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Money, Morals, and Mansfield Park: The West Indies Revisited

Article excerpt

A very young, timid, but highly-principled and religious girl from a large and humble family is taken into a rich, upper-class household, whose money comes mainly from large estates in the West Indies. In this cold and formal family, she is neglected, snubbed, and often made to feel like a vulgar and uneducated outsider, especially by the beautiful but passive lady of the house, by a self-possessed daughter of the house--and most of all by a spiteful, hostile, and mercenary aunt. One of the two sons shows her great kindness, but all the same, she suffers greatly through a number of trials, and is often unwell. She is brought into direct rivalry for the affections of her beloved with a richer, livelier, and better-born young woman. Eventually, after a series of family disasters, her strict adherence to her own ethical code places her as the moral center of her household, a household that is made more humane by her central role in it.

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THIS PLOT-OUTLINE WILL SEEM VERY FAMILIAR to readers of Persuasions. However, it is a summary not of Mansfield Park, but of Heartsease, a novel published in 1854 by Charlotte Mary Yonge, the best-selling (and Austen-loving) author of The Heir of Redclyffe. I do not intend to dwell on Heartsease at any length here. My one purpose in mentioning this novel is to draw attention to the terms of my title--money, morals, the West Indies. Yonge's pious mid-nineteenth-century rewriting of Mansfield Park elaborates on these subjects in a telling fashion. It sends Anglican missionaries off to the mismanaged West Indian properties belonging to its version of the Bertram family, and involves at least half-a-dozen other instances of gross financial mismanagement or corruption, as well as a series of both proposed and actual mercenary marriages (Dunlap 1). Evidently an astute, if biased, reader of this period saw both Austen's West Indian references, and the related and insistent concern with false attitudes towards money, as significant moral aspects of Mansfield Park. Victorian readers and writers, that is, were prepared to view Austen's fiction in terms of the morality of material and economic issues. After Yonge, however, these concerns were largely ignored by Austen's readers for the next century or so. Not until the later twentieth century, and especially after the publication of Edward Said's "Jane Austen and Empire" in 1989, was the West Indian question seen as being of much significance. For me, as apparently for Charlotte Yonge, the Antiguan connection in Mansfield Park relates closely to Austen's insistence on attitudes towards money in this novel. Like a good neo-Victorian, I will discuss these concerns in relation to that other important M-word--morals.

   I do not write for such dull Elves
   As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves.
   (Letters 29 January 1813) (1)

Nor does she: we, her readers, need whatever wits we have about us. Austen's Mansfield Park indicates, without statement or comment, that Sir Thomas Bertram is a slave-owner; Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park, with its mournful music, slave-ships, and horrendous etchings purloined from William Blake, insists loudly on the dark significance of this fact. Rozema, like Blake, has a good reason for her insistence. A (Miramax) film-maker in 1999, such as Rozema, addresses a multi-national audience unlikely to be especially well-informed about British involvement in slavery, An illustrator and engraver working in the early 1790s, such as Blake, addresses a British readership torn over the question of slavery. (2) Blake, moreover, was engaged with (or against) a text--Stedman's Five Years' Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam--that was, at best, ambivalent on the subject. Austen is working in a different and more supple medium. She is also working after the British abolition of the slave trade and addressing an audience sensitized by decades of abolitionist propaganda. …