Mansfield Park and the Amelioration of Slavery, The

Politics of Silence: Mansfield Park and the Amelioration of Slavery, The

Boulukos, George E

Interpreting Slavery and Silence

In the wake of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993), the “dead silence” that follows Fanny Price’s question about “the slave trade” to her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park has come to dominate critical interpretations of Austen’s engagement with slavery, colonialism, and empire. The critical fascination with Austen’s description of “silence” stems from the centrality of silence and speech to 1980s and ’90s theories of imperial and racial domination. Gayatri Spivak asks “can the subaltern speak?”; Toni Morrison, in a quotation Said uses as an epigraph to chapter 1 of Culture and Imperialism (3), remarks of “the presence of Africans and their descendants” in the nineteenthcentury U.S. that “silence from and about the subject was the order of the day. Some of the silences were broken, and some maintained by authors who lived with and within the policing strategies” (50-51); Said himself maintains “that the universalizing discourses of modern Europe and the United States assume the silence, willing or otherwise, of the non-European world” (50). Following such views, politically engaged critics have set about addressing the injustices of the past by working to reveal and break such silences. With regard to these political models of interpretation, however, the apparent relevance of the “silence” Austen describes may be deceptive. I would argue that a momentary silence in the conversation of a Baronet’s family should not be too readily equated to the “silencing” of “subalterns” themselves, however tempting the symbolism. Indeed, should a young English woman – even a dependent niece – speak out on slavery and break a post-prandial silence, it would not necessarily mark her as resisting the progress of empire. Critics, I contend, have too readily equated silence to complicity and speech to resistance.1 In the case oí Mansfield Park, such an equation ultimately masks the specific ways in which Austen’s novel imagines slavery and lends its support to the enterprise of empire.

While I accept the need for literary criticism to examine the effects of empire and to contribute to the history of imperialism, I will nonetheless argue that Said and those who follow him misread both the silence in Mansfield Park and its cultural moment. The first section of this essay considers Said’s methods in interpreting Mansfield Park, including his commitment to an ideal of interpretation as breaking the silences of the past, dependent on the model of “the colonial unconscious.”2 Further, I contend, these critics flatten out the cultural moment of slavery in Romantic-era Britain in two ways: first, they accept a canonical and aesthetically extraordinary novel as simply representative of its culture; and second, they allow the broad category of “Imperialism” to stand in for the specific histories of slavery and colonialism in that time. The primary goal of this essay is to establish a detailed context for Austen’s reference to the sjave trade, demonstrating that it called to mind a politics of “amelioration”: a position on slavery that would have been familiar to Austen’s early nineteenth-century audience. Proponents of this position held that slavery and colonialism were morally redeemable and potentially even heroic pursuits for men such as Sir Thomas Bertram.

This essay, then, seeks to establish that Austen refers to the amelioration of slavery, and likely to the related literary trope of the grateful slave, in imagining Fanny Price’s notoriously elusive discussion of “the slave trade” with her uncle. The amelioration of slavery was the idea that slavery could be improved and made more humane (Ellis 87); in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, this idea was a “moderate” one, representing a middle ground claimed by both abolitionists and slave owners. Amelioration was attractive to plantation owners not only because it imagined slaves happily embracing their slavery, but also because it staved off a public demand for emancipation. Abolitionists also embraced amelioration, supporting, for instance, their call for the ban of the slave trade with the argument that such a move would force owners to ameliorate the condition of slaves until slavery itself simply evolved into wage labor. While some readings of Mansfield Park mention amelioration in passing (Roberts 140-41, Johnson 107-08, and Trumpener 174-84), others dismiss it as “disingenuous” (Peter Smith 228) or as having been exposed as “false” after the Abolition Act of 1807 (Ferguson, “Mansfield Park” 119).

The context of amelioration makes sense of the one scene in which the slave trade is discussed in Mansfield Park. Because Fanny’s discussion with her uncle is followed by a “dead silence,” her reference to the slave trade has been taken as a reminder of the Bertrams’ shameful dependence on a business they would prefer to pass over in silence. However, if we imagine that Fanny asks her uncle about the “slave trade” enthusiastically, because she sees him as a morally exemplary slave-owner, the exchange as Austen represents it makes far more sense. Despite the fact that it leads to the notorious “dead silence,” Fanny’s discussion of the slave trade with her uncle appears to be a pleasant one, and one that, notably, appeals to her uncle. The silence is produced by the moral indifference of Fanny’s young cousins, not by his shock or discomfort. Austen, then, makes a moral point about Fanny’s cousins similar to the point that many recent critics have made about Mansfield Park itself: that silence about slavery in early nineteenth-century Britain can only be seen as a moral failing. Austen understands the moral failing in question very differently: the failing is the indifference of Fanny’s cousins to their father and to his slaves. Fanny, in this reading, does not confront her uncle about owning slaves; instead, she congratulates him for caring for his slaves properly.

Amelioration: The Forgotten Position

Following Said, many readings of the novel disregard Austen’s indications of the “pleasure” and success of the exchange between Fanny and her uncle, assuming instead that no slave master could enjoy being questioned about his human possessions. On this basis, they change the motive of the ensuing “silence” from the moral disinterest of Fanny’s cousins to the hostility of her uncle. Given the context of amelioration, and Austen’s description of the scene, it makes far more sense that Sir Thomas sees himself in the role of the humane, ameliorationist reformer of his Antiguan plantation, and that Fanny’s eager questioning helps confirm his self-image. In eighteenth-century and Romantic-era fiction, there was a well-established trope of the grateful slave – a trope which represents and idealizes amelioration (Boulukos, Grateful Slave). Indeed, grateful slave fictions, the earliest of which can be dated to 1722, began to promote amelioration well before it became central to the polemical debate on slavery. Such fictions have often been associated with anti-slavery because they acknowledge slavery’s cruelty.3 It is notable, however, that the slave owner or overseer – in his role as reformer – is the hero of the grateful slave fictions. If one grants that Fanny imagines her uncle as playing the role of such an admirable reformer, it is no longer strange that he would enjoy her questioning. The historical and literary context of amelioration makes it quite plausible that Sir Thomas could be imagined in such terms.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many works, both fictional and polemical, made arguments for “amelioration” and protested the overt cruelty of slavery, offering tales of humane planters who treated their charges with tenderness and care. In fiction, this amounted to a tradition of “grateful slave” fictions representing sentimental heroes – usually young men from Britain, unfamiliar with slavery, who reform their plantations by eliciting the grateful devotion of their slaves with humane reforms.4 Humanitarian reforms are intertwined with economic reform throughout the tradition. Austen likely encountered grateful slave novelists – including Sarah Scott, Dr. John Moore, Robert Bage, and Elizabeth Helme – in her extensive reading of novels from circulating libraries.

Religious writers on slavery throughout the century, from George Whitfield to James Ramsay and Richard Nisbet, took similar views, singling out “kind” masters for praise and arguing that religious instruction, humane treatment, and amelioration would not only help slaves but would also make plantations more productive. This argument was joined by the planters Colonel Samuel Martin and Sir Phillip Gibbes, who wrote manuals representing kind treatment of slaves as economically beneficial. Planters in fact sometimes instituted “ameliorationist” reforms, if perhaps not to the degree that they publicized them to curry favorable public opinion (Ward). Some accounts of ameliorationism argued that the abolition of the slave trade would, by forcing planters to value their slaves’ lives more highly, lead to ameliorative reforms. As a result, slavery would wither away. Other accounts, like Edgeworth’s, imply that ameliorated slavery remains more desirable for Africans than freedom (Boulukos, “Maria Edgeworth”). Mansfield Park does not provide sufficient evidence to determine whether Fanny views amelioration as a step towards emancipation or as an end in itself. But in the immediate post-abolition context, the practical difference between the two positions was negligible, and all available evidence suggests that Fanny has a favorable view of amelioration, whatever form it takes.

Said, Silence, the Canon, and the Empire

In Culture and Imperialism, Said explains his method of “contrapuntal reading” as recovering both “imperialism” and “the resistance to it” – a method that requires “extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded” (66-67). He applies this to Austen’s novel in particular, concluding that “in order more accurately to read works like Mansfield Park, we have to see them in the main as resisting or avoiding that other setting, which their formal inclusiveness, historical honesty, and prophetic suggestiveness cannot completely hide” (96). Said suggests that Austen’s references to Antigua result from the inevitable drive to truth in an artistic masterpiece, independent of authorial intentions. That Mansfield Park attempts to ignore the very topic it cannot help raising is an unconvincing reading, despite its popularity with critics.5 Austen, after all, successfully excluded references to the colonies from her first three novels, despite the imperatives of “formal inclusiveness, historical honesty, and prophetic suggestiveness.” She chose to include such references in her late works: Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion and Sanditon. Said is quite right in emphasizing the economic dependence of the Mansfield estate on colonialism and has almost singlehandedly made slavery and colonialism into the central critical concerns for readers of Mansfield Park. Yet, Said’s argument that slavery and colonialism are marginalized in the novel, just as they are marginalized in the larger culture, derives from his methodology rather than from historical and textual evidence. Due to his conflation of canon and archive, Said’s reading ultimately disguises Mansfield Park’s specific contribution, through “amelioration,” to the ideology of empire.

Said’s most basic error, as Katie Trumpener shows, is his assumption that West Indian slavery and colonial responsibility were topics “excluded” from or “avoided” in Romantic era fiction (Trumpener 163). In fact, there is no evidence that readers, publishers or booksellers of early nineteenth-century London either looked askance at fictional works treating these topics or worried that such topics might upset the public’s sense of propriety. Discussion of the West Indies and slavery was a cornerstone of even educational fiction in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, cropping up in stories for children and the poor by writers from Thomas Day and Maria Edgeworth and the “Cheap Repository Tracts” series (e.g. The Black Prince) to more sophisticated adult fiction by writers including Charlotte Smith, Elizabeth Helme, and Robert Bage.6 Far from avoiding these issues so prominent in political and journalistic discourse, fiction considered them educational, topical, and even fashionable subjects. Marcus Wood refines Said’s position by acknowledging the prominence of slavery in the discourse of the early nineteenth century, but then arguing that Austen was constrained to avoid the topic in Mansfield Park because her audience was sick of hearing about it and suspicious of the familiar polemics of the slavery debate (Wood 299-300). But Wood’s position depends on imagining the slavery debate as having two poles (for and against), which excludes the possibility of interest in amelioration and reform in the wake of the Abolition Act of 1807. By arguing for the suppression of slavery as a topic, Said seems to conflate his own situation – that of a late twentieth-century literary critic – with Jane Austen’s situation as a Romantic-era novelist. The problem is that for Jane Austen, there was no such silence to break.

Said’s account of the imperative behind his project includes a revealing equivocation. “We must,” he writes, “read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented” (66). Said’s notion of the “archive” here remains hazy. Where in practice he does not consider the implications of this “perhaps,” instead taking canonical texts to stand in for the “entire archive,” he does call attention to the fact that the voices of those most affected by slavery and colonialism have been ignored. Austen provides his example: “just because Austen referred to Antigua in Mansfield Park or to realms visited by the British navy in Persuasion without any thought of possible responses by the Caribbean or Indian natives resident there is no reason for us to do the same” (66). Of course, Said’s reading of Austen does not attempt to recover such voices – and oddly, he does not mention African slaves in his example – but instead works to establish the economic importance of Antigua to the culture of Mansfield Park. The misperception of slavery as “marginal” in the fiction of the period stems from this confusion of the canonical with the “entire archive,” and from Said’s decision – almost unchallenged by critics oí Mansfield Park- to take a hyper-canonical novel as representative of the fiction of the period. Austen’s most influential innovations as a novelist – using free indirect discourse rather than omniscient narration or epistolary form, psychologically complex characters rather than moral exemplars- militate against offering authoritative opinions on moral and political questions like that of colonial slavery. One of the clearest distinctions between Austen and her contemporaries is her complete refusal of didacticism, and it was overtly didactic writers who most were most likely to take up the issue of slavery in their fiction.

The exceptional aesthetic practices which lead to Austen’s canonization make her, then, a very poor example to use for establishing the place of slavery and colonialism in early nineteenth-century fiction, discourse, and culture.7 Said himself invokes Austen’s aesthetic exceptionalism. It is, he contends,

precisely because Austen is so summary in one context, so provocatively rich in the other, precisely because ofthat imbalance [that] 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; its worldliness is simple and direct, the way a jingoisitic ditty during the Mahdist uprising or the 1857 Indian Rebellion connects directly to the situation and constituency that coined it. (96)

Strikingly, Said does not mention slavery and the West Indies here, instead using examples that point to later and different colonial contexts, perhaps because examples from the immediate context of Mansfield Park would complicate his reading of the cultural significance of slavery’s marginal presence in the novel. Further, he de-historicizes Austen’s aesthetic decision to avoid didacticism, framing it not as an innovation in novelistic realism but as necessary for the indirect “worldliness” characteristic of artistic masterpieces.

Austen’s fiction includes the discussion of moral and political issues, and it does so with the same realistic texture that sets her narrative method apart from that of her contemporaries. In this sense, the reference to the slave trade in Mansfield Park is not marginal, cryptic or incomprehensible. Instead, Austen could reasonably expect her readers to connect it to a very familiar – indeed a culturally central – discourse. Said’s method, which necessitates “recovering” the repressed presence of slavery and colonialism, depends on denying the familiarity of the slave trade as a topic of discussion. Said does this in extending his reading of the novel to its entire cultural moment: “in time there would no longer be a dead silence when slavery was spoken of, and the subject became central to a new understanding of what Europe was” (96). Critics who accept this premise upon entering the debate are limited to one of two positions: either Austen is complicit in her culture’s guilty repression of colonialism, or she (like Fanny Price) establishes her credentials as a critic of slavery and colonialism in the very act of breaking the silence. Said himself offers support to both positions, remarking that “everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery” but also that “it would be silly to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave” (96).

Said does not consider the possibility that slavery and colonialism in Austen’s time were not veiled in silence, but were in fact frequently and passionately debated and often discussed in literary discourse.8 In accepting Said’s assumption, those who study slavery in Mansfield Park ignore ameliorationism. The goal of amelioration underwrote a distinction between slavery itself, which was seen as susceptible to improvement, and the slave trade, which was seen as irredeemable. Also important to understanding the context of slavery in Mansfield Park was the belief that upper-class absentee plantation owners would ameliorate their slaves’ condition simply by putting their humane views to work by directly supervising their overseers, who were often depicted as lower-class ruffians.9 Indeed, ameliorationism was taken up by planters themselves, as well as by literary writers critical of the “excesses” and “cruelty” of the slave system. Advocating for amelioration allowed even planters to express their “regrets” about the evils of slavery – and particularly the slave trade – as they often did.10 In sum, “ameliorationism,” although no longer familiar, was central to late eighteenthand early nineteenth-century British discussions of slavery as a “moral” position that acknowledges its practice as problematic while nonetheless working to improve it and preserve it as an institution. That there was a strong – and familiar – distinction of guilt between owning slaves and trading them at the turn of the nineteenth-century helps make sense of the political situation in which abolition of the slave trade (1807) was politically feasible a quarter century before emancipation (1833).

Careful consideration of the implications of this historical context reveals another problem raised by Said’s reading of Mansfield Park. Postcolonial critics of Austen, interested in the large categories of empire and colonialism, collapse slavery and colonialism together as two aspects of the same phenomenon: “imperialism.” There is no question that slavery was a fundamental part of the enterprise of British colonialism in the eighteenth century. This conflation makes moral and historical sense in the larger picture, but it also elides distinctions made by Jane Austen’s contemporaries and forestalls a nuanced historical view of these issues. Many anti-slavery activists, for instance, advocated for colonialism in Africa as a morally preferable alternative to the African slave trade. By the 1820s, the Royal Navy stepped up its interdiction of illegal slave cargoes, and the British commitment to abolishing the slave trade gave moral authority to British Imperialism. Perhaps because of the tradition of rhetorical attacks on the slave trade rather than slavery itself (Gould 12-42), the discourse at the time allowed – indeed encouraged – a disarticulation of the slave trade (although not slavery itself) and colonialism, with the result of facilitating the moral redemption of the larger colonial enterprise.11

Hearing the Silence

Notably, Mansfield Park does not directly represent Fanny’s attempt to discuss the slave trade with her uncle. Their discussion – as reported by Fanny and her cousin Edmund – includes the only direct reference to slavery (actually to “the slave trade”) in the novel. Critics agree in finding “the silence of the Bertrams” following the abortive beginning of this discussion symbolic of the family’s, and the broader society’s, desire to avoid or marginalize the colonial violence upon which their economic status depends.12 Attentive analysis of the sequence of events described, and of the tone of the passage, however, reveals that Sir Thomas welcomed Fanny’s question. In the key scene, the topic of the slave trade arises only indirectly, in a discussion of the social atmosphere at Mansfield in the wake of Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua. Edmund suggests that Fanny could do more to alleviate the family’s palpable discomfort, with the gentle charge that “you are one of those who are too silent in the evening circle.” Fanny defends herself as having engaged her uncle, Sir Thomas, in conversation the previous evening: “But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did you not hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?” Edmund responds “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” (136), making it clear that he shares Fanny’s view that this gambit is just the sort of thing her uncle would like to see more of, because it would render the family’s evening conversation more – not less – comfortable. Edmund and Fanny concur, then, in seeing the slave trade as an attractive topic for Sir Thomas. Neither of the two imagines Fanny’s question as an improper broaching of a distasteful topic, a hostile challenge, or a naïve gaffe.

To maintain the argument that the Bertrams’ silence results from discomfort about Fanny’s question, critics who accept Said’s assumptions as to the cause of “the silence of the Bertrams” must explain why Edmund believes that Sir Thomas was pleased by Fanny’s inquiry. Edmund’s statement that “it would have pleased your Uncle to be inquired of farther” strongly suggests that Sir Thomas himself had responded, and responded positively, to Fanny’s first question before the room fell silent (Lloyd 72-73, Plasa 33). Indeed, the “dead silence,” as Fanny describes it, is not the silence of shock or hostility, but the silence of indifference, or a failure of moral engagement, on the part of the younger generation of Bertrams. Not only does Edmund assure her of his own “hopes [that] the question would be followed up by others,” but Fanny herself remarks that she “longed” to continue questioning Sir Thomas:

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 it- 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 daughters to feel. (136)

Criticism more frequently associates this “dead silence” with Sir Thomas than with any other character.13 Despite the ambiguity resulting from the ordering of Fanny’s comments – in mentioning the “silence” before its cause – the second sentence of the above quotation indicates strongly that the “silence” to which Fanny reacts is not Sir Thomas’s, but that of her cousins.14 Edmund’s initial reply, his insistence that “it would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther” would be absurd had Sir Thomas been a contributor to the “dead silence.” The silence, as the passage implies, came after Sir Thomas’s reply to Fanny’s question – a reply which Sir Thomas, in both Edmund and Fanny’s perception, gave willingly and even with enthusiasm for the topic.

Fanny fails to pursue the topic further not out of a fear of giving offense, but because she worries that “it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at [her cousins’] expense.” Fanny’s discomfort with her cousins’ silence derives from her sense that the question allies her with her uncle and makes her seem morally serious in comparison to his own children. Indeed, several critics writing before Said see this moment as endearing Fanny to her uncle, and this point has been acknowledged in recent work on Mansfield Park.15 These earlier critics suggest that Fanny drops the topic of the slave trade when her uncle seems eager to discuss it, and certainly not because he resents her question. In Fanny’s account, implicitly seconded by Edmund, the young Bertrams are not shocked by their dependent cousin’s sudden exposure of the unspeakable colonial underpinnings of their wealth and culture. They simply grow bored when their father holds forth about his ethical interests and economic projects. Jenny Davidson’s perceptive comment on this moment is that “because Fanny cannot act on her very natural desire to please Sir Thomas without looking like a hypocrite, she refrains from acting at all” (156). Indeed, Fanny introduces the subject to Edmund with the remark that “I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies. I could listen to him for an hour together. It entertains me more than many other things have done – but then I am unlike other people I dare say” (135-36). Her tone, like Edmund’s, indicates from the outset a sense of happy connection with her uncle, not discord or any consciousness of having shamed him.

The argument that Austen, in the Bertrams’ silence, is herself merely hinting at something she, as an author, was unwilling to confront directly (Capitani) is also implausible. Not only has it been well established that abolitionist sentiments were seen as appropriate to women in the period (Midgley 9-40 and Sussman 110-58), but in her very next novel, Emma, Austen offers a scene in which a character is openly and explicitly mortified at the possibility that others associate her with the slave trade. Jane Fairfax tries to resist the efforts of the opprobrious Mrs. Elton to land her a position as a governess. Demurring from the insistence of Mrs. Elton on finding her a position post-haste, Jane mentions that “[tjhere are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something – Offices for the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect” (196). Her odious interlocutor, who constantly invokes her brother-in-law Mr. Suckling and his country estate, replies, “Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.” Mrs. Elton’s defensive overreaction suggests that she instinctively identifies with the slave trade and is wary of “flings” against it.16 Her defensive discomfort, combined with the information that she is the daughter of a Bristol merchant, and that her patron Suckling is also from near Bristol, strongly suggests of a connection to the slave trade (118). Jane, however, accepts Mrs. Elton’s protest at face value, responding that the “governess trade” is “widely different certainly” from the slave trade “as to the guilt of those who carry it on,” thereby implying that the guilt of the slave trade can be taken for granted.

Mrs. Elton, it should be noted, is marked as a hypocrite whose very denials only call attention to undesirable aspects of her social profile. She declares herself, for instance, to have a “horror of upstarts,” while she also reveals that her Mr. Suckling likely purchased his country estate himself, with money his father had earned (203). Similarly, her defensiveness about the slave trade only serves to highlight her Bristol connections. In any event, the point most relevant to Mansfield Park is that Austen has no fear of portraying a character as anxious to avoid association with the slave trade, and showing the assumption that an association with the slave trade is a guilty and undesirable one. Implicitly employing the concept of a return of the repressed, Said envisions Austen herself (or the text of Mansfield Park) as a Mrs. Elton, unable to avoid mentioning the guilty secret of colonial dependence even while trying to suppress it.

We must ask, then, how to distinguish the Bertrams from Mrs. Elton: is their involvement with slavery acceptable as long as they are not hypocritical about it? Hypocrisy in this case is not the central issue. The crucial distinction is between the guilt of the African slave trader and the possibility that planters, by contrast, will do good for their charges, particularly in the way of Christian instruction and amelioration. This concept was put forward not only by the defenders of the planters but also by such abolitionists as William Wilberforce, the parliamentary leader of Abolition, and Thomas Clarkson, with whom Austen claimed to be “in love” in an 1813 letter to Cassandra (Letters 198). As planters, the Bertrams have the opportunity to redeem their involvement in slavery by turning it to good, whereas (if they are indeed meant to be understood as slave traders) the Hawkinses or Sucklings are only guilty. In sum, the reading of Fanny’s questioning of Sir Thomas as a shocking anti-slavery bromide, or of her uncle’s response to it as constituting part of the “dead silence,” is inconsistent with the scene in which her discussion with her uncle is described.

Absentees and Amelioration

Fanny’s decision to ask about the slave trade rather than slavery itself suggests that her question draws attention not to her uncle’s cruelty in owning slaves, but to the actions he takes to improve their condition, as anticipated even by abolitionists like William Clarkson after the abolition bill took effect in 1807. The evidence suggests that Austen was familiar with this line of thinking.17 The one book about slavery and abolition that Austen is widely thought to have read-Clarkson’s History-supports the idea that outlawing the trade would inevitably improve the condition of slaves. Hence, absentee slave-owners, who, like Sir Thomas, travel to the plantations to set them in order, can be seen as metropolitans attempting to make the “humane” and reformist discourse of amelioration into a colonial reality. Clarkson narrates the decision of the Abolition Committee to concentrate its efforts on abolishing the African slave trade and to leave aside the question of emancipation. In so doing, he explains the argument for attacking the trade rather than agitating for emancipation, which is based on the conviction that if the Slave-trade should be really abolished, the bad usage of the slaves in the colonies, that is the hard part of their slavery, if not the slavery itself, would fall. For, the planters and others being unable to procure more slaves from the coast of Africa, it would follow directly, whenever this great event should take place, that they must treat those better, whom they might then have. (229)

The very concepts of “bad usage” and “the hard part of slavery” show a willingness, now alien to us, to imagine acceptable forms of slavery. Clarkson goes on to explain that the effects of abolition were foreseen as bringing slave holders to establish honorable marriages among slaves, to care for the offspring of such unions, to moderate work and punishments, all of which committee members expect would have such positive effects as to convince masters to bring slaves as close as possible to the status of freemen. Hence, by asking Sir Thomas about the “slave trade” in the immediate post-abolition context, Fanny most likely invokes neither the “increasing atrocities” of the moment (Ferguson, “Mansfield” 119), nor the illegal continuance of the slave trade (Southam), but the expectation that Sir Thomas has now more than ever been able to realize humane and ameliorationist reforms on his estate. Rather than reminding her uncle of his undeniable guilt, Fanny’s question calls to mind positions like that of the “moderate” planter, Bryan Edwards, who influenced Charlotte Smith and Maria Edgeworth.18 Edwards exploited the popularity of ameliorationist discourse, boldly asserting that “nothing is more certain, than that the slave trade may be very wicked, and the planters very innocent” (II: 35).

In addition to distinguishing between slave owners and slave traders, the discourse of the time distinguished between the moral intentions of absentee owners and the actions of their agents on the ground. William Wilberforce, leader of the parliamentary abolitionists, in the opening speech reported in the widely disseminated book of testimony from the 1792 parliamentary debate on the abolition bill, explains his view of the impact of absentee ownership on plantation life:

There is often an elevation and liberality of mind produced by the consciousness of superior rank and consequence and authority, which serve in some degree to mitigate the fierceness of unrestrained power … but when it comes into the possession of the base and the vulgar, the evils will then be felt in their fullest extent…. of the more opulent and more liberal Proprietors of West India properties, how many are there who are absent from their own estates, residing in this country, or in other parts of Europe? They send across the Atlantic, declarations and directions dictated by the humanity of their own minds; but the execution of these, must be left to persons of an altogether different description. (Great Britain, Debate 6-7)

Wilberforce goes on to claim that a very similar account is given in Edward Long’s virulently pro-slavery and racist History of Jamaica (1774).19 While both Wilberforce and Long have their own polemical purposes in exculpating the absentee plantation owner, the point here is that the defense was a common one. Like the King who can do no wrong except when mislead by advisors, slave owners-especially those residing in Britain-were often figured as humane and well-intentioned but undermined by their cruel and grasping underlings. J. Orde, Esq., a witness at the 1790 abolition hearing supporting the West India interest, gives a similar view, quoted here in the telegraphic style of an abridgement of the evidence:

Does not know that the difference of profit to the resident and to the absentee proprietor of estates in the West-Indies is so great as he stated to the privy-council, he believes it however to be in general very material.

Believes attention to the moral and religious instructions of slaves would contribute to their comfort, and their masters interest; the French are more attentive to these points than we are, and benefit accordingly. (Great Britain, Abridgment 187)

Amelioration was, in other words, a moderate, even a consensus position-one both sides were eager to link to their own efforts, and one that forgave much to planters, especially those willing to reform, as it condemned slave traders as the true villains. And, despite Moira Ferguson’s view of the collapse of amelioration in light of the failure of the 1807 act (“Mansfield”), it remained a part of the rhetoric of those organizing for emancipation-as shown, for instance, in an unpublished speech of Clarkson’s from 1823 (Walvin 151).

Several critics have seen Sir Thomas in terms of his relationship to the literary type of the Creole, and to the problem of the uritrammeled will that the unchecked power of the slave master creates.20 But Sir Thomas is in fact cast by Austen in the role of the absentee owner whose very willingness to appear on his own estates represents an appropriate step toward reform (Fleishman 37-38)-reform which, distinct from the “improvements” of the British agricultural revolution (Duckworth), was generally understood as at once moral and economic. Wiltshire and Lloyd contend that economic concerns cannot have compelled Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua, pointing out that the evidence for his motives comes from the unreliable Mrs. Norris. Although Mrs. Norris’s accounts of economic matters are indeed not to be trusted, the narrator independently confirms her suggestion of the financial importance of the Antigua property, even asserting that “the necessity of the measure in a pecuniary light” convinced Sir Thomas to go to Antigua (25). It is, furthermore, unlikely that a man such as Sir Thomas would risk his life and undergo the trauma of two Atlantic crossings in a short period without serious economic incentives.21 Still, economic motives, in the discourse of the time, would by no means impinge on the sense that his mission was also a moral one.

“To Be the Friend of the Poor and the Oppressed!” or, The Reformer’s Reward

Although we get no more information on any of the characters’ attitudes toward slavery than we can tease out of Fanny and Edmund’s discussion of her question to her uncle, and her “pleasure” in hearing him speak of the West Indies, there is direct evidence that Fanny regards landowners as morally laudable for fighting the injurious effects of absenteeism and taking a direct interest in their tenants-a situation parallel to (although of course by no means identical with) Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua. One of the most successful moments in Henry Crawford’s courtship of Fanny is his account of a trip to his infrequently visited estate, Everingham, in Norfolk; she is impressed by his account of his paternalistic concern for his tenants.22 After amusing Fanny’s sister Susan with talk of parties, he turns his attention to Fanny:

For her approbation, the particular reason of his going into Norfolk at all, at this unusual time of year, was given. It had been real business, relative to the renewal of a lease in which the welfare of a large and (he believed) industrious family was at stake. He had suspected his agent of some underhand dealing-of meaning to bias him against the deserving-and he had determined to go himself, and thoroughly investigate the merits of the case. He had gone, had done even more good than he had foreseen, had been useful to more than his first plan had comprehended, and was now able to congratulate himself upon it, and to feel, that in performing a duty, he had secured agreeable recollections for his own mind. He had introduced himself to some tenants, whom he had never seen before; he had begun making acquaintance with cottages whose very existence, though on his own estate, had been hitherto unknown to him. This was aimed, and well aimed, at Fanny. It was pleasing to hear him speak so properly; here he had been acting as he ought to do. To be the friend of the poor and the oppressed! Nothing could be more grateful to her. (275)

In a situation paralleling that of Sir Thomas and his slaves, Fanny gives Henry full credit for being a “friend of the poor and oppressed” without considering the extent to which he himself is ultimately responsible for their poverty and oppression. The effort of investigation and reform is only to Henry’s credit. Sir Thomas in Antigua can also be imagined to have “begun making acquaintance with cottages whose very existence, though on his own estate, had been hitherto unknown to him,” to have foiled the oppressive schemes of his agents and overseers, to have “done even more good than he had foreseen” and to have “been useful to more than his first plan had comprehended” if he is understood as the humane reformer that absentee planters were often assumed to be in visiting their plantations.

Henry explains to Fanny that he intends to return to his estate to further his paternalistic business; but we learn-through the narrator’s counterfactual explanation that “would he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward”-that the moral failing costing him Fanny’s hand was not simply his dalliance with Mrs. Rushworth. That dalliance itself resulted from his forgetting his promises to attend to his tenants: “Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham after his return from Portsmouth, he might have been deciding his own happy destiny” (317). His path to virtue, and Fanny’s hand, depended on his keeping in mind his obligation to do justice to his tenants and to save them from the depredations of his agents. However, the narrator explains, “the temptation of immediate pleasure was too strong for a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right; he resolved to defer his Norfolk journey, resolved that writing should answer the purpose of it, or that its purpose was unimportant” (317). The result is not only his exposure to the temptation of Maria’s passion for him, but also his failure to do his duty as a landowner. Henry’s moral failure is analogous to the failure, in Wilberforce’s account, of the absentee planter who sends letters rather than appearing himself. His presence alone can be assumed to bring about humanity and justice for his dependents; thus, his failure is in substituting an ineffectual letter for that efficacious presence. This understanding is associated with the judgment of both Fanny-who is moved by his having done right-and the narrator, who, having abandoned the free indirect style, takes care to link his failure as a landlord to his succumbing to the temptation of Mrs. Rushworth.

Taking together Edmund’s and Fanny’s impressions of Sir Thomas’s happiness in hearing Fanny’s questions, and Fanny’s enthusiasm for Henry’s promising but ultimately failed embrace of his paternalistic responsibility, we are left with the sense that Fanny sees Sir Thomas’s trip to Antigua as fulfilling his moral obligation to ensure the humane treatment of his slaves. Neither Fanny nor Austen can be seen as an “abolitionist” in any radical sense, although both seem to share Jane Fairfax’s sense of the guilt in dealing in (rather than owning) human flesh after the trade had been outlawed. It is worth noting that neither could be ignorant of a much more radical view of slavery-one which viewed slave holders not as potential agents of reform, but as morally inexcusable agents of oppression. Austen famously has Fanny cite one of her own favorite texts-Cowper’s The Task-in reference to the aesthetics of estate improvement. Cowper goes further than Clarkson or Wilberforce; indeed, he contradicts the Abolition Committee’s political vision, in Clarkson’s words, that “by aiming at the abolition of Slave-trade, they were laying the axe at the very root” (230) of the institution of slavery. In The Task, Cowper draws no distinction between traders and planters, and dismisses the question of amelioration:

I would not have a slave to till my ground,

To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,

And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth

That sinews bought and sold have ever earn’d.

No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart’s

Just estimation priz’d above all price,

I had much rather be myself the slave

And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him. (46-47)

For Cowper, any man who can say he has a “slave to till my ground” is thereby guilty of fastening “bonds” on his slave, and the image of “all the wealth/That sinews bought and sold have ever earned” collapses together the earnings of the slave trade itself with the earnings of slave labor.

Everything in the scene of Fanny’s exchange with Sir Thomas, then, suggests that her question leaves him room for self-congratulation at his slaves’ appreciation of his humane improvements, after the ending of the trade, in the manner of Matthew “Monk” Lewis in his Journal of a West India Proprietor.23 Fanny, accepting the ameliorationist ideal, and viewing him as performing his moral duty to the “poor and oppressed” in an admirable fashion, places Mansfield Park in relationship to eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century narratives of slave reform, which depend on the slaves’ devotion to their kind master.

Amelioration and Empire

The pervasiveness of the ideal of amelioration, together with the notion that an absentee planter could be seen as praiseworthy for going to his West Indian holdings to improve them both morally and economically, is bewildering in our time, given our revulsion from the idea of slavery. Furthermore, it is confusing because our scholarly understanding of slavery’s politics has largely been formed in reference to an idea of the U.S. Civil War as the final confrontation of intractable, uncompromising pro- and anti- slavery forces. It is also instructive as a sign of the limits of Thomas Haskell’s theory that being connected through the international marketplace to slave products caused consumers to imagine their connection to enslaved Africans, creating the sympathy which fueled the abolition movement. In this novel, we see that the ideal of amelioration allowed people to feel that they were not culpable for the wrongs of slavery, and indeed that they were morally commendable for continuing to own and profit from slaves, as long as those slaves were “treated well.”24 Indeed, it is not only the complacently self-deceived and morally inattentive Sir Thomas who can view himself as fulfilling his moral duty by visiting his estates in Antigua, but also his keenly perceptive and acutely judging niece who reflects back to him this view in her eager question on the “slave trade” and her “pleasure” in listening to him speak of the West Indies. In the cultural politics of the period from 1807-1815, it is possible to locate an “emancipationist” politics, but the meaning of “abolition” immediately after the outlawing of the slave trade itself has become so unclear as to be almost without meaning. Hence, while Fanny is by no means pro-slavery, her sympathy for an ameliorating planter makes it equally implausible to read her as “abolitionist,” unless this is taken to mean that she does not wish for the repeal of the legal ban on the African slave trade. Most critics on the topic treat Fanny’s views as coextensive with Austen’s own, even arguing that Fanny must be an abolitionist because of the sentiments of Austen’s brother Francis, which are as radical as Cowper’s and are dismissive of any claims of mitigation. In any event, many critics read Fanny as an abolitionist, or even emancipationist, and some attribute such positions to Austen herself.25 Some even view Sir Thomas as an abolitionist.26 Attributing Austen’s views to Fanny-or vice versa-is risky; the most that can be said with confidence is that Austen presents Fanny’s views as unobjectionable.

Said’s reading of Austen is invaluable as a startling reminder of just how central colonial slavery was to British culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But while such a reminder is salutary for those of us who have forgotten-or never learned-the cultural context of Austen’s world, it would not surprise Jane Austen or the denizens of Mansfield Park; they were well aware of slavery. Jane Austen is no Mrs. Elton, inadvertently revealing her own imperfectly repressed guilt. Said’s recovery of the marginal presence of slavery in a canonical novel has been misconstrued-even by Said himself-as revealing a resounding “silence” about slavery in early nineteenth-century literature. Many now obscure novels and texts like Bryan Edward’s and Thomas Clarkson’s Histories circulated widely and forthrightly offered their views of slavery. Rather than revealing a repressed “colonial unconscious” and an unspeakable guilt about slavery in early nineteenth-century British culture, Mansfield Park reminds us of something even more disturbing: the culturally mainstream belief of the time that, when pursuing amelioration, owning slaves-if not trading in them-was not only acceptable but even morally commendable. If we are to construct a genealogy of imperialism in literature, representations of the amelioration of plantation slavery should not be forgotten in preference for an ahistorical, if more ideologically satisfying, theory of literature’s guilty, complicit silence about colonialism. Surely, the discourse of amelioration in which lower-class traders and overseers are blamed for excesses of cruelty, gentlemanly slave owners are praised as humane reformers, and slaves themselves are expected to be grateful to their benevolent masters makes more sense as a moment in the history of British imperialism than does a misreading of the morally obtuse Bertrams silencing discussion of slavery due to their irrepressible guilt.

1 Walter Benn Michaels effectively, if unsympathetically, identifies the way that such critical moves can become both selfrfulfilling and self-congratulatory: “The political point of the debate over complicity and resistance is thus to make wishful thinking a progressive – indeed, the only truly progressive – political position” (193).

2 See Trumpener 162 and Plasa’s ‘”What Was Done There is Not to Be Told’: Mansfield Park’s Colonial Unconsciousness.”

3 This is position is based on the assumption that until the abolition movement, slavery had gone more or less unchallenged in British culture. For studies documenting the pervasiveness of earlier negative attitudes toward slavery, see Brown, Moral Capital, and Richardson.

4 See Boulukos, The Grateful Slave See also Johnson 107, Ferguson, “Mansfield” 124, Stewart 136, Trumpener 182, Plasa 55, and Ellwood.

5 See, for instance, Said 93 and 96, Stewart 109-10 and 114, Tuite 93, and Plasa 40.

6 See Sypher; Ferguson, Subject to Others; and Ellis 87-159.

7 By making this argument, I mean to take a position more nuanced and more sympathetic to the underlying views, if not the methodology, of postcolonial criticism than that of O’Connor, who denounces Gayatri Spivak’s “hostile takeover of a genre” (229). O’Connor mentions Said and Mansfield Park only in passing (225).

8 See Carey, Gould, Lee, Sussman, Thomas, and Wood.

9 See Gibbon 299, Stewart 113-15, and Capitani.

10 See Long, “Candid” 73; Considerations 2; Edwards II: 34 and 146; and Boulukos, “Maria Edgeworth” 27n.

11 See Brown, “Empire Without Slaves”; see also Coleman.

12 See Said 96; Ferguson, “Mansfield” 132-33; Kuwahara 107; and Tuite 104.

13 See Southam, Kuwahara 107, Fraiman 812, Mee 85 and 108, Jordan 41, Tuite 104, Perry 30, Capitani, and Ellwood.

14 Some critics do acknowledge this, but few follow up on its implications: Wiltshire asserts that the silence belongs not to Sir Thomas, but to the cousins (315); Mee reads the passage as distinguishing the cousins’ response from Sir Thomas (85), but appears to understand both as silent (91); Terry briefly considers how Sir Thomas likely replied (95); Peter Smith adverts to the “studied indifference” of Fanny’s cousins but suggests their political discomfort at her question (206). Trumpener accepts the notion of the Bertrams’ “strategic silence on slavery” (179) but also attributes the silence in this scene entirely to Maria and Julia (180).

15 See Fleishman 39, Neale 105, Trumpener 180, and Wood 318.

16 Peter Smith (206-07) and Ferguson (129) both argue that this passage in Emma is meant as an amplification of the protest against slavery in Mansfield Park which had been overlooked or misunderstood; however, this view depends on construing Jane Fairfax’s remarks as aimed at slavery in general rather than at the recently outlawed slave trade in particular. Furthermore, the view that Austen wanted to correct the public misunderstanding of slavery in Mansfield Park is dubious in light of its having received no reviews. And Austen’s memoranda of the reactions of friends and acquaintances include no references to slavery: see Austen, “Opinions of Mansfield Park.” Perry argues, contra Said, that the references to the slave trade in Mansfield Park are no more morally neutral than those in Emma (30).

17 Lloyd suggests that “the process of West Indian estate reconstruction” would have been unfamiliar “to Austen and to her readers” (72); I am arguing that this process was central to the discourse of abolition and not at all obscure.

18 See Smith, Wanderings 66-67n and Edgeworth, “Grateful Negro” 195n, 197n, and 215n.

19 Wilberforce appears to be referring to Long’s argument that brutal overseers contravene the wishes of humane planters, although Long’s example does not specifically involve absentees, Long, History II: 269. For another instance of this claim by an apologist for slavery, see Francklyrt 61-62. Planters fairly frequently complained privately that their overseers were inflicting excessive mortality on their slaves, especially when they were absent; see Ward 29-31, and Sheridan 129.

20 See Ferguson 118; Lew 289-90; Jordan 40; Stewart 106-07, 129; Tuite 104. Trumpener sees “no sinister nabob or slave trader” (175), but compares Fanny’s education of Sir Thomas to a dassic instance of the reformed Creole from Thomas Day’s Sandford and Merton (179). Harrow suggests the interesting variant that it is Henry Crawford who appears like a Creole (175).

21 Lloyd suggests that the dangers of crossing the Atlantic in the middle of the Napoleonic wars would have recently decreased for Sir Thomas (66), but this ignores that Atlantic crossings were dangerous even in peacetime, and that the characters agree in seeing the crossing as a dangerous one.

22 Maaja Stewart also connects this episode to Sir Thomas’s absenteeism (115); Easton sees Austen, but not Fanny, as skeptical of Henry in this scene (477-78).

23 See, for example, Lewis’s account of forbidding the “cart whip” (76); of his overseer’s desire to return to that method of discipline, and his slaves’ fear that Lewis will leave the plantation (87-88); and of a grateful slave devoted to him for his humanity (115). John Wiltshire ridicules the attempt to draw on Matthew Lewis’ Journal to illuminate the meaning of Sir Thomas’s journey to Antigua, dismissively citing it as published in 1845, although it was in fact first published in 1834 (310). Further, it records a planter’s “ameliorating” visits to his holdings in 1816 and 1818, and remains a valuable point of comparison to illuminate the complex self-conception of the absentee planter journeying to his estates, and particularly his conviction of doing moral good. Terry and Lew invoke Lewis as a point of comparison to Sir Thomas (Lew 279-80).

24 Here I disengage Dunn’s claim that Fanny’s “commitments to values like care and principled reasoning would not necessarily be complicit in the imperialist project” (499); Allen’s formulation that Mansfield Park “has at its core a colonial Britain that increasingly was intent on moral justification for its overseas rule” (52) seems to me far more accurate.

25 See Ferguson 129, Smith 211, Southam, Tomalin 230, Jordan 42-43, Mee 86, Tuite 108, Wood 296, Knox-Shaw 180, Jacobus 68, and White 2.

26 See Roberts 97 and Terry 99.

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GEORGE E. BOULUKOS is Assistant Professor of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. His book, The Grateful Slave: The Emergence of Race in Eighteenth-Century British and American Culture, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. He is currently beginning a new book project, titled Eighteenth-Century Incoherence, and is also completing his edition of the previously unpublished Memoirs of Thomas Hammond, an eighteenth-century servant, stableboy, and apprentice.

Copyright Novel, Inc. Summer 2006

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