Reckoning with the past
By Deborah Yaffe, Jul 16 2020 01:00PM
By now, it’s no surprise to find Jane Austen’s name surfacing in discussions of Britain’s unsavory imperial history: The debate over the significance of Austen’s glancing references to West Indian slavery has raged for decades.
Nor should it be a surprise to see Austen press-ganged into service, however unfairly, as a symbol of uncritical nostalgia for nineteenth-century country house life. Still, I couldn’t help bristling when her name surfaced in a recent Guardian story about the impact of the worldwide anti-racism protests on the National Trust, the British non-profit that preserves and curates hundreds of stately homes.
Apparently, the National Trust plans a stepped-up effort to highlight its properties’ ties to slavery and colonialism. Although the issue has been on the agenda at least since the 2007 bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade, “it would be fair to say we haven’t made the progress that we should have done since then,” John Orna-Ornstein, the trust’s director of culture and engagement, told the newspaper. “The Black Lives Matter movement has made us realize that we need to go much faster,” he added.
The initiative is surely a welcome development that, if done well, should enrich and complicate tourists’ experience of National Trust properties. But how does Jane Austen fit into this picture? Where did she stand on comparable issues in her own time?
It’s a complex question with no definitive answer: Although we know from her letters that Austen admired the abolitionist writer Thomas Clarkson, her references to slavery in Emma and Mansfield Park are oblique enough to leave us guessing about the precise contours of her beliefs.
In our era, marked by a profusion of Jane Austen adaptations filmed in the ornate parlors and manicured gardens of very beautiful National Trust properties, nuance is easily elided, however. And thus it is that the Guardian can quote Katie Donington, a historian of the transatlantic slave trade, speculating about whether the popular perception of the country house will militate against efforts to reckon with its unsavory hidden history.
“Is it scones and tea and a bit of Jane Austen-type fantasy?” she asked the newspaper. “Or does it engage with the hard political and economic realities of where some of that wealth came from?”
It’s possible that Donington is a dedicated follower of the literary critic Edward Said, who argued decades ago that Austen was conveniently blind to the horrific human suffering that underwrote her own society. But more likely her comment is yet another example of the way that Jane Austen screen adaptations, with their beautiful costumes and buildings and actors, have come to stand for all things Jane Austen – no matter how much that overlooks Austen’s own engagement with hard political and economic realities.
When contemporary screen adaptations of Jane Austen novels are the (implied or overt) topic of discussion, the conversation is about us, the twenty-first-century viewers, not her, the nineteenth-century novelist. So could we leave poor Jane Austen out of it?