Austen’s novels are about a tight upper class of British society and are set in picturesque villages that are largely cut off from the problems of the outside world. “Jane Austen is now standing on a pedestal as an expression of something delightful, comforting, beautiful, clever,” said Paula Marantz Cohen, English professor and dean of Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Many of her fans, she said, want to enjoy her stories about a simpler time and place.
Some Austen scholars say passages in her novels “Emma” and “Mansfield Park” suggest that she supports abolitionism, others say it is unclear. Few of her letters survived. But her favorite authors – Samuel Johnson, Thomas Clarkson, and William Cowper – were abolitionists. Nevertheless, like almost all English families of all kinds in the 18th century, her family had ties to the slave trade, according to “Jane Austen: A Life”, a book by Claire Tomalin.
Addressing the issue of slavery, Sherard Cowper Coles, President of the Jane Austen Society, said, “This is England’s story and as our understanding grows we should relate and update it.”
But Mr Cowper Coles, a former diplomat who was the UK’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009-10, warned: “It is not fair to expect people to have awareness outside of their time. But even in our time we are aware of slavery and live with its consequences in Minneapolis and in many other places. “
Frances Brook, a tour guide in England who has taken groups to Austen sites, said she was in favor of the museum that presented more context about Austen’s time, but that it “woke up” to condemn her for wearing cotton and taking sugar in their tea -ism has gone a little too far. “Like the rest of us, Austen did things in her everyday life that contradicted her broader views of the world,” said Ms. Brook, who last visited the museum in 2017.
Princeton Professor Johnson said the museum’s attempt to add context to Austen’s life would not suppress readers’ enthusiasm for her.
“Just because you involve Austen in the mess of the story doesn’t mean you don’t love her,” she said.