Saturday, August 29, 2015

Influences of the New World, Asia and Africa in Jane Austen's Novels

by Lauren Gilbert

Jane Austen was not obliging enough to leave footnotes or other references to her ideas and her writings.  Looking for outside influences on Austen’s writing was a challenge because, in my preliminary research, I found tantalizing hints but little concrete material.  As I studied more, I found more hints, more links, and more ideas and have managed to form certain conclusions.  Although influenced by the materials I’ve covered, these conclusions are my own, and no one else is to blame for any errors, misinterpretations and contradictions you may detect.

England during Jane Austen’s time reflected the culture of empire. Even though the American colonies were lost, England was just approaching the golden age of the empire on which the sun never set. England’s presence in Asia, India, the West Indies, Africa and other parts of the world brought influences from many areas and many viewpoints together.

In Miss Austen’s time, the issues of slavery and the abolishment of the slave trade in Britain were significant, even though the practice of owning slaves was not yet abolished. Slavery, empire and marriage (at least to some degree, in Miss Austen's era) involve relationships of "superior beings" with "inferior beings"--all three conditions require that the dominant (i.e. stronger, better educated, richer--superior or male) being takes care of the subordinate or inferior being (or female) for his or her own good as well as the dominant being’s profit (whether monetary, emotional or other). The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 reflects the changing views of society.

The rise of female authors, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, also reflects change. Miss Austen’s letter to Cassandra of 1/24/1813 refers to an author Clarkson--this author is considered to have been Thomas Clarkson who in 1808 wrote a history of the slave trade, among other things. Much has been made of the mentions of Antigua and slavery in Mansfield Park. It’s difficult from a 21st century perspective to consider these issues from the perspective of Jane Austen’s time. However, I don’t think it’s too much to consider the possibility that Fanny’s lowly, subservient  (slave-like) position in the household initially, and her elevation as her value (and the flaws of other, more highly-regarded persons) becomes clear is a metaphor for the changing order of things in society. The subordinate role of women in the late Georgian era is a topic Austen explores repeatedly.

In considering the influences of Asia, I took the obvious approach by starting with Miss Austen's link to India in the form of her aunt, Philadelphia Austen, who (after being a milliners apprentice for 5 years) sailed to India in 1752, married Tyso Saul Hancock on Feb. 22, 1753, and had a daughter, Jane’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. Although no letters written by Philadelphia detailing her life and adventures seem to exist, it’s difficult to believe that no information was shared among the family regarding her experiences and life in India, if not from Philadelphia herself, at least through Eliza.

The fashions of the time heavily involved muslin, calico and silk from India. India and the Orient were the source of trade goods, and information (whether true or otherwise) would have travelled with these goods. Park Honan’s biography of Jane Austen specifically refers to an exotic play, The Sultan, or a Peep into the Seraglio (attributed to Isaac Bickerstaff), as a play in which Miss Austen's brother Henry played the part of the Sultan in 1790 at Steventon, when Jane was 14.  The plot of this play presents a plucky English slave woman resisting the role specified for her by Islam, winning over the sultan, becoming queen and freeing the rest of the harem from bondage.

Jane Austen wrote of the plight the poor young woman in need of a husband going to India in Catherine, or The Bower, written in 1792: a friend of Catherine’s, upon the death of her father, accepted the offer of a cousin to send her to India (against her own inclinations) and was “splendidly, yet unhappily married.”, an obvious reaction to her aunt’s situation. Even before her own circumstances were an immediate issue, Miss Austen had obviously given a great deal of thought to the difficulties of a young woman with little money, and the ramifications of marriage seen solely as a solution to that problem. The choices made by Charlotte Lucas and Elizabeth Bennet, and their subsequent rewards in Pride and Prejudice, as well as Jane’s own decision to break her engagement to Mr. Bigg-Wither clearly illustrate Jane Austen’s views on marriage and concerns with the results of a woman marrying solely for an establishment versus a marriage based on affection and respect.

Even the word “sopha” used in Persuasion and her own letters shows an eastern influence.  Laurie Kaplan pointed out that the words “couch” or “settee” would have been more common during this time.  The word sopha derived in part “from a part of the floor in Eastern countries raised a foot or two, covered with rich carpets and cushions”, a couch for reclining. She quotes Ackerman’s Repository for 1809 that “the sofa is recommended ‘when tired and fatigued with study, writing and reading’”. Mary Musgrove and Lady Bertram are pictured vividly on their sofas, languid or bored or dissatisfied or idle or ill, as the case may be. Miss Austen uses the sofa specifically to illustrate certain ideas about her characters’ qualities. In letters where she refers to her illness, she refers to her own sofa.

The influence of America (as an important part of the New World) was, for me, harder to trace. In her letter to Martha Lloyd of 9/2/1814, Miss Austen does not reflect a favorable view of America (“…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.”)  In considering the West Indies as part of the  Americas as the New World, it is somewhat different--her aunt Mrs. Leigh-Perrot brought a plantation in Barbados with her when she married Jane Austen's uncle, so the issues of slavery and income as discussed in relation to Mansfield Park would have had a great deal of immediacy for her family. 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).

The ideals of democracy espoused by America, and later in the French Revolution, were a more direct influence on earlier authors with whom Miss Austen 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 Miss Austen would have read the story. Her novels reflect a more prudent, Tory approach to advancement: her heroines who make advantageous marriages, and heroes who successfully advance clearly have worth of their own in terms not only of character, but also of birth. Elizabeth Bennet is a “gentleman’s daughter”, so her marriage to Mr. Darcy is not totally inappropriate. Fanny and William Price’s mother is Lady Bertram’s sister, so there is good blood there (however diluted) to supplement their individual merits. In spite of Emma’s improvements, Harriet (who is, we discover, the illegitimate daughter of a tradesman) is matched appropriately with the farmer Mr. Martin, and her friendship with Emma evolves into a more suitable relationship. Captain Wentworth's brother is a clergyman which argues a family of at least a respectable level. A case could be made for America being a negative influence, in Miss Austen's view. She tends to uphold the traditional values and structures, even while she makes her concerns about women’s role and place in life apparent.

Even though Jane Austen set her tales on a small stage and never referred directly to the great political and military events of her time, it is a mistake to conclude that her view was a narrow or restricted view. She was observant and read widely. Her own family exemplified the issues and upheavals of the time and encouraged her to develop her talent, in itself an anomaly. She was also very subtle. The activities and events that took place on the broader stage were absorbed and distilled to blend the colors with which she painted her little bits of ivory.

Sources include:
Honan, Park.  Jane Austen Her Life.  Ballantine Books Edition, New York, NY: May 1989.
LeFaye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen The World of Her NovelsFrances 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).
Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen A Life.  First Vintage Books  Edition, division of Random House, New York, NY: May 1999.

On-Line Research:
Persuasions On-Line : Numerous articles read, including:  Vol. 26, No. 1  Ray, Joan Klingel.  “The Amiable Prejudices of a Young  [Writer’s] Mind”: The Problems of Sense and Sensibility”.  Vol. 27, No. 2  Ailwood, Sarah.   “”What are men to rocks and mountains?” Romanticism in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice”.  Vol. 27, No. 1  Tontiplaphol, Betsy Winakur.  “Justice in Epistolary Matters: Revised Rights and Deconstructed Duties in Austen’s Lady Susan.”  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 25, No. 1  Kaplan, Laurie.  “Sir Walter Elliot’s Looking Glass, Mary Musgrove’s Sofa, and Anne Elliot’s Chair: Exteriority/Interiority, Intimacy/Society.”  Vol. 26, No. 1  Ford, Susan Allen.  “”No business with politics”: Writing the Sentimental Heroine in Desmond and Lady Susan”.  Mosel, Tad.  “Jane Austen’s Two Inches of Ivory”.
Persuasions (Printed):
Showalter, Elaine.  “Retrenchment.”, Persuasions, No. 15, pp. 101-110, 1993.
Kaplan, Laurie (PhD) and Richard S. (MD, FACP). “What is Wrong with Marianne? Medicine and Disease in Jane Austen’s England.”  Persuasions, No. 12, pp. 117-130, 1990.
King, Gaye.  “Jane Austen’s Staffordshire Cousin:  Edward Cooper and His Circle.” Persuasions, No. 15, pp. 252-259, 1993.
Other On-Line Sources:
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:  “Charlotte Turner Smith”  Vol.24, No. 1  Ellwood, Gracia Fay.  “”Such a Dead Silence:” Cultural Evil, Challenge, Deliberate Evil and Metanoia in Mansfield Park”.


Lauren Gilbert is a member of JASNA and lives in Florida with her husband. Her first published book HEYERWOOD: A Novel is available at, Jane Austen Books, and other sources.


  1. A very interesting post, thoroughly enjoyed and shared.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for commenting and sharing!

  2. I found your research fascinating, particularly about Aunten's word use. I would think Austen's naval brothers a source of information about the wider world and current events as well . She is at times faulted for not mentioning the pressing events of her day more ;but that's sort of the point. They were so pressing, everyone had them in mind...she offered a respite and a reminder that the relatively smaller events of family, fortune and marriage were momentous as well ...and on the personal level, even more so

    1. Thank you, Anne! Your comment regarding the pressing events of the day is well-taken; she really did not have to address them as her readers knew about them. I appreciate your response.


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