The White-Washed Past (and What We Can Do About It)

Portrait; half length, seated on chair, head directed to left; wearing frilled cap and fichu; vignette; in oval; after C Austen. 1870 Stipple and etching © The Trustees of the British Museum
Portrait of Jane Austen, half length, seated on chair, head directed to left; wearing frilled cap and fichu; vignette; in oval; after C Austen. 1870. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

By Olivia Murphy (The University of Sydney)

For those interested in the literature of the long eighteenth century, and for Jane Austen’s global fan base, the last few weeks have made for some very uncomfortable headlines. After the Chronicle of Higher Education published Nicole Wright’s article detailing her research into the popularity of Austen – or at least the frequent name-checking of the novelist – in the murky rhetorical atmosphere of the so-called ‘alt-right’, Austen scholars around the world were asked to comment on why Austen might be so popular among neo-Nazis, and to affirm that the right-thinking moral majority could still enjoy a cup of tea and an afternoon with Sense and Sensibility.

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’.

Image from page 11 of The Novels and Letters of Jane Austen 1906.
Image from page 11 of The Novels and Letters of Jane Austen 1906. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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 someone 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.

What we would call the multiculturalism of Britain was seen by many as proof of its growing global importance. In Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven’, for instance, she writes about the ‘mighty city’ of London, on whose wealthy streets ‘the turban’d Moslem, bearded Jew,/ And woolly Afric, met the brown Hindu’. Nor was this ethnic and racial diversity confined to London: Austen’s much more popular contemporary, the Scottish writer Mary Brunton, lived for many years in rural East Lothian with her husband and two lodgers from the Indian subcontinent.

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 mediums 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 is 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, does not 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 its true composition. Regency black lives matter, too.

OLIVIA MURPHY is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in English at The University of Sydney, and an Associate Investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. Her research interests include Romanticism, women’s writing, genre and Jane Austen, and she is currently working on a research project that investigates experiments and experimentation in the Romantic period. Olivia is the author of Jane Austen: The Reader (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and co-editor of Anna Letitia Barbauld: New Perspectives (Bucknell University Press, 2013).

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