I recommended earlier today in the usual online places that anyone unfamiliar with the evidence supporting the claim that there is a slavery subtext in Mansfield Park ought to start by reading the lengthy essay on that subject by Moreland Perkins which appeared in the 2005 issue of Persuasions Online, and which can be read here:
Perkins's article however, is only a beginning, there is much more to read in addition in order to get a comprehensive picture.
I was thinking this evening while walking on the treadmill how I can explain why I suggested that people read Perkins. It comes down to this--I know, from the research I have done, that out in print today, and not including my own original discoveries, there already exists much more than sufficient evidence, drawn from the kind of argumentation Perkins made with respect to Clarkson's book and career, but also
including material regarding Lord Mansfield, and other material regarding various literary allusions, and also other material relating to the real life world of people living around JA, and much more, to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the text of Mansfield Park is filled from one end to the other, in about twenty different ways, with motifs of servitude, and which are richly intertwined with each other.
It does not take some magical level of insight to see this, all it takes is to read a great deal or all of the scholarly work that has already been done on this subject (which nobody previously has ever gathered together in one place, but I have done that, and will include it in my book, and so will make that part of the task less onerous for those coming after me who wish to engage in this study), and then to go back to the text of MP to examine the context of each of these twenty motifs. If someone invests the many hours necessary to read all the evidence and think about , to me, there simply is no other reasonable interpretation than this.
The text of the novel alone is difficult to interpret in this regard. But all those allusions act like spotlights that shine on different parts of the text of the novel, and which collectively create a very bright light in which the servitude motif as a whole is quite distinct and visible.
But....that is NOT the same as saying WHY that overarching theme of servitude is there. It could mean several different things--I don't want to get into all the possibilities of what those things could be, it's just too complex for this forum. But you should NOT assume that because there are many clues in the novel pointing to the slave trade and plantation slavery, that these real world horrors were the primary focus of JA in embedding them in MP--I don't believe that to be the case, I
think she had another agenda, and that her very real horror at the institution of slavery was nonetheless subordinate to an agenda even more important to her than that. Again, beyond that, I am not going now, I will save that full argument for my book.
But, I can say now that I personally have struggled with this question at great length off and on over the past 5 years, and I am confident that i can explain and justify MY interpretation of the primary meaning of this structure to anyone who is willing to read what will be in my book about this. But I am not claiming that there cannot be some different way of interpreting that servitude matrix than the one I will be proposing, and I very much look forward to a conversation sometime in the not too distant future with other Janeite scholars who have also read all that scholarly work, and have been convinced that the servitude meme is crucial in the novel, but who have different takes on what is there. That would be wonderful.
Those who for whatever reason believe that there is a doubt as to whether the servitude motif is central in MP are entitled to their opinions, but there's nothing fruitful I can talk about with them about this aspect of MP, because for me the detection phase is already complete, and I am totally engaged with the level of interpretation of the "data' that has already been generated.
And I finish by repeating my mantra--everything I am saying relates to the shadow story of the novel, and there are all sort of other interesting conversations to have about the overt story of the novel, which i can participate in, where teh slavery motif is not crucial to a deep understanding of aspects of MP.
Hope that helps,
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