Reading Against Austen

Supportive Quotations for discussion of Persuasion




What is your "take-away"?

►The following quotations are from Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993, 4), either from “Narrative and Social Space” (62-80) or from “Jane Austen and Empire” (80-97). (Emphases added.)

“Nearly everywhere in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century British and French culture we find allusions to the facts of empire, but perhaps nowhere with more regularity and frequency than in the British novel.  Taken together, these allusions constitute what I have called a structure of attitude and reference.  In Mansfield Park, which within Jane Austen’s work carefully defines the moral and social values informing her other novels, references to Sir Thomas Bertram’s overseas possessions are threaded through; they give him his wealth, occasion his absences, fix his social status at home and abroad, and make possible his values, to which Fanny Price (and Austen herself) finally subscribes" (62).
“I am not trying to say that the novel—or the culture in the broad sense—‘caused’ imperialism, but that the novel, as a cultural artifact of bourgeois society, and imperialism are unthinkable without each other. Of all the major literary forms, the novel is the most recent, its emergence the most datable, its occurrence the most Western, its normative pattern of social authority the most structured; imperialism and the novel fortified each other to such a degree that it is impossible, I would argue, to read one without in some way dealing with the other” (70-1).

            “By the 1840s the English novel had achieved eminence as the aesthetic form and as a major intellectual voice, so to speak, in English society . . . .  Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Mrs. Gaskell shaped the idea of England in such a way as to give it identity, presence, ways of reusable articulation.  And part of such an idea was the relationship between ‘home’ and ‘abroad.’ Thus England was surveyed, evaluated, made known, whereas ‘abroad’ was only referred to or shown briefly without the kind of presence or immediacy lavished on London, the countryside, or northern industrial centers such as Manchester or Birmingham” (71-2).

            At the beginning of his section on Austen, Edward Said quotes a writer (V.G. Kiernan) who says that “’empires must have a mould of ideas or conditioned reflexes to flow into’” (80). 
            The idea expressed here is one of Said's presuppositions and is central to his thesis.  He argues that the early novel--from Defoe to Austen--made empire thinkable.

“Perhaps then Austen, and indeed, pre-imperialist novels generally, will appear to be more implicated in the rationale for imperialist expansion than at first sight they have been” (84).

            Referring to the work of historians (in particular to Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery [1961]), Said says, “The question of interpretation, indeed of writing itself, is tied to the question of interests, which we have seen are at work in aesthetic as well as historical writing, then and now. WE must not say that since Mansfield Park is a novel, its affiliations with a sordid history are irrelevant or transcended, not only because it is irresponsible to do so, but because we know too much to say so in good faith.  Having read Mansfield Park as part of the structure of an expanding imperialist venture, one cannot simply restore it to the canon of ‘great literary masterpieces’—to which it certainly belongs—and leave it at that.  Rather, I think, the novel steadily, if unobtrusively, opens up a broad expanse of domestic imperialist culture without which Britain’s subsequent acquisition of territory would not have been possible” (95).

“Yet only in the global perspective implied by Jane Austen and her characters can the novel’s quite astonishing general position be made clear” (95).

“There is paradox here in reading Jane Austen which I have been // impressed by but can in no way resolve.  All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff.  And everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery.  Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, ‘There was such a dead silence’ as to suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both.  That is true.  But what stimulates the extraordinary discrepancy into life is the rise, decline, and fall of the British empire itself and, in its aftermath, the emergence of a post-colonial consciousness. In order more accurately to read works like Mansfield Park, we have to see them in the main as resisting or avoiding that other setting, which their formal inclusiveness, historical honesty, and prophetic suggestiveness cannot completely hide” (95-6),  In time there would no longer be a dead silence when slavery was spoken of, and the subject became central to a new understanding of what Europe was” (95-6).




  New material for "thinking against"

►The following quotations are from Brian Southam’s Jane Austen and the Navy (2000).  Southam does not have a “thinking against” thesis.  In fact, his discussion of Harville is quite sympathetic with Austen’s aims:

“There follows a remarkable passage, central to Persuasion’s naval purpose, the description of Harville’s ‘fitting-up’ of the rooms, his practical skills and ingenuity in transforming these indifferent lodgings into a place of comfort, convenience and beauty,  a treasure-trove mingling the homely and the exotic.  The scene carries a sense of calm and fulfillment.  It points to a life // which as Barbara Hardy remarks) ‘has nothing to do with great estates or rich possessions’ and everything to do with Harville’s ‘profession, the fruit of its labours, the effect of its influence on his habits’” (286-7).

            But Southam provides information that would allow a reader to develop a “thinking against” thesis.  See details that follow.

“It has to be said, however, that Jane Austen skates over a good deal  [in Mrs. Croft’s account of life at sea].  The gap here between fiction and fact is wide.  Even for the wives of Admirals and Captains, there was far more to be endured.  A sound witness to this is Betsey Wynne.  Before their marriage in January 1797, Thomas Fremantle warned Betsey that she had not seriously considered what life at sea with a frigate Captain would entail, details she recorded in her diary: ‘to what I engage myself, to how much misery I shall be espoused, how could I live on board?  What shall I do if the ship comes to action? etc.’  But she felt that she had properly thought of ‘all this’ and was confident of enduring ‘the inconveniences which must of course  occur from being at sea’.  Over a period of seven-and-a-half months, traveling from Naples to Portsmouth  . . . , with stays of several weeks at Elba and Gibralter, and an attack on Tenerife, Betsey was to face ‘misery’ and ‘inconveniences’ she had not anticipated . . . “ (278).

            “Even more distressing [than the noise of the guns, the groaning of the wounded, and her own husband’s injury], were the ship’s punishments.  Fremantle was a strict disciplinarian and drunkenness, a habitual offense, resulted in ‘Much flogging’ of the crew.  In her cabin, Betsey ‘could distinctly hear the poor wretches cry out for mercy’, something which ‘broke my heart’” (279).

            “ . . .  On this same day, other sailors were also flogged on board the Inconstant. Once again, ‘in the cabin’ Betsey heard ‘all that is going on quite distinctly’, leaving her ‘miserable all the morning’.  For all that she enjoyed her honeymoon at sea in the privacy of her own ‘comfortable cabin’, the sail-maker’s wife in attendance, and that she could pass her days with her harpsichord, her books and her watercolors, and make music with other passengers, the grim realities of naval life, its cruelty, bloodshed and horror, could not be blocked out” (279).
            “How much Jane Austen knew of and how much she assumed her readers to know is uncertain.  But she must have been aware that for the ordinary sailor life in these ships was often ‘a hell upon earth’—the words of the naval historian William Laird Clowes, writing in 1900.  To quote an account from 1812, it was no better than ‘dwelling in a prison, within whose narrow limits were to be found Constraint, Disease, Ignorance, Insensibility, Tyranny, Sameness, Dirt and Foul Air: and in addition, the dangers of Ocean, Fire, Mutiny, Pestilence, Battle and Exile’.  Besides the injuries and mutilations of war, these were the ‘common afflictions’ of shipboard life: ‘hideous ulcers (a general complaint) arising from bruises received in the course of their hard work, and exasperated by the damp in which they lie, and by the foul water they are obliged to drink’; ‘ruptures, an ordinary // consequence to young men, from pulling ropes’; ‘some with ulcerated lungs’; ‘others suffering from lacerations, dislocations and fractures from falls . . .’’” (279-80). 

Southam’s quotations are from “Edward Mangin’s Journal” in Five Naval Journals. The journals were written between 1789 and 1817 but were edited and published in 1951.




Austen back garden