Jane Austen Was Not Fucking Around about Home School

This fall, white America is in the throes of (yet another, but hopefully broader) awakening to its own history and present of white supremacist violence, and my white kids are home and mine to educate, or at least to coach while their teachers hold class online.

In my opinion as a nineteenth-century literature professor, this makes it a great time to reread Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

Mansfield Park is pious and evangelical and conservative and the least fun of Austen’s novels. But it gives a clear account of how slavery in the British empire is often represented in nineteenth-century fiction: by silence. Mansfield Park can thus feel like the only relevant novel in an Austen seminar, which offsets the qualities that make it unpopular. My sense currently is that the ways these two features fit together – the novel’s unpalatable emphasis on individual moral and religious education and its flickering willingness to connect the wealth of English country elite with Transatlantic slavery — make it weirdly perfect for our present time.

Edward Said, luminary of postcolonial theory and critic of Western race and racism, made the foundational case for Mansfield Park’s contemporary relevance. Said focuses on about four of Mansfield’s Park’s sentences in Culture and Imperialism (1993) to show how novels like Mansfield Park “include, even as they repress, a rich and complex history” of imperialist violence.

What you need to know about Mansfield Park is that the family that owns the country house of the novel’s title draws income from its sugar plantation in Antigua—more precisely, from the labor of the people they enslave there. The critical scene for Said is a brief passage when Fanny Price, the novel’s main character, and her cousin discuss the one time she asked her uncle, Sir Thomas, about the slave-trade, and was met by “such a dead silence!”

That scene, reported only in conversation the following day, is the closest the novel gets to dealing directly with the family’s material investment in slavery. In my classes, this deferral brings discussion alive. Is Austen perpetuating the silence about racist exploitation here or calling attention to it? Relying on the reader to fill in the blanks with familiar images and arguments against the slave-trade or deliberately eliding them? These questions transform a conversation about the adventures of a dozen pretend white people from the richest tier of nineteenth-century English society to a conversation about what white supremacist ideology looks like in literature when it doesn’t explicitly announce itself. It’s one of those moments when a text from an alien past (which can be like bonnets! curricles!) speaks suddenly, urgently to the present.

Mansfield Park embeds this reflection of complicit nice white people in a book that is, more obviously than Austen’s other novels, meant to make readers themselves into better people. In the novel, Fanny is a better person than her cousins because she gets a better moral education. She is exemplary in her self-reflectiveness and thoughtfulness for others. But when we read it now, she is also a testament to the limitations of white piety.

In the novel, no one in the family but Fanny comes close to recognizing the family reliance on slavery. A poor relation raised by her wealthy uncle and aunt, Fanny experiences mistreatment from her wicked Aunt Norris and neglect by almost everyone else. The exception is her older cousin and true love (sic), Edmund, who spends years working closely with her in a course of directed reading. While this private education is dramatically less hot and pleasurable (for us as well as for her) than, say,  the sparring between Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth and Darcy, this reading carefully and talking through what she has read is also what engenders Fanny’s ability to ask a question about the status of the slave-trade. In the scene where Fanny describes the “dead silence,” Edmund has chastised her for not following up that question with more questions. Fanny is different from other Austen heroines, earnestly engaging with her elder cousin’s catechizing, and the novel hits heavy on the importance of the time-intensive, personalized education that shapes her. It’s important to note here that I’m not saying Fanny is a model of wokeness: I’m just saying she is woker than her cousins.

The reason Fanny gives for dropping the subject is that “while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like—I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in [my uncle’s] information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” Note: the reason the family circle doesn’t reckon with slavery is not the patriarch’s unwillingness to discuss it but the fact that his daughters don’t want to talk about it. But you want to know, according to Austen, who messed up their moral education? The patriarch, Sir Thomas.

For modern readers, the character of Sir Thomas is inseparable from the brutal violence of an enslaver. To make Sir Thomas the bad guy, however, is to give the rest of his family a pass, to condemn him without recognizing that there is no one in the story who isn’t complicit with slavery. In this novel, the good guys are also the bad guys. That’s part of why it’s a good novel for right now.

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Mansfield Park tells the story of a family that benefits from a violent white supremacist society, and my family benefits from a violent white supremacist society. So I notice that Sir Thomas bears sole responsibility in the novel for his failure to educate his daughters, even though they have other teachers. His girls become adults who choose to ignore both the political debate about the abolition of the slave-trade and its material relation to their own position.

As we know, this is not a novel that will address or reckon with racist violence. Mansfield Park, famous for down-playing the investment in slavery it also registers, uses chastity as the signal of moral failure. The big example of how Sir Thomas fails to educate his daughters, the “disgrace never to be wiped off” that befalls the Bertram family in the novel is not the plantation but rather the public disgrace of Maria, the elder daughter. This apparently unconnected, moralistic element the of the plot is worth revisiting here because that is how the novel ties the minor consequences of the girls’ failed education to the major ones.

Mansfield Park is a novel of manners that is also a treatise on manners as ethics, because how you treat other people is the first sign of putting religious principle into daily practice. This means you can act exactly as politeness would demand and still fail, like when the younger sister, Julia, gets ditched by the young people and finds herself “obliged to keep by the side of Mrs. Rushworth [her sister’s mother-in-law-to-be], and restrain her impatient feet to that lady’s slow pace.”

The politeness which she had been brought up to practise as a duty made it impossible for her to escape; while the want of that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right, which had not formed any essential part of her education, made her miserable under it.

Julia is meant to get a grip on her impatience and recognize that there’s something unfair in feeling impatient with Mrs. Rushworth. She might then aim a little higher, perhaps even trade selfish misery for considerate patience. A friend who teaches this novel more often than I do noted: “Every time I read this sentence in MP I vow to reeducate myself until this is no longer me. I mean it isn’t always me! But I find it extremely familiar.” Familiar because Julia does exactly what she’s supposed to do—what “right feeling” would prompt her to do—but doesn’t feel the right way about it. Politeness here isn’t about behavior but the principle of right attention to others, a habit of imagining how other people are like you and different from you. Reading Mansfield Park now challenges me to connect the importance of Miss-Manners-style politeness, based on the consideration of other people’s rights and feelings, with broader social obligations.

If I had made a list of characters I anticipated identifying with when I reread the novel early this summer, Sir Thomas would have been last. Actually last. But rereading while trying to emergency-home-school my children and then emergency-measure-what-I’ve-managed-to-teach-them-about-race-so-far, I really felt the long, reflective encounter with an anxious, unreflective father who puts all his efforts in the wrong place—that I, too, am a parent who has failed to teach her children best what matters most.

The main mistake Sir Thomas makes is to entrust the whole education of his daughters to other people. He spends lots of time at Parliament in London, but sees his daughters “becoming in person, manner, and accomplishments, everything that could satisfy his anxiety.” He ought to be worried about their minds, of course, and to be ambitious for more than for them to add “new grace” to the name of Bertram and one day “extend its respectable alliances.’ He has chilling manners that check the open flow of his daughters’ spirits. He has no idea what they are like. His ominous trip to try to make his estate in Antigua pay more means that he is “leaving his daughters to the direction of others at their present most interesting time of life.” He figures they’ll be okay. Those of us reading the novel know better because of the many times they slight their cousin Fanny, and those minor infractions will end in public exposure. Appearances break down spectacularly, and both sisters disgrace the family. Sir Thomas reflects:

[T]hey had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.

This passage struck me as what people in the nineteenth century called “the pill in the jam”, the moral of the story.

He had meant them to be good.

Like Sir Thomas, I had my priorities wrong. Sir Thomas is very anxious that his daughters should turn out well and does nothing to make sure it happens. This whole time he was supposed to make sure their lessons sank in, to oversee the daily practice of religion and to teach his children, himself, explicitly, self-denial and humility. It’s like Jane Austen called me out, not for failing to drill humility into my kids, but for failing to talk through the things they were learning.

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In my mid-March crash course in homeschooling, I learned what I’d known before: lots of families choose to homeschool so their kids get the religious education they want. Many of the sensible homeschooling schedules I found online framed it as a directed reading in being the right kind of person.

When homeschooling chose me, I kept the sensible seeming parts of the schedule and cut the bible study. I was never going to spend the first hour of the day working through the Gospels in Greek, but when I cut that important hour I ought to have thought about what I wanted our kids to practice every day instead. Children aren’t born with the ability to interpret the racist structures they see around them, still less to see their place in that landscape. Yes, the world is now full of anti-racist reading lists, but I am a teacher and I know that, if you’re going to learn anything, you have to apply what you’ve read to what you thought before.

I have many, many opportunities to talk through racist structures with my children here in New Orleans, where they go to a school named for a Confederate official who fought for free public education for white children in the name of the future “supremacy of the Caucasian race.” Yet it is still possible to get distracted by math and manners as if those things were good or important in themselves. If what I am supposed to do when I work with my kids (who, let’s be clear, are doing most of the learning online from their excellent teachers), again and again, is help them see themselves in relation to others—even to see math and manners in relation to others—then my job is to make reckoning with one’s place in history as ingrained as saying thank you, as essential as toothbrushing.

Mansfield Park is both Exhibit A of white complicity with racist violence and a demand to recognize it. Fanny Price gets richly rewarded for being a person who kind of gets it. The victory of Fanny, who is introverted, unathletic, and often silent (except for occasional bursts of enthusiasm about nature), affords a different satisfaction from Elizabeth Bennet’s.

In the novel, when everyone is playing cards, the handsome rake Henry Crawford stops Fanny from cheating to let her brother win: “The game will be yours,” turning to her again; “it will certainly be yours.” And it is: Her victory is inexorable. The strict piety that empowers her to defy her uncle and to acknowledge, if faintly, her place on the wrong side of history, suggests–in a didactic and unthrilling way—that my team ought to be thinking, daily, about how to put principle into practice.

Sarah Allison