Mansfield Park and Oronooko are texts markedly different in context and content. Yet across both, Aphra Behn and Jane Austen engage with certain themes that undoubtedly exploit the text and the political concepts they choose to engage in. The politics of both books are hidden behind something as aesthetic as natural imagery or descriptions. Therefore one could argue that the texts become an allegory for larger topics, and when such are unpicked, controversial issues such as slavery, colonialism and class alignment are at the forefront of both.
Slavery and colonialism are features of both Mansfield Park and Oronooko. Despite rarely being directly mentioned in Jane Austens novel, it would be wrong to suggest that Austens text doesn’t capitalise on it majorly. The most prominent moment in which it is prevalent is when Fanny enquires about Sir Thomas Bertrams plantation in Antigua and is followed by …a hushed silence. Critics Edward Saids and George E. Boulukos have debated this scene immensely, both representing two completely parallel views.
In his critical essay The Politics of Silence: Mansfield Park and the Amelioration of Slavery Boulukos argues that, in the eighteenth century, …there was a well-established trope of the grateful slave – a trope which represents and idealizes amelioration. (363) One can undoubtedly credit Boulokos as he is clearly putting the novel in to its context.This perspective focuses on the idea that Fanny is in fact congratulating her uncle on the way he treats his slaves, and the silence that pursues is in fact due to the moral failing of his own daughters to show the intrigue that their cousin does. However, Edward Saids completely disregards this view. Whilst recognising too that Mansfield Park is … not neutral (any more than class and gender are neutral) but as politically charged, beseeching the attention and elucidation its considerable proportions require, Said presumes that the silence is in fact due to the hostility of Sir Bertram as Fanny enquires of his dependency on the slave trading business, that no man would like to be confronted with his human possessions.
This debate can somewhat be answered when looking at the way in which Sir Thomas Bertram receives Miss Price. He is decribed as embracing her …with a kindness that astonished and penetrated her, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately, and observing with decided pleasure how much she was grown! By having the syntax listed, the author is effectively conveying the rush of emotion that overwhelms Mr. Bertram on receiving his niece. As well, the forced caesura that the punctuation imposes causes the reader to dwell on his appraisal. The reader is deliberately drawn to the niceness of the uncle towards what some would call his domestic slave of a niece. Thus, it can be argued that the simple act of silence is meant to represent this idea of the grateful slave and aesthetically moralise the action of slavery.
This is not the extent of Jane Austens work inhabiting traces of slavery. The writer also uses the natural versus man-made conventions to highlight the commands of society. In doing so, the reader is able to effectively contrast the free from the cultivated. At Sotherton Park, the moment in which Mr. Crawford and Maria go beyond the iron-gate is ultimately deemed as an act of transgression. That is to say Maria states that the gate gives her …feelings of restraint and hardship and, when having climbed over the gate, her and Mr Crawford are described by Fanny as being …beyond her eye, as she remains within the cultivated land. This raises the idea that they have ventured beyond the rules of society, and in to the wild in which it is deemed appropriate for Maria to roam freely with her preferred suitor. In doing so, she is defying societal order which states that she is to marry Mr. Rushworth and submit to his authority, represented by the fact that he is the one who holds the key to the gate which she wishes to break out of. Austen, in this case, has masterely used such a scene as an allegory for the larger political issue which is the slaving to societys expectations, and the freedom that comes from transcending them.
Oronooko, however, is not as simply clear cut in its political message which it tries to convey. Behn accepted both slavery and colonialism, yet her work is multi-faceted in the sense that it probes the brutality of slavery along with the failures of colonisation too. A clear example of this contradiction comes upon Oronookos receival at the plantations. The other slaves …prepared all their barbarous music, and everyone killed and dressed something of his own stock and clubbing it together,…to honour it with his presence Behn bombards these lines with references to savagery on behalf of the slaves, almost to suggest their animalistic background and thus appropriate the need for them to be colonised and contained. Nonetheless, the actual picture being painted is one of freedom; theyre playing their music, theyre wearing their clothes, theyre essentially free. The author has succesfully created this joyous and free-natured image to aestheticize the usage of slavery and colonialism.
Yet this is not the only time that Behn expresses politics through the use of sensual imagery. By the end of the novel, the human sense of smell is used to excencuate the Stink of Imoindas decaying corpse as the author goes on to write …an unusual smell, as of a dead body; for stinks must be very noisome that can be distinguished among such a quantity of natural sweets as very inch of that land produces. The smell of her rotting body is depicted against the natural essence of the land as if to suggest of the unaturalness of her death. It almost seems too ironic that the word noisome could appear in the same sentence as natural sweets. One could argue that Behn has done this to cleverly juxtapose the aforementioned arrival of Oronooko, some would say his zenith as a noble slave, and his nadir. The fact both scenes are linked through the use of sensual imagery is no coincidence. The end of the text undoubtedly attempts to disregard the notion earlier aroused that to be a slave is to be contained, but still be free. Instead, it shows that slavery and colonialism, in this case Oronookos anxieties about his child being born in to such a life, actually breed such barbarism — eventually turning what was once the noble slave in to the noble savage. (body representing physical decay in to madness)
Another political theme prominately astheticized is class alignment. Jane Austen incorporates this immensely within her text; romanticising it via the use of natural imagery and associations. (critic and engagement) Her work largely forces the opinion of the reader, and thus centers itself around a bias to the detriment of the upper classes. That is to say Chapter VII closes with Edmund turning away from Fanny, stood by the window in solitude and looking out at the tranquil night, and instead walking in the direction of the music, and thus towards Miss Crawford. This sublimely represents the associations of the classes, in that Fanny in this instance is shown at the forefront of a natural setting that she describes as lift[ing] the heart to rapture. Opposingly, Edmund is following the instrument. It is very clear that the instrument is meant to signify Miss Crawford herself as she plays the harp. Perhaps then, Austen chooses to express Miss Crawford in this way to emphasise the theatricality of her character, implicitly stating that her appearance is a facade appropriated for an audience. The desirous glee of her charm makes her seem the most appealing to reader, confirmed by the wavering gaze of Edmund. Yet it should not be ignored that Fanny is clearly meant to symbolise the natural, someone not wielding for the masses, and therefore Austen may be seen as socially commenting on the falseness of upper class society within the eighteenth century.