Quote Jane


“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.” ― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

woensdag 12 april 2017

Regency Lives Matter: Jane Austen So White? Not So Fast ... Olivia Murphy

These are very strange times for Jane Austen fans.
While it has been exciting to see many of the world's foremost Austen scholars quoted in the New York Times and the Guardian, it is hard not to be bemused by the spectacle of them defending her novels from appropriation by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other members of the so-called alt-right. To be perfectly clear, Jane Austen was never a white supremacist. Such racist doctrines were barely coming into existence during her lifetime (1775-1817), and would not take hold until long after she had died.

What this minor scandal over Austen's popularity on certain far-right political sites suggests is that Austen - or rather the fictional world of Austen's novels - easily stands in for most people as shorthand for an all-white England of conservative values and decorous feminine behaviour.
Even Juliet Wells, a highly respected Austen scholar, was quoted in the New York Times saying that "Austen's characters are white, and her world is white."

But the white England of these assumptions is a myth, and always has been. We don't have photographs of Austen's era, and the Georgians had no concept of collecting the kind of demographic statistics that we're so fond of quoting. Nevertheless, there were plenty of black people - that is, people of recent sub-Saharan descent - along with people from many other national and ethnic backgrounds living in Jane Austen's England. We don't know exactly how many (no photographs, no statistics), just as we know very little about the great majority of people living in England in this period. Only when they come to the attention of historians, either through being famous, or being related to the famous, do we take note of them. A lot of black people in England worked in the service industry, as servants to wealthy households, as shopkeepers and as publicans, none of which are professions well studied in academia. We know almost nothing about the workers at the two exclusively black London brothels, for instance, but there have been books written about Saartje Baartman, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Samuel Johnson's heir Francis Barber, all well-known black people living in England during Austen's lifetime.

So why do so many people assume Austen's world is so white? Perhaps because they are experiencing her world largely through film and television, two media in which the long eighteenth century has, most certainly, been whitewashed. Ethnic and racial diversity was an historical reality throughout the Anglophone world and beyond in this period, and yet popular representations of the past, with very few exceptions, entirely feature white actors. It's easy to assume that Austen's world is all-white when all our favourite images of her period suggest just that.
And what about in Austen's own novels? Much has been made of Miss Lambe, the young "half Mulatto" heiress in Austen's unfinished last novel, Sanditon. But we don't know much about Miss Lambe's appearance - we just know that she's rich, which to Austen was far more important.
The truth is, Jane Austen, like many of her contemporaries, doesn't offer her readers much in the way of descriptions of her characters' appearance. We know, seeing through Darcy's eyes, that Elizabeth Bennet has a "light and pleasing" figure and "fine eyes." What colour those eyes are we never learn, let alone what colour Elizabeth's skin might be. As for Darcy, we know that he's tall. That's it. There is no compelling or historical reason at all for the next actor to play one of these coveted roles to be white.

It's long past time that representations of the pre-photographic past started to actually look like that past, just as images of our own society need to reflect the true composition of that society. Regency black lives matter, too.

Olivia Murphy is a Postdoctoral Fellow in English at The University of Sydney. She is the author of Jane Austen the Reader: The Artist as Critic and co-editor of Anna Letitia Barbauld: New Perspectives.
abc.net.au

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Austen werd geboren in Hampshire. Haar vader was een geestelijke. Het grootste deel van haar leven bleef zij in haar geboortestreek. Austen had zes broers en een oudere zuster, Cassandra, met wie zij zeer hecht was. Het enige onbetwiste portret van Jane Austen is een gekleurde schets die door Cassandra werd gemaakt en nu in de National Portrait Gallery in Londen hangt. In 1801 verhuisde de familie naar Bath. In 1802 werd Austen ten huwelijk gevraagd door de rijke Harris Bigg-Wither en zij stemde toe; de volgende dag deelde ze echter mee dat zij haar woord niet kon houden en trok haar instemming in. De reden hiervoor is niet bekend, maar Austen is nooit getrouwd. Na de dood van haar vader in 1805 woonden Jane, haar zuster en haar moeder daar nog verscheidene jaren tot zij in 1809 naar Chawton verhuisden. Hier had haar rijke broer Edward een landgoed met een plattelandshuisje, dat hij aan zijn moeder en zusters schonk (dit huis is tegenwoordig open voor het publiek). Zelfs nadat zij naam gemaakt had als romanschrijfster bleef zij in relatieve stilte leven, maar haar gezondheid ging sterk achteruit. Er wordt nu aangenomen dat zij de ziekte van Addison had, waarvan toen de oorzaak nog onbekend was. Ze reisde naar Winchester om behandeling te zoeken, maar stierf daar en werd begraven in de kathedraal.
Tot Austens beroemdste werk behoort de roman Emma. Het boek wordt vaak aangehaald vanwege de perfectie van vorm. Moderne critici blijven ook nieuwe perspectieven ontdekken op het scherpe commentaar van Austen betreffende de klasse van jonge, ongehuwde, aristocratische Engelse vrouwen in de vroege 19e eeuw.

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