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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Interrogating an interrogation

Among my many Janeite pet peeves is the caricaturing of Austen fans as prudish ultraconservatives who stick their fingers in their ears and chant “la-la-la” whenever anyone threatens to disturb their view of Our Author as the creator of escapist fantasies untainted by real-world unpleasantness.

Austen’s legions of fans may include a few such ostriches, but most of the Janeites I know are happy to debate the degree of Austen’s engagement with war, politics, and feminist social critique, regardless of their own views on such questions.

So I was more than a little irked by last month’s teapot tempest over how Jane Austen’s House, the museum located in the cottage in Chawton, England, where Austen spent the last eight years of her life, would handle the question of slavery in the Regency.

The controversy kicked off on April 18, with a Telegraph article about the museum’s plan to update its displays to include more material about Austen’s views on abolitionism and about her family’s entanglement with West Indian slavery and the wider British colonial project. “This is just the start of a steady and considered process of historical interrogation,” museum director Lizzie Dunford told the newspaper, noting that Regency consumers of tea, sugar, and cotton were indirectly benefiting from slavery and colonialism.

The Telegraph headlined its story “Jane Austen's tea drinking will face 'historical interrogation' over slavery links.”

And by the next day, the rightwing internet – already on hair-trigger alert, after a year of Black Lives Matter protests, statue dethronements, and National Trust rethinking -- had gone insane. “Woke madness”! “Museum targets Jane Austen’s tea drinking”! “Even Jane Austen isn't safe from the toxic woke crowd”!

Matters reached such a fever pitch that on April 20, the museum posted a statement pointing out that all it was planning to do was update its displays to address visitors’ questions and take account of the latest scholarship. “We would like to offer reassurance that we will not, and have never had any intention to, interrogate Jane Austen, her characters or her readers for drinking tea,” the statement read. (Thank God! The world remains safe for Britain’s favorite form of therapy!)

A week later, the New York Times covered the controversy in a story -- headlined “A Jane Austen Museum Wants to Discuss Slavery. Will Her Fans Listen?” – that quoted several Austen experts asserting that, while they personally had no problem with contextualizing Austen in the way the museum plans, unspecified Other Janeites would no doubt prefer an idealized, escapist Austen.

The NYT story left me exasperated (“Will Her Fans Listen?” – shades of those fingers-in-ears Janeites!) in its confusing conflation of Austen’s life with Austen’s work. These are not the same thing, people!

If you’re a museum dedicated to describing and contextualizing Austen’s life, it’s impossible to omit discussion of slavery and colonialism – or, at least, it’s impossible to do so now, in a modern era that is re-engaging with issues of race and social justice. But that project is separate from the question of how, or even whether, Austen’s books confront slavery and colonialism -- a question on which there is a range of views, even among careful Austen readers.

Since 1993, when Edward Said inaugurated this conversation, critics have persuasively argued that the Austen of Mansfield Park 1) implicitly colludes in British slave-holding, 2) subversively critiques it, or 3) barely concerns herself with it. Presumably, those readers who prefer an escapist Austen fall into the last of these camps – but even they are surely willing to recognize the historical reality that lies outside the pages of her fiction.

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