The Postcolonial Jane Austen

By You-Me Park; Rajeswari Sunder Rajan | Go to book overview

4

Austen's treacherous ivory

Female patriotism, domestic ideology, and Empire

Jon Mee

Perhaps the most often-quoted description of Jane Austen's practice as a novelist comes from the letter she wrote to her nephew James Edward Austen on 16-17 December 1816:

What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? - How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?

(Austen 1995:323)

The letter playfully compares her kind of novel-writing to miniature painting, a flourishing and popular genre at the time, and one that is often mentioned in Austen's novels. Discussing these references, Lance Bertelsen (1984:362) has pointed out that it was an art form which catered specifically to the tastes of the gentry and middle classes. 'A reduced medium for a keepsake market', miniatures were associated with the intimacy of the home and something - as Austen's letter implies - that people frequently did for themselves. 1 Austen's letter draws attention to the domestic aspects of her own fiction, its concern, as she put it in another letter, with 'pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages' (Austen 1995:312). Miniature painting precisely fits this idea of her own artistic practice, but what of the 'Ivory' which she explicitly mentions?

By the end of the eighteenth century, ivory was well established in the craft of miniature painting as the favoured base or 'support' on which the paint was applied, but a century earlier this function had been fulfilled by vellum (Murrell 1981:16). What made this development possible was Britain's aggressive expansion of Empire from the late seventeenth through the eighteenth century. Ivory was one of many luxury items made abundant in the home market by the expansion of British trade. During the late seventeenth century, the Royal African Company had secured Britain's place in the West African trade, vigorously supported by a series of governments anxious to protect the lucrative slave trade. Slaves were the staple of the West African trade, followed by gold, but ivory was an important third. The combined Dutch and British trade brought 5 million lb. of ivory out of West Africa between 1699 and 1725. By the third decade of the eighteenth century, Britain had

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The Postcolonial Jane Austen
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Figures vii
  • Preface xi
  • Acknowledgements xiv
  • Part I - Introduction 1
  • 1 - Austen in the World 3
  • Part II - Austen at Home 27
  • 2 - Jane Austen Goes to the Seaside 29
  • 3 - Learning to Ride at Mansfield Park 56
  • 4 - Austen's Treacherous Ivory 74
  • 5 - Domestic Retrenchment and Imperial Expansion 93
  • 6 - Of Windows and Country Walks 116
  • Part III - Austen Abroad 139
  • 7 - Reluctant Janeites 141
  • 8 - Jane Austen Goes to India 163
  • 9 - Farewell to Jane Austen 189
  • 10 - Father's Daughters 205
  • 11 - Clueless in the Neo-Colonial World Order 218
  • Part IV - Poem 235
  • To a 'Jane Austen' Class at Ibadan University 237
  • Index 239
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