What does Jane Austen NOT talk about?

A guest post from Julia Golding, author of a new series of books featuring a young Jane Austen as a detective! Read on for a fascinating look at taboo subjects during Jane Austen’s time.

The Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery by [Julia Golding]

What does Jane Austen NOT talk about?

Shall we start a list? Sex (in Bridgerton terms), slavery, colonisation, politics, elections, human rights, the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars…

When writing my contemporary take on the young Jane Austen as a detective, I was struck by the relevance of many of the lectures and books I read at university (who said they never used their degree?). A hotly debate theme in Jane Austen studies was her seeming disengagement from issues that now seem to us to dominate the social politics of the time. Top of that list is slavery, colonisation and war.

It is true that at first sight it hard to imagine that war had been raging for over a decade on the continent while Emma plotted her matchmaking and Lizzy overcame her prejudices against arrogant young men. The echoes are there, of course: the arrival of militia is a major plot device in Pride and Prejudice. Why is a militia necessary? Because Meryton was fearing invasion by Napoleonic forces. We aren’t told that but Austen’s reader would have known, just as the presence of an air raid shelter at the end of the garden didn’t have to be explained to someone alive in World War Two. The guns of war are most apparent in Persuasion, published posthumously, with the fortunes of the naval officers being decided by war and Waterloo. But mostly Jane’s world is at peace, even if the country is at war.

A similar pattern can be traced about slavery. It haunts Mansfield Park at many levels. The estate is possibly named after a famous judge who ruled in 1772 that ‘no master ever was allowed here (England) to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service… therefore the man must be discharged’. This in effect meant slaves were technically free on British soil, but not in the empire. Sir Thomas Bertram spends much of the novel sorting out trouble on the West Indian estates that provides the family with its fortune – an estate that implies he holds a large number of slaves. This was regarded as perfectly normal for rich people of Jane’s era, but critics have speculated that the manner in which the family is punished by events might be the working out of the corrupting influence of such wealth. It is the dependent Fanny, servant to everyone but with her moral compass holding true, that reforms the family. She is the one to raise slavery and is met by ‘dead silence’ – the hint that Jane herself had abolition sympathies as this pious heroine is close to her own moral code.

Critics will continue to speculate and dig up more interesting links between Jane’s family and these issues, but when it comes to writing a novel for today’s children, just because Jane was silent on them then, I did not feel she could be today. I also wanted to introduce diverse characters and, once you bring in a former slave, or an Indian national, it would be damaging to be quiet on the reality of Britain’s dealings with slavery, and with India via the East India Company. In the case of the Company, Jane’s family had close family links so she was very familiar with the path that took people like her father’s sister to India to seek a husband. The solution I arrived at in Jane Austen Investigates was for Jane to approach these issues with the same detective mentality she shows in the book. The experience beyond the two or three families in a country village that the historical author was comfortable writing about becomes a puzzle the fictional Jane recognises she does not understand so seeks to discover the truth. She is the listener to those with the experience, rather than the one making the judgements.

And of course, we should not underestimate her. The real Jane Austen was talking about all these things – sex, slavery, colonisation, politics, elections, human rights, the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars – because they were embedded in her society and are the soil in which her characters grew. We just have to listen carefully to hear the whispers.

Jane Austen Investigates The Abbey Mystery published this week by Lion Hudson and is available from all great bookshops!

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