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In My Words: Lord Mansfield shows why Jane Austen still matters

Professor Rosemary Haskell reflects in a newspaper column on the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" and points to issues of poverty, class and gender that remain relevant today.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Fayetteville Observer via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Professor Rosemary Haskell

Lord Mansfield shows why Jane Austen still matters
By Rosemary Haskell - haskell@elon.edu

1914 or 1814? In this year’s anniversary stakes, I’ll take 1814 as the seriously important date.
 
Forget 1914 and World War I, recently commemorated in a cascade of books, articles and television specials. Let us now, instead, praise famous authors and celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s novel “Mansfield Park.”
 
I know. Who, outside the world of English teachers and Austen fanatics, cares about this rather serious novel, which certainly isn’t Austen’s delightful romantic comedy “Pride and Prejudice”?
 
I say, read “Mansfield Park” because it illuminates brilliantly the strange nooks and crannies of a world of exploitation, privilege, and unavoidable complicity in other people’s sufferings. Jane Austen’s fictional rendition of human suffering, its roots and ramifications, resembles our own experience, 200 years later.  
 
Comparisons between the 1814 novel and British director Amma Asante’s recent film, “Belle,” set in late 18th century England, make such study even more rewarding. Fanny Price and Dido Belle, the respective protagonists, fight lonely battles for the measures of freedom and personal dignity then routinely denied to women, while, offstage—but not very far off—is the horror of slavery.
 
Austen’s heroine, Fanny Price, is an indigent girl brought up at Mansfield Park by her rich uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram. Fanny thus inhabits the margins of upper-class English life. Born poor, female, and now an object of charity, she has high fences to clear in a world cruel to the penniless and indifferent to women’s constricted lives. Fanny needs to find a husband, or be consigned to scorned spinsterhood and quasi-servant status as a poor relation in her uncle’s house.  With no dowry, she must rely on her personal attractions and her status as “Sir Thomas’s niece” to boost her marriage-market value.
 
In turn, the film’s true story of the even-more-marginalized Belle stirs our thoughts about the man whose name Austen gave to the “great house” of her 1814 novel’s title. Born around 1760, Belle is the mixed-race daughter of a Caribbean slave and a white aristocrat, adopted by her uncle, Lord Mansfield, then Lord Chief Justice of England. As the author of judicial decisions forwarding the anti-slavery cause in Britain, his courtroom’s drama is also that of his drawing room.
 
Belle’s startling presence there causes social and moral boundaries to be re-negotiated, particularly as she enters an extremely difficult marriage market. She has money, inherited from her white father, but what conventional English gentleman in the late 1700s will marry the daughter of a dark-skinned slave? Even if she is the ward of the Chief Justice of England?
 
Fanny and Belle both recognize their disadvantages as women in a world that denies them, black or white, much autonomy. As married women, both would surrender their personal legal identities to their husbands. They are not, indeed, slaves, but their exclusion from the great worlds of politics and of economic self-determination reminds us of the slave’s consignment to invisibility. Marrying any man at all with claims to respectability ought to satisfy these girls, their relatives believe.
 
Both film and book “allow” the heroines to marry happily, after they have bravely rejected their “family-approved” (but unpleasant) suitors. But neither tale is the charming romance of “Pride and Prejudice.” Too many frightening obstacles threaten the hard-won happy endings.
 
It turns out that luxurious Mansfield Park is built on wealth derived from Sir Thomas’s now-struggling Antiguan plantation, less profitable after the 1807 abolition of the slave trade in British ships. But Fanny’s bold – or naïve – question about the slave trade goes unanswered in family conversation.  This episode signals Austen’s acknowledgement, with the novel’s title, of the morally fragile source of the family’s comfort, which apparently nobody wishes to discuss.
 
As Paula Byrne’s “Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice” notes, “the shadow story of ‘Mansfield Park’ is slavery.”
 
So, now, in 2014 – also the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights act of 1964 – we could do worse than to read “Mansfield Park” and watch “Belle.” Together and separately, these works tease out the threads of the moral, emotional and economic web connecting upper class lives to the experiences of the poor and the un-free.  Such connections challenge the wealthy and the powerful to recognize their responsibilities for the welfare of people they cannot even see and perhaps can barely imagine.
 
Today’s homegrown and foreign miseries—poverty, inequality, war—touch us closely, fleetingly, or not at all.  But, like Fanny’s and Belle’s, our privileges and our pains are tied to those of people next door and across the world. Jane Austen’s genius and the true story of the slave-woman’s daughter enrich our understanding of this shared humanity.

Rosemary Haskell is a professor of English at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
11/11/2014 9:30 AM