Jane Austen and the Black Hole. Chapter 7.
The sensibility of Jane Austen's literary contemporaries
“Nay, mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper! - but we must allow for differences of taste. Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility.”
- Marianne Dashwood on Edward Ferrars’ being unmoved by Cowper in Sense and Sensibility (1811)1
“Well, Marianne,” said Elinor, as soon as he had left them, “for one morning I think you have done pretty well. You have already ascertained Mr. Willoughby’s opinion in almost every matter of importance. You know what he thinks of Cowper and Scott; you are certain of his estimating their beauties as he ought, and you have received every assurance of his admiring Pope no more than is proper.”
- Elinor Dashwood gently mocking her sister Mariannne in Sense and Sensibility (1811)2
“It is not seemly nor of good report
That thieves at home must hang, but he that puts
Into his overgorged and bloated purse
The wealth of Indian provinces, escapes.”
- William Cowper in The Task (1785) 3
We have seen how Jane Austen has by and large totally ignored the great events of her time, both at home and abroad, as well as the existence of the common folk and the servants that appear to be to her world what electronic devices are to ours - unobtrusive servomechanisms for our comfort to be addressed when needed. How did Jane Austen's contemporaries respond to inhumanity applied either at home or abroad at that time? In particular, what were the responses of Jane Austen's favourite writers or other writers that she read? Living most of her life in the country, Jane Austen would have been aware of the lot of the common folk. Like her siblings she was left for some time as a baby with a local woman. It is likely that her brother George was cared for (together with his uncle Thomas Leigh) in a lowly home. She made charitable visits to the poor and must have been aware of the extraordinary wretchedness of so many ordinary people as described by George Crabbe and other contemporary poets.
George Crabbe (1754-1832) was a favourite poet of Jane Austen. Indeed Jane Austen's letter to Cassandra from Henry Austen's place at Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, London (1813) suggests that she is more than simply an enthusiastic fan (but one strongly suspects that her enthusiastic comments about Crabbe are simply a romantic joke that a young woman of today might make about a sports hero, singing idol or movie star):
"I must get a softer pen. - This one is harder. I am in agonies. - I have not yet seen Mr. Crabbe ... We had very good places in the Box next to the Stage box - front and 2d row; the three old ones behind of course. - I was particularly disappointed at seeing nothing of Mr. Crabbe. I felt sure of him when I saw that the boxes were fitted up with Crimson velvet". 4
In letters to Cassandra from Godmersham Park (1813) she writes in the same vein:
“No; I have never seen the death of Mrs Crabbe. I have only just been making out from one of his prefaces that he probably was married. It is almost ridiculous. Poor woman! I will comfort him as well as I can, but I do not undertake to be good to her children. She had better not leave any.” 5 and
"Miss Lee I found very conversable; she admires Crabbe as she ought. - She is at an age of reason, ten years older than myself at least. She was at the famous Ball at Chilham Castle, so of course you remember her. - By the bye, as I must leave off being young, I find many Douceurs in being a sort of Chaperon for I am put on the Sofa near the Fire & can drink as much wine as I like.” 6
Nevertheless, unlike his admirer Jane Austen, Crabbe was prepared to “tell it like it is” and indeed in The Borough, Letter XX he quite specifically addresses the failure of writers to describe the realities of life:
“I’ve often marvel’d, when by night, by day,
I’ve mark’d the manners moving in my way,
And heard the language and beheld the lives
Of lass and lover, goddesses and wives,
That books, which promise much of life to give,
Should show so little how we truly live.” 7
In The Village Crabbe makes the same point:
“--- paint the Cot,
As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not:” 8
In The Borough, Letter XXII, The Poor of the Borough: Peter Grimes, Crabbe writes of a fisherman who has impoverished boys on relief in the work-house bound over to him as virtual slaves to be beaten and starved:
“Peter had heard there were in London then -
Still have they being! - workhouse-clearing men,
Who, undisturbed by feeling just or kind,
Would parish boys to needy tradesmen bind;
They in their want a trifling sum would take,
And toiling slaves of piteous orphans make.
Such Peter sought, and when a lad was found,
The sum was dealt him, and the slave was bound ...
Pinned, beaten, cold, pinched, threatened , and abused -
His efforts punished and his food refused -
Awake tormented - soon aroused from sleep -
Struck if he wept, and yet compelled to weep,
The trembling boy dropped down and strove to pray,
Received a blow, and trembling turned away,
Or sobbed and hid his piteous face; while he,
The savage master grinned in horrid glee;
He now the power he ever loved to show
A feeling being subject to his blow.
Thus lived the lad, to hunger, peril, pain,
His tears despised, his applications vain;
Compelled by fear to lie, by need to steal,
His bed uneasy and unblessed his meal,
For three sad years the boy his tortures bore,
And then his pains and trials were no more.” 9
The enclosures of formerly common land proceeded apace through her lifetime and Jane Austen no doubt encountered the sorry consequences of this for her humble neighbours. Poor farmers were pushed off their land and, unable to produce food for themselves and their families, had to work for wages that could prove insufficient when war-time economic conditions and urban demand pushed up the price of grain. This human tragedy was repeated again and again in the British Empire, from the Home Counties to Scotland, from Ireland to India and culminated in the worst of such social disasters, the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943-44. The rural displacement of the enclosures would have been familiar to Jane Austen. Several thousand Enclosure Acts were enforced during her lifetime and the following anonymous poem conveys the essential injustice:
“They hang the man and flog the woman
That steals a goose from off the common
But leave the greater criminal loose
That steals the common from the goose.” 10
Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) was read in the Austen home and no doubt Jane Austen was familiar with the The Deserted Village:
“Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheered the laboring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer's lingering blooms delayed ...
Yes! let the rich deride, the proud disdain,
These simple blessings of the lowly train,
To me more dear, congenial to my heart,
One native charm, than all the gloss of art ...
Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen, who survey
The rich man's joys increase, the poor's decay,
'Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and a happy land ...
Even now the devastation is begun,
And half the business of destruction done;
Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,
I see the rural virtues leave the land ...”
and concluding with Dr. Johnson's additions:
“That Trades's proud empire hastes to swift decay,
An ocean sweeps the labored mole away;
While self-dependent power can time defy,
As rocks resist the billows and the sky.” 11
William Cowper (1731-1800), born in a rectory, was evidently a great favourite of Jane Austen and the Austen household and is mentioned in a number of her works. William Cowper was a very dear friend of Lady Anne Austen, the widow of Sir Robert Austen, Baronet 12. The latter and the Steventon Austens had a common ancestor in John Austen of Horsmonden (1560-1620). 13 Cowper's schoolfellows at Westminster included Warren Hastings (intimately connected with the Steventon Austens) and Hastings' close friend and partner in infamy in the East Indies, Elijah Impey. Cowper recalls this in a poem written in 1792, 3 years before Hastings' acquittal of the impeachment charges, published in 1803 and dedicated "To Warren Hastings, Esq. by an old school-fellow of his at Westminster" :
“HASTINGS! I knew thee young, and of a mind,
While young, humane, conversable, and kind,
Nor can I well believe thee, gentle THEN,
Now grown a villain, and the WORST of men.
But rather some suspect, who have oppress'd
And worried thee, as not themselves the BEST.” 14
Cowper suffered fluctuations of mood that one presumes may have added to the power of his poetry but which could make life difficult for his dear friends such as Lady Austen and his patron Mrs Unwin. The Austens cannot but have been moved by his earnest humanity. Cowper was aware of the sufferings of enslaved Africans and Indians and the obloquy attaching to England as a consequence. Thus in Expostulation (composed in 1781; published 1782) he writes passionately about the exploitation of the Indians:
"Why weeps the muse for England? What appears
In England's case to move the muse to tears?
From side to side of her delightful isle,
Is she not cloth'd with a perpetual smile? ...
Hast thou, though suckled at fair freedom's breast,
Exported slav'ry to the conquered East,
Pull'd down the tyrants India served with dread,
And rais'd thyself, a greater in their stead?
Gone thither arm'd and hungry return'd full,
Fed from the richest veins of the Mogul,
A despot big with pow'r obtain'd by wealth,
And that obtain'd by rapine and by stealth?
With Asiatic vices stor'd thy mind,
But left their virtues and thine own behind;
And, having truck'd thy soul, brought home the fee,
To tempt the poor to sell himself to thee! ...
Say not (and, if the thought of such defence
Should spring within thy bosom, drive it thence)
What nation amongst all my foes is free
From crimes so base as any charg'd on me?
Their measure fill'd, they too shall pay the debt
Which God, though long forborn, will not forget.
But know that wrath divine, when most severe,
Makes justice still the guide of his career,
And will not punish, in one mingled crowd,
Them without light, and thee without a cloud.
Muse, hang this harp upon yon aged beech,
Still murm'ring with the solemn truths I teach;
And, while at intervals, a cold blast sings
As through the dry leaves, and pants upon the strings,
My soul shall sigh in secret, and lament
A nation scourg'd yet tardy to repent.
I know the warning song is sung in vain,
That few will hear, and fewer heed the strain:
But, if a sweeter voice, and one design'd
A blessing to my country and mankind,
Reclaim the wand'ring thousands, and bring home
A flock so scatter'd and so want to roam,
Then place it once again between my knees;
The sound of truth will then be sure to please :
And truth alone, where'er my life be cast,
In scenes of plenty or the pining waste,
Shall be my chosen theme, my glory to the last.” 15
In Charity (composed in 1781) Cowper pleads for the decent treatment of the simple natives being encountered by European adventurers and explorers, citing the exemplary conduct of the martyred South Seas explorer James Cook (1728-1779) 16 in this regard:
“Fairest and foremost of the train, that wait
On man's most dignified and happiest state,
Whether we name thee Charity or love,
Chief grace below, and all in all above,
Prosper (I press thee with a pow'rful plea)
A task I venture on, impell'd by thee...
When Cook - lamented, and with ears as just
As ever mingled with heroic dust -
Steer'd Britain’s oak into a world unknown,
And in his country's glory sought his own,
Wherever he found man, to nature true,
The rights of man were sacred in his view.
He sooth'd with gift, and greeted with a smile,
He spurn'd the wretch that slighted or withstood
The tender argument of kindred blood,
Nor would endure that any should controul
His free-born brethren of the southern pole.
But, though some nobler minds a law respect,
That none shall with impunity neglect.
In baser souls unnumber'd evils meet,
To thwart its influence, and its end defeat.
While Cook is lov'd for savage lives he sav'd,
See Cortez odious for a world enslav'd!
Where wast thou then, sweet Charity? where then,
Thou tutelary friend of helpless men?” 17
Sadly, Cowper's exhortation fell on deaf ears as the British Empire spread toward the southern pole. Van Dieman's Land (later, Tasmania) was first settled in 1804 and within a century of this poem's publication virtually all of the Tasmanian Aborigines were dead. The brave woman Truganini, the last "full-blood" Aborigine, died in 1876. White Tasmanian mythology regards her as the last Tasmanian Aborigine, a position belied by the establishment of the Cape Barren Island Aboriginal reserve in 1881 and the existence of several thousand Tasmanian Aborigines today, the descendants of Tasmanian and "Mainland" Australian Aboriginal women and European men. 18 In Book II of The Task (published in 1785 and familiar to Jane Austen), Cowper rails against slavery in The Time-piece:
“I would not have a slave to till my ground,
To carry me, to fan me while I sleep,
And tremble when I wake, for all the wealth
That sinews bought and sold have ever earn'd.
No: dear as freedom is, and in my heart's
Just estimation priz'd above all price,
I much rather be myself the slave,
And wear the bonds, than fasten them on him.
We have no slaves at home. - Then why abroad?
And they themselves, once ferried o'er the wave
That parts us, are emancipate and loos'd.
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs
Receive our air, that moment they are free;
They touch this country, and their shackles fall.
That's noble, and bespeaks a nation proud
And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then,
And let it circulate through ev'ry vein
Of all your empire; that wherever Britain's pow'r
Is felt, mankind may feel her mercy too.” 19
Cowper assumes the slave's part in his poem The Negro's Complaint (written in 1788; published in 1793):
“Forc'd from home, and all its pleasures,
To Afric's coast I left forlorn;
To increase a stranger's treasures,
O'er the raging billows borne.
Men from England bought and sold me,
Paid my price in paltry gold;
But, though theirs they have enrolled me,
Minds are never to be sold ...
Deem our nation brutes no longer
Till some reason ye shall find
Worthier of regard and stronger
Than the colour of our kind.
Slaves of gold, whose sordid dealings
Tarnish all your boasted pow'rs,
Prove that you have human feelings'
Ere you proudly question ours.” 20
Cowper reiterates the message in The Morning Dream (1788) in which Britannia makes "Freemen of Slaves" 21 and in Sweet Meat Has Sour Sauce or, The Slave-Trader in the Dumps (written 1788, published in 1836) in which the slave-trader bemoans the end of his trade. 22 However the message gets rather close to home in the Home Counties drawing rooms in the poem Pity the Poor African (written 1788; published 1800):
“I own I am shock'd at the purchase of slaves,
And fear that those who buy them and sell them are knaves;
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans,
Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum,
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? give up our desserts, our coffee and tea?” 23
While Jane Austen refers to estates and fortunes in the West Indies in Mansfield Park and Sanditon, she is "mum" about the enslavement realities involved. While Jane Austen makes only fleeting reference to the wealth acquired by nabobs in the East Indies in Sense and Sensibility, she would have read Cowper’s passionate condemnations of those involved.
Robert Burns (1759-1796) was certainly read by Jane Austen although one supposes that she had not encountered any of the large and very entertaining body of his bawdy poetry, of which the following is a good example:
“I hae three ousen in my plough,
Three better ne’er plough’d ground, jo.
The foremost ox is lang and sma’,
The twa are plump and round, jo ...
I hae ploughed east, I hae plough’d west,
In weather foul and fair, jo;
But the sairest ploughing e’er I plough’d,
Was ploughing amang hair, jo.” 24
While being chiefly concerned with matters Scottish, Burns was aware of the sorry lot of the half-starved Indians as is made clear by his poetical petition to the Scottish representatives of the House of Commons in relations to excise impositions on whisky :
“Ye Irish lords, ye knights an' squires,
Wha represent our brughs an' shires,
An' doucely manage our affairs
To you a simple poet's prayers
Are humbly sent.
Alas! my roupit muse is hearse;
Your Honors' hearts wi' grief 'twad pierce
To see her sitten on her arse
Low i' the dust,
An' screechin, out prosaic verse,
An' like to brust!
Tell them wha has the chief direction,
Scotland an' me's in great affliction,
E'er sin' they laid that cursed restriction
On aqua vitae;
An' rouse them up to a strong conviction,
An' move their pity ....
Let half-starv'd slaves in warmer skies
See future wines rich-clust'ring rise ;
Their lot auld Scotland ne'er envies,
But, blythe an' frisky,
She eyes her free-born martial boys
Tak aff their whisky.
What tho' their Phoebus kinder warms,
While fragrance blooms an' beauty charms,
When wretches range in famish'd swarms
The scented groves,
Or, hounded forth, dishonour arms
In hungry droves.
Their gun's a burden on their shouther;
They downa bide the stink o' powther;
Their bauldest thought's a hank'ring swither
To stan' or rin,
Till skelp! a shot - they're aff, a' throu'ther,
To save their skin.
But bring a Scotsman frae his hill,
Clap in his cheek a Highland gill,
Say "Such is royal George's will,
An' there's the foe!"
He has nae thought but how to kill
Twa at a blow....
Scotland, my auld respected Mither!
Tho' whyles ye moistify your leather,
Till where you sit, on craps o' heather,
Ye tine your dam -
Freedom and Whisky gang tegither!
Tak aff your dram!” 25
“For a’ that”, Burns was employed by the Commissioner of Excise and was instructed to act and not to think. 26 The resultant Creed of Poverty pins down the general problem of social circumstances and free expression:
“In politics if thou would’st mix,
And mean thy fortunes be;
Bear this mind - be deaf and blind;
Let great folks hear and see.” 27
The vicious hounding of the Highland Scots, that began with the Glorious Revolution and the Massacre of Glencoe and accelerated appallingly after the defeat of the 1745 rebellion at the Battle of Culloden, continued in various forms throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. 28 Robert Burns’ father, William Burness, may have been “out” in the forty-five (i.e. part of the rebellion) and while he escaped arbitary death at the hands of the English he could only gain employment (and hence live) when his loyalty was formally certified by his parish. Burns was constrained by a régime that oppresses his land to this day. In the words of his biographer Allan Cunningham:
“His steps were watched and his words weighed; when he talked with a friend in the street, he was supposed to utter sedition; and when the ladies retired from the table and wine circulated with closed doors, he was suspected of treason rather than of toasting...” 29
Burns could nevertheless passionately declare for justice and liberty in a generalized fashion as in his dedication to the 2nd edition of his works:
“Dedication to the noblemen and gentlemen of the Caledonian hunt. My Lords and gentlemen: A scottish bard, proud of the name, and whose highest ambition is to sing in his country’s service, where shall he properly look for patronage as to the illustrious name of his native land: those who bear the honours and inherit the virtues of their ancestors? ... May corruption shrink at your kindling glance; and may tyranny in the ruler, and licentiousness in the people equally find you an inexorable foe! I have the honour to be, With sincerest gratitude and highest respect, My Lords and Gentlemen, Your most devoted humble servant, Robert Burns (Edinburgh, April 4, 1787).” 30
Burns rails against slavery and despotism in the following poetical prayer:
“Grant me, indulgent Heav’n, that I may live
To see the miscreants feel the pains they give,
Deal Freedom’s sacred treasures free as air,
Till slave and despot be but things which were.” 31
While constrained from comment in relation to the fate of the Scottish Highlanders, Burns was able to write of the cruelty of slavery in America in The Slave’s Lament :
“ It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia O;
Torn from that lovely shore, I must never see it more,
And alas I am weary, weary O!
All on that charming coast is no bitter snow or frost,
Like the lands of Virginia O;
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas I am weary, weary O!
The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia O;
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas I am weary, weary O!” 32
John Shore (later Sir John Shore, Lord Teignmouth, 1st Baron Teignmouth) (1751-1834) was a distinguished British administrator in India and was an eye-witness to the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770. The awful, unimaginable, physical consequences of despotism and slavery in the East Indies - the wretched mass starvation of the conquered and rapaciously over-taxed Bengalis in 1769-1770 - was recorded by Shore in a poem:
“Still fresh in memory's eye the scene I view,
The shrivelled limbs, sunk eyes, and lifeless hue;
Still hear the mother's shrieks and infant's moans,
Cries of despair and agonizing moans,
In wild confusion dead and dying lie; -
Hark to the jackal's yell and vulture's cry,
The dog's fell howl, as midst the glare of day
They riot unmolested on their prey!
Dire scenes of horror, which no pen can trace,
Nor rolling years from memory's page efface.” 33
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was evidently a significant influence on Jane Austen’s writing and was in communication with the Austen family intimate Warren Hastings. At the time that the famous Hindu Bengali official Nandakumar was hung (having been sentenced to death by Hastings' friend and judicial collaborator Judge Elijah Impey), thousands in Calcutta were moved by this dreadful event. Within a day or so of the execution Warren Hastings penned a letter on Persian poetry to Dr.Johnson.34 Dr. Johnson was accordingly apprised somewhat of conditions in Bengal. He is offered the observation:
"It is remarkable that the most unhealthy countries where there are the most destructive diseases, such as Egypt and Bengal, are the most populous." Dr. Johnson replies "Countries which are the most populous have the most destructive diseases. That is the true state of the proposition." 35
Dr. Johnson did not apparently have a very high opinion of Bengalis and is reported as calling the East Indians “barbarians”. 36 Boswell talks with Dr Johnson "of accusations against a gentleman for supposed delinquencies in India". Dr. Johnson's response (presumably in defence of his correspondent Warren Hastings, then facing attacks and eventual impeachment in Parliament) is an elegant argument: "What foundation there is for accusation I know not, but they will not get at him. Where bad actions are committed at so great a distance, a delinquent can obscure the evidence till the scent becomes cold; there is a cloud between, which cannot be penetrated: therefore all distant government is bad. I am clear that the best plan for the government of India is a despotick governour; for if he be a good man, it is evidently the best government; and supposing him to be a bad man, it is better to have one plunderer than many. A governour, whose power is checked, lets others plunder, that he himself may be allowed to plunder; but if despotick, he sees that the more he lets others plunder, the less there will be for himself, so he restrains them and though he himself plunders, the country is a gainer, compared with being plundered by numbers." 37
Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816) the famous parliamentary orator, theatrical entrepreneur and playwright, was the most celebrated literary defender of the rights of the oppressed Indians of Oudh and Bengal. 38 Jane Austen was obviously well aware of his theatrical works, as made apparent in the theatrical discussions in Mansfield Park. In addition the Austen family would have closely followed the impeachment and trial of their intimate Warren Hastings before Parliament and known of the 2 most extraordinary speeches by Sheridan during those proceedings (see Chapter 12). 39 The first of these (delivered on 7th February 1787) was concerned with whether Hastings should be impeached on account of his crimes against the Begums of Oudh (and as we will see, inspired the indignation of the poet Lord Byron). Sheridan's passion for the down-trodden Indian subjects of the East India Company was translated into the play Pizarro, his very popular adaptation of The Spaniards in Peru (or The Death of Rolla) by the German Augustus von Kotzebue (1761-1819) that deals with the conquest of the Peruvian Incas by the Spaniards. The German play was a sequel to his play The Virgin of the Sun, both plays being dramatizations of The Incas, a novel by Jean-Francois Marmontel (1723-1799). Pizarro (originally played by Mr Barrymore) questions the Peruvian Orozembo who is then mortally wounded by Pizarro's lieutenant Darvilla for his bold contempt of the invader. Against the entreaties of his mistress Elvira (played by Mrs Siddons) and his clerical mentor Las-Casas, Pizarro proceeds against the Incas led by Atalibo, King of Quito, and his commanders the Inca Rolla and the Spaniard Alonzo. Prior to the battle, Rolla makes a great speech to the Incas (of which more below) and Alonzo secures Rolla's promise to care for his wife Cora and his child if he falls in battle. Alonzo is captured and, despite Elvira's entreaties, Pizarro is resolved to torture him to death as a traitor. Rolla, scorned by Cora on revealing his promise, replaces Alonzo in captivity by subterfuge but refuses to slay the sleeping Pizarro at the behest of disaffected Elvira. Discovered by the waking Pizarro, Elvira faces death by torture but the chivalrous Rolla is released. Cora runs to the escaped Alonzo only to see her child kidnapped by lurking Spaniards. Rolla is recaptured but released at the order of Pizarro. However Rolla spies the kidnapped child in the camp and escapes, mortally wounded, with the infant. Rolla restores the child to Alonzo and Cora and then dies. The Peruvians seek revenge and attack the Spanish camp. Pizarro fights with Alonzo but is slain, having been distracted by the re-appearance of Elvira who has been freed by Pizarro's secretary, Valverde, who loves her. Pizarro's deputy Almagro submits and the Spaniards leave Peru. Elvira has the last substantive speech:
"Cherish humanity - avoid the foul examples thou hast viewed - Spaniards returning to your native home, assure your rulers, they mistake the road to glory or to power. - Tell them, that the pursuits of avarice, conquest, and ambition, never yet made a people happy, nor a nation great".
These words reiterate elements of the great speech of Rolla to the Incas prior to the battle, which in turn directly derives from the great parliamentary speeches of Sheridan against the invasion, exploitation and despoiling of the East Indians. Rolla declaims:
"... Your generous spirit has compared as mine has, the motives, which, in a war like this, can animate their minds and ours. - They, by a strange frenzy driven, fight for power, plunder, and extended rule - we, for our country, our altars, and our homes. - They follow an Adventurer, whom they fear - and obey a power which they hate - we serve a monarch whom we love - a God whom we adore. - Whene'er they move in anger, desolation tracks their progress! - Where'er they pause in amity, affliction mourns their friendship! - They boast, they come but to improve our state, enlarge our thoughts, and free us from the yoke of error! - Yes - they will give enlightened freedom to our minds, who are themselves the slaves of passion, avarice, and pride. - They offer us their protection - Yes, such protection as vultures give to lambs - covering and devouring them! - They call on us to barter all of good we have inherited and proved, for the desperate chance of something better which they promise. - Be our plain answer this: The throne we honour is the people's choice - the laws we reverence are our brave Fathers' legacy - the faith we follow teaches us to live in bonds of charity with all mankind, and die with hope of bliss beyond the grave. Tell your invaders this, and tell them too, we seek no change; and, least of all, such change as they would bring us.” 40
Those speaking for the desolated Indian provinces of Bihar, Bengal, Oudh and Rohilkund could not have put their case more cogently.
Lord Byron (George Byron, 6th Baron Byron) (1788-1824) 41 immortalized Sheridan’s passionate defence of the down-trodden Indians in the following poem:
"When the loud cry of trampled Hindostan
Arose to Heaven in her appeal to man,
His was the thunder, his the avenging rod,
The wrath - the delegated voice of God!
Which shook the nations through his lips, and blazed,
Till vanquished senates trembled as they praised." 42
Lord Byron’s passion for the rights of such imperial subjects translated into his active support for the Greeks in their fight for independence against the Ottoman Empire. In 1824 Lord Byron died of a fever in that struggle for freedom and self-determination and has become a national hero of the Greek people. 43
We have now seen the life, connections and works of Jane Austen and glimpsed the surprisingly different degrees of comprehensiveness with which her historians have dealt with these various matters. We have scanned the social conscience of her literary contemporaries and found that a variety of the greatest poets and writers of the time (including some of her favourite writers) were moved to passion by the gross injustices perpetrated by British imperialism on down-trodden colonial subjects throughout the world. To be scrupulously fair to Jane Austen, the precious little of the “real world” that does intrude into her novels (albeit minimally and then only implicitly) does include some major social phenomena of the time: the sophisticated, cultured lives of the landed or sinecured rich (all of her novels); nabob wealth from the military occupation of the East Indies (Sense and Sensibility); wealth from slave plantations in the Americas ( Emma, Mansfield Park and Sanditon); war against the French (all of her novels except for Lady Susan, Sanditon and Emma); trade, tradesmen, professions and commerce (throughout her novels); the extraordinary social divide between the 1% rich or comfortable and the 99% down-trodden, impoverished non-persons of Britain (all of her novels); the displaced, homeless rural poor (the Gypsies in Emma); improved agriculture (Emma). A notable omission is reference to massive expansion of English urbanisation and manufacturing industry at the time 44, apart from references to manufactured goods, notably textiles, and a brief pejorative comment by Mrs Elton in Emma about Birmingham:
“People of the name of Tupman, very lately settled there, and encumbered with many low connections, but giving themselves immense airs, and expecting to be on a footing with the old established families. A year and a half is the utmost that they can have lived at West Hall; and how they got their fortune nobody knows. They came from Birmingham, which is not a place to promise much, you know, Mr. Weston. One has not great hopes from Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in the sound: but nothing more is positively known of the Tupmans, though a good many things are suspected; and yet by their manners they evidently think themselves the equal even to my brother, Mr. Suckling, who happens to be one of their nearest neighbours. It is infinitely too bad.” 45
Jane Austen’s essentially rural perspective is summed up in the following snippet from a rare letter from Jane Austen (Chawton, 1811) that actually refers to Birmingham and the major contemporary English enterprise of manufacturing:
“I like your new Bonnets exceedingly, yours is a shape which always looks well, & I think Fanny’s particularly becoming to her. - On Monday I had the pleasure of receiving, unpacking & approving our Wedgewood ware. It all came very safely, & upon the whole is a good match, tho’ I think they might have allowed us rather larger leaves, especially in such a Year of fine foliage as this. One is apt to suppose that the Woods about Birmingham must be blighted. - There was no Bill with the Goods - but that shall not screen them from being paid. I mean to ask Martha [Lloyd] to settle the account. It will be quite in her way, for she is just now sending my Mother a Breakfast set, from the same place. I hope it will come by the Waggon tomorrow; it is certainly what we want, & I long to know what it is like, & as I am sure Martha has great pleasure in making the present, I will not have any regret. We have considerable dealing with the Waggons at present; a Hamper of Port & Brandy from Southampton, is now in the Kitchen.” 46
While Jane Austen steered clear of politics it is clear where her sympathies lie - with the landed Tory gentlemen and the aristocracy. While she loved Crabbe and Cowper she did not follow their example and defend human social decencies at home or abroad. The following exchange between poor but beautiful Jane Fairfax and thoroughly unpleasant and self-opinionated Mrs Elton in Emma is as close as we get to social commentary (and indeed Jane Austen makes a joke about it in comparing the “slave trade” and the “governess-trade”):
“When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something. - Offices for the sale - not quite of human flesh - but of human intellect.” [Jane Fairfax] “Oh! my dear, of human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.” [Mrs. Elton] “I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you was all that I had in view; widely different as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.” [Jane Fairfax] 47
For all that her literary references to the “big world” are fleeting and inexplicit, Jane Austen’s novels, being prosaic, domestic and business-like, cannot totally avoid these glimpses of reality. Indeed later and vastly more passionate, romantic, physical and sensational works such as Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1818-1848) and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), are actually even more divorced from “global realities”. 48 It is because Jane Austen’s novels deal with pecuniary practicalities and everyday social discourse in such a sensible, dispassionate way that one becomes aware of the absence of wider social description and social commentary. This absence is the more obvious given the manifold “imperial” connections of her family and the interconnected “imperial” as well as “landed” sources of their prosperity. However Jane Austen was a fine artist and as for her choice of medium one can ultimately only say “chaçun a son gout”. Before proceeding to a detailed consideration of the British Imperial realities underlying the prosperity of Jane Austen’s connections and class, we will now briefly sample the judgements that other writers have applied to her Art.