Roslyn Russell, Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (Review)

A week or so ago my local Jane Austen group had a guest speaker at our meeting, Roslyn Russell, the author of Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park. Russell is a local historian who has written this historical novel based on Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park. She is also a lapsed member of our group, so of course we had to ask her to come and talk to us about it. Most of this post draws from my report of her talk, which she titled Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park: Fictionalising the legacy of slavery in Mansfield Park.

Regular readers probably know that I’m not a fan of fan-fiction or sequels of well-known works. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have read any if it hadn’t been for belonging to the Jane Austen Society of Australia. However, having read Deidre Shauna Lynch’s essay, “Sequels” in Jane Austen in context, edited by Janet Todd, I decided that I should relax my “rule”. Lynch convinced me that these books are an important part of our understanding of Austen as a literary and cultural icon. Consequently, I have now read PD James’ crime novel Death comes to Pemberley (my review) and Jo Baker’s Longbourn (my review). Roslyn Russell’s historical novel is my third. In it, she imagines that some ten years after being banished to the country, and upon the death of her companion Aunt Norris, Maria Bertram goes to Barbados and learns about slavery and the abolition movement.

There are, I’m gathering, many different reasons why writers want to write sequels or fan fiction works. For Russell, it was, as she writes in her author’s note, inspired by two passions: her love of Jane Austen and of Barbados. Barbados? How many Australians have been to, let alone developed a passion for, Barbados? Not many, I expect. It was her museum work, in fact, which took Russell to Barbados and there, its history – and particularly the history of its plantations and the practice of slavery – reminded her of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in which the leading family, the Bertrams, draw their prime income from their plantation in Antigua.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and Slavery

Russell commenced by telling us that although most of the characters in her novel are fictional, some are based on real people. Before discussing this further, however, she read the excerpt from Mansfield Park which contains the only reference to slavery:

“But I do talk to him more than I used. I am sure I do. Did not you hear me ask him about the slave–trade last night?”

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like— I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.” (MP)

She noted that this shows Maria and Julia’s lack of interest in the source of their family’s income. She then referred to cultural theorist Edward Said’s discussion of the novel and his statement that it is not appropriate “to expect Jane Austen to treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist or a newly liberated slave”. Said, she told us, did not apply 21st century attitudes to his assessment of Austen, but suggested that her work, as that of an author who belonged to a slave-owning society, should be analysed in context and in terms of what she does and doesn’t say rather than simply attacked as being complicit.

Ros then briefly outlined some of Austen’s known or probable connections with plantations:

  • the family’s close relationship with her father’s friend, the plantocrat James Langford Nibbs who was also Austen brother’s godfather. Nibbs apparently took his son out to his plantations in Antigua to settle down his unruly behaviour, which rather mirrors Sir Thomas’ taking Tom out to his plantation.
  • Austen’s aunt-by-marriage, Jane Leigh-Perrot, who was born in Barbados, though went to school in England.
  • Mrs Skeet who is mentioned in Austen’s letters. Skeet is a common name in Barbados, suggesting she had a connection to slavery*.
  • the Holder family of Ashe Park, also friends of the Austens. Holder, too, is a common name in the Caribbean.

The title Mansfield Park, itself, could also reflect Austen’s awareness of the slavery issue, as it may have been inspired by Lord Mansfield who was famous for adjudications which contributed significantly to the eventual abolition of the slave trade. (This is the Lord Mansfield who became guardian of his mulatto niece Dido, fictionalised in the recent film, Belle).

Barbados and Maria Returns

Russell then turned to her own book, first addressing the question of why she had set it in Barbados and not Antigua, where the Bertrams’ plantation was. Firstly, she has been to Barbados several times and knows its history. She couldn’t, she said, write about a place she didn’t know. Secondly, Barbados is also the location of a historical event she uses in her novel.

Mansfield Park was written 20 years before emancipation (i.e. the formal abolition of slavery) in 1834. Maria Returns is set about 15 years after MP, and so during the time when the abolition movement was becoming more vocal. Ros explained that the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 did not seriously affect the Caribbean plantations: they were “breeding” their own slaves and were essentially self-sufficient. However, the abolition of slavery represented a major threat to their livelihoods, and the plantation families were deeply concerned. By the 1820s the abolition movement was becoming active – mostly among Evangelical Anglicans, Methodists and Quakers.

Ros discussed the historical basis of her fiction. For example, at the dinner party in the English village where Maria first meets abolitionist John Simpson, he talks of a trial in Barbados in which slaves were apparently unjustly convicted of and executed for a murder. This trial did occur and is a reason Russell chose Barbados for her setting. The trial was witnessed by James Stephen** who, though he lived a little earlier than our fictional Simpson, is Russell’s model for her character.

Simpson also talks at this dinner about a slave rebellion, led by African-slave Bussa, that occurred in Barbados in 1816. Bussa was killed in the rebellion. Such slave rebellions resulted in plantation owners becoming harsher. Simpson makes it clear which side he is on. This is a wake up call for Maria who:

had not been aware of the strength of feeling in the wider community against the institution of slavery, from which her own family had benefitted so materially. (MR)

After Maria arrives in Bridgetown she meets or hears of other abolitionists, such as the historically real free coloured man, Sam Prescod (who, with Bussa, is now a national hero) and plantation owner Josiah Thompson. Thompson is fictional but, as a former owner who had downsized his estate and treated his slaves-now-servants well, he has historical antecedents. Men who behaved like he did faced hostility from other Barbadians – and so, in the novel, Thompson is a lonely man who is keen to host Maria and her friends at his home. His willingness to import a teacher from England to teach his slaves also has precedents. Maria realises again that she’d never wondered about her father’s plantations, but she begins now to wonder what her father might think about the people she’s meeting.

Ros then spoke about the treatment of slave women by their white owners, particularly in relation to sexual predation. This forms an important part of the story – but I won’t spoil it here. However, she again spoke of historical precedents – not that we really needed any for this one!  We weren’t, though, quite prepared for the example she gave us, one Thomas Thistlewood who kept a diary of his plantation life. Wikipedia confirms what Ros told us: his diary chronicled “3,852 acts of sexual intercourse and/or rape with 138 women, nearly all of whom were black slaves”.

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Ros illustrated her talk with some wonderful illustrations, including the painting used on the cover of her book, Agostino Brunias’ The Barbadoes Mulatto Girl. She also mentioned some of the sources she used in her research, like Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the blood: A family’s story of slavery and empire.

So, the novel

I enjoyed the read. It is pretty much genre historical fiction rather than literary fiction, so not my usual fare. Russell doesn’t try to emulate Austen, and while her writing is clear, her dialogue can be a little too formal and uniform at times. She includes a lot of information about life at the time, information that Austen herself would not have needed to, and indeed did not, supply. But, of course, this is historical fiction, and modern audiences need background that Austen’s contemporaries didn’t.

Russell spins a credible story, both in terms of the plot she creates and how she develops the characters she draws from Mansfield Park. Maria does change significantly, but Russell convinces us that she could. However, this is historical, romantic fiction, not a fierce novel, so Russell’s more culpable characters, in particular Bertram father and son, are let off more lightly than they deserve. This perhaps mirrors the political reality: after emancipation, the Caribbean plantation owners received in total £20 million compensation, while the slaves received nothing.

What did Austen know and feel about slavery? We’re unlikely to ever know, but in Maria returns Russell has given us some insight into the darker side of life that Austen only hints at.

* Names that are common in slave areas are usually so because slaves tended to take on the surnames of their masters.

** Wikipedia tells that Stephen was great-grandfather of Virginia Woolf.

awwchallenge2014

Roslyn Russell
Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park
Flynn: Bobby Graham Publishers, 2014
(Kindle ed.)