Imagined Empires in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park

There has much debate over the role of plantation slavery in Mansfield Park. It is perhaps the Austen novel that most explicitly points to how agriculture labor in England and Antigua supported the lifestyles of wealthy families like the Bertrams. It also arguably has the most vocal servants, whether it is the groomsman shaming Fanny with his praise of Mary Crawford’s ability to handle a horse or the whispered laughter of maids mocking Fanny’s meager belongings when she first arrives or Lady Bertram's repeated mentions of how sending her Chapman to dress Fanny for the ball resulted in Henry Crawford’s proposal.

When Mary Crawford complains of her harp's arrival being delayed by carts and horses being needed for the harvest, the narrator's critique is clear. But what do we make of the novel's allusions to slave labor in Antiguan fields in the novel? Edward Said famously said that it was an approval of empire, an idealization of the landed gentry. Susan Fraiman responded by pointing to the moral decay in the heart of the titular estate, and countered that the book should be seen as aligning women’s rights with those of slavery. Many, and not exclusively Austen scholars either, have pointed to the problems of conflating the limited property and other legal rights of women possessing a privileged racial, class, and economic status with enslaved men and women in the Atlantic. Kerfoot offers a nuanced description of property ownership through print in her work. Moretti’s famous mapping of the novel argued that the Antigua sections were of little importance, and Austen pointed to a shrinking geographic mindset for the English novel.

I am currently working on an article and eventual chapter for my next book that draws on all four of these scholars, but in particular on the other two. Kerfoot’s careful analysis of Fanny’s relationship to books reminds us of how print networks bound geographically distant people, and though I disagree with Moretti’s argument, his methodology is foundational to my own argument. I believe that Antigua is important within the novel’s construction of a moral empire. It is key to remember that this is a time when Britain is policing the Atlantic Trade. These movements I believe parallel the Mediterranean exploits of Fanny’s brother, William  in Nelson’s navy. Similarly when we look to what Fanny reads, she is interested in British excursions into China. This paper uses network analysis to graph the objects--human and non-human--in Fanny’s white attic, a.k.a. the school room or East Room. In terms of her encounters with people, the scenes that occur her are key moments where Fanny must articulate her ethical and moral beliefs. The non-human connections here bring her into a British empire active in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and East Asia. Interloper figures--such as Mary Crawford or a translation of a German play-- are marked as separate from what she chooses to put into that room.

Here's a rough draft of the networks I'm working on through Google Fusion. The final versions will be analyzed through UCINet and then prettified (yes, that is a technical term), through Pajek. Admittedly, I'll be a bit sad to give up the jiggle of Fusion.


I've organized the above network to move from a place or object in the room to people and locations associated with them. Through  we see Fanny's affective world is filled with imperial markers: a ship in the Mediterranean and the first British embassy to China mix with Geraniums and Wordsworthian images of Romantic landscapes.

Just as in Portsmouth Fanny becomes a “selector and chooser of books” through the circulating library, her curation of connections in her white attic mark Fanny, and I would argue the novel’s, stance on empire. It is a pivotal moment in representations of empire in Austen’s published novels as they shift from the good gentry managing land in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, to a more questionable hierarchy in Mansfield Park, Emma (with its explicit connections of slavery with middle class female labor), and Persuasion.

Related to this is the question of property as identity. One which the title points to: Mansfield and his decisions regarding slavery are well known. What is key to this is how his rulings were never explicitly abolitionist but fully concerned with the legal, moral, and ethical boundaries of property ownership (Ellen Moody recently provided a wonderful overview of scholarship on Lord Mansfield's life and career in her film review of Belle).

Currently, I've organized the article to first connect Fanny and her room to a wider empire; then connect this to discussions of morality in relation to the plot, slavery, and empire; and finally move this to discussion of property as personhood. What I am working on integrating into this is the Mary Crawford and her naval connections.

Contrasting Fanny's more interiorized, abstract imperial world is the external one. This structurally mirrors the way the space of the White Attic contains multiple global networks in that the action of the novel, I argue, centers around the doppelgänger relationship between Fanny and Mary Crawford. Both lack control over their movement due to the lack of financial and familial security. Fanny has limited movements, true, but Mary’s ramblings are dependent on the placement of her family. Both arrive at Mansfield Park because they lack a better alternative. Mary, though, performs better than Fanny. She is the outsider that is instantly accepted, who learns genteel skills with an alacrity Fanny found impossible in the years prior to her double's arrival. There is also the strange, ghostly doubling of Mary with the dead Mary Price, who was Fanny's favorite sister. (Fanny's journey to accepting her sister Susan, who I contend has a few Mary Crawford-ish traits, is a subject for a different post). 

Fanny and Mary mirror each other in other ways, too. The lack of movement for women and the potential meritocracy of the Navy serve as both a critique of a domestic empire of consumption and praise of a global empire of moral reform (i.e., rule). (This is expanded upon in Persuasion, where Admiral Croft and his wife are dual mobile, moral, and in their childless state, free of domestic taint.)Both are related to different levels of the navy (the first through her brother and father, the second through her uncle), but with different views of it. Mary disdains the moral corruption of her Admiral-Uncle’s home. Fanny, despite her drunken, disabled, ex-seaman father, forms a different view through a new generation of the navy: her brother William. William is with a very different Admiral's fleet, Nelson’s in the Mediterranean. Whereas Mary’s uncle and his comrades (with their “rears and vices”) seems stationary, stagnant in London (mirroring Fanny’s low ranked father), William’s is a generation of action. One that cannot be helped by his baronet uncle at Mansfield Park, but by the inspired patriotism of Henry Crawford’s wealth and navel connections.

NB: Proper citations, footnotes, and bibliography coming soon!