Well, this is the first I've heard that there is a Literary Festival in Dubai - but clearly its line-up is nothing like so distinguished as that of the Oxford Literary Festival. Why? Because they have got Joanna Trollope to talk a lot of twaddle about Jane Austen, and it is what you might describe as New-Historicism-Lite.
It seems that Trollope has been dwelling on the guilty past of the British Empire by suggesting that Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy, the heroes of Pride and Prejudice, made their money in the slave trade, and she calls this the "dark underbelly" of Jane Austen's novel.
I am surprised that she has even ventured to bring up the subject of slavery in Dubai, one of those well-heeled gulf states that has a large population of underpaid foreign workers with no rights as citizens. Not very tactful of her!
Ms Trollope has been paid by a publisher to write updated versions of Austen's novels. She will not be the first, and will probably not be the last. There are already many literary ventures along the lines of Pride and Prejudice: The Wild and Wanton Edition, by Michelle Pillow. Though Trollope may make a lot of money doing this, she is still no critic. I suspect that she has mixed up Pride and Prejudice with Mansfield Park. In the latter, there is a tenuous thread to slavery as Sir Thomas Bertram, the heroine's uncle, owns an estate in the West Indies where slave labour was used.
But it is quite wrong and clumsy to try to take that and impose it on Pride and Prejudice. For a start, Mr Darcy has not made his money himself at all - he has inherited a large estate in Derbyshire where, we are told, he has many tenants. He is a member of the landed gentry, and would undoubtedly feature in Burke's reference tome if he were anything but fictional.
DARCY, Fitzwilliam, Esq. b.1782. Only son of George Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire, and his wife Lady Anne Fitzwilliam, second daughter of the Earl of ---- . Educated Harrow, Cambridge. Magistrate for county. M.P. for Chesterfield 1815. Knighted 1825.
Trollope does not understand that in Jane Austen's time there was a landed gentry who could live off the proceeds of their English estates, with no colonial activity. Income tax was introduced in 1798, as a temporary measure to finance the war against Napoleon, but the highest rate was only 10%.
"What built Pemberley?" asks Trollope in dreadful English. "Pemberley was built, one imagines, on proceeds of the coal mines in Derbyshire. What was the life of an eighteenth-century coal-miner like? Not very nice." Not very nice? - New Historicism doesn't get any "liter" than that.
Actually until the 1840s there were very few coal mines in Derbyshire, and they were very small, just little village pits. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813. Pemberley is already old enough for Darcy's father to have lived there. If Mr Darcy senior was the enterprising kind, he might have invested in limestone quarries, lead mines, water-powered cotton-mills, silk mills, stocking-factories, or even a porcelain factory, all of which existed in Derbyshire in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. He may also have invested in and profited from toll-roads going across his land. I notice that Ms Trollope's view of history gives the British no credit for their pioneering in road construction or any of these enterprises.
Cromford Mill in Derbyshire
As for Mr Bingley, the clue is in the name. The Bingley Lock is a prominent feature of the Leeds to Liverpool canal, one of the biggest projects of the early Industrial Revolution in the North of England. People who invested in canals got rich very fast. The Bingleys are a family who have not been wealthy for very long, which is why Mr Bingley looks up to his friend Darcy, and takes his advice, while Miss Bingley regards him as a very desirable catch.
How do all the other rich people in Jane Austen's novels come by their money? Most of them are landed gentry. There is Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility, with a large estate in Devonshire, large enough for him to be able to find a spare cottage for the homeless Dashwoods turned out of their house in Sussex. There could be valuable timber on his estate and I imagine that his family have encouraged lace-making and the manufacture of woolen blankets. There is Lady Catherine de Bourgh with her grand and somewhat vulgar house in Kent, Rosings. There is something so smug about her that I adduce that she has large investments in government bonds. And then there is Mr Knightley in Emma, whose father has left him the delectable Donwell Abbey. He seems to take a close interest in his tenant farmers, such as Robert Martin, and may be trying to encourage them to maximize return on their lands. It was an age of farming innovation.
How many stocks and shares had Lady Macbeth? Speculation about what lies behind the details of a fiction is a form of fiction in itself. But there is plausible fiction and then there is glaring fallacy. Joanna Trollope's accusations about Jane Austen belong in the second category.
Lenten Meditations: Saturday 25 March
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