Old issues, new questions
Five years ago, I wrote a magazine article about the controversy over Woodrow Wilson’s repugnant racial views – an aspect of the twenty-eighth U.S. president’s record that had long been familiar to historians but that suddenly seemed urgent to a new generation of students and scholars.
“It’s all about the questions we ask. The questions have changed,” a retired Princeton history professor told me at the time. “I mean, the questions always change. That’s why we keep writing history.”
The same could be said for a recent surge of interest in the intersection of race and Jane Austen – in how she addresses racial issues (or doesn’t), in the lives of Black people during the Regency, and in fanfiction that updates Austen’s stories to communities of color.
The topic isn’t entirely new: The literary critic Edward Said explored the role of West Indian slavery in the world of Mansfield Park back in 1993, inaugurating a conversation that has become indispensable to any discussion of that novel. But those complexities haven’t always percolated down to non-academic Jane Austen fans or influenced how they understand Austen's work.
So it’s exciting to see the lineup of nine talks that constitute “Race and the Regency,” a program offered by Jane Austen & Co., a collaboration between the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Jane Austen Summer Program and the Chapel Hill Public Library.
The first two virtual talks – an academic lecture on Mansfield Park’s relationship to a real-life episode of racial violence, and a conversation with Ibi Zoboi, the author of a young-adult Pride and Prejudice update set in contemporary Brooklyn – took place in February but can still be seen on YouTube. Still to come are conversations about everything from the Austen family’s involvement with slavery and abolition to the casting of Black actors in Netflix’s Bridgerton series.
It’s a fascinating and innovative set of lectures -- and a great chance to ask some new questions about Jane Austen and her times.