Sunday, February 26, 2012

Unrequited Love: Jane Austen and America

by Lauren Gilbert

Jane Austen had little to say about America, and that little was not good. In her letter to Martha Lloyd of 9/2/1814, she did not reflect a positive view of America (as in the new United States), saying “…I place my hope of better things on a claim to the protection of Heaven, as a Religious Nation, a Nation inspite of much Evil improving in Religion, which I cannot believe the Americans to possess.” The ideals of democracy espoused by America, and later in the French Revolution, were a more direct and positive influence on earlier authors with whom Jane was familiar, such as Edmund Burke and Charlotte Turner Smith, but suffered an eclipse when, in France, the Terror erupted and the King and Queen were executed. Park Honan wrote that, in THE LOITERER, Jane’s brother James printed a story reflecting the Tory view of France and America, in which a Scottish soldier fighting against Washington becomes a democratic fool, loses his values , marries a rich vicious mean-born widow, and becomes miserable, ruined by the American Revolution. There is a strong probability that Jane would have read the story.

Austen’s novels reflect a more prudent, Tory approach to advancement than the Scottish soldier in question pursued: her heroines who made advantageous marriages and the men who advanced clearly have worth of their own in terms of character, but also of birth. In PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Elizabeth Bennet was a “gentleman’s daughter”, so her marriage to Mr. Darcy was not totally inappropriate. In MANSFIELD PARK, Fanny and William Price’s mother was Lady Bertram’s sister, so there was good blood there (however diluted) to supplement their individual merits. In spite of Emma’s improvements, Harriet (born, as we come to discover, the illegitimate daughter of a tradesman) was matched appropriately with the farmer Mr. Martin, and her friendship with Emma evolved into a more suitable relationship. The War of 1812 (the circumstance under discussion in the letter previously cited) would have been a concern but does not make an appearance in her novels (as with so many other politically-charged events of her time). It seems clear that America was a negative influence in the world, in Austen’s view. She tended to uphold the more traditional values and structures currently in place in England, even while she makes her concerns about women’s role and place in those structures apparent.

In considering the West Indies as part of the Americas, the situation and viewpoint are somewhat different but not more favorable. The combination of the West Indies and trade led directly to slavery. Her aunt Leigh-Perrot brought a plantation in Barbados with her when she married Jane’s uncle. Austen’s father, George Austen, was a trustee for a plantation owned by James Nibbs, a former classmate. Austen’s brother Charles’ naval career included five years in the North American Station, searching ships and interfering with trade between France and the United States. Charles married Fanny Palmer, the daughter of an official in Bermuda while stationed in the West Indies. The issues of slavery and income mentioned in MANSFIELD PARK would have had a great deal of immediacy for her family, as discussions of plantation business matters, including slavery, would have been fairly common. Austen’s disgust for slavery were made apparent, however discreetly, by the references in MANSFIELD PARK, previously mentioned, as well as in EMMA. In EMMA, Austen’s character Jane Fairfax referred to her role as a governess as a form of slavery of the mind, if not the body, and was extremely reluctant to embark on her career. Even the reference to Mrs. Elton's family in Bristol with wealth coming from trade has a dark connotation, due to Bristol having been a significant port involved with the slave trade. (The slave trade was outlawed in 1807 but slave ownership in the British Empire was still legal, during Austen's life.)

I was unable to find any positive references to the Americas in Jane Austen’s letters or novels. Even though Austen’s novels carry a subtle undertone of the injustices to women in the current English system, the democratic ideals that lead to the American and French revolutions clearly did not resonate with her. There is no indication she espoused the radical transformation of her society. While bearing in mind that the letters remaining are a fraction of what she had written, available information indicates that Austen viewed the Americas as a dangerously radical, unreligious place where people of low birth and poor character could be advanced socially and materially, in spite of their unworthiness. Given the fairly recent loss of the colonies and subsequent revolution and Terror in France, a jaundiced view of America by Austen and her contemporaries would not be unreasonable or surprising. One can only hope that subsequent developments would have found favor with her, especially in view of the continuing popularity of her novels here.

Honan, Park. JANE AUSTEN Her Life. Ballantine Books Edition, New York, NY: May 1989.
LeFaye, Deirdre. JANE AUSTEN The World of Her Novels. Frances Lincoln Ltd, London, UK: 2002.
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. JANE AUSTEN’S LETTERS (Third Edition) Oxford University Press, Oxford UK, 1997.
MacDonagh, Oliver. JANE AUSTEN Real and Imagined Worlds. Bath Press, Avon, UK: 1991.
Mitton, G. E. JANE AUSTEN and Her Times, 1775-1817. (Originally published 1905) Barnes & Noble, Inc., New York, NY: 2007 (reprint).
Ray, Joan Kilingel, PhD. JANE AUSTEN FOR DUMMIES. Wiley Publishing, Inc., Hoboken, N.J. 2006.
Tomalin, Claire. JANE AUSTEN A Life. First Vintage Books Edition, division of Random House, New York, NY: May 1999.
On-Line Reading:
PERSUASIONS ON-LINE : Numerous articles read, including: Vol. 25, No. 1 Sheehan, Colleen A. “To Govern the Winds: Dangerous Acquaintances at Mansfield Park”. Vol.24, No. 1 Ellwood, Gracia Fay. “”Such a Dead Silence:” Cultural Evil, Challenge, Deliberate Evil and Metanoia in Mansfield Park”. Vol.24, No. 1 Ellwood, Gracia Fay. “”Such a Dead Silence:” Cultural Evil, Challenge, Deliberate Evil and Metanoia in Mansfield Park”.

BBC HISTORY: Belchem, Professor John. “Thomas Paine: Citizen of the World.” “Edmund Burke (1729-1797)”
The Literary Encyclopedia: “Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)”First Published June 23 2003. Citation: Antje Blank, University of Glasgow.
Other: Hubback, J. H. and Edith C. JANE AUSTEN’S SAILOR BROTHERS (Chapter 7)


  1. Your thoughts mirror mine. This conundrum caused me to allow my Elizabeth Bennet in 'Goodly Creatures' to indulge in such speculation, though I am certain Jane would not have approved. However, in Austen's defense--the American Revolution and the early years following its victory never even mentioned women's emancipation or the end of slavery. The French Revolution went further in that regard, but all that was obfuscated in Britain by tales of the horror of the terror. Even William Blake pulled back and Mary Wollstonecraft probably would have too had she not died. The pressure was very intense. Once Napoleon was on the scene no one remembered the lofty goals of the Jacobins or the women followers of Marat's enrage.

    1. It's interesting to speculate what might have been had the Founding Fathers "remembered the Ladies", as Abigail Adams wrote to John! It is also important to remember that throughout the period in question, fears of a rebellion or revolution in England were very real, and a lot of effort was made to suppress ideas that seemed threatening. All things considered, Austen's references to the inequities in women's circumstances were quite daring. It just struck me as interesting that she apparently had a low opinion of America and American democratic ideas, especially since her novels were and are very popular here, and her concerns for more equal opportunities have resonated here on so many levels!

  2. Very interesting post. I would have thought that Jane Austen was critiquing, rather than endorsing,the Tory world she was brought up in. It's true that she shows the consequences of those who eschew conventions,and the rewards to those who follow them, but I'm not sure she can be placed staunchly in the Tory-adherent camp. In the words of Harriet, "I'm happy to be wrong." :-)

    1. I do agree with you that she was criticizing aspects of the Tory world. I also think that some issues of reforms espoused by the Whigs and the Radicals would have appealed to her. However, she still seemed to reflect a conservatism, a traditionalism that reflects more of a Tory leaning.

  3. I found this interesting because I have never given much thought to how Jane Austen would have looked on world events and thinking outside her own England. It would have been hard for her to relate since an English subject on English soil had different rights than an English subject on American colonial soil. The point about her brothers serving in the British navy would also have had a bearing and influence toward her loyalties.

    Thought provoking post, thanks!