles that have addressed this issue since 1983.
The Discreet Charm of Edward Said And The Feminist Wave
As the Eighties progress, the slavery subtext begins to appear regularly in print, mostly pertaining to the feminist metaphor, but the discourse about Austen and slavery is completely altered by the entrance of Edward Said. Per Fraiman, “Mansfield Park takes relatively little space in the vastness of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), yet one reviewer after another has seized on Austen’s novel as emblematic of the cultural tradition Said shows to be inextricable from European colonialism.”  (805)
This is good news and bad news. A lot of people who have never given a second thought to slavery in Mansfield Park become aware of the issue, and the novel begins to be more widely viewed in a new light. However, as stated earlier, the slavery subtext becomes entangled with Said’s ideology, such that those who oppose his ideology use it to deny the existence of the slavery subtext altogether.
What did Said actually say about Mansfield Park? I quote at length, because of the singular impact of his enigmatic words on the study of the even more enigmatic shadow of slavery in Mansfield Park:
It would be silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave….Yes, Austen belonged to a slave-owning society, but do we therefore jettison her novels as so many trivial exercises in aesthetic frumpery? Not at all, I would argue, if we….make connections, to deal with as much of the evidence as possible, fully and actually, to read what is there or is not there…Mansfield Park is a rich work in that its aesthetic intellectual complexity requires that longer and slower analysis that is also required by its geographical problematic, a novel based in an England relying for the maintenance of its style on a Caribbean island. . .But precisely because Austen is so summary in one context, so provocatively rich in the other, precisely because of that imbalance, we are able to move in on the novel, reveal and accentuate the interdependence scarcely mentioned on its brilliant pages. A lesser work wears its historical affiliation more plainly. …..Mansfield Park encodes experiences and does not simply repeat them.  (366)
            With a poet’s voice, Said captures subtle aspects of Jane Austen’s mystery-generating art. It will be very hard, but also very rewarding, work, to struggle to grasp the experiences encoded beneath the surface of the novel. Whatever else his impact, Said’s  penetration is undeniable.
In 1993, a new element is introduced by Maaja Stewart, who adds to the catalogue of historical antecedents of Mansfield Park two fictional stories by Inchbald and Edgeworth, respectively, which Stewart sees as congruent with the slavery subtext of the novel. Here is her metaphorical reading of Lady Bertram as a planter’s wife:
Lady Bertram is further mirrored in Maria Edgeworth’s portraits of these wives in The Grateful Negro: ‘Mrs. Jeffries was a languid beauty, or rather a languid fine lady who had been a beauty, and who spent all that part of the day which was not devoted to the pleasures of the table, or to reclining on a couch, in dress.’  (129-30) 
Stewart’s breakthrough to an entirely new domain of the slavery subtext, and beginning to flesh out the Bertram family portrait in the slavery album, is significant. However, she fails to realize that the resemblance that Lady Bertram bears to Mrs. Jeffries in The Grateful Negro is no coincidence.
In the same vein, Deirdre Coleman and Moira Ferguson, two other influential Nineties feminist commentators write about the complex interface between antislavery and feminism in Jane Austen’s and other novels.
Antiracism and Feminism Then & Now
The ideas of Kirkham, Stewart, Coleman and Ferguson, as well as those of Fleishman two decades earlier, illustrate the crucial role that contemporary politics then and now have played in all this. Austen’s creation of an elaborate slavery subtext in Mansfield Park seems to have been an outgrowth of the abolitionist movement’s galvanization of early women’s rights advocates such as Wollstonecraft. The modern decoding of her slavery subtext seems to have been an outgrowth of the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and its galvanization of modern feminism. 
The Return of Southam & Other Recent Highlights
Brian Southam returns to slavery in Mansfield Park in 1995 with a bang. As we read his “The Silence of the Bertrams”, we see a shift from denial to acceptance. Southam now takes as given that the Nibbs family allusion in Mansfield Park is intentional, although he remains enigmatic as to exactly what sort of meaning in the novel might be implied by that allusion: 
A silence not unlike the ‘dead silence’ at Mansfield Park may have begun to gather over Mr. Austen’s West Indian connections—connections which extended deeper into the household. . .Like Sir Thomas Bertram, Mr. Nibbs had a spendthrift elder son, James Junior; and like Tom Bertram, James junior was taken off to Antigua by his father to detach him from his ‘unwholesome connections’. (14)
            The greatest portion of Southam’s article provides a welcome and extensive analysis of the chronology of Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua in the context of world politics, particularly involving the colonial slavery system. Surprisingly, he fails to mention Gibbon, but perhaps more surprising, he not only mentions Edward Said, but even pays tribute to Said’s vision of Austen’s global perspective.
The Present  
In the last decade, there have been a number of articles on the subject of slavery in Mansfield Park. It remains as lively an area as any in Austen studies, although radically new ground is not broken in them. Here are two highlights.
In 2000, Elaine Jordan follows Stewart’s lead in her application of Antiguan patterns of behavior to the actual characters of the Bertrams. She sees Sir Thomas as a nouveau riche from the West Indies trying to buy himself legitimacy and gravitas, but she also extends Gibbon’s 1982 insights in one intriguing respect: “James Langston Nibbs. . .took his son and heir, named after himself, out to Antigua to cure his extravagances in England. Unlike Tom Bertram, this son did not return. His half-brother, Christopher, a slave, also died in Antigua.”   (40)  .
            Moreland Perkins, in 2005, convincingly establishes the depth of the allusions by Austen to her “loves” Clarkson and Pasley, but, even more important, Perkins looks all the way back to Chapman and Fleishman, and makes an open-and-shut case for Austen’s profound ambivalence between Pasley’s strength-through-empire theories and Clarkson’s abolitionist eloquence.
In The Opposition:
There are still those who continue to deny and/or limit the significance of slavery subtext in the novel. The most articulate and prominent is John Wiltshire. In 2003, he draws a bead on what he calls the “postcolonial criticism” of Said and Rozema. He asserts that the postcolonial critic “actively colonises the novel by placing more value on the ‘history’ within which the text is putatively embedded than on the artifact of the novel itself.” (Decolonising Mansfield Park 317), and that Rozema’s film is  “an attack on colonialism, it is itself a neo-colonialist enterprise, the promotion of ‘Jane Austen’.”  (Recreating Jane Austen 136) Wiltshire gives alternative interpretations for the association of the names Mansfield and Norris with slavery in the novel. But even he  allows a metaphorical reading of slavery applied to women in England.
Rozema’s Film Adaptation
Chronological order has been breached slightly to devote the last words hereof to Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park. Its impact on perceptions of  slavery subtext in the novel cannot be overstated. She foregrounds the issue of slavery for the first time in the awareness of people who have never read a Jane Austen novel, and has heated up the controversy. Rozema both depicted slavery subtext implied in the novel, and also frankly wove in her own inventions as well, radically altering the character of Fanny Price, and those two creative decisions have often been conflated by critics. Just as the brilliance of Said’s suggestions have been overshadowed by his ideology, so too Rozema’s sensitive grasp of Austen’s slavery subtext has been widely dismissed as merely Rozema’s own inventions.
Despite all of this, the film is a milestone in the history of understanding slavery references in Mansfield Park,  with its horrific depictions of slavery and its practice by Sir Thomas, giving painfully vivid reality to Clarkson’s and others’s written descriptions, Rozema also brilliantly encapsulates Austen’s likely intentions when she states  "I actually believe that Mansfield Park was Austen’s meditation on servitude and slavery . . . She was kind of exploring what it is to treat humans as property, women, blacks, and the poor especially." (audio commentary) With her film, the slavery subtext of Mansfield Park  goes public, nearly two centuries after publication.  
That completes the history of the slavery subtext in Mansfield Park up to publication of this article. With the perspective of this detailed history, we can see how, and how far, our collective understanding of Austen’s slavery subtext has grown, even though the ending of this history is, like the ending of the novel itself, not decisive.The  rest of the story of slavery subtext in Mansfield Park remains to be told.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye 3rd ed., Oxford: OUP, 1995.
_________.  Jane Austen: Selected Letters. Ed. Chapman 1st ed., Oxford: OUP, 1932.
_________.  Jane Austen: Selected Letters. Ed. Chapman 2nd ed., Oxford: OUP, 1955.
_________.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. R. W. Chapman 3rd ed., Oxford: OUP, 1934.
_________. “Opinions: Collected by Jane Austen” in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1811-1870. Ed. Southam,  London: Routledge, 1979.
Clarkson, Thomas. History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament. 1808.  Ed. John W. Parker. A New Edition, with Prefatory Remarks on the Subsequent Abolition of Slavery, London: John W. Parker, 1839.
Coleman, Deirdre. "Conspicuous Consumption: White Abolitionism and English Women's Protest Writing in the 1790's", ELH Vol. 61, 341-62, Baltimore: JHUP, 1994.
Edgeworth, Maria. “The Grateful Negro” in Tales and Novels, Volume 2, London: Baldwin & Cradock, 1832.
Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. 1873. Ed. Carole Jones. Hare: Wordsworth Classics,  2003                  
Ferguson, Moira.  “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender” in Oxford Literary Review, Volume 13, Oxford: OUP, 1991  .
Fleishman, Avrom.  “Mansfield Park in its Time” in Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 22. No. 1. Berkeley: UOCP, 1967.
Fraiman, Susan. “Jane Austen and Edward Said: Gender, Culture, and Imperialism” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 21, 805-823, Chicago: UOC, 1995.
Gibbon, Frank.  “The Antiguan Connection: Some New Light on Mansfield Park” in Cambridge Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, Oxford: OUP, 1982.
Jordan, Elaine.  “Jane Austen goes to the seaside: Sanditon, English identity and the ‘West Indian schoolgirl’ “ in The Postcolonial Jane Austen, Ed. You-Me Park & Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, 39-41, London: Routledge, 2000. 
Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction, Brighton: Harvester Press Ltd. 1983 .
Litz, A. Walton. “Recollecting Jane Austen” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 1, No. 3, Chicago: UOCP, 1975  
Monaghan, David. “Mansfield Park and Evangelicalism: A Reassessment”, Nineteenth Century Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 2, Berkeley: UOCP, 1978
Pasley, Charles.  Essay on The Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire.  1810. 4th ed., 1812. Re-issued (with author given as Major-General Sir C. W. Pasley), London: John Weale, 1847.
Perkins, Moreland.  “Mansfield Park and Austen’s Reading on Slavery and Imperial Warfare” Persuasions Online, Vol. 26 No. 1, 2005
Rozema, Patricia. “Director/screenwriter’s audio commentary” on DVD of Mansfield Park, Miramax, 2000.
Said, Edward. “Jane Austen and Empire” in The Edward Said Reader, 347-367,  NY: Vintage, 2000. 
Southam, Brian.  “The Silence of the Bertrams: Slavery and the Chronology of Mansfield Park“ in Times Literary Supplement, 13-14 in 17 February 1995 issue.
___________. “Jane Austen and Antigua”, Jane Austen Society Report 1969.
Steffes, Michael.   “Slavery and Mansfield Park: The Historical And Biographical Context” in English Language Notes. Vol. 34, Boulder: UOCP, 1996    
Smith, Sheila-Kay & Stern, G.B. Speaking of Jane Austen, London: Cassell & Co., 1943
Stewart, Maaja.  The Shadow Behind the Country House: West Indian Slavery and Female Virtue in Mansfield Park” in Domestic Realities and Imperial Fictions, 110-136, Athens: UOGP, 1993.
Wiltshire, John.  “Decolonising Mansfield Park” in Essays in Criticism, Vol. 53 No. 4, 303-321, Oxford: OUP, 2003.

______________. Recreating Jane Austen, Cambridge: CUP, 2001.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The important reason why Jane Austen chose to allude to Boccaccio’s Decameron in Northanger Abbey

In my previous post … …I laid out the details of the allusions I see in Northanger Abbey to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and also to a prior work which Merchant itself alluded to, Boccaccio’s The Decameron. My familiarity with The Decameron is, frankly, very small, so today, I awoke wondering whether, by any wild chance, there might be something else in those hundred tales I had mostly never read, besides the first story on Day 6 (with the horse-obsessed man boring a woman with his inept story-telling), which might have been of interest to Shakespeare and/or to Jane Austen.

I quickly found two of Boccaccio’s stories (the second and third stories among the 100) which each related to a Jewish man, each of whom bears the mark of Shylock, so to speak: the first, Abraham, is, like Shylock, pushed into converting to Christianity by a “righteous” Christian; the second, Melchidizek, is, like Shylock, a bigtime money lender. I will leave for another day, after further study, the unpacking of the thematic significance of Shakespeare’s picking up on those two Jews in the Decameron while he was conceiving the character of his far more famous Jew, Shylock.

Today I will reveal to you the remarkable discovery I made, once I asked myself a wild question about Jane Austen: if Northanger Abbey at its core really is about the metaphorical “plague” of serial pregnancy and death in childbirth in Jane Austen’s England, then could it be that JA’s veiled allusion to the Decameron, written as it was about Florence in the grip of an actual Plague, might be a clue to search in those 100 tales by Boccaccio to find one or more of them which in some way involved that same “plague” of death-in-childbirth? I knew from my prior research that death-in-childbirth was not limited to England during Jane Austen’s lifetime, it had been going on for centuries, and not just in England, but in many continental European countries as well.

I quickly tested that wild thought with Google, and Google just as quickly led me to an exceptionally well researched 2012 dissertation, which, as I skimmed it with growing excitement, showed me that my wild thought had luckily hit a scholarly bulls-eye! I.e., in a dozen different ways, I learned that Jane Austen could not have chosen a more apt literary source to allude to regarding death in childbirth than the Decameron, even though it was published over 4 ½ centuries prior to Northanger Abbey, and takes place in Italy!  

I immediately saw Catherine Morland’s ruminations on the geography of horror through the lens of Jane Austen having made herself the mistress of Boccaccio’s medieval, Italian masterpiece:

“Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.”

With that introduction, the best way I can show why I am now so certain of JA’s focus on the death-in-childbirth subtext of the Decameron is simply to quote from relevant passages in the 2012 dissertation, edited down by me to get to the essentials, which may as well have been written about NA as about the Decameron. After quotation of all the relevant excerpts, I will return at the end of this post with a final comment. So, here goes:

Historicizing Maternity in Boccaccio’s Ninfale fiesolano and Decameron by Kristen R. Swann (2012)
“…Why doesn’t Boccaccio play up ‘good mothers’? Why are mothers afforded little narrative presence in the Decameron?...As historians have shown, Tuscan women were conditioned for motherhood from a young age: their dowries included items for future children, their house contained items reminding them of the importance of becoming a mother (and bearing a male child), and, in society, they regularly encountered a wealth of recipes and practices aimed at increasing their fertility. I argue that the omnipresence and gender specificity of Tuscan society’s promotion of procreation is a necessary context when considering the way motherhood is treated in the Decameron. The Decameron is, as we know, openly dedicated to women subject to the wills of others - fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands - and restricted to the narrow confines of their rooms. Regardless of the book’s actual audience [It is a matter of scholarly debate whether 14th-century women were actually readers of the Decameron…], which certainly included many men, the author frames the work, and its stories, as solace for 14th-century women.
…I ask how Boccaccio’s literary portrayal of motherhood - whether depictions of unwanted motherhood, such as V.7 or IX.3, or affective portraits of mother-child interactions, such as Monna Giovanna’s solicitude for her ailing son in V.9 - comment on, or provide solace with respect to, the ideology and reality of motherhood in 14th-century Tuscany…I aim to restore to the Decameron’s depictions of motherhood the multiple resonances which these passages would have carried for his contemporaries…I explore how, when depicting motherhood in the Decameron, Boccaccio alternately ignores, plays with, and, at times, subverts beliefs about motherhood and its attendant rituals and customs. …I take Boccaccio’s claim to be writing for women at face value and assume that the tales he includes in the work are selected with this audience in mind.
The Demographic Realities of Motherhood in 14th-Century Tuscany
…high maternal and infant mortality rates profoundly influenced the way Florentines thought about reproduction and structured the family. In this section, I explore the demographic factors influencing a woman’s experience of maternity and consider how, and why, Boccaccio’s treatment elides or obscures these harsh realities. Perhaps the most pressing and unavoidable ‘reality’ of motherhood in the premodern period was the ever-present specter of death…childbearing in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance was “risky business”, many women died during birth or following it, while only half the children they bore reached maturity…roughly 20% of the deaths of married women in 15th-century Florence were associated with childbearing...Data indicates a maternal mortality rate of 14.4 deaths for every 1,000 births, a rate on par with maternal mortality today in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, and approximately 300 times higher than in most modern European countries today…Half of all deaths of married women who predeceased their husbands in the ricordanze are related to childbirth; only one in six (17%) of these deaths of married women is attributable to various fevers, illnesses, or epidemics. As Park notes, this data indicates 3 times as many married women died in childbirth “as died of disease, even in the relatively unhealthy period following the Black Death of 1348.” Being from a prosperous family did little to protect a 14th-century woman from death in childbirth; if anything, it exposed her to it more. Because patrician families in Renaissance Tuscany, “placed especial emphasis on lineage,” Jacqueline Marie Musacchio writes, women “underwent pregnancy after pregnancy, in an attempt to bear an heir.” The more pregnancies one underwent, of course, the higher the probability of something eventually going wrong. Beatrice d’Este, Lucrezia Borgia, Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne de’ Medici, and the Grand Duchess Giovanna de’ Medici all died as a result of childbirth; the Medici secretary’s notation of Maddalena’s death is evidence of the common nature of this outcome…
…28 of 202 women’s wills [from that era] which were studied were explicitly written during pregnancy, and another 31 were written by wives who may’ve been pregnant. Excluding out unmarried testatresses from his sample, Chojnacki calculates that as many as 49.2% of married women writing wills were pregnant at the time. Alessandra Strozzi bought insurance to cover her pregnant daughter in 1449 to protect the 500 florins already advanced to her son-in-law.
…The biggest way people dealt with the perils of reproduction was, somewhat paradoxically, by having more children: in this respect, the desire to produce heirs outweighed the fear of death in childbirth. “High fertility,” Margaret King notes, “was in the interest of the propertied family, whose ability to prevail ‘against the powerful forces of death’ required at least one surviving male heir.” As frequently noted, upper class Tuscan families achieved startlingly high levels of fertility…Maximum biological fertility for the human female is generally considered 12 births, but many Renaissance women were able to surpass this number: Florentine Antonia Masi, the wife of an artisan, gave birth to 36 children, while Venetian noblewoman Magdalucia Marcello bore 26, nearly one per year for her years of fertility. The patrician family’s focus on fertility and heirs meant, in practical terms, that women spent a large portion of their lives pregnant. Historians have found that the wealthiest women in Renaissance Florence were also the most fecund: wealthy women were both younger when they first became mothers and were able to maintain their fertility over a longer time span than poorer women, having, on average, 9.4 children.
The well-established practice of wet-nursing - the sending of an infant to be nursed by another woman for a period of up to two years - allowed upper class women to circumvent nursing’s contraceptive effects, thereby freeing them up to conceive children in quick succession. Yet as Angus McLaren rightly notes, this system benefited the husband much more than the wife “since, at no risk to his health, it brought the promise of additional heirs.” Historians point to the heavy physical toll that repeated pregnancies had on women: even if they did survive, their health was often compromised, as the many descriptions of women ‘worn out by childbearing’ attest. Katharine Park sums up the reality of motherhood in patrilineal Tuscany in rather stark terms: “Wed in their teens to much older men, these women were supposed to perpetuate the families of their husbands by producing as many male children as their bodies could bear.”
The picture of motherhood that emerges from these sources is not pretty. The stark demographic realities of childbearing and childrearing and the patrician family’s focus on heirs combined to make a woman “perpetually pregnant” and in constant peril during her years of fertility. Florentine women could expect to bear “a series of children in quick succession, only to die in childbirth in their twenties or early thirties.” If this is the reality of motherhood in 14th-century Tuscan society, it is not, however, the picture we receive when reading the Decameron. To start with one significant departure, no woman dies in childbirth in Boccaccio’s text, nor does any woman suffer a pregnancy related illness. This observation stands both for narrated events, and past events related in the work; mothers who are already dead in a tale (such as II.8 or IV.1) are not identified as having died in childbirth. While the Decameron does not ignore childhood morbidity and mortality - in VII.3, Agnesa’s son is said to be stricken with vermi, or ‘worms’, a common childhood disease, and in V.9 Monna Giovanna’s young son dies after a brief illness - it does ignore these other troubling aspects of motherhood. If the brigata is under strict orders not to talk about the plague, it seems they also cannot speak of maternal mortality. This may seem like a banal observation, but given that, as Teodolinda Barolini has astutely pointed out, women and their issues “are never peripheral” to Boccaccio, it strikes me as significant that this women’s issue is so patently ignored.
The exclusion of maternal mortality from the Decameron appears intentional. When Boccaccio transformed a Filocolo story into Decameron X.4, he deliberately changed the cause of Catalina’s death from childbirth-related to a generic illness, a move that bucks the general trend of increased socio-historical specificity in the novella. In Question 13 of the Fourth Book of the Filocolo, widely seen as the precursor to Decameron X.4, Catalina’s counterpart dies in childbirth...The change in cause of death, from childbirth in the Filocolo to an unrelated sickness in the Decameron, has no narrative logic: it does not affect the rest of the story…In light of the novella’s increased geographical and historical specificity, the change in cause of death is striking. Had Boccaccio wanted to be historically accurate, he could have easily continued to attribute Catalina’s death to childbirth; as we have seen, twenty percent of married women died in or shortly after childbirth. Instead, he chose to change it from a historically specific and plausible cause to a non-specific ‘cruel illness’. I would note that this change is made by an author who is more than capable of narrating the “specifics” of female life, when he wants to. In the Corbaccio, in a passage widely patterned off of Juvenal’s Satire VI, Boccaccio laments women’s anti-natal practices..Boccaccio’s mention of the perennially defoliated savina plant in the Corbaccio, regardless of the motivation behind the passage, well demonstrates the author’s attention to the details of women’s lived experience.
To return to X.4, what we notice is that Boccaccio has gone out of his way to avoid mentioning an all-too-common element of female life. Giovanni Getto claims that Catalina’s passage from death to life and then birth in X.4 reveals the breadth of the Decameron’s narrative reach. It is in the context of this thematic breadth - the Decameron’s ability to narrate all aspects of human life - that the absence of death in childbirth is so significant: it appears that Boccaccio elected to not include this aspect of human - and specifically female - existence.
Why might the author be reluctant to narrate this aspect of female life? Other medieval authors had shown that childbed death scenes held dramatic possibilities…Yet…Boccaccio does not seem interested in the pathetic or regenerative narrative possibilities of childbirth death scenes. The Decameron is written, by Boccaccio’s own admission, to provide lovestruck women with succour and diversion [Proemio, 13]); the tales are meant to provide women with both pleasure and useful advice. In this context, the avoidance of the mention of maternal mortality in the Decameron, as well as the birth of the work’s many male infants, may be read as a sort of wish-fulfillment, in the sense that Boccaccio would be offering his purported female audience a vision of the best possible reproductive outcome: no one dies and a male heir is (almost) always produced.
There may be, however, another, less sanguine, reason for the author’s reluctance to discuss maternal death. Historians of Renaissance Tuscany detect an idealization of death in childbirth among patrician society; according to these scholars, death in the service of the patrilineage - bearing heirs - was the “hallmark” of the ‘good wife’ in late medieval and Renaissance Tuscany…When noting the deaths of their wives in ricordanze, Tuscan men consistently listed the number of children they had borne them. As Louis Haas notes, this accounting “was not just a statement of fact but an evaluation of worth”: women were prized for their ability to create male children, and thus heirs, for the line…
…I contend that the Decameron’s lack of interest in female fertility is less the result of the frame characters’ narrative agendas - Migiel argues that narrators present views on sex, marriage, women, and children based on their classification as men or women - than it is a rebuttal of a functional view of maternity that places women (and their bodies) at the service of the male line.
Historian Margaret Miles has suggested that the idealization of the virginal woman in 14th-century Tuscan painting may have “symbolized to medieval women freedom from the burden of frequent childbearing and nursing in an age in which these natural processes were highly dangerous.”
…Recently, scholars have explored the variety of ways in which women in late medieval and Renaissance Tuscany were encouraged to assume a maternal role. These scholars, working primarily in the field of art history, have drawn attention to the overt and subliminal messages contained within domestic rituals and objects with which women interacted on a daily basis….Other scholars…have also examined the interplay between art and ideologies of motherhood in Renaissance Tuscany. A commonality to these scholars’ approaches is a careful attention to the way visual art - whether private or public - interacted with societal discourses promoting the family and motherhood in Renaissance Tuscany, shaping or mediating a woman’s experience…
…The first wave of plague in 1348, with which Boccaccio would have been familiar when writing the Decameron, is believed to have killed two-thirds of Florence’s population, or 78,000 people (shrinking the city’s population from 120,000 pre-plague to 42,000 immediately after...In the Introduction to the Decameron, Boccaccio puts the number of dead at 100,000. While the plague is an important context for Renaissance natalism, birth-related objects and rituals were present in Tuscan society prior to the mid-14th century, due to an emphasis on marriage and family among patricians, as well as the risks associated with childbirth; their popularity rose, however, in the years following the plague…
…The encouragement started before marriage: birth-related items were a common constituent of a woman’s material dowry; in addition to new dresses and jewels, a bride received special birth cloths and swaddling bands, charms for future infants, and sometimes life-size dolls in her wedding chest. A girdle, an item possessing definite connotations of fertility, was also included in these chests; their interiors were frequently painted with erotic or suggestive imagery (nude or barely dressed young men and women) to encourage sexuality and procreation. Nuptial ritual also emphasized procreation: at the presentation of the betrothal chests during the wedding ceremony, a child was placed in the bride’s arms as a promise of fertility; this practice was so popular in Florence that sumptuary laws were drawn up in 1356, 1388, and 1415 to regulate it.
…Musacchio considers these birth-related items and rituals “blatant encouragement” for a bride’s future role as mother. Yet messages to procreate were not limited to a woman’s dowry or marriage ritual; objects promoting motherhood and reproduction were also present in a woman’s home before and for a long time after a birth…According to Musaccchio, these objects focused a woman’s attention on reproduction but also sought to control and direct the procreative process, by providing paradigms for proper female behavior and channeling a woman’s imagination toward desired reproductive outcomes. Familiar childbirth or confinement scenes provided comfort or “positive reinforcement” for women currently, or hoping to become, pregnant, while the presence of male infants stimulated a woman’s imagination “toward the procreation of similarly healthy, hearty sons.” (A childbirth tray from the 16th century is bluntly to the point: the underside simply displays the word maschio.) Inside her home, then, a woman was surrounded by objects encouraging motherhood and procreation; outside her home, she encountered a multitude of recipes and practices purporting to increase her fertility.
In the following section, I explore two depictions of unwanted motherhood in the Decameron - one sympathetic, one farcical - and consider how Boccaccio’s treatment undercuts contemporary ideologies of motherhood and the family….
…In the Decameron, unwanted pregnancies occur, predictably, in tales concerning extra- or pre-marital sexuality, such as III.1, III.8, and V.7, or in novelle involving the reversal of sex roles, such as IX.3 where Calandrino becomes ‘pregnant’. In these tales, women (and men) want sex but not the consequences, a dynamic most evident in III.1 where the nuns’ hesitation to have sex with Masetto disappears once they are assured there are a thousand ways to deal with an undesired pregnancy. The marital or social situation of these tales’ protagonists is a fundamental context for the undesirability of these pregnancies: we have nuns (III.1), an adulterous affair (III.8), a premarital relationship (V.7), and, in IX.3, a pregnant man.  What I find interesting about these tales, however, is that despite their varying treatments of the unwanted pregnancy theme, they offer alternatives to the dominant discourse about women and motherhood. At the most simplistic level, depictions of unwanted pregnancies counter Renaissance natalism by showing women who, for various reasons, do not want to conceive. For the sexually curious nuns in III.1, pregnancy is an evil - a mal. For Ferondo’s adulterous wife in III.8, it is a misfortune - a sventura. To the unwed Violante, it is unwelcome - discaro.

The undesirability of these pregnancies is inextricably linked to the extra-marital quality of these affairs: pregnancy threatens to reveal the protagonists’ sexual transgressions (tellingly, Boccaccio never depicts a married couple who do not want to conceive). Nonetheless, the explicit characterization of pregnancy as a misfortune or evil could have provided a counter narrative to the insistent promotion and praise of female fertility that a Tuscan woman encountered on a daily basis. These tales raise the possibility, if safely ensconced in an extra-marital context, that some women might not want to become mothers.
[In two Decameron tales, V.7 and IX.3, motherhood is so unwanted that protagonists seek out abortive remedies to avoid it: in V.7, Violante employs various measures to disgravidare, or miscarry, none of which produce the desired effect… “  END QUOTE FROM SWANN DISSERTATION 

I reached out this afternoon to the author of that brilliant analysis, Kristen R. Swann, a prof at UNH, so as to better understand her take on Boccaccio's intentions in the Decameron. Does his avoidance of the facts on the ground in Florence of rampant death in childbirth when he wrote the Decameron suggests that he was a propagandist for tricking women into submission to the prevailing norm of endless pregnancy, or a subversive wishing to undermine those norms in the eyes of the knowing reader?

It’s no coincidence that the same sort of question applies to so much of Jane Austen’s subtextual meanings – which is what she really believed, the surface meaning or its opposite? On the issue of death in childbirth, I believe Jane Austen’s actual position is indisputable, in part because of all the sarcastic comments in her letters about English wives being knocked up yet again. But the fascinating question raised by this post is, how did she read Boccaccio?

I’ll return with a followup when I have got more to tell.

Cheers, ARNIE

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