- The White Female as Effigy and the Black Female as Surrogate in Janet Schaw ’s Journal of a Lady of Quality and Jane Austen’S Mansfield Park
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, debates over the propriety of the institution of slavery in the British Empire were at the forefront of Great Britain’s politics. Numerous cases had been heard in the high courts addressing the status of black individuals—whether free or enslaved—upon British soil. As Deirdre Coleman notes, the “British public’s fascination with complexion can be seen as symptomatic of the period’s fascination with a new identity and status for Afro-Britons following Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Somerset case (1772)” (169). Despite the fact that the institution of slavery and its by-products of material wealth and goo111ds pervaded virtually all British social strata in some form or fashion, abolitionist efforts, especially among women, were on the rise. White females throughout the empire were becoming ever more aware of their complicity in the perpetuation of this inhumane system. As a means of elucidating the way the reality of Caribbean slavery permeated all areas of British society, it proves useful to look at the ways Janet Schaw and Jane Austen, two white female authors of the period, represented—or failed to overtly represent—within their writing the institution of slavery and particularly its psychological and physical effects on white females.
From 1774–1776, Schaw, a wealthy, middle-aged, white, Scottish woman, sailed from Scotland to the British West Indies and North Carolina to visit her brothers and their families who had relocated to the New World. During her travels, she penned letters to a female friend of like social standing in which she described her journey. These letters were published posthumously as Journal of A Lady of Quality from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the yeairs 1774–1776.1 Four decades after Schaw privately described her adventure, Austen published Mansfield Park, the plot of which centers around an English baronet, who owns property in Antigua, and his family in England.
Employing Joseph Roach’s concept of the human effigy as presented in “Echoes in the Bone,” the second chapter of his book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance, where he posits that “In an economy of slave-produced [End Page 117] abundance, expensive young women may come to signify the importance of excess itself, the symbolic crossing point of material production/consumption and reproductive fecundity,” I argue, as evidenced in the aforementioned works by Schaw and Austen, that white women ultimately became the living effigies to the black female surrogate victims within the system of slavery (42). To provide further evidence to this attestation, I turn to Joyce Green MacDonald’s article “The Disappearing African Woman: Imoinda in Oroonoko After Behn,” in which she notes that as a means of justifying their dalliances with their female slaves, at least a few white male authors penned accounts in which they attempted to persuade white women of their superiority over black women because of their distance from sullying sexuality, creating “a new social and economic status for planters’ wives and daughters in the colonies” (75). In examining Schaw’s A Journal of a Lady of Quality and Austen’s Mansfield Park through the lens afforded by Roach and MacDonald, one becomes aware of the representation of the white female effigy and black female surrogate. Thus the very concept of “woman” within the system becomes the “monstrous double” (Girard 272). In Schaw’s words and Austen’s deafening silences, the effects of the system of slavery—both psychologically and physically—on white women of the British Empire corroborates the concept of their status as effigies.
Roach presents a multilayered argument for the role of both performance and memory in rituals which accompany dying, death, and the (re)location of the dead among members of the Black Atlantic.2 The employment of an “effigy” is vital in the establishment of creative memory. Roach points out, “[an effigy] fills by means of surrogation a vacancy created by the absence of an original” (36).3 Any particular human...