Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Roger Charles Nunn, Empire and Jane Austen: A Contrapuntal Reading

Roger Charles Nunn, Empire and Jane Austen: A Contrapuntal Reading, in Studies in English Literature, English Number 1999, The English Literary Society of Japan.

Said then takes his argument one step further by explicitly imputing editorial awareness of empire to Austen herself, stating that “critics have tended to forget or overlook that process, which has seemed less important to critics than Austen herself seems to think” [93]. (1)

Writing at the beginning of this century, Milton states the strong form of the traditional contrasting view, when he refers to Austen’s “minute observation, her unrivalled faculty for using what lay under her hand”, but contrasts what he calls “…such a clear, near-sighted mental vision” with “defective mental long sight” (49/50). Jane Austen’s work is still often presented as a celebration of exclusive and essentially moral Englishness, an “affirmation of the superior sense and moderate behaviour of the English nation” (page 11, Lane, M. Jane Austen’s England. London, Hale, 1986). (2)

Austen’s own modestly stated and often quoted aim of limiting her frame of reference to “human nature in the midland countries” or to “three or four families in a country village” also appears to be in striking contrast to Said’s “two major seas and four continents”. (2)

Foreign reference in Austen’s major novels can be divided into three categories, all of which are interconnected. Firstly, there is non-European reference related to colonial trade or to the possession of plantations in the East or West Indies. This reference has the most direct application to Said’s discussion of Empire. Secondly, both Persuasion and Mansfield Park contain reference to service in the navy. This naval service is closely linked to the defense of British overseas interests and colonial rivalry with the French. Thirdly, there is reference to European culture, mainly to food, architecture, health, music, literature or languages. This reference is rather ambiguous in nature. It can be very positively connotated, indicating a superior level of education or cultivated behaviour in polite Georgian society, which might even indicate a close cultural association with European colonial rivals. However, whenever social and moral values or behaviour are associated with Europe, the reference is contrastive and the connotation is invariably negative. (2)

While we never hear what caused the considerable problems on the estate in Antigua, what is always clear is Sir Thomas’s unwillingness to be away from England and from the ideal of domestic felicity he associates with Mansfield Park. After almost two years’ enforced absence… The general indifference of his daughters and the scare mongering of their Aunt Norris, who “depended on being the first person made acquainted with any fatal catastrophe” (I. IV: 494), provides us with some indication of the emptiness of this domestic ideal and the true nature of the attention accorded to Sir Thomas’s colonial endeavour by those who most depended on its benefits. … Later in the novel it is only Fanny who shows genuine interest in life overseas. (4-5)

Similarly, the decision to perform a foreign play, in this case a German play, Lover’s Vows, is used to represent the decline in moral behaviour on the English Estate in the absence of its owner on his approved mission to set his colonial estate in order. (6)

In Austen’s work, reference to the supportive role of the navy is far more frequent than direct reference to colonial possession. The very positive account of the naval career of Fanny’s favourite brother, William Price, serves to reinforce the very favourable picture presented by Jane Austen (strongly reinforced in Persuasion) of the efforts of the navy overseas in support of imperial dominance. (6)

To Sir Thomas the spirited recital of William’s adventures is seen as “the proof of good principles, professional knowledge, energy, courage, and cheerfulness—everything that could deserve or promise well” (619). This perception of William’s “glory of heroism, of usefulness, of exertion, of endurance”, which partly depends on having “known every variety of danger which sea and war together could offer” indicates more than just the blind approval of Fanny’s brother, it also represents the approval of the spirited defense of Sir Thomas’s own colonial possessions. (7)
To the other members of the family, … Austen’s irony makes it difficult to see anything but editorial disapproval for this attitude. / ‘William must not forget my shawl, if he goes to the East Indies; and I shall give him a commission for any thing else that is worth having. I wish he may go to the East Indies that I may have my shawl. I think I shall have two shawls, Fanny. (II. VIII: 662). (7)

Significantly, it is the naval man of action, Captain Wentworth who is instrumental in helping his wife’s friend in “recovering her husband’s property in the West Indies” (II: XII: 1376). This estate alone seems to be all that is needed to ensure her solvency and support her for life. The recovery and exploitation of the estate is portrayed as an act of charity and Captain Wentworth’s efforts appear to be more unambiguously approved than the more active intervention on his own behalf of the more austere plantation owner, Sir Thomas Bertram. (8)

When the narrative focuses on Wentworth’s final return to England (the “peace” referred to here being for once clearly calculable as that of 1814), there is no shortage of reference to the way he had been able to make his fortune at the expense of “the Great Nation”. “Sent off to the West Indies” (I. VIII. 1259) in “an old sloop”, Wentworth “after taking privateers [9] enough to be very entertaining”, was able to bring a considerable prize, a French frigate, into Plymouth. There is nothing to suggest that Anne does not share Wentworth’s own evaluation of his rapidly acquired fortune as the result of “honourable toils and just rewards” (op.cit). Indeed, in the pivotal conversation with Captain Harville (II. XI. 1365), Anne shows the kind of sympathy with the overseas mission of the navy, that Fanny Price showed in Mansfield Park. “You are always labouring and toiling, exposed to every risk and hardship. Your home country, friends are all quitted.” (9-10)

Persuasion also constantly highlight the social effects in England of the success of naval officers in taking prizes at the expense of colonial rivals. While there is a more global atmosphere in Persuasion, the narrative is still very firmly rooted in the English society. (10)

By opposing the nobility, energy and enterprise of the navy to the excesses and wasteful laziness of the Elliots, it is difficult to detect anything but strong editorial disapproval of all their values and actions. Yet, it seems unlikely that the sister of navy officers could be unaware of the cruelties of the press gang, or the appalling conditions that had provoked the regular mutinies of the rank and file in her own life time. Trevelyan (512) specifically refers to both William Price and Wentworth as representative of a new breed of more responsible naval officers who were appointed from the time of Nelson, but still points out that many problems remained unresolved. Only glimpses of the less attractive realities of naval life are found in the novels. Jane Austen does not ignore the existence of influence and interest in gaining promotion, but the faults of Admiral Crawford, Richard Musgrove and Fanny Price’s father are easily overshadowed by the merits of Admiral Croft, William Price and Captain Wentworth. (11)

Said’s enthusiasm does at times seem to get the better of the evidence when he invests his arguments with definitive statements about Jane Austen’s own world view which appears to be suspiciously similar to his own. It is difficult not to conclude that Said overstates his case by assuming knowledge of Austen’s intentions or opinions without support from the text—“I think Austen sees what Fanny does as a domestic small-scale movement in space that corresponds to the larger, more openly colonial movements of Sir Thomas, her mentor, the man whose estate she inherits” (89). Sutherland (page xxv, Sutherland, K., “Introduction” in Austen, J. Mansfield Park, [Ed. Sutherland, K., vii-xxxiii. London, Penguin Classics 1996]) warns that “we should be careful that we do not enact a further imperial incursion—this time on the past—and assume that Austen (or Fanny Price) shares precisely our own view on these things. The novel’s acts of suppression and relocation are more complicated than this.” (16)

The experience of practicing a detailed contrapuntal reading with the focused aim of recording and interpreting only the foreign reference must be accompanied by an awareness of a potential danger of overstatement which is inherent in the process itself. While the novels of Jane Austen are always an expression of a certain privileged kind of Englishness, it is only in two of the later novels, Persuasion and Mansfield Park that the significance of foreign reference can be seriously considered, and even in these two novels the debate about its importance is, in my view, far from resolved. (16)


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