Debates about Colonialism in Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Life and Works of Jane Austen

By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

Mansfield Park’s plot repeats, in a new key, the events of its opening paragraph. In both, the next generation pays the price for the previous generation’s mistakes. Its final line encompasses everything that has changed in front of its heroine, Fanny. Gone are some of the painful sensations, restraints, and alarms. But has Mansfield Park really been thoroughly perfected? Perhaps only if one sees it through Fanny’s eyes.

Old letters, french post cards and empty open book
There have been many debates about Mansfield Park, colonialism, and slavery. (Image: LiliGraphie/Shutterstock)

Fanny Price’s Love Interest

Fanny Price repeatedly goes against what’s expected of her. She is not romantically interested in Mansfield Park’s firstborn son and heir, Tom Bertram, who’s shown to be a morally corrupted, selfish gambler. It’s difficult to feel optimistic about the future of the estate with Tom poised to be in charge. But Fanny does contribute to the family and the estate’s moral health when she makes an endogamous marriage—that is, a marriage within the family—to her first cousin and first love, Edmund Bertram. He’s the cousin who’s been like a brother to her and who’s been kind to her since she was the timid, shy girl of 10.

Perhaps, as a result, not all readers find the Edmund-Fanny marriage a satisfying end to the story. Some say Edmund takes too long to recognize Fanny’s worth. That’s because he’s captivated by the lively, charismatic, flirtatious, selfish, and morally flexible Mary Crawford, until the second-to-last chapter of the novel.

Others find Edmund an unsatisfying hero because he’s been raised as a brother-figure to Fanny but still becomes her husband. They find it creepy, no matter what the novel might try to show to the contrary.

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Fanny’s Terms of Rebellion

In marrying Edmund, destined for a clergyman, Fanny will move into the precise situation that had been Mrs. Norris’s, but with a better moral foundation. It’s next-generation repetition with a twist.

Fanny will live an upper middle-class life in Mansfield Park’s parsonage. In turn, Aunt Norris is exiled to serve as a companion for her outcast niece, the divorcee, Maria Rushworth. In effect, the awful Mrs. Norris takes over Fanny’s subservient role, as a companion to the morally corrupt daughter of the Bertrams.

Plot-wise, it’s a kind of fun-house mirror: The second generation’s outcomes make right some of the wrongs of the first, but only Fanny gets the terms of rebellion right. She acts morally by flouting corrupt authority. That corrupt authority is everywhere around her and even far beyond her. The corruption is simultaneously close up and far away, because Sir Thomas Bertram owns an estate in Antigua, a British colony in the West Indies.

Colonial Slavery

Early in the novel, Sir Thomas Bertram and his son Tom travel to Antigua to deal with financial mismanagement on the estate. This estate almost certainly would have been a sugar plantation run on slave labor. Although this isn’t explicitly stated, Austen’s early readers would have assumed that was the case.

Illustration showing port side with ships in harbor and people carrying heavy loads.
In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram and his son Tom travel to Antigua to deal with financial mismanagement on the estate. (Image: Thomas Rowlandson/Public domain)

Readers have long been divided over this part of the plot. One critic famously suggests that Austen’s mentioning their travel to Antigua without damning it outright means that she was a tacit supporter of colonial slavery. Others, however, have pointed to Sir Thomas’s obvious faults and shortcomings, including the structural mistreatment of Fanny in his own home, as an implicit indictment of colonial slavery. There are arguments to be made in each side of the case.

Fanny Questions Sir Thomas

Fanny has an important conversation with Sir Thomas. She asks him about the slave trade. It’s a question, we’re told, that her cousins met with “dead silence”. Once again, they don’t listen to her and don’t respond to her. We’re not told what Sir Thomas said or precisely what happened next, but Edmund later implies that Fanny’s question was perceived as wise and welcome by her uncle, even if too unconfidently asked.

So what do we make of that “dead silence” in response to Fanny’s inquiry about the slave trade? Some critics read that moment as Austen’s refusal to engage the question of slavery and abolition. They point out that Austen doesn’t use that moment as an occasion to condemn slavery or colonialism and condemn her for that. That’s one possible reading—that Austen is glossing over the problem with silence.

But there are other interpretive options, too. It might be countered that it would be uncharacteristic of Austen to have her narrator offer a lecture here. Her novels more often present challenging stories that ask us as readers to draw our own conclusions. In that case, the silence in response to Fanny’s question might be meant to prompt us to examine our own consciences on the matter of slavery.

Hints of Slave Trade and Racism

Another possible interpretation is in store. Notice that it’s the moral, admirable Fanny who brings up the subject of slavery and the slave trade. It’s Fanny—the family member most like a servant in the novel—who asks her slaveowner uncle a question about a repugnant, dehumanizing institution, slavery. Clearly, Fanny is not asking about it uncomplicatedly or to celebrate its existence.

When Fanny asks Sir Thomas to comment on the slave trade, which had, in 1807, been made illegal in the British Empire, one might infer that it’s an indictment of colonialism and slavery, not a tacit endorsement. But it’s left up to the reader to read between the lines of Fanny’s question and her cousins’ silence in response to it.

Fanny, who’s cast as “lucky” to be in the Bertram household, has also been compared to the stereotype of what was then called the “grateful negro”. That was a racist stereotype promoted by white people about a supposedly happy slave.

Regardless of how one judges Austen on her ambiguous treatment of slavery and colonialism in the novel, it’s clear that Mansfield Park is neither blind to, nor silent on, the exploitative nature of labor. Mansfield Park is a novel about family conflict, greed, sex, and moral choice. It still prompts serious questions about power, work, and gender.

Common Questions about Debates about Colonialism in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

Q: Who does Fanny Price marry in Mansfield Park?

In Mansfield Park, Fanny makes an endogamous marriage—that is, a marriage within the family—to her first cousin and first love, Edmund Bertram.

Q: Why did Sir Thomas Bertram travel to his estate in Antigua?

Sir Thomas Bertram owns an estate in Antigua, a British colony in the West Indies. Early in the novel, Mansfield Park, he and his son, Tom, travel to Antigua to deal with financial mismanagement on the estate.

Q: What was the law about slave trade in England in the 19th century?

The slave trade was made illegal in the British empire in 1807.

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