When I saw this article in the Telegraph linked on Twitter, I rolled my eyes a bit and prepared myself for silliness. We’ve had so much of this sort of thing: the Real Mr. Darcy, the Real Pemberley, etc., and it’s becoming tiresome, because so often it’s a bunch of hooey.
All too often these things come from attention-seeking types and distressingly often from academics, whom one would expect to know better. But perhaps I’m expecting too much from academics. They don’t write fiction, for the most part, and I don’t think they really understand the source of inspiration for writers.
I think it’s rare for writers, especially writers of Jane Austen’s genius, to be so literal about their inspiration. There wasn’t one man who inspired Mr. Darcy, or one house that inspired Pemberley (or Mansfield Park, for that matter). Writers get inspiration from all over—the littlest thing to the biggest—and most characters and places are amalgamations, used however we need them to fit the plot. I sometimes become impatient when overeager fans (and sometimes, yes, academics) fixate on one obscure item and turn it into some piece of great significance that yet has no real meaning in the larger scheme of the novel under discussion. It’s fine if you want to do that, but just realize it’s mostly in your head, and mostly important to you, and then becomes tiresome to the rest of us when five thousand Internet listicle sites pick it up like Moses brought it down from the mountain, and all our well-meaning friends send us links saying, “DID YOU SEE THIS?” and you have to be a killjoy and explain, no, that person is making stuff up.
I may have issues.
All that being said, it’s a shame I am going on this rant (which I’ve been meaning to do for a while) for this particular piece, because I think the academic in question here has some interesting ideas. The Telegraph, unsurprisingly, added the clickbait headline.
Dr. Robert Clark of the University of East Anglia has made some interesting connections between Austen family neighbors, with relatives who owned land in Northamptonshire where MP is set, to Spencer Perceval, British prime minister and abolitionist. From the article:
Dr Clark, editor of The Literary Encyclopedia and specialist in early-19th century novels, writes: “Having discovered Elizabeth’s Chute’s relationship with the Comptons, we have a first hint of what might have prompted Austen to locate Mansfield Park at Castle Ashby, but we still don’t know why.
“However, once we understand the political relationship between the Chutes and the Comptons, everything falls into place – and with surprising implications for the kind of writer we think Austen was.”
He argues the key lies with Spencer Perceval, cousin of Lord Compton and the only British Prime Minister ever to have been assassinated.
An active supporter of the abolitionist movement, the academic believes he is just the “heroic” figure to appeal to Austen after hearing about him in conversation with the Comptons.
I know the role of slavery in Mansfield Park can be a fraught subject with Janeites, but of late I think it’s becoming more widely accepted that Austen was dropping a lot of hints and adding themes about slavery and abolition in MP, and new and interesting connections are being made all the time. Dr. Clark’s theory makes a lot of sense to me.
I don’t think that necessarily means Castle Ashby = Mansfield Park, though. That sort of one on one comparison is crude and obvious—far too obvious for Austen. I like Dr. Clark’s theory, but I think any reference to Castle Ashby, or an attempt to get readers to think of it, was meant simply as a subtle way to lead readers to associate Mansfield Park, the house, with slavery.
That leads us to the question, with all these hints and themes and connections about slavery, what exactly was Austen trying to say about the subject? I’m not sure she was trying to “say” anything specific. She was just making a lot of hints and allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. And that’s where the fun starts with Jane Austen.
Here’s one theme for my Gentle Readers to consider: there is repeated imagery of locks and gates and confinement, mostly related to female characters, throughout MP. Is Austen making a comment upon the status of women in her society, and if so, what is she saying? How does it tie into the mentions and hints about slavery? And how does it tie into Henry Crawford’s attempt to get Fanny to marry him, and the Bertram family’s pressure upon Fanny to do so? (And yes, I have some very decided opinions on these subjects.)
Photo credit: “Castle Ashby House, Northamptonshire, England, 25 July 2011” by OAndrews – Castle Ashby Gardens Uploaded by snowmanradio. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons