Persuasions #9, 1987 Pages 11-12
Mrs. Elton and the Slave Trade
Department of Classics, Hamilton College, Clinton, New York 13323
One of the most disagreeable characters in fiction is the wife of the clergyman in Emma. She marries Mr. Elton after he has been rejected by Emma, and her £10,000 supplants Emma’s fortune in his affections. She is first introduced to us by Miss Bates as Miss Hawkins of Bath. We soon learn, however, that her place of origin is Bristol:
Miss Hawkins was the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol – merchant, of course, he must be called; but, as the whole of the profits of his mercantile life appeared so very moderate, it was not unfair to guess the dignity of his line of trade had been very moderate also. Part of every winter she had been used to spend in Bath; but Bristol was her home, the very heart of Bristol …. And all the grandeur of the connection seemed dependent on the elder sister, who was very well married to a gentleman in a great way, near Bristol, who kept two carriages! (E, 183)
The emphasis on Bristol, mentioned four times in this short passage, particularly the angry satisfaction with which Bristol is substituted for Bath, implies that Bristol had unsavory connections. As indeed it did.
Bristol, the home of Mrs. Elton and her brother-in-law, was one of the three major centers of the slave trade. From Bristol, London, and Liverpool, ships set out on a triangular voyage, carrying manufactured goods to Africa to trade for slaves, carrying slaves to the West Indies to sell for sugar, and carrying the sugar they returned home. The father of Mrs. Elton scarcely deserved the name of merchant because his profits from ordinary mercantile ventures were “so very moderate.” But if his younger daughter inherited a fortune of £10,000, he must have died wealthy. Therefore his business as a merchant must be set “another line of trade” whose dignity was moderate but whose profits were not. This, I suggest, was the slave trade. Also, the family name of Hawkins evokes the slave trade because Sir John Hawkins introduced the slave trade to Britain. For Jane Austen’s contemporary readers, both the name of Miss Hawkins and her place of origin would have indicated her connection with the slave trade.
Bristol families whose revenues derived in large part from the slave trade were joined by ties of marriage.1 Mr. Suckling, who married Selina Hawkins, got his wealth from slavery, as his sister-in-law betrays in a conversation with Jane Fairfax. Facing the prospect of finding employment as a governess, Miss Fairfax speaks with loathing about the employment offices:
“There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something – Offices for the sale – not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.”
Mrs. Elton rejoins:
“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 of the abolition.” (300)
Mrs. Elton’s rejoinder makes sense only if Mr. Suckling was so intimately connected to the slave trade that its mere mention would bring his name to mind. Mrs. Elton would hardly have defended him unless there was a reason to suspect that he was not a friend of the abolition.
Although we know from a letter that Jane Austen passionately admired the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson,2 it was not her way to decry slavery in her novels. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” she writes in Mansfield Park (461). Instead, she attacks its practitioners in a more subtle and devastating way. When we have observed Mrs. Elton’s vulgarity, her pretentiousness, her cruelty to Harriet, all we need to complete her portrait is the certainty that the famous £10,000, that raised her so far above the level of Harriet, was earned from the traffic in human flesh.3
Note: The color image has replaced the original black and white image for the on-line edition of this essay. – C. Moss, JASNA Web Site Manager
1 James A. Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave Trade. A History (New York, 1981), 184. I would like to thank Margaret Hurley, Dwight Lindley, and Edwin Barrett for their helpful comments as I was writing this paper. I am grateful to the Bettman Archive for procuring the picture from the BBC Hulton Picture Library.
2 Letter written to Cassandra, January 24, 1813, known to me from Jane Aiken Hodge, The Double Life of Jane Austen (London, 1972), p. 133. Letters, p. 292.
3 The remarks of Emma (Chapter 22) and of Mr. Knightley (Chapter 38) make it clear that Mrs. Elton’s superiority was determined merely by her fortune.