Summary Of Jane Austen And Empire By Edward Said

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Jane Austen and Empire is an essay from the collection of essays Culture and Imperialism (1993) by the Palestinian American writer Edward Wadie Said. In this collection, the author attempts to trace the connection between imperialism and culture in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. This collection is an attempt to expand the arguments discussed by Said in his monumental book Orientalism (1978) in which he talks about how deviously the Eastern civilization was constructed by western thinkers. It includes the narratives of how the West sees the East. Orientalism is considered the foundational work on which post-colonial theory developed. Said, then, could be considered the ‘father’ of post-colonialism.

Colonialism is defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people.” It occurs when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people. With colonization, the whole world was divided into two categories. One was the colonizer and the other one was the colonized. The word colonizer was considered synonymous with culture, knowledge and education and they projected the colonized countries as backward, barbaric and uncivilized. Colonial powers justified their conquests by asserting that they had a legal and religious obligation to take over the land and culture of indigenous people and transform them to cultured and civilized people.

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This was the background on which Edward said started writing on colonization. When colonizers call a nation exotic, it is exotic for the colonizer and not the colonized. The notion of orientalism is based on travel books and guide books which expresses the opinions and imagination of its authors and not ground realities. It is the discourse of the West about the East (Lodge 124). Readers are influenced by what they read in books. Though Said started writing about the Middle East and the Arab and Islamic stereotypes, the idea discussed in Orientalism is applicable to all colonized nations.

Edward Said highlights the responsibilities of authors and writers in giving a realistic picture of the impact of colonization in their countries. In many works of literature, specifically those coming out of Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, we meet characters who are struggling with their identities in the wake of colonization, or the establishment of colonies in another nation. For example, the British had a colonial presence in India from the 1700s until India gained its independence in 1947. However, not all writers gave a realistic picture of the colonized India in their works during India’s colonial period. While we have works of authors like Mulk Raj Anand and Raja Rao (E.g. Two Leaves and a Bud, Coolie, Kantapura) that depicts a realistic picture of pre-independent India, we have their contemporaries like R.K. Narayan who was known for highlighting the social context and everyday life of his characters but has failed to touch upon the colonial realities of India. For example, in the well-received and acclaimed works of R.K Narayan, including Malgudi Days, the ill effects of colonization in India is depicted indirectly or very rarely. Narayan has mentioned incidents like the Indians’ protest against English, pelting of stones and imprisonment of people very sparingly in his stories while it was the social reality of India in his times.

Edward said applies the same idea to the famous author Jane Austen. His essay “Jane Austen and Empire” is about the responsibility of English writers of 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. He discusses Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814) and he tries to trace the colonial elements in the novel. Said puts forward an argument that opens a debate about how Mansfield Park should be read, namely, the connection between Austen’s novel and the harsh economic reality of her time. Said begins his argument by quoting V.G. Kiernan’s statement that “empires must have a mould of ideas or conditioned reflexes to flow into, and youthful nations dream of a great place in the world as young men dream of fame and fortunes” (Said 80).

Mansfield Park is a story of a young girl named Fanny Price who is sent to live with her rich aunt and uncle, Lady and Sir Thomas Bertram, due to her family’s strained finances. The title of the novel suggests that the story of the novel revolves around the estate of Mansfield Park. When Fanny enters Mansfield Park she is introduced to the baronet and the owner of Mansfield Park Sir Thomas Bertram.

Generally, Jane Austen’s novels express an attainable quality of life (Said 84). It constitutes balls, parties and picnics. It depicts the affluent life style of the elite. It is no different for the inmates of Mansfield Park. What sustains this affluent life is Thomas Bertram’s plantation estate in Antigua. In the middle of the book, it is mentioned that Sir Thomas leaves for the West Indies to settle some business. Though the details about his business is not explicitly mentioned in the book, whatever was wrong there, from the socio-political conditions of the time, is presumed that it suggests economic depression, slavery and competition with France. Antigua and Sir Thomas’s trip there have a definitive function in Mansfield Park, which, is both incidental and referred to only in passing, and absolutely crucial to the action. (Said 89). Sir Thomas was able to fix it, thereby maintaining his control over his colonial domain. According to Said, a parallel is drawn between Fanny’s advancement through “small-scale movement in space” and the “more open colonial movements of Sir Thomas, her mentor, the man whose estate she inherits,” (Said 89)

Said turns to discussing the infrequency and lack of detail in Austen’s references to the Caribbean, concluding that it reflects the idea of “the avowedly complete subordination of the colony to the metropolis,” again quoting John Stuart Mill to illustrate British attitudes to the colonies not as independent nations but as convenient farmland for a British production of tropical crops.

Said points out that even though Jane Austen was a famous novelist, not even once she mentioned about colonization in Mansfield Park, while the characters of Mansfield Park were dependent on the money which was generated by the colonized laborers of Antigua. It is only once that the heroine Fanny Pride asks about the plantation and its slave laborers, but her questions are answered with “such dead silence”. Though this is the only situation where Austen asks this question, she does not provide any answer to it even though it was a very pertinent question at that time. Said feels the author should have made Fanny, who was portrayed as a strong and steadfast woman, strong enough to question the necessity of exploiting the slave laborers.  Sir Thomas’s property in the Caribbean would have had to be a sugar plantation maintained by slave labor (not abolished until the 1830s): these are not dead historical facts but, as Austen certainly knew, evident historical realities. (Said 89) Said feels that it is deliberate because Austen could have chosen something else to establish Sir Thomas’s Wealth.

Secondly, Said draws an analogy between the colonized nations and the character Fanny Price. Fanny comes to the wealthy family for grooming. She was physically delicate, raw, timid, and uncivilized when she reached Mansfield Park. Fanny lives with her aristocratic relatives in their estate Mansfield Park and eventually learns proper manners and improves her health through walking and riding. After living there through her adolescence she becomes civilized and presentable. Ultimately she gets married to her cousin Edmund and becomes the mistress of Mansfield Park. Said takes Fanny as a symbol here. Someone who is poor, uncivilized and doesn’t belong to the cultured family gets an opportunity to be educated, groomed and presentable so that she can be part of the upper-class England. The scenario is same with colonization. Colonizers declare that the countries that they have colonized are poor countries and the people are primitive and uncivilized. They consider themselves as saviors who has the moral responsibility to educate them and to make them cultured so that they can be part of the sophisticated society. Here Fanny price becomes a symbol for a colonized country and it justifies the argument of colonizers that the colonized nations needs grooming to be a part of the affluent society. This is another aspect that justifies colonization in Mansfield Park.

By Said’s own logic, authors like Jane Austen, due to their silence, knowingly or unknowingly, allowed horrendous acts such as slavery to continue and escalate, and even ‘devalued’ other worlds through their writing. When a writer keeps a blind eye to the exploitation of other people, indirectly they support that exploitation. Just like Martin Luther king says ‘To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system; thereby the oppressed become as evil as the oppressor.’ Hence, Said’s comments on Austen’s writings highlight the extent to which he sees the reflection of empire in her.

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  9. “Sir Thomas Bertram Character Analysis.” LitCharts, www.litcharts.com/lit/mansfield-park/characters/sir-thomas-bertram. Accessed 14 Oct. 2019.
  10. “Summary and evaluation of Edward Said’s essay ‘Jane Austen and Empire’.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/29831412/Summary_and_evaluation_of_Edward_Saids_essay_Jane_Austen_and_Empire. Accessed 14 Oct. 2019.
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  12. “What is colonialism?” Colonialism facts and information, 14 June 2019. www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/colonialism/. Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.

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