21st Century Slavery – Now you see it – Now you don’t

Abby on hols2_001“In my view, the Enlightenment, which inspired the birth of your America, reduced complex moral issues to such a superficial level that you and your countrymen are helpless to critically assess your lot.”

“Clearly you’re trying to tell me something but I must admit I’m having a hard time figuring out what it is.”

“Your lot, Abby, I’m talking about your lot.”

“Must be the wine.”  Her fingers slipped through his hair.  “I’m not usually so dense.”

“One of the primary assumptions of the Enlightenment was that man is infinitely malleable – able to be moulded to another man’s ideal.”

“Am I being moulded?”

“So I should think.”

“By whom?”

“Take your pick.”

“Are you in the game?”

He stroked the dog.  This might be harder than he’d thought.

“What’s your take on the connection between Thomas Jefferson and Jane Austen?” She pointed to the roughhewn bookcase in the shape of a boat.   “For if there’s to be any rhyme or reason to your universe, there must be a connection between them. Why else would those trying to mould me stock my bookcase thus?”


Mansfield Park’s and Sir Thomas’s difficulties in Antigua have never been academically linked to Jefferson and besides, I don’t like Fanny Price.”

“Your research is sound and Price isn’t my favourite of Austen’s heroines either.”  He laughed.  “But what you fail to remember is that as Socrates tells us, at its most basic, slavery is that which (1) reduces a man to a usable object and (2) deprives him, however subtly, of his free will.  If you think that you or the citizens of New York or Rhode Island or California or whatever…are any less commodities being bought and sold than Fanny Price or the men and women whose labours improved Jefferson’s plantations, then you’re mistaken.”

Excerpt from my new novel, The Curve of Capricorn, in progress, 2013.

So goes the conversation between Abby, my 21st century heroine, and her love interest, Alex.

Of course, Alex and Abby have their reasons for being interested in slavery.  That’s part of their story.

It’s part of your story too.

As Alex reminds us, the bottom line of slavery is loss of ‘free will’. Yet contrary to popular belief, “free will” means a good deal more than simply doing whatever one wants when one wants.  From the beginning, ‘free will’ has been intimately connected with (1) a rational and deliberate ‘choice’ and (2)  the assumption of the ‘moral responsibility’ for the choices made. Fanny Price

For the characters of Jane Austen like Fanny Price, ‘moral responsibility’ came easily – perhaps too easily.  In Abby’s view, it’s not without reason that critic Kingsely Amis called Fanny “morally detestable” and a ‘monster of complacency and pride”.

It was her (Fanny’s) intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness, in her affection for Edmund. To call or to fancy it a loss, a disappointment, would be a presumption for which she had not words strong enough to satisfy her own humility. Chapter 27, Mansfield Park.

For others like Thomas Jefferson, ‘moral responsibility’ is a bit harder to pin down:

thomasjeffersonGod has formed us moral agents… that we may promote the happiness of those with whom He has placed us in society, by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights, bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own.” Thomas Jefferson to Miles King, 1814.

This is a bit rich coming a man who continued to own about 130 slaves until his death – but there you have it.

What constitutes morality isn’t easy to define much less pin down.

But what constitutes slavery most certainly is… right?

Free will.

UnknownWho’s got yours?10268987-bocadillo-de-dialogo-con-los-medios-de-comunicacion-de-palabras-sobre-fondo-blanco

Feminism and Jane Austen

Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

becoming-janeThis has not been the traditional view.  Indeed it was not until the 1960’s that Austen’s name was associated with feminism in any widespread way.

Although there are as many faces of feminism as one cares to discover, if the works of Austen are to be fairly evaluated, it should be in terms of feminism as it was understood in her time.  To do otherwise (however tempting), would be anachronistic.

This essay evaluates Austen’s portrayal of three of her heroines in regards to the goals of ‘Enlightenment feminism’ which asserted that men and women should share the same moral code in regards to conduct, feelings, and responsibility.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine flawed.    In economic terms, Emma Woodhouse passes with flying colors; an heiress of £30,000 is not easily dismissed.  But the citizens of Highbury do not value money nearly as much as they do character and in this regard the imperious Miss Woodhouse must learn that she has ‘been used to despise (Highbury) rather too much’.   In other words, Emma’s moral code is lacking and requires remedial work.

But instead of undertaking to improve herself of her own violation, Emma is instructed by Mr Knightly who appears to believe himself the more morally capable of the two (‘I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.  Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them.’)

Not surprisingly, it is only when Emma becomes all that Mr Knightly would have her be, that he realizes he is in love with her for we all know the story of Pygmalion, the ancient Greek sculptor who fell in love with (and married) the statue he carved.  We have only to look at how Mr Knightly’s view of Harriet changes (the former ‘fair lady’ become ‘the foolish girl’ and ‘a greater simpleton’) when by refusing Robert Martin’s marriage proposal, she fails to conform to Knightly’s norm.  Luckily for Emma, she had learned her lessons well and so ‘what did she say’ when Knightly declares himself?  ‘Just what she ought, of course’ for ‘a lady always does.’

In Emma, although women may have been portrayed as capable of moral equality, they were also portrayed as incapable of forging a moral code of their own.

Likewise, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with ‘all her faults of ignorance and timidity’ must be carefully tutored to the standards of her cousin Edmund.

Although Miss Price is oft portrayed as a plucky feminist who finally has the courage to speak her own mind (by refusing to marry Henry Crawford as Sir Thomas Bertramwould have her do), we who have followed her long, steady progress with Edmund know she did not reach that pinnacle on her own.

The scene in the East room provides the perfect example.  One morning Fanny escapes to her ‘nest of comforts’ in order ‘to see if by looking at Edmund’s profile she could catch any of his counsel’.  When in the flesh Edmund arrives to obtain ‘her opinion’ on ‘an evil of such magnitude as must , if possible, be prevented’, he begins by voicing his own.  When finished with his soliloquy, he asks Fanny whether she sees ‘it in the same light’.  When she has the temerity to say ‘no’, he recommends that she ‘think it a little over’ for ‘perhaps you are not so much aware as I am, of the mischief that may’ arise.

When Edmund’s love interest, Mary Crawford, speaks her own mind by refusing to agree with him regarding her brother, Henry’s, adultrous behavior, Mary is out and Fanny is in.  ‘Loving, guiding, protecting her (Fanny), as he (Edmund) had been doing ever since her being ten years old, her mind so great a degree formed by his care’, it should be little surprise that by end of the story he’s fallen in love with her  and ‘acknowledged’ her mental superiority.

However, in Northanger Abby, Catherine Morland, arguably the most feminist of Austen’s heroines, receives a very different moral education – that of first-hand experience (as we might expect with a man).

As a child, Catherine is left largely to her own devices allowing her to early on rely on her own judgment.   Later she navigates Bath with little or no outside guidance and moves on to her next adventure afflicted only by her love of Gothic novels and vivid imagination.   Convinced that General Tilney has murdered his wife, like Pandora she finally commits the unpardonable sin and opens that ‘forbidden door’.

But even then when she receives a dressing down from her love interest,  Henry Tilney (‘consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained’ and ‘remember that we are English’ and ‘Christians’), she is asked by him to not to do or think as he would ,but instead to ‘consult your own understanding’ (which she does to her shame).

Once her ‘visions of romance were over’,  she ‘was completely awakened.’  Catherine goes on to win the heart of the man she loves and to ‘begin perfect happiness at’ the age of eighteen, which as Austen reminds us is ‘to do pretty well.’

If the only goal of Enlightenment feminism was that men and women should share the same moral code, then Austen can be said to have wholeheartedly supported this through her fictional characterizations.

However if we look to the basic premise underlying Enlightenment feminism – that women, not having been denied powers of reason, must have the moral status appropriate to ‘rational beings’, formed in the image of a rational God – we must reach a different conclusion.  At least two of the three of Austen’s heroines examined were apparently presumed by the men in their lives as capable not of forging their own moral code, but only of regurgitating that of their lovers.