The Battle Over Jane Austen’s Whiteness
With the TV series “Sanditon” and a new “Emma” adaptation, Jane Austen is still trending. But some fans are struggling with the stories’ colonialism and lack of diversity.
It began, as things sometimes do on social media, with an emoji. A pineapple emoji to be exact.
Fans of Sanditon, an eight-part Jane Austen adaptation currently airing on PBS Masterpiece, have been deploying the icon on Twitter as a shorthand for their esteem and support of the show, which padded out the surviving chapters of Austen’s last, unfinished novel and turned them into a full-blown Regency romance. But if the scenes of sex and male nudity were not enough to set off paroxysms of controversy, the emoji certainly did.
“The fans decided it was a cute little thing they could use to promote Sanditon, but I thought it was a bit racist in the context of the show,” said Amanda-Rae Prescott, a Caribbean-American social media manager who lives in New York.
The pineapple appears in the second episode. Lady Denham, the very rich, very acid-tongued dowager of Sanditon House, obtains it from a hothouse to serve as a centerpiece of a luncheon she is throwing in honor of Georgiana Lambe, an even wealthier West Indian heiress who happens to be black. (In her fragment, Austen describes Miss Lambe, her first unambiguously non-white character, as “half mulatto, chilly and tender.”)
Tightly coiled and wary—wouldn’t you be, too?—Georgiana, like the tropical fruit, is out of her milieu in the cold, soggy seaside town of Sanditon. To add insult to injury, she must also weather Lady Denham’s barely-disguised contempt. (“You must be used to being another man’s property” is one particularly choice remark.) Far from honoring Georgiana’s heritage, as Lady Denham had condescended, the pineapple is reframed as an object of derision, a message that is further driven home when another guest lops off the crown with his knife, only to reveal that its insides are crawling with maggots.
“In a mood today,” Prescott wrote on Twitter late last month. “I’d love for #Sanditon and #SanditonPBS fandom to stop using the pineapple as their slogan because it’s mocking Georgiana’s race. Your intent to support the show is nice, but it’s not making black fans of Georgiana feel welcome in the fandom.”
The backlash, as Prescott described it to me, was immediate and vociferous. Soon, the so-called “Sanditon sisterhood” was accusing her of being inflammatory, discriminatory, even racist for “hating white people.” Some fans took her words to heart, exchanging the pineapple emoji for a seashell or one with waves instead. Most doubled down by ignoring what the show went to lengths to make plain: that Lady Denham and the pineapple represented the enduring pain of Britain’s colonial legacy, one “rotten to the core,” as the guest had remarked.
“Pineapples, like sugar and cotton, have a history that is intrinsically tied to the theft and exploitation of indigenous land and enslavement of African people,” said Jeanne, a Tongan-American media critic from Seattle who waded into the discussion on Twitter and asked that her last name not be used.
Indigenous to South America—likely Brazil— and introduced to the Caribbean by Indian traders, the pineapple has been a longstanding symbol of hospitality for good reason. Trade routes between the New and Old Worlds were protracted and treacherous, and so the procurement of a ripe pineapple by dinner hosts was often hard-won. They were difficult to cultivate in England, too, reinforcing pineapples as “symbols of wealth for white people who either owned colonial land and enslaved people to grow them or had enough wealth derived from that exploitation to pay for them,” Jeanne added.
Actress Crystal Clarke, who portrays Georgiana, told me that even though she sees the fruit as a manifestation of Lady Denham’s microaggressions, she’s certain many users of the emoji also feel empathy for Georgiana. “I don’t think people meant anything by it, but it doesn’t mean it’s not offensive to people, since it’s in a scene where someone’s racial trauma is most evident,” Clarke said. “It might be different if it was part of a joyous event, like if Georgiana shipped some pineapples over herself because she misses them.” Considering the pineapple never shows up again, it isn’t even an apt symbol for Sanditon.
“We can find a better emoji, guys,” she said.
Jane Austen didn’t write the scene with the pineapple—screenwriter Andrew Davies did—but it and the Twitter fallout that followed are a reflection of the unease black and brown Austen fans often feel in a sea of white faces and voices.
The fact that Jane Austen is trending 200 years after her death is a feat of longevity few authors can match—barring, perhaps, William Shakespeare, who had a 200-year lead, a far more prodigious output, and less baggage as the progenitor of “chick lit” among certain sniffy literary circles.
Sanditon wraps its first and possibly only season on Feb. 23; the same week, a new adaptation of Emma will grace the big screen. It will be the fifth permutation of the story, not counting the high-school transplant Clueless, the Bollywood remake Aisha, and the modern-day web series Emma Approved.
Austen’s work gets remade and retweaked a lot, dovetailing with the zeitgeist in ways you wouldn’t expect. Her characters have held court in Atlanta, fended off zombies and sea monsters, been given queer spins, and reimagined as guinea pigs. The podcast Bonnets at Dawn pits Austen against the Brontë sisters in what began as a mock popularity contest. On Twitter, Drunk Austen exists solely to post Jane Austen memes, though it’s done “100 percent with love,” said Bianca Hernandez, a journalist who co-manages the account. Sarah Rose Kearns, a New York playwright, is bringing to the stage an adaptation of Persuasion and a cycle of short plays that drop in on Austen and her sister, Cassandra, at different points in their lives.
All of this is a testament to the humanity of her stories, said Kristina Straub, a professor of English at the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University. Whether you read Austen for the marriage plot or the cutting satire and unblinkered social commentary, the types of human connections she describes are still “very recognizable and very real for us,” Straub said. “We can’t take to bed for six months because we’re disappointed in love anymore, because our world is different, but we can still identify with that impulse.”
For some Janeites, Austen holds up a mirror not only to the past but also the present. Laaleen Sukhera, author of Austenistan, an anthology of short stories inspired by Austen’s novels, says life in 21st century Pakistan isn’t so different from that of 19th century England. “Women are still pretty much second-class citizens here,” she said. “There’s still an emphasis on marrying well—you’re still judged on that basis.” Georgie Castilla, who works in theater in New York City, says Austen’s comedies of manners remind him of life in Mexico, where he grew up in a community that behaved “much like a little English village,” full of drawing-room gossip and intrigue.
Nevertheless, it isn’t without reason that some on the alt-right have extolled her novels for modeling what they call the white “ethnostate.” The Bennets, the Dashwoods, the Elliots, the Bertrams, the Morlands, the Woodhouses, and the social circles they maneuver in are, without exception, white. That Austen fans are mostly white (and female) is a generalization that isn’t usually challenged, either, though Liz Philosophos Cooper, president of the Jane Austen Society of North America, says she’s seeing increasing numbers of people of different backgrounds and ethnicities at its meetings. (JASNA, Cooper told The Daily Beast, does not ask its members for demographic information.)
To be sure, Georgiana’s appearance in Sanditon is pronounced because we’re not used to seeing people of color in British period dramas, least of all in Austen’s perfectly manicured, lily-white fantasy worlds. Records show, however, that black people have resided in Britain since at least the 12th century. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but historians estimate that some 15,000 black men and women lived in England in the latter half of the 18th century, mostly in the major port cities of Bristol, Liverpool, and London.
“It wasn’t a lot, given that London’s population alone was around 670,000 at the time, but it wasn’t as white as people think,” said Patricia Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University who is writing a book about British women authors and the abolitionist movement.
Indeed there’s been a “whitewashing of history in the collective memory,” said Lena Ruth Yasutake, a biracial Connecticut resident who designs, sells, and rents Regency costumes for historical reenactments. “But Jane Austen, her family, and her imaginary characters could very well have had daily interactions with people of color without any revisionist history at all.”
Austen’s spare physical descriptions of her characters leaves room for interpretation, too. Yasutake’s favorite character is Sense and Sensibility’s Marianne Dashwood, whose skin is described as “very brown” and is often depicted with curly hair. “So in my imagination, I imagine a Marianne who looks more like my sister or my daughter,” Yasutake said.
Rather than emphasize what they look like, Austen draws her focus on her heroines’ inner lives. “She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation,” she wrote of Marianne. And that’s the rub. Most of us may no longer wear Empire-waisted dresses or frock coats, but we all know a Marianne.
Conversations about who is “allowed” to appear in historical dramas have come to a head in recent months. In January, British actor Laurence Fox—whose brother Jack, coincidentally enough, has a supporting role in Sanditon—criticized director Sam Mendes for what he called the “incongruous” inclusion of a Sikh soldier in the ranks of the British Army in the World War I film 1917, a move he decried as “institutionally racist” for “trying to force diversity.” Fox apologized after historians pointed out that one in six soldiers in the British army at the time hailed from the Indian subcontinent. A fifth of those, they said, were Sikh.
Other critics have slated the casting of Dev Patel, a British actor of Indian descent, as David Copperfield in the upcoming Charles Dickens adaptation as “diversity for the sake of it,” a “rewrite of history,” a “suspension of reality,” and “utter woke tosh” that will have the Victorian author “spinning in his grave.” (Never mind that the East India Company brought thousands of Indian workers to Britain in the 19th century to work on ships and in ports.) One Twitter user called out David Oyelowo’s role as a black Javert on PBS Masterpiece’s 2019 version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as “cringeworthy... pandering to political correctness,” even though the biracial father of Three Musketeers scribe Alexandre Dumas, Hugo’s contemporary, served as a general in revolutionary France.
“Contrary to some popular belief, not every black man living in Europe in the early 1800s was some kind of slave or subservient in some way,” Oyelowo himself said at a Television Critics Association panel last year.
Austen, who lived from 1775 until her death at 41 in 1817, would have known this, and may in fact have been inspired to write Mansfield Park after learning about the real-life circumstances of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the biracial daughter of a British admiral and a slave. Rather than face subjugation, Belle was raised as near equals with her white cousin by their great-uncle William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of England from 1756 to 1788, and a leading abolitionist of his time. In Jane Austen: the Secret Radical, British scholar Helena Kelly argues that contemporaneous readers would not have missed the subtle swipes at slavery in Mansfield Park: In addition to the “Mansfield” Easter egg, the villainous Mrs. Norris shares her last name with a real-life slave trader and anti-abolitionist.
Even so, Austen’s references to the social issues of her time are often oblique to a 21st century audience, Matthew said. And as a black woman who teaches Austen, Matthew says she grapples with the current sentimentalization of that era. Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility, she pointed out, achieved his rank “as a result of his contribution to England’s empire building” in India. The Bertrams in Mansfield Park owe their fortune to sugar plantations in Antigua. Even Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, as an officer in the Royal Navy, played a role in annexing territories from the West Indies to Southeast Asia.
While we can’t be sure where her quill would have strayed had she lived longer—see Miss Lambe—it’s for these reasons that Austen fans sometimes struggle with the imperialist undertones in her novels, even if they enjoy the escapism of dressing up for tea parties, games of whist, and Regency balls. “I think a lot about why I feel so drawn to a world I couldn’t have properly existed in,” said Maxine Dillon, an aspiring playwright from Austin who is black and Filipina. “I think about the reality of black people living at the time, and as I grow older, it becomes harder to look away from. And it isn’t something I want to look away from.”
Certainly Austen fans—or Janeites as they dub themselves—haven’t shied away from recasting Austen in their own image. (Neither have on-screen adaptations: Mr. Darcy emerging from a lake in a clinging wet shirt, no matter how much fans wish it, is not canon.) Devoney Looser, a professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of The Making of Jane Austen, describes the contradictions and confluences of multiple versions of Jane Austen. And not all Janes are equal: Depending on whom you ask, she can be on the frontlines of preserving tradition or the vanguard of social change, a covertly queer figure or a guardian of heterosexuality, a vaunted literary institution or a “harmless genius aunt.”
“Separating the myth from biographical fact has become incredibly difficult to do because the myths have become so entrenched and larger than life,” Looser said. Besides her six books, only 161 of Austen’s letters survive; Cassandra destroyed much of her sister’s correspondence upon her death to spare the family any potential embarrassment. But the central thrust of Austen’s fiction has always been irrefutable: its focus on the individual, and the way people “navigate social systems that are often stacked against them in a world that is deeply unfair,” Looser said.
Writer-director Sharmini Kumar, an Australian of Sri Lankan and Filipino heritage, recalled her discomfort when a group of people at a Jane Austen festival she attended in Canberra erupted in a round of “Rule Britannia,” a patriotic anthem whose lyrics include the line “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” Kumar describes the desire to recapture the British empire’s glory days without considering the people who suffered because of those ambitions “really sad and really difficult,” even though she doesn’t think it’s inherent to Austen or her work.
Growing up in a former British colony, Kumar says she feels the tension of loving something with problematic roots. “So the question is,” she said, “how do we make it ours in ways that embraces the validity and value of our own culture but also acknowledges the harm that was done by the same colonialism that brought us this thing we love?”