BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

Writing Within the Historical Moment

Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition: ‘a fling at the slave trade’
By Gabrielle D. V. White.
Palgrave/Macmillan, 2006. ix + 231 pages.
Hardcover. $69.95.

Reviewed by Lyndon J. Dominique.

Gabrielle D. V. White’s Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition: ‘a fling at the slave trade’ joins Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park (1999) and You-Me Park’s The Postcolonial Jane Austen (2000) as the latest in a long and distinguished line of contemporary approaches to Britain’s most revered female author, all of which aim to establish a connection between Austen and one of the most important issues of her time. Using as a keynote William Cowper’s question from The Task (1785): “We have no slaves at home–Then why abroad?”, White takes to task Edward Said’s dismissive claim in Culture and Imperialism “that Jane Austen passes over the sufferings of slaves in the Caribbean.” If, White argues, Austen was an avid fan of Cowper’s work and, conceivably, of the antislavery sentiments he expressed, it is possible that his ideas about Britons’ commitment to the freedom of colonial slaves are present “in Jane Austen’s allusions to people and thought-provoking references to writers, places and topics associated with the great abolitionist campaign of her time. To stimulate thought in this way” White believes, “undermined the status quo of slavery.” Through close readings of the Chawton novels—Mansfield Park, Emma, and, most interestingly, Persuasion—White’s first chapters probe into Austen’s subtleties on issues and themes as diverse as absenteeism, the governess trade, and the Royal Navy, each time pointing out connections that these things have with Austen’s position on slavery. The second part of the book offers a general overview of the topic by considering some prominent philosophers’ opinions about race and slavery as well as personal, literary and historical abolitionist influences in Austen’s life.

In its critical position, White’s book makes clear an idea that Toni Morrison explained generally in Playing in the Dark (1992), and Edward Said eventually came to associate with Austen at the end of his life: writers write from within their historical moments. Whether directly or indirectly, Austen was undoubtedly exposed to, and therefore influenced by, popular contemporary debates about the slave trade, thus making her allusions and references to slaves and slavery as good as any by which to examine the abolitionist presence at the heart of British culture. While this effort to present Austen as a complete writer is a laudable and necessary project to undertake, I fear, however, that White has not managed to achieve this with complete success and assurance in this book, not so much because of the scope of her ideas but because of the way in which she presents her information. Although she displays a wonderfully intricate, even encyclopedic, knowledge of incidents, references and allusions from Austen’s novels, the presentation of this information sometimes comes across as scattered, making it difficult to follow with certainty the full gist of her argument until she clarifies her position at the end of each chapter.

This stylistic problem aside, White’s book certainly does offer cogent insights about Austen and her connection to antislavery that should reverberate in studies from the era. For instance, she makes a convincing case in favor of the Mansfield Judgement as the ideologicaltouchstone for Austen’s position on slavery, and by doing so, will (I hope) encourage other contemporary critics to consider the extensive reach that this important decision had on the imaginations of other British writers from the era. Also, because White’s book is structured in such a way that it presents the Chawton novels as a chronological reflection of Austen’s burgeoning interest in abolition, it provides a foundation for understanding the intriguing woman who has the auspicious distinction of being Austen’s only character of African descent, tantalizingly glossed but not fully fleshed-out in the unfinished fragment of the novel we have come to know as Sanditon. How does the “half-mulatto” Miss Lambe fit in with Austen’s views on abolition at the very end of her life? Is she an example of the accomplished type of colored woman that abolition could produce, like Olivia Fairfield in The Woman of Colour (1808), or the example of abolition’s failure to improve a woman of color that we find in the ridiculed Rhoda Swartz from Vanity Fair (1847-8)?

“What I offer is not new,” White asserts; nevertheless, her offering is an important contribution to contemporary British literary studies, especially in the year 2007. As we continue to commemorate the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade, the value of White’s work lies in its ability to remind critics that the riches of Britain’s best beloved author have as much to do with this poignant commemoration as anything else she has come to represent over the last 200 years. Perhaps, with this in mind, Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition can be a catalyst for contemporary critics to focus their attentions on the equally rich yet neglected archive of Britain’s literary-abolitionist past, thereby ensuring that White’s work will not be the last critical “fling at the slave trade.”

Lyndon J. Dominique is an Assistant Professor of Critical Race Studies and 18th Century British Literature at Georgetown
University He is currently completing a book-length project about black women in 18th Century British literature.

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