Before Anniversary of Jane Austen’s Death, Family Ties to Abolition Found

author's brother served abolition movement, great courses professor discovers

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Author Jane Austen’s opinions on slavery have long been debated among fans. Her brother was recently discovered to have been a delegate to an abolition convention. Austen’s popularity skyrocketed posthumously.

Books stacked on table
In her six major novels, Jane Austen focused her writing on the characteristics of individuals and society of the middle-class in England during the Regency Period. Photo By Maglara / Shutterstock

One particular facet of Jane Austen’s legacy that scholars and fans have debated for decades is the author’s position on slavery and race in the early 1800s. Recently, another piece of the puzzle may have fallen into place. Preeminent Austen scholar Dr. Devoney Looser, a Foundation Professor of English at Arizona State University, discovered that Austen’s brother served as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. It may coincide with her expressed love for abolitionist author Thomas Clarkson.

Jane Austen’s popularity has grown immensely since her death in July 1817 at the young age of 41. In Dr. Looser’s video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen for The Great Courses, she explained how Austen’s fame and recognition really took off beginning 15 years after her death.

Everlasting Appeal

“It was in the 1830s that Austen’s fame really took off,” Dr. Looser said. “Then, her novels were republished as a set in England and America, to steady sales. Reissuing her novels in that decade significantly furthered her reach and popularity, at home and abroad.”

Additionally, Dr. Looser said, this marked the first time that Austen’s novels were illustrated, which helped emphasize their Gothic and melodramatic scenes as well as their focus on intimacy between two women. The 1830s editions of her works were bought from Austen’s family for £210 GBP and marked the last time the Austens were involved financially in her work. They have remained in print since then.

“But it wasn’t only the full-length novels themselves that made Austen a literary star,” Dr. Looser said. “What we’re learning from emerging studies is that Austen had a growing fan following throughout the 19th century, based on her work in excerpts and adaptations of all kinds, as well as through continued mention in newspapers and magazines.”

According to Dr. Looser, it was around this time that the public learned just how highly other authors held Austen in regard. Novelists Mary Russell Mitford and Maria Edgeworth both sang Austen’s praises.

Break a Leg

“Other things, too, extended the approval and applause of the public and kept Austen’s name before a mass audience,” Dr. Looser said. “The first dramatizations of Austen’s fiction happened in late 1895, but once her stories had made the transformation, their popularity took off. Much of their exposure was thanks to the pioneering efforts of actor and drama teacher Rosina Filippi.”

Filippi wrote and acted in the first ever adaptation of Austen’s works for the stage, which was a 1901 play loosely based on Pride and Prejudice. While the play wasn’t a big success, Filippi’s earlier book of Austen’s scenes was. It found a large audience in emerging girls’ schools, perhaps lending to Austen’s posthumous popularity within the suffrage movement.

“At the same time, one of Jane Austen’s collateral descendants, Florence Austen-Leigh, held a leadership role in an anti-suffrage organization, advocating that women not be granted the right to vote,” Dr. Looser said. “In political debate, Austen has been claimed by liberals and conservatives alike, with her own politics notoriously difficult to pin down. Such debate continues to this day.”

This ambiguous position on women’s rights by the famed author circles back to the debate over her stance on slavery and race, on which Dr. Looser herself recently shed new light.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily