A Commentary on Brian Southam's exegesis in TLS (sent to C18-L 2/25/95)

I believe earlier this week someone on our list remarked that there was an interesting essay on slavery in Mansfield Park in the Times Literary Supplement for February 17, 1995. My copy of TLS always arrives a week later, and I've just read it and would like to concur with the previous individual that this is an informative and provocative piece. It is, however, apparently, partly in response to Edward Said's Orientalism in which Said argued that Jane Austen identified easily with the cause of those whose wealth depended upon slavery, and was not overly troubled by the misery, wretchedness, horror (&c) of the condition. I also get The Nation in which Said often writes, and have read brief resumes by him in this periodical on Austen and other English writers and must say he is convincing.

At any rate, I thought I would be bold enough to take issue with one small but significant point in Southam's response to Said. Southam says that Fanny bringing up the slave trade shows her seriousness of mind and depth of character; I agree (natch--see my posting last week). But Southam's quotation from the single mention of slavery in the novel, upon which he bases his refutation of Said, is misleading. He quotes Fanny and Edmund on a day after an evening's conversation after Sir Thomas's return from Antigua as follows:

'Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?' 'I did--and was in hopes the question woudl be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.' 'And I longed to do it--but there was such a dead silence!'

Southam would have us believe the dead silence was that of Sir Thomas & his family deeply embarrassed by the bringing up of the subject, the stuff upon which the wealth of Mansfield Park depends. Southam says: "'traffic in human flesh' ...was a sensitive subject, unmentionable in the home of Sir Thomas Bertram; and unmentioned, too, until Fanny was courageous enough to raise it, a breaking of the taboo met instantly with a confounding 'dead silence.'" Southam wants us to think they are ashamed. But Edmund says his uncle was pleased; Edmund says he wanted to hear more. Edmund is not mortified; nor does he suggest his father was. His father would be "pleased ... to be inquired of further."

But if we go to the text Southam quotes, we discover in Fanny's next line that the reason the subject received a dead silence was the young people were simply bored silly by this dull topic:

"'And I longed to do it--but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like--I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by showing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his daughters to feel'" Mansfield Park Chapman, II: 3, 198).

If we go back a few pages, we find what Maria, Julia, Tom were thinking about was their lost play. Mrs Norris, who realizes how bad she looks because of her involvement in the play, turns the subject to Maria's great catch, Mr Rushworth, to get credit for this, and soften Sir Thomas (Mansfield Park, Chapman II: 2, 188-9). No-one is in the least interested in slavery or Sir Thomas's business. It's like talking of politics in front of a typical modern teenager who only wants to hear of StarTrek or the latest rock star or better yet her boyfriend or who won this week's basketball game. It was in fact bold or nervy of Fanny to talk of this; she should have allowed Sir Thomas's daughters perhaps to flatter the father or at least show some interest about his business. This is not to say that Fanny is for slavery; it is to say the leap to the conclusion that her question is somehow breaking a taboo which is felt along the psychological currents of the room is not an interpretation a reading of the text will sustain. The text shows all the young people to be shallow; only Fanny and Edmund are interested in the serious subjects of life; exactly what are anyone's opinion we are alas not told because of the shallowness and stupidity of everyone else (we can assume Lady Bertram is not even listening, though on the first evening even she is unusually alert, so happy is she to have her husband back--again utterly self-centered in her approach). I think this is all we can say.

Ellen Moody

Contact Ellen Moody.
Pagemaster: Jim Moody.
Page Last Update 10 Januar 2003