Hi guys. Wonder of wonders, I was inspired to make a new post! About books. Didn’t think that was going to happen.
[The title of this topic may change if I decide to do it again, but right now Reading Groups is the cleverest thing I can come up with.]
I go through my TBR pile by feel, whatever interests me at a given moment. But I’ve noticed that sometimes, my reading starts to follow patterns. Over a short period I may read a lot of books with a connection to Ancient Rome, or about first contact with space aliens, or about women scientists, or what have you. I may not read them one after another, but so many times I’ve found that books I’ve been reading connect in obvious and unexpected ways.
So I thought it would put together some of these groups, as a mini curriculum of sorts. Which brings me to what I’ve been reading so far in 2016.
Mansfield Park > Of Noble Family >Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice
All three of these books revolve around race, slavery, and the sugar trade in Regency/Georgian England.
In Mansfield Park, it can be easy to ignore underneath all the tea parties and plays. But Austen was a sharp social commentator, and she does make several overt references to the slave trade. The wealth that allows Mansfield Park to even exist was built on the backs of slaves, as Sir Thomas is an absentee sugar baron who is forced to go back to Antigua to deal with an uprising.
Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories are each based more or less on different Austen novels, and it’s clear to me that Of Noble Family owes a lot to Mansfield Park. But because this is the twenty first century, and because Kowal is Kowal, she dives right in to uncomfortable topics instead of shying away from them. In Of Noble Family, Jane and Vincent travel to Antigua to deal with Vincent’s father’s estate, and they come face to face with the dark realities of slavery. Jane faces some of her own prejudices, and learns that the slaves have different ways of working with glamour. There are mixed-race “house servants,” conning and cruel plantation overseers, and tensions coming to a boil from all sides.
Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, is the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the real life mixed-race daughter of an English naval captain who was raised alongside her cousin in the house of her great uncle, the Lord Chief Justice. There is very, very little actual documentary evidence of Dido’s existence. She was often erased from the narrative even when she was plainly there. (For a long time she was assumed to be a servant, even when there was direct evidence that she had been raised as an adopted daughter.) But Paula Byrne works with what’s available, and manages to craft a compelling and easily readable social history about how black people existed in Georgian England. (And while I really enjoy the movie Belle, it did not surprise me to learn that, especially in the romantic elements, it was almost entirely fiction.)
These books all feed into each other. In Belle, Byrne even adds a codicil about Austen, who most certainly met Dido’s cousin (she wrote about her), and may even have met Dido herself.
We tend to have this weird idea that people of color barely existed eighteenth century England, and that when they did they were highly segregated and most white people would never have seen them. That slavery was hidden across the ocean, and most people never gave it a second thought. That is patently untrue, but it’s an idea that holds on, even in the face of direct evidence. While we won’t ever know if Jane Austen knew Dido Elizabeth Belle, she almost certainly knew of her, and it’s interesting to think if that played any part in the inspiration for Mansfield Park.
What do you think? Interested in more of my informal book groupings?