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Archive for the ‘Religion in Austen’s England’ Category

By Brenda S. Cox

“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” –Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, Sept. 8, 1816

Last month we talked about Austen’s first cousins, particularly Edward Cooper, son of Jane’s mother’s sister. He became a clergyman like Jane’s father and Edward’s father. Edward was a strong Evangelical, and he and Jane did not always see eye to eye.

Evangelicals in the Church of England

The Evangelical* movement in the Church of England started early in the 1700s. While some evangelicals left the Church of England, others stayed within it. (We use a capital “E” for this movement within the Church of England at that time.) In general, evangelicals stress the centrality of the Bible and of Christ’s death on the cross to redeem sinful people, the need for a personal conversion experience, and Christians’ responsibility to actively lead others toward Christ and do good in the world. These are the messages Edward Cooper and other Evangelicals preached. 

The most famous Evangelical of Austen’s time was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce and other Christians, especially Evangelicals, led the fight against the slave trade, supported campaigns to educate the poor in England, and much more. (While modern evangelicals may be associated with certain political stances, evangelicals in Austen’s England were associated with these issues instead: education for the poor, the campaign against the slave trade and slavery, and others.)

Cooper’s Sermons and Jane Austen’s Responses

In Jane Austen’s time, many clergymen published their sermons. Sermons were popular reading, as well as providing preaching material for other clergymen. Austen enjoyed reading books of sermons. Cooper published a number of volumes of his sermons. Apparently, though, Jane and Cassandra didn’t like them much. In 1809 (Jan. 17), she commented,

“Miss M. conveys to us a third volume of sermons, from Hamstall, just published, and which we are to like better than the two others; they are professedly practical, and for the use of country congregations.”

This was Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons Designed for Parochial and Domestic Instruction(meaning for reading at home and for preaching to churches), first published in 1809. The earlier volumes were one in 1803 criticizing the practice of the militia drilling on Sundays (a day of rest), and then Sermons, Chiefly Designed to Elucidate Some of the Leading Doctrines of the Gospel (1804).

Where did Jane differ from those “leading doctrines” of Evangelical preaching? Evangelicals taught that people needed a conscious, personal conversion experience, a regeneration or rebirth, to become true Christians. Other Anglicans believed that growth in faith was gradual through life, beginning with a person’s baptism as an infant; this was probably Austen’s belief.  Both groups believed that throughout life the person needed to trust in Christ, repent when they sinned, and ask God’s help to live a good life. Edward Cooper’s hymn, “Father of Heaven,” which is still sung today, asks God for His “pardoning love.”

Cover of Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons, which Jane Austen was to “like better than the two others.”

This theological disagreement partly explains Jane’s reaction to a later book which includes two of Edward’s sermons. It’s been speculated that the “we” here might refer to the rest of her family, perhaps to her mother and brother’s opinion more than to her own. But still she does include herself:

“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” (Sept. 8, 1816).

This refers to Two Sermons Preached . . . at Wolverhampton Preparatory to the Establishment of a Bible Institution (1816). I was surprised to find that these sermons do not use the word regeneration, and conversion is used only once (with convert used two further times). However, the concepts are implied.

Cooper does talk about the world’s need for the gospel and for the Bible. Jane Austen apparently did not disagree with these goals. In her third prayer, she wrote,

“May thy [God’s] mercy be extended over all Mankind, bringing the Ignorant to the knowledge of thy Truth, awakening the Impenitent, touching the Hardened.”

Cover of Edward Cooper’s sermons for the Bible Society, which Austen found too full of “regeneration and conversion.”

The SPCK and the Bible Society

So, why would Austen object to Cooper’s supporting the Bible Society? She and her family supported a different institution that distributed the Bible, the SPCK. In fact, Jane herself contributed half a guinea, a substantial amount of her income, to this organization in 1813.

The SPCK, or Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is a Church of England organization that published and sold Christian literature at that time. However, many felt that they were not supplying enough Bibles in different languages (specifically Welsh, at the beginning), and so the British and Foreign Bible Society was formed.

The Bible Society included both Anglicans and Dissenters (people in other denominations). Because of this, they published and distributed only Bibles, with no commentary (which might support one set of doctrines over another). The SPCK produced the Book of Common Prayer and other materials explaining the Bible from an Anglican perspective. There was some tension or competition between these two groups.

Both societies formed auxiliary groups in various areas to support their work. According to Irene Collins, in 1813, both organizations set up branches in Basingstoke, in the Austens’ part of the country. James Austen, Jane’s brother, organized and spoke at the initial meeting of the SPCK. The Lefroy family, old friends of the Austens’, were leaders of the rival Bible Society auxiliary started at almost the same time.

A copy of James’s speech for the SPCK has been preserved. He said that the SPCK was better than the Bible Society, because along with the Bible it distributed commentaries and the Book of Common Prayer (the “Liturgy”). He explained,

“It [the SPCK] not only puts the Bible in a poor man’s hand, but provides him with the best means of understanding it.”

However, he also said that those supporting the Bible Society did so from “the purest and best of motives,” and encouraged them to support both organizations. He complimented the Bible Society, saying its “exertions” had produced “extreme good.” He called for a spirit of unity in the area and a spirit of “candour”—which meant assuming the best of one another. The speech is gentle and conciliatory; a good model for today’s controversies.

Jane Austen and the Evangelicals

So, Jane Austen had some disagreements with her Evangelical cousin Edward Cooper, and didn’t much like his sermons. However, Cooper had an Evangelical friend in neighbouring Yoxall, Rev. Thomas Gisborne. Both Cooper and Gisborne were involved with Wilberforce in working for the abolition of the slave trade. 

Austen did enjoy Gisborne’s work. In 1805, she told Cassandra,

“I am glad you recommended ‘Gisborne,’ for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it” (Aug. 30, 1805).

The book was probably An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex

In Austen’s letters, she made two specific mentions of the Evangelicals. On Jan. 24, 1809, she wrote, “I do not like the Evangelicals.” She was telling her sister that she did not want to read a new book by Hannah More, a popular Evangelical author. She went on to say, “Of course I shall be delighted when I read it, like other people,” so she doesn’t seem to be very serious. My guess is that she did not like More’s style, which is didactic, clearly teaching lessons through her story. Austen preferred to tell a good story and let readers come to their own conclusions.

Later, on Nov. 18, 1814, she had a serious discussion with her niece Fanny Knight about marrying a man who was leaning toward Evangelicalism. She wrote, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling must be happiest & safest. . . . don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.” So at that point, though she was not Evangelical herself, she admired them.

Austen’s beloved brother Henry later became an Evangelical preacher himself. But he still wrote about his sister, in the introduction to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion:

“She was thoroughly religious and devout . . . On serious [religious] subjects she was well-instructed, both by reading and meditation, and her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.”

While some have claimed that he was exaggerating here, at the time being “religious” was not necessarily popular. Jane Austen did not always agree with her cousin Edward’s theology or style of writing, but it seems to me that she was serious about her faith, as he was.

Brenda S. Cox blogs on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen. She has written a book called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England, which she hopes will be available by the end of this year.

*Note that “Evangelical” and “evangelism” are two different things, though people sometimes get them confused. Evangelicals, the focus of the article above, were and are groups of Christians with certain common beliefs. Evangelism  means people sharing their religious beliefs with other people.

For Further Reading

Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin, Part 1

Edward Cooper, Wolverhampton Sermons, Jan. 1, 1816.

Jocelyn Harris, “Jane Austen and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,” Persuasions 34: 134-139. 

Irene Collins, “’Too Much Zeal for the Bible Society: Jane Austen, Her Family, and the Religious Quarrels of Her Time,” Jane Austen Society Reports, Collected Reports Vol. 6 (2001-2005): 21-38. This article explains the rivalry and cooperation between the Bible Society and the S.P.C.K. in Austen’s community, and Jane’s theological differences with her cousin Edward Cooper. 

Gaye King, “Jane Austen’s Staffordshire Cousin: Edward Cooper and His Circle,” Persuasions 1993 

Gaye King, “Visiting Edward Cooper,” Persuasions 1987 

Donald Greene, “Hamstall Ridware: A Neglected Austen Setting,” Persuasions 1985 (Includes a photo of the rectory where Jane and her family visited Edward and his family)

Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin,” Jane Austen House Museum blog, Sept. 17, 2012, Edward’s portrait 

Edward Cooper as a hymn writer 

Edward Cooper’s letter to Jane April 6, 1817 (article also includes commentary on the letter)

Jane Austen in the Midlands,” scroll down for a section on Cooper. 

’Cruel Comfort’: A Reading of the Theological Critique in Sense and Sensibility,” Kathleen James-Cavan (springboards from Jane’s comment on Edward Cooper into the ideas in S&S) Persuasions On-Line 32.2 (2012) 

Other Sources

Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd ed. (p. 262 says Henry Austen became an Evangelical clergyman)

Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th ed.

Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion

Irene Collins, “Displeasing Pictures of Clergymen,” Persuasions 18 (1996): 110.

Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy

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By Brenda S. Cox

Church livings play an important part in most of Jane Austen’s novels.

For example:

A fortunate chance had recommended him [Mr. Collins] to Lady Catherine de Bourgh when the living of Hunsford was vacant; and the respect which he felt for her high rank, and his veneration for her as his patroness, mingling with a very good opinion of himself, of his authority as a clergyman, and his right as a rector, made him altogether a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility.—Pride and Prejudice chapter 15

Mr. Collins “venerates” his patron Lady Catherine, who gave him a living as a rector. (C.E. Brock)

A church living was a permanent job as rector or vicar of a parish, and the income, house, and farmland that went along with that.

In a country parish, most of the income came from tithes. People in the parish were legally required to pay the clergyman 10% of their income, which was usually from farming. It might be paid in crops, animals, and eggs, or in cash. During Austen’s time the system was changing over to cash, but many still paid in produce.

The clergyman also sometimes got income from glebe, the farmland that was part of the living. (Austen usually calls this land “meadow.”) And he might get a few pounds a year from the fees people paid for weddings, funerals, etc.

Some parishes in England traditionally had (and still have) a rector. Others traditionally had (and still have) a vicar. Mr. Collins was a rector, like most of Austen’s clergymen. Edward Ferrars is also offered a position as a rector:

“It is a rectory, but a small one”—Col. Brandon on the church living he is offering Edward Ferrars, Sense and Sensibility chapter 39

Colonel Brandon with Elinor; he gave a living to Edward Ferrars as a parish rector. (C.E. Brock)

The word rectory could mean either a job as a rector, or the rector’s home (also called a parsonage) that was provided with the living. Here it means his position. The word rector, by the way, is related to the words right and rectify. The rector was supposed to lead his parish in the right direction, and he had certain rights, which Mr. Collins is proud of.

Mr. Elton, though, is not a rector. He’s a vicar.

“He [Mr. Elton] had a comfortable home for her [Harriet], and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property”—Emma chapter 4

Emma does not recognize Mr. Elton’s need for money, thinking he will marry Harriet. (C. E. Brock)

The word vicarage, like the word rectory, could refer to his position or his home; here it means his position. Vicar is related to vicarious, it means standing in the place of someone else.

A rector or a vicar had the same duties. They led church services, preached, officiated at ceremonies like baptisms, met with the vestry to deal with parish issues, helped the poor, and so forth. However, they did not receive the same level of pay.

There were two kinds of tithes. Parishes had their own agreements and definitions about what was included in each. But most commonly:

Greater tithes included everything that came from the ground, like wheat, oats, and barley.

Lesser tithes were usually fruit, eggs, and the young of animals.

If a clergyman was the rector of a parish, he got all the tithes.

If a clergyman was the vicar of a parish, he only got the lesser tithes, usually about a quarter of the total tithes. Someone else, probably the patron, was actually the rector and took the greater tithes.

Farmers brought their tithes of grain and animals to the parish clergyman. From A Clerical Alphabet, Richard Newton, Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

So, I think Austen is very intentional when she makes Mr. Elton a vicar. Emma knows that he doesn’t make a lot of money as vicar (“the vicarage . . . was not large”). Austen also gives us another clue:

“Mrs. Bates, the widow of a former vicar of Highbury, was a very old lady . . . She lived with her single daughter in a very small way . . . her [daughter’s] middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible.” —Emma chapter 3

Mrs. and Miss Bates, the widow and daughter of the former vicar of Highbury, live in poverty. (C.E. Brock)

Mrs. Bates’s husband, the former vicar, had not made enough money to leave much for his wife and daughter. So the income of this parish, at least for the vicar, is certainly low.

Emma, as usual, is clueless. She doesn’t realize that Mr. Elton, a vicar, is going to need to marry for money (though her readers would have known). So, the fun begins!

The third major type of clergyman was a curate. You can read more about curates in my post Nothing But a Country Curate

Brenda S. Cox blogs on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen at brendascox.wordpress.com . She is working on a book entitled Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England.

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by Brenda S. Cox

“Of these three, and indeed of all, Miss Lambe was beyond comparison the most important and precious, as she paid in proportion to her fortune. She was about seventeen, half mulatto, chilly and tender, had a maid of her own, was to have the best room in the lodgings, and was always of the first consequence in every plan of Mrs. Griffiths.” – Sanditon

This is the only time Jane Austen clearly introduces a black or mixed-race character in her fiction. And we don’t know what direction she was going to go with this young lady. (Though obviously the producers of Sanditon have made their own speculations, as have the authors of completions of the novel. My favorite completion, by the way, is here.)

My favorite completion of Jane Austen’s Sanditon is by Jane Austen and “Another Lady.”

Austen’s inclusion of a mixed-race character raises questions for us today:

  • How many black and mixed-race people were there in Austen’s England?
  • Is she likely to have known any of them?
  • What were their lives like?
  • How did Austen’s society view them and treat them?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this topic, and it’s hard to find solid answers. However, the series of posts that I’m starting today will look at the question from different angles. We’ll start today with some indications from fiction of Austen’s time. Then we’ll look at statistics from official records, using Kathleen Chater’s Untold Histories.  We’ll also look at what art of the time can tell us, and consider the lives of some individual black and mixed-race people. Each of these lenses will give us a little clearer picture of black people’s lives in Austen’s England.

Miss Lambe

Miss Lambe is “half mulatto.” Nowadays “mulatto” is an offensive term, as it is based on the word “mule”; mixed-race people were believed to be sterile like mules. (Though there must have been plenty of evidence to the contrary!) But I don’t think Austen is using it pejoratively. She is simply describing Miss Lambe’s background. It sounds like Miss Lambe had a parent who was half-black and half-white, most likely her mother, and a white parent. Such pairings were quite common in the West Indies. A plantation owner might well leave his wealth to a mixed-race child.

Austen calls Miss Lambe “chilly and tender.” “Chilly” probably meant that the weather of England was too cold for her, compared to the West Indies where she grew up. “Tender” probably meant that she was delicate, easily becoming ill. Though as I imagine Miss Lambe, I like to think that “tender” also meant she was kind and gentle.

Austen sometimes describes people, such as Marianne Dashwood and Henry Tilney, as having a “brown” complexion. There’s been some speculation that she may mean to imply mixed racial backgrounds. That’s possible, but it seems a little unlikely to me. It sounds like Austen is just describing minor variations in skin tones. She usually pairs “brown” skin with dark eyes and dark hair. In one other reference, Miss Bingley says Elizabeth Bennet has become “brown and coarse.” Darcy says she is tanned from traveling in the summer.

The Woman of Colour is an anonymous novel published in 1808 about an heiress like Miss Lambe. The modern version edited by Lyndon J. Dominique includes much helpful background information and excerpts from other fiction and nonfiction of the time.

Back to Miss Lambe. We can get some idea of what her life might have been like from a novel of the time. The Woman of Colour: A Tale  was published anonymously in London in 1808, nine years before Austen began writing Sanditon. Professor Lyndon J. Dominique has edited a modern version, full of helpful background information.

Modern scholars speculate that the writer was herself a “woman of colour,” the mixed-race daughter of a West Indies planter, but we don’t know for sure who wrote the book. “People of color” may be used today to describe people of various races. However, eighteenth-century British people used it to refer to certain groups of free people in the Americas. Some included free black people, but others used the term only for those of mixed race (p. 21 in The Woman of Colour).

The novel is a series of letters from Olivia Fairfield to her former governess in Jamaica. Olivia, the daughter of a white plantation owner and a black slave, is on her way to England. Her loving father knows that because of her skin color she will never be treated as an equal by the planters of Jamaica. So he arranges that after his death she will travel to England. In England, laws and attitudes toward mixed-race people were less harsh, and tender-hearted Olivia wouldn’t have to see the suffering of the black people she identifies with. Her father, in his will, has arranged for her to marry her cousin, who will then inherit her fortune.

Already we find an interesting contrast. While black people were often treated horrifically in the West Indies, they found more acceptance in England itself.

Prejudices

The story shows some examples of prejudices that black and mixed-race people experienced in England at this time. Olivia and her black maid are called names, and yet they earn a place in society.

At her first English ball, Olivia is “an object of pretty general curiosity” (84). She says, “My colour, you know, renders me remarkable” (84). People stare at her “as if they had been invited purposely to see the untamed savage at a shilling a piece!” However, one gentleman, who calls her a “native,” adds, “In native elegance unrivalled! . . . More grace, more expression, more characteristic dignity, I never yet beheld in one female figure!” His friend calls her a “sable goddess.” Olivia enjoys the dancing, but complains that rather than rational people, she finds only “folly and dissimulation” (88).

Olivia’s maid Dido is a black woman. Though not enslaved, she seems the stereotype of the faithful black slave. She speaks in “half-broken language” (57), presumably a Jamaican dialect. She loves Olivia dearly and serves her faithfully. Olivia also loves Dido. In town, Dido says she is called names like “blacky” and “wowsky” and “squabby” and “guashy,” “and all because she has a skin not quite so white,–God Almighty help them all.” (“Wowski” was the name of an American Indian woman in a novel of 1787; “Quasheba” was the name of dark-skinned characters in novels of 1767 and 1798.) Dido says even a maid treats her like a slave. But she looks forward to their home in the countryside, where she will be the housekeeper and be in charge. Once in the country, she wins the affection of the “peasants” with her warm heart (105).

Olivia’s husband’s young nephew George thinks Olivia’s skin is “dirty” and Dido’s even dirtier. Olivia explains to him, “The same God that made you made me . . . the poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of the world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine. God chose it should be so, and we cannot make our skins white, any more than you can make yours black” (79).

They go on to discuss the evils of slavery. The child has heard the coachman saying that “black slaves are no better than horses over there,” and Olivia explains, “Those black slaves are, by some cruel masters, obliged to work like horses . . . but God Almighty created them men, equal with their masters, if they had the same advantages, and the same blessings of education.” Olivia says that human feelings and religious principles, as well as “kindred claims,” impel her to pray for the end of slavery, the emancipation of her brethren (80-81).

Once Olivia is married and living in the countryside, she meets “East Indian Nabobs,” a family who made their fortune in India, and finds them proud and selfish. However, she is completely accepted into the social circles of her area. The most prejudice she experiences is from her sister-in-law, who is a conniving, selfish woman.

The Woman of Colour: A Tale  shows some of the prejudices against black and mixed-race people in England. Nevertheless, it also implies that people of color were fully accepted in English society, particularly if they had wealth, like Austen’s Miss Lambe.

Jane Austen’s niece Anna Austen Lefroy made the earliest attempt to complete Sanditon.

Religious Themes

The novel has many Christian themes. At this time, Christians in England, led by William Wilberforce’s “Clapham Sect,” were pushing strongly to abolish the slave trade and then slavery. Literature was one of their most important means of raising public awareness and calling for compassion for oppressed people. Evangelical Hannah More was writing tracts like “The Sorrows of Yamba: or, The Negro Woman’s Lament,” a story about an enslaved woman whose baby died in her arms on a slave ship. William Cowper, Jane Austen’s beloved poet, wrote poems condemning slavery. Cowper wrote, “We have no slaves at home – then why abroad? . . . 
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free,
They touch our country and their shackles fall.” (This wasn’t strictly true, in legal terms, but was widely believed. It does point out the radical difference, though, between British colonies where slavery was part of the economy, and Britain itself.) While we don’t know who wrote The Woman of Colour, the book seems to fit with other such literature that put a human face on enslaved peoples and called for Christian compassion toward them.

Olivia’s mother was her father’s slave and his mistress. He taught her Christian faith, which she accepted eagerly. But she also learned from the church that her relationship with him was wrong, since they weren’t married. She confronted him, but he was too proud and too prejudiced to marry her. She died in childbirth. Olivia’s father raised her, gave her a good education, then sent her to England.

Her cousin Augustus, a good man, is at first repelled by Olivia’s dark complexion. However, he soon realizes that she has “a noble and dignified soul.”

Olivia is “a stranger in a strange land, where she is more likely to receive contumely [contempt] than consideration . . . a superior being, and . . . the child of humanity, the citizen of the world, with a heart teeming with benevolence and mercy towards every living creature!—She is accomplished and elegant; but her accomplishments are not the superficial acquirements of the day,–they are the result of application and genius in unison” (102-3).

In fact, Augustus and Olivia, both epitomes of beauty, intelligence, and virtue, seem to be made for each other. They marry and live happily. But—I won’t spoil it—something happens to destroy their happiness. Interestingly, the person who destroys their marriage is motivated by greed, jealousy, and class prejudices, not racial prejudices.

Olivia ends up alone, but she bears it well and peacefully. Throughout the story, she turns to God in all her trials and fears. The story ends by spelling out the moral: In times of calamity, we should seek God. Faith in God can enable us to become resigned to any hard situation.

The original editor adds that if the book can “teach [even] one skeptical European to look with a compassionate eye towards the despised native of Africa—then, whether Olivia Fairfield’s be a real or an imaginary character, I shall not regret that I have edited the Letters of a Woman of Colour!” (189)

Another cover for Sanditon completed by “Another Lady”; other completions are also available by other authors.

Other Fiction of Austen’s Time

Lyndon J. Dominique, who edited the modern version of The Woman of Colour: A Tale, provides a timeline of “Women of Color in Drama and Long Prose Fiction” from 1605 to 1861. He lists 37 publications during Austen’s lifetime with black or mixed-race characters, including Sanditon. It seems likely that as an avid reader, Austen was probably familiar with some of these, or earlier ones.

Dominique includes excerpts from a few of these works, including:

Lucy Peacock’s “The Creole” (1786). A creole heiress (who may be white or mixed-race) loses her fortune to an unscrupulous husband. Only her “honest negroes” console her (196). Again there is a Christian message. The creole lady writes, “Surely . . . we have no right to tyrannize over, and treat as brutes, those who will doubtless one day be made partakers with us of an immortality. Have they not the same faculties, the same passions, and the same innate sense of good and evil? Should we, then, who are enlightened by the holy precepts of Christianity, refuse to stretch forth the friendly hand, to point these human affections to the most laudable purposes, the glory of God, and the real advantage of society?” (196) She frees her slaves.

Agnes Musgrave’s Solemn Injunctions (1798).  At a boarding school, a girl is jealous of a talented, amiable young lady from the West Indies. So she “insinuates” that the girl has black ancestry and should be rejected. The other West Indian girls bring the prejudices of the islands with them to school. “In the West Indies the distinction is kept up by the women with so scrupulous an exactness, as never to mix, on equal terms, with people so descended”: they would not mix with any “child of mixed blood whose ancestors within the fourth degree of descent were negroes” (215). Here again the prejudices of the West Indies are much stronger than the prejudices of England.

Other stories include mixed-race heiresses like Olivia who are beautiful, well-educated, and virtuous Christians. They also include people who condemn “vulgar” black people. It appears that some of these stories, like The Woman of Colour, were written at least partly to help counteract prejudices and support anti-slavery causes.

I suspect Jane Austen’s Miss Lambe would have been a more balanced character then those we find in other novels of the time. Austen did not write stereotypes. However, Austen was strongly opposed to slavery* and probably would have presented Miss Lambe positively.

The Woman of Colour also includes nonfiction excerpts of the time which confirm some of the attitudes and situations represented in the novel. For example, a copy of a Jamaican planter’s will, leaving his fortune to his “reputed daughters” born of his black mistress, shows that there were mixed-race West Indian heiresses.

Next month we’ll look at who the black people in England were at this time, how they got there, and what social classes they belonged to. Scholar Kathleen Chater searched through a huge number of primary sources to find that information, so I’ll share some of that with you, from her book Untold Histories.

If you are familiar with other fiction of Austen’s era that includes black characters, tell us about those characters! Or, if you’ve read The Woman of Colour, what did you learn from it or think about it?

Learning More

On Friday, April 9, from 5:00 – 6:30 PM EDT, Professor Dominique will be giving an online seminar on “Political Blackness in The Woman of Colour,” discussing the novel he edited. You can sign up at Jane Austen & Co. The recorded talk is now available there.

If you want to start exploring more on this topic on your own, in the tabs above, under History, scroll down until you find the section I’ve added on Black History, or see Resources. It will give you a wide variety of resources to start investigating.

*I don’t intend to look at slavery in the British colonies, or abolition, in this series, but you’ll also find sources addressing those areas among the resources listed. “Austen and Antigua—Slavery in Her Time”  is a good discussion of Jane Austen’s comments on slavery and her family’s connections with slave plantations.

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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