Beyond the detail and concomitant modesty and pride that Jane Austen invokes with the two inches of ivory of this special issue’s title emerges a broader implication of Austen’s carefully delineated, perhaps miniaturized art.1 In ivory, an obscured history of violence provides a workable surface for the depiction of domestic scenes, and one may be hard pressed to find a more accurate description of Austen’s novels. The amount of sustained human and animal death required to bring two inches of ivory to England, after all, risks staggering the mind of even a Maria Bertram were it to be delineated.2 In presenting as a blank slate that which carries an occluded history of violence and death, Austen’s ivory metaphor presents whiteness as that on which and through which stories can be told, even as it denies the bloodshed and massive international machination necessary for the availability of its medium. Austen’s stories, similarly, depend on an external world they leave no space to represent, and it is not only the Bertrams who rely on the exploitation of a broader world for their continued comfort.
This essay considers as an example of the appropriateness of Austen’s ivory metaphor the simultaneous obfuscation and narrative necessity of West Indian suffering and exploitation to the depiction of English virtue in her final completed novel. Persuasion, in suggesting the accession of virtuous naval men over a floundering aristocracy, praises an English character distinct from nobility and birth. It also celebrates the prospect of second chances at love for those who prove themselves—as Anne and Frederick do—to deserve them. Throughout the novel the insular and insulated story of lost and regained romantic opportunity is supported by an external world that remains unrepresented; that such support is necessary materially should be no surprise to any reader. In Persuasion, though, it is not only the possibility of comfort that is provided by the exploitation of an unrepresented outside world but the very notion of the virtue that the novel will come to celebrate. Anne Elliot, introduced as the embodiment of “honesty against importance” and “indifference for every thing but justice and equity,” nevertheless depends in her characterization on the availability of West Indian profit and the successful pursuit of its retrieval (13). Evidence of Anne’s goodness is to be found in her willingness to help an unfortunate friend secure income from property almost certainly dependent on the continued institution of slavery even after Britain has abolished its trade and accepted its immorality, at least in pretense. In including Mrs. Smith’s ostensibly unjust lack of access to the property and funds that are legally hers, Austen signals the essential imbrication of white women’s dependence and their complicity in oppression. Fundamentally lacking any agency in or even certain knowledge of the plantation system that generates the “improvement of income” that is her eventual lot, Mrs. Smith nevertheless relies on it for her future comfort and even perhaps her survival, given the “improvement of health” that accompanies the income Anne and her new husband finally help her secure (274). By the end of the novel, Mrs. Smith is happy, Anne is “tenderness itself,” and the two of them with Captain Wentworth fill out a picture of “domestic virtues” defined by their participation in a moral universe washed white by strategic omission (274–75).
Even as such a picture acknowledges an outside world in which Wentworth may once again be called to duty, the virtue that all three characters embody is marked as domestic and insular, contained in a vision of home that is English, stable, and marked by “sunshine” (275). Theirs is a vision of happiness that pretends to depend on nothing outside itself, even as the income that makes Mrs. Smith’s newfound comfort possible has come not only from elsewhere (as wealth tends to do in this new global world) but specifically from the unnamed and unmarked suffering of others, just as Wentworth’s success and relative wealth has come from a war that remains offstage as anything other than a future threat. Austen reminds even as she asks us to forget that domestic drama is made possible by strange compromise and that national pride all too often relies on international or extranational shame.
That the stories Austen has to tell rely on the West Indian world is not news, and the number of ways in which the white bodies, minds, and feelings that appear within the frames of Austen’s novels depend on Black lives lived in the far-flung colonies well beyond those frames is perhaps uncountable. In the foregrounded obfuscation of plantation profits that renders Antigua “mysteriously necessary to the poise and beauty of Mansfield Park,” one is reminded that as much as Austen may insist on the enclosed nature of her work, that enclosure is an illusion (Said 59). There is no outside of Mansfield Park, one could say, just as there will come to seem (to some) to be no sunset beyond the reach of the British Empire. While Mansfield Park acknowledges the Park’s reliance on slave labor in the Caribbean, it also emphasizes the degree to which English lives are lived with very little reference to or knowledge of it. The Bertram daughters remain insistently ignorant of its details, and even Fanny only pursues her curiosity momentarily. In Emma, somewhat similarly, the slave-trade and the very existence of enslavement are introduced only to be disavowed. That disavowal is accomplished through an act of metaphorization that not only refuses to contend with the facts of oppressed Black life but also transforms those facts into a means to describe white experience. In her apparent “‘fling at the slave-trade,’” after all, “the slave-trade” is not at all what Jane Fairfax is talking about; she is instead talking about herself. “‘I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,’” Jane explains somewhat sputteringly: “‘governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies’” (325).
The insistent enclosure of Emma is such that its titular character has not even seen the sea, and one of the most shocking of its events comes when Frank Churchill travels to London for a haircut. In distinct contrast, Austen’s last finished novel situates its drama of white character within a context that extends past Britain’s shores. More than any of Austen’s other completed novels, Persuasion has a reach far beyond the love story of its main character, and it invites its reader to focus attention outside the “little history of sorrowful interest” that was its heroine’s earlier, missed marriage plot—just as Anne herself has had to find ways to do (30). In occupying the international and intra-European context of the Napoleonic Wars, Persuasion tells a story of masculine virtue dependent on relations to military involvement, as the bloated and useless self-importance of a Sir Walter Elliot, for example, gives way to the reserved and apparently effective value of a Captain Frederick Wentworth.3 The novel presents a story of white people engaged among themselves in a contest for a moral high ground: European nations are at war; white naval men displace white landholders and begin to replace them in a cultural imaginary of English usefulness and virtue; white women jockey for position in a competition for the affections and attentions of white men and display to readers their variant levels of admirability. As a constant backdrop for that story lie the hefty profits of continued enslavement and of colonial expansion, as well as the profiteering made possible by the ostensibly moral and just mission of the navy. Of course, what we find as backdrop rarely is just that, and the material that makes a story possible is as worth knowing about as the story itself, as a student of the history of ivory should recognize all too quickly.
Austen’s outside world, or the world outside the whiteness she dramatizes, emerges in strikingly gendered ways, each dependent on the different forms of “domestic virtue” that her men and women are asked to embody. Her celebration of a triumphant navy returned home after its numerous successes well beyond the confines of her narrative world defines a vision of masculinity that can supplant an aristocratic class too caught up with its own image to contribute in any meaningful way to a society that, apparently, still needs something from them. As representable as they may remain, and as much as they may stay within the kinds of frames that Austen has learned to produce quite well by the time she writes Persuasion, the confines themselves have rendered this class moribund and vain, with little to contribute to a future to come. Masculine virtue requires access to what lies outside the frame.
On the one hand, Persuasion celebrates something like class mobility—at least more so than Austen’s other novels and perhaps more than would have been possible even some few decades earlier. Austen is far from alone in celebrating a naval prowess that allows one to imagine those without noble birth rising through the ranks of not only the military but also the social system, as many writers turned to the navy as a sign of renewed “national character” in the years following Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in late 1805 (Fulford passim). With two brothers in the navy, Austen seems rather a fan of such stories of naval promise, and she is certainly not alone in presenting a naval character as the very thing needed to supplement and supplant a failing aristocracy and slipping gentry.4 Persuasion in particular, as Ruth Perry has noted, offered “the objects of imperial contention as a proving ground for British manhood” (101). The naval men in Austen’s novel, like those in other contemporary depictions of naval prowess and reputation, present a form of chivalry not dependent on a family name or, most crucially, a landed estate. Their limited form of social mobility is dependent on a maximal physical mobility as naval men (and their wives) must be ready to move at a moment’s notice, paying, as Persuasion’s concluding sentence reminds, the “tax of quick alarm” that is the price of association with the institution even “more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance” (275).
On the other hand, Persuasion’s vision of class mobility depends entirely on Britain’s ever-expanding exploitation of the rest of the known world. If mobility is possible, it is possible as an offshoot of empire, and that some may move depends quite fully on the assumption that others may not. Like Mansfield Park, Persuasion depicts the dependence of national, domestic virtue on international and imperial activity and the inseparability, ultimately, of that which is inside from that which is outside even as those at home can claim ignorance of doings abroad.5 Characters in Britain read the “navy lists and newspapers” in order to follow the names of the men to whom they are attached, but the places named therein tend to carry personal rather than geopolitical significance (32).
If Persuasion depicts masculine virtue as dependent on exertion in far-flung and non-English places, like Austen’s other novels it suggests that women’s virtue remains determined by actions closer to home. Emma Woodhouse is “very compassionate,” administering to the “distresses of the poor” in her neighborhood with “personal attention and kindness,” and one would expect nothing less from a woman destined for the “perfect happiness” she finds by novel’s end (93, 528). Anne Elliot takes Emma’s charity one step farther in her relationship with Mrs. Smith, a woman whose previous “useful and good” acts toward Anne have led Anne to return her kindness, despite Mrs. Smith’s dwelling in the Westgate Buildings that Anne’s father finds so revolting (165). Indeed, through her preference of Mrs. Smith’s company to “‘her own family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland!’” (171), Anne asserts her willingness to extend her attention beyond the immediacy of her domestic space. That extension of attention becomes one of the primary pieces of evidence to support claims of Anne Elliot’s goodness, as the expansive circle of her charitable care marks her as participating in the same sort of widened world that her future naval husband occupies with dignity and success.
In retaining her connection to Mrs. Smith and looking to help her overcome what the novel presents as the greatly unjust denial of access to income from her late husband’s West Indian property, Anne defies her father and proves her moral worth. The property Mrs. Smith seeks to access has been “for many years under a sort of sequestration for the payment of its own incumbrances”; if recovered (and it is marked as “recoverable”), it “though not large, would be enough to make [Mrs. Smith] comparatively rich” (227). That Mr. Elliot will not help her becomes a mark of his villainy, and that she has no one else to ask demonstrates her helpless vulnerability—and, by association, the kindness of Anne, who reaches out to her in her vulnerable and dependent state. Eventually, Captain Wentworth will help her as a sign and side effect of his love for Anne, and Mrs. Smith will come into the moderate wealth that the novel has suggested she deserves. Regardless of the specific source of Mrs. Smith’s apparently just deserts—whether she will profit from the proceeds of sugar, rum, coffee, cocoa, etc.—the origin of her promised wealth lies in the exploitation of the Black life that sustains and invigorates the British economy. Though specific details are not delineated, there is little to no profit in the West Indies that does not come from slave labor. The interwoven story of an ideal woman’s virtue and men’s varying capacity and willingness to protect another woman in her vulnerability and dependence is thus underwritten by the silenced stories of the enslaved. As Anne shows her moral worth through her aid to Mrs. Smith, she also shows that that worth depends on the erasure and indeed the systemic worthlessness of others.
While numerous critics have sought to find in Austen’s acknowledgment of the West Indies evidence of her disapproval or even condemnation of Britain’s engagement in the enslavement that it denotes, such an insistence may seem a stretch when we consider that it is on the unspoken profits of slavery that an entire narrative of a white woman’s goodness depends. Much in Gabrielle White’s reading of Austen, for example, is salutary, but the suggestion that Mrs. Smith’s reliance on income from plantation property constitutes a critique of Mrs. Smith rather than a sign of the far-reaching cultural ubiquity of the profits of slavery seems more like wishful thinking than close reading (78–79). In making such a claim, I want to distance myself from the sort of argument made by Collins Hemingway, who denies that slavery in Persuasion is, for lack of a better word, meaningful. Aiming to correct what he suggests is an overly politicized view in which “commentators seek to put Jane Austen on the right side of history,” Hemingway claims that Austen’s reference to the West Indies has nothing to do with slavery at all. Rather, for Hemingway, “Mrs. Smith’s investments are in the West Indies because they have to be,” in order to explain Mr. Elliot’s refusal to help ameliorate her financial difficulties by virtue of the far-flung distance of their solution (213).
This claim is true enough, in one way; enslavement in the West Indies is indeed a useful plot point, quite as Ruth Perry also points out in calling it “an older fictional plot device for restoring lost fortunes” (101), and yet in that truth emerges the point I would most like to make. “Mrs. Smith’s investments are in the West Indies because they have to be” not because the plot requires that her investments be off-shore, but rather because it is through exploitation of non-white life in a far-flung colony that her husband might have had a chance to make his money in the first place; it is through such exploitation that “a Mrs. Smith” could attain even the dubious level of respectability and social position that she has; it is through the profit made possible by the West Indies that she can enter the drama of the Elliots’ loss of their estate, the rise of Captain Wentworth and the love that Anne bears him. While certainly the necessity of the West Indies to Persuasion stems from, as Hemingway puts it, “the difficulties of constructing realistic fiction” (213), those difficulties emerge because of the world that Austen seeks to represent and gesture toward; the difficulties are of reality, not specifically of fiction. Austen’s world, as goes without saying by now, depended on the existence of slavery in the West Indies; it also depended on a continued refusal to acknowledge that dependence, for to acknowledge it would be to admit a general complicity in the exploitative system from which all characters in a novel like Austen’s profited. To be clear, this is not to say that Austen’s novel is somehow in favor of slavery but simply that the story it tells depends on the existence and continuation of enslavement in ways that the novel does not and likely could not acknowledge while still telling the story it has to tell.
Incidentally, neither a character study nor a consideration of historical gender relations would support Hemingway’s primary claim about Austen’s plot: that the origin of Mrs. Smith’s difficulty had to be at a great distance from England to explain Mr. Elliot’s refusal to help her. It is quite easy to imagine a Mr. Walter Elliot unwilling to help a Mrs. Smith out of her financial difficulties even if said difficulties could be solved as nearby as the Square Mile or even, perhaps, next door.
On the one hand, I do agree with Hemingway when he insists that Persuasion’s storyline does not support claims that make the novel a sign of Austen’s abolitionist intent. As he argues, Mrs. Smith embodies Austen’s “common [theme] of the economic dependence of a woman in a man’s world” (216) and provides the clear differentiation between a bad man who will not help her (Mr. Elliot) and a good one who will (Captain Wentworth). However, as cleverly incendiary as the title of Hemingway’s essay may be, I would offer that a “slave island” cannot “not mean slavery.” In Austen’s invocation of the West Indies as the source of the wealth that must be retrieved to save the future of a nearly helpless white woman lies both the ubiquity of British imbrication in acts of enslavement far from the spaces in which white drama occurs and the dependence of ostensive white virtue on the invisible and silenced acts of labor and destruction of life being carried out across the sea. In short, Black bodies labor and Black life ends so that White ladies can demonstrate their virtue and White gentlemen can display their willingness to come to their aid.
This is not a new story; nor is it the only one that Austen tells. It is, though, a story that relatively few want to find in her work. The question of whether or not Mrs. Smith deserves the money coming to her from the West Indies is rarely asked, and the reason it is not asked—one assumes—is because whatever unsavory contracts Mr. Smith may have made before his death, the profits from them belong to his widow. Such is the bargain of marriage, and, from a certain vantage, that bargain renders Mrs. Smith’s claim the stuff of justice. She is allowed to retain her innocence from his endeavors while still entitled to acquire what they yield. Even the fact that she is unable to recover the income she is due without the intervention of some other (male) party works in her favor, morally, as her mandated passivity allows her to remain untouched by any judgment that might accrue to whatever “blood-bought luxury” has generated the wealth that shall soon be hers (Peckham Ladies’ 15).6 From one perspective, Mrs. Smith should get nothing at all: from a vantage of global justice, she is owed nothing. Yet she will acquire her income and will never need to acknowledge or bear responsibility for the suffering that has generated the wealth that will eventually make its way to her. That too is the bargain and privilege of white marriage.
One question we could ask of Persuasion is how hard we should be on Mrs. Smith. An impoverished and disabled widow decidedly down on her luck, Mrs. Smith is nevertheless not without her moral failings. She does, after all, at first encourage Anne in a marriage with the morally reprobate Mr. Elliot as a way to salvage her own position. She is also a conduit for the gossip of others, a quality that might well encourage skepticism about her general character. At the same time, Jason Farr argues that Austen’s representation of Mrs. Smith not only invites sympathy but also shows the author joining “a small sorority of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century women writers who portray physically anomalous women as being especially intelligent and morally upright” (2). Occasioning sympathy for her disability and admiration for her mental acumen, even with her potential moral impurities, Austen does not seem to offer up Mrs. Smith in condemnation for an addiction to blood money. As much as readers may want Austen to be an abolitionist, to have a mind and heart on the right side of history, her novel also needs its reader to think it is acceptable and right that Mrs. Smith get her money, both for Mrs. Smith’s sake and for Anne’s. It is equally necessary, though, that one not dwell over long on the source of that money, and the potentially unacceptable silence of Mansfield Park’s Bertram daughters becomes the necessary silence of the reader of Persuasion. Mansfield Park may allow readers to displace culpability by locating it within the not totally appealing figure of Sir Thomas Bertram, the ungenerous patriarch, but Persuasion depicts enslavement’s profits as necessary to the upkeep of a sympathetic and needy white woman, whose suffering we are led to wish to ameliorate. And we are left to ask whether Mrs. Smith’s apparent innocence and lack of any direct connection to the unspoken origin of the wealth she is due exonerate her from claims of complicity.
The problem is that if Mrs. Smith’s hands are to be understood to be dirty, so too must be Captain Wentworth’s and Anne Elliot’s, and at a certain point the identification of guilt by association ceases to carry much meaning. What is most compelling for me about this central plot point, this required dip into unavoidable recognition of complicity in the extraction of English money from Black life, is the degree to which it becomes not only the central point of the plot but also the most prominent evidence of Anne’s good will. Anne Elliot is different from her fellow Austen heroines because of her genuine friendship with this woman who has fallen into poverty and suffering. Mrs. Smith’s morality may emerge as questionable, but Anne’s loyalty and goodness shine through association with her and are proven by the aid she indirectly provides to recover the property that will lead her to wealth. All that is to say that Austen’s references to slavery in the West Indies do not entirely prop up Mrs. Smith; there is certainly a case to be made for her moral dubiousness.7 Slavery in the West Indies, however, does prop up Anne Elliot, and the evidence of her goodness depends upon the profit that it provides.
The profits of enslavement in this novel, as in so many others, are thus not merely financial. They instead extend to the very possibility of character. In Mansfield Park, slavery generates the wealth that provides the Bertrams with comfort and convenience. In Persuasion, slavery makes it possible to think of Anne Elliot as a good person. These are parallel versions of provision that both attest to what Cheryl Harris calls the property of whiteness. Harris addresses an American legal context in which property is understood materially; here, Austen demonstrates the other primary property that whiteness holds for itself: the capacity to be seen as good regardless of the consequences of one’s actions outside the realm of one’s primary operations. Anne Elliot is good because she helps another white woman; Mrs. Smith can remain good on the whole because she has been imbricated in the particular and unspoken atrocities of West Indian slavery without her direct knowledge. She is just ignorant enough to lay claim to innocence, and her escape from the comparative squalor of Westgate Buildings to be the “earliest visitor” to Anne Wentworth’s settled life is presented as well-deserved (274). Indeed, the novel’s final paragraph is split evenly between Mrs. Smith and Anne, as the two of them are held up as models of both “cheerfulness and mental alacrity” and the “warmth of [the] heart.” Mrs. Smith attains her income, an improvement in her health, and a return to the social world that she had been forced to abandon. Anne provides evidence of her identity as “tenderness itself,” even as the novel closes with the reminder that her comfort could be temporary, that her domestic peace could be interrupted by naval necessity, and that her privilege carries some cost (274–75). It is only the cost to her own peace, however, that is considered, and the novel ends with concern about the ways the world outside the domestic might still intrude upon it, rather than any recognition of the demands that British domesticity and its calls for female virtue make on a world outside itself.
It may be tempting to place the burden of responsibility for the West Indian reality that intrudes into Anne’s romance plot on the shoulders of Mrs. Smith, whose moral compass is depicted as less than thoroughly true anyway. And yet, to her credit, Austen herself does not allow a reader to do such a thing. Mrs. Smith, an apparent “puzzle” for some critics (Collins) and a “mere plot device” to many others (Bander), holds equal space with Anne at novel’s end. She, with her regained fortune, becomes part of the outside world that is pulled into the domestic drama that is Anne’s love story, and she becomes another sign of that domestic drama’s dependence on a world that it does not represent. Moreover, because it is Mrs. Smith who provides occasion for primary evidence of Anne’s moral character, she keeps a reader from being able to presume that Mrs. Smith is the only one touched by the exploitation that generates the wealth coming from the West Indies. Mrs. Smith reminds a contemporary reader—if not a contemporaneous one—of the cost of Anne’s moral character. Anne can help Mrs. Smith rise because of others who have no such opportunity to do so, and white female virtue comes at the cost of not only “quick alarm” but also persistent exploitation and disavowal. If Austen has herself learned about abolition and an increasing recognition of slavery’s horrors, as many critics claim she has done, her novels show that she has also learned that slavery as a topic is best buried and kept fully off the page. White women’s goodness makes for a much more palatable topic.
This special issue of Persuasions, a journal invested in and even devoted to the study of Jane Austen, asks what it would mean to think “beyond” those two inches of ivory that Austen playfully imagines an apt metaphor for her work. In inviting us to recognize the cost of Anne’s moral authority, I invite a recognition of the violence of the world that makes possible the depiction of the virtue that a novel like Persuasion celebrates and remind that Austen’s art depends on a backdrop of violence no less than does the art of ivory miniature that she holds up as a metaphor for it. An art historian who studies eighteenth-century ivory miniatures would do well to understand the provenance of ivory itself, and a failure to acknowledge African labor relations, transatlantic trade routes, and dead elephants would by now be deemed irresponsible by many, if not all. Here, I suggest that our understanding of the profits of slavery should extend beyond the recognition made available some time ago that exploitation in the West Indies makes possible certain forms of financial gain that matter to Austen’s novels, bolstering the gentry, for example, through an influx of cash. I ask that we acknowledge as well that the versions of white women’s goodness and virtue that are so often the substance of these novels also depends—in myriad ways—on the exploitation of those who exist well outside the frame that a novel like Persuasion provides. Mrs. Smith profits from acts of exploitation in which she has no direct agency, and so too does Anne Elliot, in the eyes of readers who find her character worth celebration. Such an acknowledgment, made possible in this instance by attention to Austen’s careful employment of the figure of Mrs. Smith, may provide a chance to rethink assumptions about white women’s character and about the qualities that make for white women’s virtue.
1Janet Todd reads Austen’s ivory metaphor, often taken as evidence of Austen’s modest reserve, as “an aesthetic credo,” celebrating Austen’s “coolness and immense skill, as well as . . . smallness of scale” (76).
5In this, as in so many things, Fanny Price is something of an exception. Not only is she the only character to ask after Sir Thomas’s time in Antigua, she also tries to spend her time reading about international affairs. See Ford for a discussion of Fanny’s thwarted reading of “Britain’s imperial and commercial interests in the Far East.”