“Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy made his fortune from slavery”! “Romantic hero profited from the misery of others”! So scream this week’s scandal-mongering UK headlines (in, respectively, the Independent and the Daily Mail). Both stories report on a recent speech at the Festival of Literature in Dubai (there’s a lit festival in Dubai? Who knew?) by British novelist Joanna Trollope, who, since penning a deeply mediocre Sense and Sensibility update, has apparently been crowned the Queen of the Austen Experts. As best I can tell from the overwrought coverage, Trollope seems to have been making a rather uncontroversial point: that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English fortunes, such as those possessed by the heroes of Pride and Prejudice, almost always rested on foundations that look pretty unsavory to our modern eyes.
What with the exploitation of workers in the early Industrial Revolution, the unjust treatment of native peoples by colonialists, and the profound evils of the slave system that underpinned the commodities trade, it’s hard to imagine a way to get rich in Regency England that didn’t involve fairly horrendous abuses. So what about Darcy? Reading past the headlines, we discover that Trollope didn’t actually say Darcy’s fortune came from slavery: she said Bingley’s did. Austen, of course, tells us no such thing, at least not explicitly, but Trollope's assumption is reasonable – what Austen does tell us is that the Bingley sisters “were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.” (ch. 4) Was that trade the slave trade? Could well have been – the northern English port of Liverpool was an important slaving hub, and the recentness of the Bingley fortune (the Bingleys’ father “had intended to purchase an estate, but did not live to do it”) suggests involvement in a money-making franchise of the preceding half-century or so. Darcy’s fortune, however, almost certainly doesn't come from trade, whether in slaves or anything else: unlike the nouveaux riches Bingleys, Darcy’s father descends from a “respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled” family, we learn from no less an authority than Lady Catherine de Bourgh (in ch. 56). Indeed, the fact that Darcy’s father was able to marry Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, the daughter of an earl, strongly argues against any familial taint of trade. Instead, Trollope suggests that Darcy could have made his money from Yorkshire coal mining interests. Again, it’s a leap, but a plausible one; Darcy’s wealth, unlike Bingley’s, stems from the ownership of land, but Austen doesn’t tell us whether that land is filled with tenanted farms or deep-pit mines. And, as Trollope points out, the lives of eighteenth-century miners were probably “not much fun.” But. . . so what? It’s horrible that the economies of the past were built on the misery and exploitation of the less fortunate. It’s horrible that our own is, too. The computer I’m writing on was probably assembled in an Asian sweatshop, the lamp by my desk is contributing to global warming, and my affluent New Jersey suburb is just down the road from urban misery. (We won’t even go into the Austen-level irony of Trollope’s having chosen Dubai, famed for its abuse of migrant workers, as the location for her speech.) Should we all, myself included, be doing more to rectify these injustices? Yes, we should. But what does this have to do with Jane Austen? Maybe Trollope meant to offer a corrective to the movie-inspired vision of Austen’s world as an oasis of hearts and flowers and peace and loveliness, or, as she put it, “the lid of a Quality Street tin, all sprig muslin and 'oh la sir.' ” If so, fair enough: I’m on board with the Austen De-Harlequinization Project. But those shock! horror! headlines, it seems to me, draw their energy from a different place. They seem suspiciously like yet another iteration of the tired debate over why Jane Austen wrote those little domestic novels about trivial matters like love and family when she could have been writing about Really Important Boy Things like war, slavery and the oppression of the poor. Spare me. Yes, Jane Austen’s world was rife with injustice. So is every world, past and present. No, she didn't write about every injustice in her world. Does that invalidate her stories? I don’t see how.