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Adjudicating Wiltshire’s Readings of Mansfield Park

In a 2020 Persuasions essay, John Wiltshire provides a negative critique of Margaret Doody’s treatment of important names in Mansfield Park.  Her 2015 book Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places associates the name Mansfield with Lord Mansfield, the senior British judge who ruled in 1772 that slavery was illegal on English soil.  She also connects the unpleasant Mrs. Norris to the nasty Robert Norris, a former slave-ship captain who seemed to want to help abolitionists but double-crossed them by supporting the slave trade in testimony before a parliamentary committee.  Wiltshire dismisses the connection with the Lord Chief Justice as an incorrect though “understandably popular” belief because it can “bestow upon the novel a twentieth-century political correctness” (222).  He similarly downplays a slavery connection with the name Norris.

My essay serves as a rebuttal not only to Wiltshire’s 2020 essay but to his twenty-year campaign to challenge any postcolonial readings of Mansfield Park and by extension of Jane Austen.  Many Western commentators believe that the novel and its treatment of the famous “dead silence!” quote proves that Jane Austen intended for the novel to take an abolitionist stance.  In contrast, postcolonialists believe that Austen’s support of the expanding British Empire made her complicit in colonial abuses, including slavery.  This global argument, with a dozen reputable scholars on both sides, is beyond the scope of this essay, but my conclusion about Wiltshire is that he seems not to want to win a postcolonial debate but to put Austen at such a remove from any possible entanglement that no debate is possible. 

Wiltshire has published widely (The Hidden Jane Austen and much else) and is the editor of the Cambridge edition of Mansfield Park, so his opinion matters.  His opposition to postcolonial readings includes at least three major essays.  His most detailed argument comes in the article “Decolonising Mansfield Park” in Essays in Criticism in 2003.  It is probably not a coincidence that 2003 was the ten-year anniversary of the most influential postcolonial essay, Edward Said’s “Jane Austen and Empire,” from his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism.  The Bertrams’ acquisition of “overseas dominions as a source of local fortunes,” Said says, benefits “the situation at home” through the “complete subordination of colony to metropolis” (113–14).  That is, wealth is extracted from the colony to benefit the home country.  The family in Mansfield Park, Said says, is part of “an expanding imperialist venture . . . without which Britain’s subsequent acquisition of territory would not have been possible” (120–21). 

Wiltshire’s 2003 essay challenges Said and other scholars who follow his views.  A postcolonial critic, Wiltshire says, does not perform the “innocent” action of “supplementing the novel with the historical referents that it gestures toward or keeps hidden” but “actively colonises” the novel by placing “more value” on the history surrounding the book than on the content of the book itself (“Decolonising” 317).  (“Decolonise” is now often used to mean the opposite of Wiltshire’s sense, so the only use here is in his title.)  The 2005 Cambridge edition of Mansfield Park repeats his arguments in shorter form in the Introduction, which has much other material to cover, including the book’s publishing history, the dating of the story, and a survey of the critical tradition about the novel.  Wiltshire’s recent essay in Persuasions focuses on the names “Mansfield” and “Norris,” seeking to divorce them from any slavery associations—a separation he reiterates in all three articles.  Though his 2020 focus is narrower, the sharpness of his remarks opposing postcolonialism demonstrates that his views remain strongly unchanged. 

Because all three essays make largely the same arguments, my essay is a collective rebuttal.  Because Wiltshire also strongly relies on an analysis by Trevor Lloyd in a 1999 article “Jane Austen and the British Empire,” which seeks to downplay the importance of the family’s Antigua estate on the Bertram family’s finances, this essay responds to Lloyd as well. 

The Wiltshire–Lloyd point of view is this: 

  • There are too many other possible references to the names Mansfield and Norris for any meaningful connection to be made between these names in the book and slavery-related individuals, especially Lord Mansfield, the judge who declared slavery to be illegal in England in the famous Somerset case. 
  • The Bertrams’ estate in Antigua provides such a small portion of the family’s wealth that its relevance in a postcolonial debate is minimal. 
  • By siting the Bertram estate in Antigua, which was considered much less harsh in the treatment of slaves than other islands, Austen is minimizing the negativity of the association between the Bertrams and slavery. 

Wiltshire disputes a variety of positions related to both the enslavement of Black people and the second-class treatment of white women given the slavery backstory.  These include director Patricia Rozema’s 1999 movie of Mansfield Park, which—only loosely based on the novel—confronts the viewer with images of slavery, including drawings in which Sir Thomas is sexually abusing enslaved women.  No such scenes occur in the book.  Wiltshire disagrees with Mary Favret, who says that in Austen’s novels “the racial question” is “bleached and sanitized” (qtd. in “Decolonising” 317).  He challenges Brian Southam’s view that Sir Thomas must support the slave trade, which involved the capture, purchase, and transport of Africans for enslavement in the Americas.  Some plantation owners did support abolition of the trade, if not of slavery itself.  Sir Thomas’s position, however, is never revealed.

Wiltshire is particularly vexed by no less than six commentators, including Susan Fraiman, Moira Ferguson, and others, who see Sir Thomas enslaving Fanny and other English women as well as West Indian women “through varieties of abuse” (304).  “Imperialist motifs and meaning are squeezed out of what would otherwise be merely domestic notations,” he says.  No modern reader who has read actual slave narratives or other history “could possibly think that there is any but the loosest relation between the state of slavery and the condition of a genteel young English woman” of that time or in that book (308).  Collectively, these views are “obvious misreadings. . . . Such criticism ties itself in knots” (316).  Postcolonial readings of Mansfield Park, Wiltshire concludes, “invent complexities” beyond the novel “or pass over its own complexities in order to propagate a simplified, corrected version of their own” (318). 

Though Wiltshire does not mention them, other critics, including Paula Byrne and Deidre Shauna Lynch, make similar parallels between Fanny Price, the white heroine of Mansfield Park, and Dido Belle, the mixed-race grandniece who was raised by Lord Mansfield.  The Lord Chief Justice took Dido and a white grandniece through another relative into his family and raised them during the years in which he issued seminal slavery rulings.  Fanny and Dido are not servants, but neither are they equals to the rest of the family.  Dido was well-cared for, but she often was kept separate from her white relatives.  She did not eat with the family, for instance, but joined them in some social activities, often as the “companion” to her white cousin.  Her situation was not unique, as mixed children of white fathers were brought into other British families as well.  According to Daniel Livesay, about ten percent of the wills in Jamaica from Austen’s time provided for the offspring of a white man and a black woman to be taken to Britain rather than to be kept enslaved on the island.  A few of these children were treated as equals, but most were “stood apart” to some degree (A. Davis).  Similarly, the impoverished Fanny is brought under the care of her uncle, Sir Thomas, as a child.  Lynch calls out the admonitions of both Sir Thomas and Mrs. Norris that she “cannot be” equal to his children:  “on the one hand, the Mansfield people promote the importance of blood ties, . . . and on the other, they insist on differences and hierarchies in ways that annul those solidarities.” Lynch quotes Sir Thomas’s “‘[T]hey cannot be equals’” and Mrs. Norris’s “‘Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last’” (Lynch 17; MP 11, 221). 

Yet the comparison between the social limbo of the biracial Dido and the white Fanny can quickly go too far in much the way that comparisons between British women and enslaved women can.  Fanny’s story is just another retelling of the centuries’ old Cinderella story.  Austen makes this connection explicit in the description of Fanny helping her cousins prepare for their balls with “no share in the festivities” and no thought that “she should ever be admitted to the same” (35).  Like Cinderella, Fanny does ultimately get to attend a ball—this one, thrown in her honor by her uncle and supposed oppressor Sir Thomas.  Dido remained in the background, evidently managing the stables and serving as Lord Mansfield’s secretary, received a decent stipend upon his death, and married much below the social standing of her adoptive white family.

1. Names in the novel, especially the judge’s 

Going back to at least Margaret Kirkham in 1983, many scholars have connected the Mansfield Park estate with the Lord Chief Justice.  In all three articles, however, Wiltshire points to other sources for the name instead:  to the Mansfield-house in Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, one of Austen’s favorite books; to the 1809 translation of the French novel Amelie Mansfield, which was reviewed in the Quarterly Review that same year; or to nothing more than the name’s “characteristic Englishness” (“Decolonising” 306) or “its generic Englishness” (Introduction xlvi).  Wiltshire calls the connection of Mansfield to the Lord Chief Justice “an implausible, though tempting attribution” because the judge was “better known for many other important decisions,” not just the Somerset case (xlv).  His first point in the 2020 essay is “to substantiate this claim” of Mansfield being no more than a generic English name (219).  Here Wiltshire finds still another possible source, one Charles Mansfield, a captain at the major naval battle at Trafalgar in 1805.  These many sources “make singling out a reference” to the Lord Chief Justice “untenable,” he maintains (222).  Wiltshire further states that many readers miss the “key point” that the judge was not originally a Mansfield but was a Scot born William Murray.  When he was appointed chief justice and elevated to the peerage in 1756, Murray put aside his Scottish heritage by taking the English name Mansfield.  “Everything suggests,” Wiltshire says, “that Murray too chose the name of ‘Mansfield’ because of its . . . unmistakable Englishness” (219). 

Wiltshire also seeks to redirect the source of the name of Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park.  Wiltshire acknowledges that Austen had read abolitionist leader Thomas Clarkson; she makes a well-known reference to him in a letter of 24 January 1813.  Austen is likely alluding to having read Clarkson’s History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808), though she also could have been alluding to one of at least twenty-three abolitionist tracts he had written.  Clarkson describes the Somerset case in his book (77–78) and praises Lord Mansfield’s decision.  He mentions the slave-trading Norris about thirty times, from their first meeting in Liverpool (378–83) to the captain’s later machinations, which required Clarkson to find other witnesses who pointed out inconsistencies and contradictions in Norris’s testimony (477–535).  There was also a pro-slavery church figure named Norris. 

Wiltshire puts forth the suggestion by Jocelyn Harris and Barbara Hardy of an ironic origin of the name in the French “nourrice” or nurse; in English, the sense was usually wetnurse or nanny.  “The name Norris is a piece of wit, not an ideological reference,” Wiltshire says (“Decolonising” 306).  He adds that “the association of Mrs. Norris with slavery is essential to postcolonial readings of the novel” (307), apparently believing he has broken that association.  He says no more of the aunt but brings up other postcolonial matters with which he disagrees.  In his 2005 introduction to Mansfield Park, he is slightly more balanced, mentioning that the name Norris “has been thought to suggest a reference to slavery” without directly contradicting the idea.  But he then repeats the ironic “nourrice” reference, saying Mrs. Norris is the “reverse of a nurse” (xlvi). 

In contrast, other scholars consider the slave-related names to be obvious references in the novel.  Kirkham sees Mansfield as being “allusive and ironic,” and Doody says the use of the name “appears too pointed to be accidental” (Kirkham 116; Doody 336).  In addition to the nurse reference that Wiltshire admires, Harris also supports the connection between Robert Norris and Mrs. Norris, detailing the slave captain’s history, labeling Mrs. Norris a “harsh overseer,” and calling her, like the captain, an example of “hypocrisy” (Satire 267–69).  Harris separately adds that there is no reason “to disguise the taint of slavery in the names Mansfield and Norris,” nor “to choose between the slave-master name ‘Norris’ and the bilingual pun on the false nurse,” the latter because Austen knew French and “loved in-jokes” (email). 

Pointing out Murray as the judge’s original name is a misdirection.  The new Lord Mansfield’s desire to go by an English name is exactly why people then and later knew him as Mansfield.  All the anti-slavery milestones occurred decades after the judge took his English surname:  the Somerset case (1772); the Zong case (1781); the start of the abolitionist movement (1787); the legal end to the slave trade (1807); and of course Mansfield Park, written nearly sixty years after Murray became Mansfield.  To associate Murray rather than Mansfield with the judge is as likely as an average person remembering Reginald Dwight rather than Elton John because the former was the modern singer’s original name. 

Further, the Somerset case was only one of at least seven important slavery-related cases that came before Mansfield to significant public visibility.  In earlier cases, he had avoided a determination on the legality of slavery in England, usually upholding the property right of slaveholders while finding exceptions in specific cases to free the Black person.  Even in the Somerset case, he claimed a narrow ruling that affected only one man.  Lord Mansfield also stated, however, that slavery was so odious that it required “positive law”:  slavery was not legal in the country by default but only if Parliament enacted laws to make it so.  He was the final judge in the infamous Zong case, in which the captain deliberately drowned 132 slaves ostensibly because of a lack of water, then filed for insurance reimbursement of £30 each for the lost “cargo.”  In actuality, the enslaved people were dying of illness, a cause that insurance did not cover.  Mansfield ruled against any insurance repayment for the drownings, undoubtedly saving many other Africans from the same fate. Danielle Christmas stresses the tie between the judge and the Zong case, because of its horror, even more strongly than to the Somerset case. 

Wiltshire is correct that Mansfield was the most visible and highly regarded jurist of his day, and his impact was deep and broad.  He played a major role in the modernization of the law and the economy by streamlining legal processes, improving consumer protections, and promoting trade.  Byrne documents Mansfield’s major role in England’s judicial history in chapter 8 of her book Belle.  However, Byrne also points out that the Somerset case “dominated the news for the first half of 1772, with the press reporting on the speeches made in court and publishing letters and articles” on slavery (139).  She concludes that “there is no question that this was one of the most significant rulings in English legal history” (145).  How could it not be?  The Somerset case ended slavery in England.  It is as if one man had singlehandedly ended slavery in the United States and a later commentator claimed the man was more famous for cleaning up procedures in court hearings, insurance law, and maritime statutes. 

It is also illogical to assume that, if Mansfield should refer to something other than the judge, the name therefore cannot also refer to the judge.  Multiple sources for a name are not mutually exclusive.  Consider the name Charlotte, used by Austen several times.  There is little doubt that Mrs. Smith in Persuasion is an homage to Charlotte Smith, the novelist and poet whom Austen admired.  The historical Charlotte Smith and the fictional Mrs. Smith were both poor, sick widows needing help to extract money from property in the West Indies.  But Austen writes of another Charlotte in a letter of 11–12 October 1813:  “I admire the Sagacity & Taste of Charlotte Williams.  Those large dark eyes always judge well.—I will compliment her, by naming a Heroine after her.”  Austen also knew a Charlotte Craven and likely others.  The author also could have been honoring Princess Charlotte, the beloved daughter of the not-so-beloved Prince Regent.  This Charlotte was to die during protracted childbirth in November 1817, after Austen’s own death that July. 

To identify one Charlotte as a probable source does not eliminate any others.  The same thing goes for the name Wentworth, which different scholars, including Janine Barchas and Harris, have identified with a long line of individuals in a wealthy and well-known historical English family.  A writer is likely to take pleasure in having multiple associations, whether they layer atop one another or ramify in different directions.  The more connections, the more interest, the more richness.  If the name “Norris” should be an ironic play on “nurse” and a reference to a diabolical slave-ship captain, all the better.  If the name “Mansfield” provides associations to a Richardson novel, a saucy French character like Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford, a naval captain, and England’s most important civil rights judge, Austen would, like her Catherine Morland, dance in her chair all the way home. 

There is no question that the historical Mansfield and Norris were broadly known.  Newspapers and magazines carried abolitionist articles, letters to editors, pamphlets, and reviews of abolitionist books and poetry, along with much debate on the slave trade.  Proslavery and antislavery arguments were often published side by side, according to Brycchan Carey.  In addition, the “sheer quantity of space allocated to reporting parliamentary debates about slavery in the years 1789–1792 indicates a high level of public interest in the issue.”  Among the hundreds of coffeehouses with such publications, one coffee shop in Winchester, close to Austen’s Hampshire haunts, carried three London dailies, three weeklies, three provincial papers, and various monthlies (Hochschild 216) in which the names of Clarkson, Mansfield, Norris, Granville Sharp, William Wilberforce, and other notables in the abolition debate came up on a regular basis. 

Further, the use of both names, Mansfield and Norris, reinforces both—especially if you add in Mrs. Elton from Emma.  In this novel, Austen ties the unlikable curate’s wife to slave-based wealth that had powered Bristol’s economy for so long that slave-related artwork decorated city buildings.  When Jane Fairfax references intellectual slavery, Mrs. Elton defensively retorts about her brother-in-law, “‘[I]f you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition’” (E 300).  To careful readers, her remark is ludicrously hypocritical.  Her family business is now so disreputable that it can only be alluded to:  her father is a “Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called” (183).  And she constantly touts the wealth of Mr. Suckling, who appears to be an even wealthier beneficiary of the slave industry.  (The city had five sugar processors.)  Equal parts subtle and incriminatory, Mrs. Elton’s maiden name is Hawkins, the surname of the first English slave trader, Sir John Hawkins, from the mid-1500s under Queen Elizabeth.  This connection has been much less remarked upon than the historical connections to the judge and the slaving captain, but in 2017 Harris points out the tie to England’s original slave captain Hawkins (Satire 273). 

Wiltshire claims that the many other associations to Mansfield make it “implausible” that Austen intended to connect Mansfield Park to the famous anti-slavery jurist.  It is, however, even more implausible that Austen would have used three slavery-related names—Mansfield, Norris, and Hawkins—in three slavery-related contexts with all three uses mere coincidence. 

2. “Minor” contribution of the Antigua estate to family finances 

In 2003 and 2005, Wiltshire relies on Lloyd’s 1999 article that downplays the importance of the Antiguan holdings to the Bertram family’s finances and therefore minimizes the family’s connection to the evils of slavery.  Wiltshire’s 2020 essay argues the case only for the names in the novel, but he does state that it is “still a matter of debate” as to whether Sir Thomas owns slaves in Antigua—a statement, as far as I know, that only Lloyd ever makes and only Wiltshire ever supports (218).  The deflation of Antigua’s fiscal contribution begins with Lloyd’s ingenious measurement of Bertram wealth.  Because the future Lady Bertram, according to the standard formula, should have brought £10,000 (though actually brought only £7,000), Sir Thomas’s annual income would have been roughly £5,000.  Because the £5,000 would need to be stable income, and because sugar prices fluctuated, Lloyd decides that the Bertram income could only have come from Mansfield Park and not the Antigua estate (Lloyd 60–63). 

This is a huge and flawed assumption.  A sensible strategy would not eliminate a source of income because of fluctuations but would simply discount the amount to account for those ups and downs.  Further, what if the sugar revenue is so large that market fluctuations make a minimal difference?  As Lloyd is arbitrary on the low end, we can be equally arbitrary with high estimates of sugar’s value.  Let’s assume, for example, that the English estate is heavily mortgaged or otherwise financially strapped, especially given the extravagant debts of the oldest son, Tom.  Make the (arbitrary) assumption that sugar’s annual contribution is £8,000, £13,000, £4,500, £2,000, and £10,000 for a five-year average of £7,500.  To be scrupulously conservative about fluctuations, let’s discount that number by a third.  Voila:  that gives us £5,000 in annual Bertram income, all from overseas.  Lloyd eliminates sugar income because he wants to, not because logic dictates that he must. 

In addition, Wiltshire and Lloyd carefully avoid a major possibility, that it was the earnings from the sugar plantation that enabled the Bertram family to buy their English estate, as other nouveau-riche sugar families did.  It is true that all agricultural endeavors, including sugar, faced boom-and-bust cycles of harvests and prices.  Sensible planters prepared for these eventualities.  The sugar plantations that did struggle were mostly small ones on which the owners lived full time.  Estates with absentee owners had, by definition, sufficient revenue streams to support a coterie of managers and other employees on site as well as to send money home.  Absentee ownership, though, often led to mismanagement, which is likely what took Sir Thomas to Antigua. 

Lloyd further propounds the idea that the Antigua estate would itself have come into the family as a small marriage portion, capping possible Antigua revenue at perhaps £1000 annually.  The book provides no evidence of Lloyd’s proposal.  And, under primogeniture, most sugar plantations would be passed down intact to the oldest son along with other major sources of family wealth.  The one Antigua estate Austen definitely knew of was that of the Nibbs family, whose name shows up on an early English map of Antigua (G. Davis).  James Langford Nibbs, a friend of Jane’s father, was a third-generation planter whose estates reached 740 acres in size.  Mr. Austen became a trustee for the estate, a job that would have involved ensuring an orderly transfer of the property to the heir at the appropriate time.  Mr. Austen died before performing any trustee duties.  The heir ultimately became the owner of a large estate passed down whole across four generations. 

Despite acknowledging that Sir Thomas in Mansfield Park is likely scrambling to cover Tom’s gambling debts and his own daughters’ marriage portions, Lloyd downplays the Antigua estate, going so far as to cite the trifling £350,000 that John Gladstone (father of the future prime minister) had in his West Indian holdings out of a total fortune of £1.3M (76).  Small change, indeed.  Lloyd attempts to show that the slavery holdings did not make up the bulk of the family’s wealth, but Gladstone’s larger trading fortune likely revolved around slavery too.  The slave trade was at the center of international business that represented as much as eighty percent of England’s overseas economy (Southam, Navy 197) and ten to twenty percent of England’s total wealth (Looser). 

Among other red herrings proffered by Lloyd is the claim, again with no textual evidence, that the purpose of Sir Thomas’s trip is to sell the Antiguan estate.  Supposedly, Sir Thomas returns home once he settles the deal.  Lloyd’s assertion is evidently Wiltshire’s source for claiming that Sir Thomas might no longer own slaves.  Another commentator, Tom Keymer, offers a parallel opinion.  With Edmund and Fanny “installed in the parsonage and setting the tone,” Keymer avers, it is “only a matter of time” before the family will “divest” itself from its Antigua holdings (106).  The fluctuating market used by Lloyd to justify the minor financial value of Antigua, however, in turn negates the argument for the profitable sale of the property.  The sugar glut, low prices, the cost of improvements, the prospect of slave emancipation sometime in the future:  all these factors would drive down the sale price of the property. 

Assuming that the estate could be sold for a reasonable price, what these commentators overlook is that there is no moral difference between cashing in immediately for a lump sum (sale) and taking the income over time (ownership).  Planters benefit financially either way.  To extricate themselves from what Keymer calls their “contaminated” plantation by selling—if they could—the Bertrams would do nothing more than relieve their guilt while pocketing their profits.  The other option, freeing and paying their laborers, would render the estate uncompetitive.  The most pragmatic approach would be to do what Sir Thomas appears to have done:  increase efficiency (including, perhaps, some improvements for workers) and continue to take the profits indefinitely into the future. 

Reality gave no one involved in slavery an easy or moral way out. 

Wiltshire and Lloyd are correct in one regard, but it is something of a quibble.  They challenge Said’s statement that the sugar trade “sustained” Mansfield Park.  They are probably correct that the English estate generates profits on its own.  But it is equally true that, until the recent reverses, the Antigua estate has been profitable, perhaps immensely so.  Dozens of English families, including the Gladstones, became enormously wealthy from the sugar trade.  It is a stretch to accept the premise that Sir Thomas, a hardworking steward of his English properties, was one of the few who never made a farthing in the West Indies.  And Said’s ultimate point remains unchallenged, that the product of hard work by unpaid local inhabitants was transferred to the Bertrams and other English families for their benefit at the expense of the island and its enslaved people. 

And if the Antiguan estate did in fact represent a tiny portion of income to the Bertrams, why did Sir Thomas bother to go to the island at all?  Why did he spend fifteen to eighteen months of hard and dangerous work to return it to profitability?  This important question asked by Anne K. Mellor and Alex L. Milsom in 2012—because tangential to their focus—has gone unnoticed (233 n5).  Half of all British who ventured to the West Indies died of illness, usually yellow fever.  Tom Fowle, fiancé of Jane’s sister, Cassandra, died of the disease aboard a ship there.  Gothic novelist Matthew Gregory (Monk) Lewis, who inherited two slave plantations (intact—primogeniture again), died of the disease on his way home from the Indies.  Statistically, either Sir Thomas or his son Tom would have died on their journey.  Would the father have risked this well-known danger for him and his heir if their Antigua estates involved only a trivial amount of money? 

A final Lloyd assertion is that the “estate” might not have been a plantation but perhaps a warehouse or other real estate (61).  What would such a warehouse hold except sugar, molasses, rum, tobacco, or coffee—all products grown, harvested, and processed by enslaved people?  Who would have rented a warehouse except someone involved with the island’s slave-based agriculture?  Almost every business in a slave economy will either support slavery or benefit from it.  Also, an “estate” was just that.  Wiltshire and Lloyd can’t have the word mean a large agricultural enterprise in England and something entirely different in Antigua. 

“If Lloyd is right,” Wiltshire says, “one of the premises on which postcolonial interpretation of Mansfield Park is founded falls to the ground” (“Decolonising” 305).  But it is Lloyd’s analysis that collapses as only an exercise to wish away Mansfield Park’s colonial revenue along with any colonial taint. 

3. “Mild” form of slavery in Antigua mitigates guilt? 

Again relying on Lloyd, Wiltshire says that Sir Thomas would not necessarily support the slave trade or be part of the West Indian planter party.  Rather, Sir Thomas “identifies himself firmly with the English landowning class” (“Decolonising” 311).  These positions—West Indian planters and English landowners—are not mutually exclusive.  Identification with either might depend on how much financial interest a landowner has in both countries.  Wiltshire and Lloyd simply assert Sir Thomas’s minimal holdings in the Indies.  Marsha Huff points to Sir Thomas’s conflicted situation as a Member of Parliament, where he would be “in the thick of the great political controversy.”  He “presumably would be sympathetic” to planters, she says, but his position is “difficult to discern” because Austen makes the artistic decision “to leave the unanswered question hanging in the air.” 

Wiltshire attempts further to weaken the slavery bond by invoking Wilberforce, the great abolitionist, in holding up Antigua as a model for the slavery business: 

What Wilberforce is claiming here is that Antigua is an exception, . . . seemingly underlining a generally understood view that this island modelled the ameliorated future for slaves that should follow abolition. . . . Austen . . . might therefore be suggesting that, though slavery was an inequity, Antigua represented the best that could be said for it. . . . Austen sends [Sir Thomas] to the one island on which a Christian gentleman might own estates with less compromise to his religious principles.  (“Decolonising” 312–13) 

Other writers have made similar claims to try to ameliorate the degradation of slavery in and around Austen.  Two commentators have cited Bermuda as another island with less awful conditions for the enslaved, saying that Austen “appeared to be drawing a distinction” between the “more humane” conditions there and “the far more brutal and despicable West Indies” (Hemingway 215).1  People in Austen’s day also spoke favorably of the “mild” form of slavery on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where Jane’s brother Frank had served as a naval captain. 

The first rejoinder to the idea of Antigua as an “ameliorated” locale comes from an Antiguan planter in this era, one of many who followed the West Indian “buy, not breed” philosophy:  it was cheaper to purchase new slaves than to feed existing ones enough to live and reproduce.  The planter’s policy toward slaves was “little relaxation, hard fare, and hard usage, to wear them out before they become useless, and unable to do service; and then, to buy new ones, to fill up their places” (Hochschild 67).  There is also the first-hand testimony of Mary Prince, who was enslaved on the island: “I saw how the field negroes are worked in Antigua.  They are worked very hard and fed but scantily” (Prince 252). 

If these two witnesses are not enough, Frank Austen in a letter of 1808 bluntly demolished apologists for any ameliorated version of slavery.  St. Helena, he said, had “wholesome regulation as far as it goes,” but “slavery however it may be modified is still slavery.  [No] trace of it should be found . . . in countries dependent on England, or colonized by her subjects.”  Jealous of its own liberty, Frank argues, England “should pay equal attention to the inalienable rights of all nations, of what colour so ever they may be” (Hubback 192, Doody 418 n44).  Hubback and Hubback quote only the first cited above.  It is Doody who digs out Frank’s full, damning statement including the rare belief that England should respect the rights of nations of “colour.” 

Settling Wiltshire’s claims 

Neither Fanny Price nor Sir Thomas exists in reality.  There is no Mansfield Park nor any Bertram family nor any estate in Antigua.  They are all fiction, made up.  But the interpretations of their use and meaning in the novel are not just theoretical exercises.  They expose the very real worldviews of commentators as they explain, or explain away, what the characters are doing, and why, and what their actions mean about the world then and now. 

Wiltshire’s anti-postcolonial position is most credible when he takes apart forced efforts to equate well-off white women in secondary but privileged positions with African women toiling and dying under the West Indian sun.  (It is true that writers of Austen’s time such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Hannah More “enthusiastically” made such comparisons, as Christine Kenyon Jones points out, but such equations do not work.) 

Otherwise, Wiltshire’s twenty-year effort to distance Austen from uncomfortable questions about slavery is less successful.  Some of Wiltshire’s suppositions are possible, but none receives the textual support necessary to make it likely.  His ruling on the Mansfield and Norris names does not hold up under cross-examination.  Austen’s use of names can as easily be “all” to potential sources as “either-or.”  Doody’s position seems more plausible than Wiltshire’s exclusionary tack.  His reliance on Lloyd to minimize slavery income to the Bertrams is at best unwise.  Lloyd begins with the desired conclusion—to zero out Antigua income—and uses multiple unsupported assumptions to achieve that result. 

Which brings us back to money, as Austen scholarship often does. 

Lloyd speaks of the Antigua estate as yielding no more than £1,000 annually, an amount “which would have been useful but not of decisive importance” (63).  Most obviously, the £1,000 might be used to increase the size of the plantation, enslaving more Africans to benefit the Bertrams.  Or another £1,000 brought home would increase the quality of life in many ways:  to pay off debts, to improve the English holdings, to fund other profitable investments, or to otherwise advance the family’s ease.  If the Bertrams had only the £1,000 from Antigua on which to live, they would still be living comfortably, if not in luxury.  They would still be among the well-to-do in the county.  That’s the “useful” value of the lowest Antigua income that Lloyd can rationalize.  Ultimately, there is the relative value of £1,000 in the lives of the free English family versus the enslaved Antiguans.  Even £50 would buy a male worker, and thus his freedom.  Females and children were sold for, or their freedom purchased for, as little as £25.  How small must the West Indian income be for the corruption of slavery to be removed as far from Mansfield Park as Wiltshire and Lloyd so fervently desire?



1Gabrielle White says that the link to the West Indies shows an authorial intention to keep abolition “before the reader’s eye” (78–79).  Sheila Johnson Kindred quotes White while stating that Austen raises the issue “obliquely” in Persuasion.

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