Austen in Australia

I spent the week in Australia, giving presentations on the history and work of Jane Austen. The lectures took me to Sydney, where I spoke at the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, and at a local library; and at the Austen societies in Newcastle and Brisbane.

As in America as well as England, many people here are Austen aficionados, if not fanatics. All manner of readers speak of “their Jane” or “my Jane.” The author’s stories resonate on every continent.

Subjects included the Napoleonic Wars and how they affected Jane Austen’s family and her novels; the general history of the period 1775-1820 and how the major issues of the broader world are subtly weaved into the life of Austen’s country villages; and the battle over slavery, a contentious issue that spanned Austen’s life. Her handling of the topic—or not—in her books is the subject of much debate.

I had given the talks in the U.S. and England, but to more general audiences. I was a little nervous about whether well-studied Janeites would find the information compelling—or old hat. Because I generally cover material outside Austen’s immediate context, though, the topics held their attention and led to good questions afterward.

At the Sydney talk about the war, one person suggested that I add the fact that the income tax was instituted in 1799 to help pay for it. She was probably right, but I was able to say I would cover that point in the broader talk I was doing two days hence. The war cost England the staggering sum of 1.68 billion pounds. Despite this and taxes on goods such as carriages and hair powder, half that amount remained as debt at war’s end.

Australians were interested to hear how Austen weaves naval references into her novels

The next lecture was at the Ashfield library in a Sydney suburb, located in a mall close by Woolworth’s—completely separate from the U.S. five-and-dime that went out of business decades ago. We were upstairs from the library proper, in a large meeting room where the area council meets to conduct local government business.

Questions here were more about her writing and the writing of other authors of the same period. One person asked what kind of novel I thought Austen would have written had she been a man. This enabled me to say with a smile, “These over here!” Appreciative laughter as I pointed to my trilogy, “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen.” The gentleman was kind enough to buy a copy.

The people in Newcastle were lovely; the town is also lovely—an old steel town that is now being rejuvenated, though a lot of its business remains shipping coal to China and elsewhere. My hosts and the group leader were, well, … lovely. One easily falls into the habit of describing the people and locales as “lovely,” because that’s the one short word that best describes them all.

This venue was more intimate, which either unnerves the speaker or relaxes him. I found myself enjoying the close encounter.

Susannah Fullerton, Austen expert, shows a path in Sydney, built in the early 1800s by convicts sent to Australia from England

At the Brisbane talk on slavery, for time and relevance, I did not discuss Mrs. Smith and her financial troubles in the West Indies in “Persuasion.” This reference strongly implies her business is related to the sugar plantations. To me, this is a plot device rather than a comment on slavery. This minor character needs help on a financial matter distant and complicated enough that she cannot resolve it on her own, and the purpose of her predicament is to demonstrate the relative trustworthiness of Mr. Eliot and Capt. Wentworth. The question, though, shows how closely Janeites peruse the works.

My sponsor for this trip was Susannah Fullerton, long-term president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, a highly respected author of several books on the English writer, speaker on numerous literary topics, and leader of worldwide literary tours.

I have been corresponding with Susannah for three years on many matters related to Austen. She’s a terrific person, very generous with her time and thoughts. Her kindness to me on this trip, and her thoughtful advice on literary projects, were beyond anything I might have expected. Arriving as a distant colleague, I was treated as a close friend. 

Fight Against Slavery Carried on Beyond Austen’s Life


Slavery was one of the most contentious issues of Jane Austen’s time. Some scholars claim that she ignored the issue or even accepted the legitimacy of the practice. Others claim that her novel Mansfield Park serves as an anti-slavery tract. For certain, Austen would have tackled the complex issue in a complex way.

The fight to abolish the slave trade—the buying and selling of slaves—had been raging since 1787, when Thomas Clarkson, who had won an essay contest at Cambridge condemning slavery, helped form the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Another founding member was Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery magnate, who created the official emblem of the group, an image of a chained slave (see image with headline) with the plaintive cry “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

Soon after, Clarkson gave William Wilberforce a copy of his pamphlet. Shortly after that came the famous meeting under the oak tree on William Pitt’s estate in which Pitt and William Grenville, two future prime ministers, convinced Wilberforce to take up abolition as his main political cause in the House of Commons. In Pitt’s fabled words, “We were too young to realize that certain things are impossible, so we will do them anyway.”

It was Grenville who shepherded the final bill through after Pitt’s death in 1806. Ironically, Pitt had become a (temporary) opponent to abolition because the cause made it harder for him to keep his pro-war political coalition together against France.

The climactic vote to end the slave trade came in March 1807, when Jane Austen was at the peak of her authorial powers. It took another generation before England abolished slavery entirely—six months after the death of Wilberforce in July 1833. Three days before he died, Wilberforce is said to have been assured of the passage of the bill. The end to slavery in all English possessions was phased in over six years, beginning in 1834, and slave owners received twenty million pounds in recompense.

William Wilberforce spent his life seeking to abolish slavery. He succeeded in ending the buying and selling of slaves, but died six months before slavery itself began to be phased out.

It is not surprising that it took twenty years to end the purchase of human flesh and another twenty-six to end slavery itself. In the early years, the focus was to end the misery of the capture, sale, and transport of slaves, though abolitionists assumed the end to slavery would come eventually. There was the hope that, if slave holders could not buy more, they would treat their current slaves better: It was cheaper to buy a new slave than to feed an old one.

Slavery is perniciously difficult to eliminate once it is in place, for free labor has an addictive effect on the beneficiaries. The slave trade represented 5 percent of the British economy, with a slave ship departing England every day. When everything is tallied—manufactured goods, tools, and rum to Africa; slaves to America; rum, sugar, tobacco and cotton to England—the Triangular Trade represented 80 percent of England’s overseas trade. Liverpool and Bristol were the two largest slave-related ports, which gives us the hint that Mrs. Elton’s family was involved in Emma.

Its tentacles stretched far enough to ensnare the Austen family. Mr. Austen’s half-brother, William Hampson, owned a Jamaica plantation, and Jane’s father was also a trustee of a slave plantation in Antigua for a friend, James Nibbs. Nibbs was godfather to Jane’s brother, James. It does not appear that Mr. Austen ever did any work related to the trust.

Aunt Leigh-Perrott was heir to a plantation in Barbados, meaning that any inheritance from that side of the family—which the genteelly poor Austens desired—would have been tainted. The family received none, though, until Aunt Leigh-Perrot’s death in 1836, after slavery itself had been voted out.

What of Jane Austen’s own point of view? We know that her favorite authors opposed slavery, including the poet William Cowper, who penned the famous lines celebrating Lord Mansfield’s freeing of a black slave in England in 1772: “Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs/Receive our air, that moment they are free;/They touch our country, and their shackles fall.”

Jane’s niece Fanny had an anti-slavery story in her diary in 1809; it’s likely her views would have been shaped by Jane, Cassandra, and others of her aunts’ generation. Frank Austen is the only Austen sibling known to have actively denounced slavery; his views likely shaped Jane’s.

In a letter home in 1808, Frank compared the relatively “mild” form of slavery practiced at St. Helena in the eastern Atlantic with the “harshness and despotism” practiced in the West Indies. In St. Helena, a slave owner could not “inflict chastisement” on a “refractory” slave; he must apply to the magistrate for relief. Frank concluded with characteristic honesty: “This is wholesome regulation as far as it goes, but slavery however it may be modified is still slavery. [No] trace of it should be found … in countries dependent on England, or colonized by her subjects.”

In her letters, Austen indirectly praises Thomas Clarkson by saying she was “as much in love” with author Charles Pasley as she ever was with Clarkson—a reference to Clarkson’s book, History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808).

Mansfield Park has a number of references to slavery, from the title itself—Lord Mansfield having freed the slave Somersett and by extension all slaves in England—to Mrs. Norris, evidently named for a slaver who tormented the abolitionists, particularly Clarkson. Whether the novel itself stands opposed to slavery is a matter of dispute; personally, I believe Austen was too much of an artist to telegraph her own views.

All of these references, however, come after the end to the slave trade in early 1807. Barring the discovery of new family letters, it’s unlikely we’ll know Austen’s true views during the years leading up to 1807. Her beliefs likely evolved along with those of England in general, with little thought early on and a growing realization of the horrors of slavery.

Given her respect for her older brother, Frank’s ardent opposition to slavery likely galvanized her own opposition as she matured.

There’s poetic justice that the Royal Navy, which had earlier protected slaving ships making the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, now enforced the ban on slave traffic. Two generations of Austen men, beginning with Frank and Charles and continuing through their self-named sons, intercepted slavers on the open seas.

Reflections on JASNA AGM

As one of 150-plus first-time attendees to the 2015 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), I found the event to be as educational as I had hoped and more charming than I expected. Here are a few of my JASNA reflections.

The AGM was hosted by the Louisville, KY, region, led by Alana Gillett and Bonny Wise, who put on an event that drew the largest number of newcomers and, according to old-timers, a record turnout of people dressed in period clothes. There’s something about Southern culture that encourages locals put on their Sunday best when nice people come to town.

My main interest in attending was the seminars, particularly those related to health, medicine, and childbirth. These topics play an important role in the second and third volumes of “The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen.” The seminars ended up spanning talks by Albert Roberts, on the work of a naval surgeon; Sharon Lathan, a nurse (RNC) and novelist, on medical practice and practitioners; mathematician Dr. Jo Ann Staples on household remedies of the day; and Kelly M. McDonald on childbirth in Regency times, with examples involving Austen’s own relatives.

Some of the medical treatments, including surgery without anesthetics, were brutal. A modern person cowers at the knowledge that Austen’s fellow author Fanny Burney underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer without anesthetic—and lived another thirty years. Other treatments, such as medicines containing mercury, were dangerous. Laudanum—opium dissolved in gin or wine—was the day’s equivalent of aspirin.

The medical practice of every era will suffer from historical perspective. Two hundred years from now, people will consider us barbaric for cutting open people—even with anesthetics—to heal them, and for dumping poison in their veins to stave off cancer.

My convention-going days have involved business—meetings with partners, customers, the press—and the typical attendee was a burned-out yuppie. It’s refreshing to see people who enjoy working the booths, and people in the hallways who are conversing with others because they want to, rather than have to. And to attend seminars out of genuine interest–in addition to a business imperative.

For a newbie, there were not as many opportunities to meet others as I would have liked. Everyone was friendly, but the singleton had to push forward, usually into long-time friends, to make connections. It was worthwhile, to be sure. I met a number of fellow authors, and members of regions outside of Oregon whose interests ranged from the erudite to the fun. It would have been nice to have meetings specifically designed to introduce people to those from other parts of the country.

Of course, I declined the one social event I might have joined in, the Saturday evening ball. Too concerned that the dance steps would be too complicated, though from what I then saw from the sidelines the more experienced dancers were quite patient and encouraging to the newcomers.

I learned that the card game Speculation was as popular among the Rogers clan (explorers of the Ohio valley and the Great Northwest) in Locust Grove, KY, as it was among the Bertrams in Mansfield Park, England. I could not claim, as Fanny Price did, to be a mistress (master?) of the rules within three minutes, for the youngest lady at the table roundly trounced me in the half-dozen hands I played.

Tough World for Austen

I knew I had my Jane Austen novel when I read a seemingly unrelated work: Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder. This history of scientific and industrial developments during the period spanning Austen’s life went far beyond “three or four families in a country village” to show a panorama of fervent intellectual activity across sprawling Regency England.

I already had the major plot points for the central love story—including, curiously enough, the technological marvel referenced in Chapter 1 and deployed in Chapter 4. However, I needed much more than that to avoid replicating what Austen—not to mention her many imitators—had already done. I did not want still another parlor-room romance in a quaint English setting. I wanted to rip that tranquil world apart and send the lovers out into a complex, dangerous world that would test them as human beings.

That world had two major components: the rapid and destabilizing changes in business and society, and the brutal, never-ending stalemate that was the war with France.

The Age of Wonder demonstrated the scientific and industrial advances that were providing the literal and figurative engines for the Industrial Revolution. These changes undermined traditional craft industries to create substantial labor unrest and demands for political reform.

The other part, the military, was equally important. Several characters in Austen’s novels have military backgrounds. Wickham, the deceitful Militia officer in Pride and Prejudice, is the most infamous. Yet from the repartee of Austen’s social gatherings, today’s readers would never be able to guess that England and France were locked in a death struggle for twenty-nine years of Austen’s forty-one-year life. Or that England was torn with dissent and often teetering on financial collapse.

Her adulthood paralleled the Napoleonic wars, with horrifying death tolls from combat and disease, press gangs that shanghaied civilian sailors into the Royal Navy, food shortages created by military demands, and the constant threat of French invasion.

In The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, the real world continually complicates characters’ lives, and the devastating war comes home in direct and fearful ways.

Well aware that she fashioned miniatures—comparing her books to intricate two-inch ivory carvings—Austen deflected any suggestions that she work on a larger scale. My own view is that, had she lived to old age like most of her siblings, Austen would have ventured far beyond her rural settings. Her unfinished Sanditon shows hints—a book about a crass real-estate developer who wants to turn a sleepy village into a tourist trap!

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen strives to do what she might have done had she had the chance. It paints a love story across a broad canvas that shows what the Regency era was really all about: great explorations, scientific discovery, industrial advances, labor and political unrest, and an unceasing, bloody war.