Recently, an article about whether or not Mr. Darcy’s fortune was based on slavery set my Twitter feed alight. And I thought, well of course it was (in one form or another). This is the dark side of our wealthy, aristocratic characters that romance sweeps under the rug. It is certainly possible that the Darcy family fortune was based entirely on the profits of the mines in Derbyshire (harsh as those conditions might have been, they were NOT akin to slavery), but it’s much more likely that those profits were then put to use in ways that almost certainly have ties to slavery.
How so, let us tally up the ways …
1) Directly. Many families owned plantations in the West Indies (see this fascinating account of how the Earls of Harewood built their fortune on slavery, the products there of, and the overseeing of same).
2) Being paid off. When slavery was abolished in 1833, the British government spent a staggering amount of money to compensate the owners of slaves for their losses (good article about that here). Some families got the equivalent of millions of dollars. There were over three thousand claims, which lets you know how widespread slavery was and what its impact must have been on the fortunes of the top families.
3) Via investments. People invested in specific ships and ventures (sometimes called consortiums or syndicates). Many of those would have been involved in producing or importing some kind of product that was produced by slaves in either America, the West Indies, or India (sugar, rum, cotton, opium, tea, rice, etc.).
4) The East India Company. It’s worth noting that when Britain abolished slavery, supposedly throughout its empire, it made an exception for slavery in India. So all those fortunes made in India by younger sons, all those tea plantations, and cotton farms, and military careers, existed because of slavery (good summation on Wikipedia).
I’m sure Janet would have even more insightful things to say on this topic, but I wanted to bring it up for discussion given the timeliness of the article. I know romance is generally seen as escapist, and I don’t want to ruin that for anyone, but I do think it does history a disservice to gloss over these sorts of things to the point where they no longer seem to exist.
So what do you all think? Do you want to topics like this addressed in romances, or do you think it makes it too hard to enjoy the HEA and heavy topics are best left to those writing straight historical fiction?
Oh my. This was recently asked in one of my groups and I uneducatedly responded that it may not have been the case, although it was pointed out in Austen’s Mansfield Park, I just couldn’t think that Austen would have done it?
But from this, it absolutely changed my mind on the subject and makes total sense, sadly. There were many aristocrats in India for trades, government, war, etc….
But yes I totally like these kind of topics addressed in romance. I see them a lot in pirate/ privateer romances, and in HR novels where the couples aren’t aristocrats. But I think it gives story a more interesting look and engages the reader’s attention and emotions more on the topic. But definitely doesn’t ruin the HEA for me, that is unless they are for slavery then it’ll be a bit difficult.
Of course it was. There are a few lines in Layton’s first book where she explicitly spells out that her leads have made money from slavery. It bugs me that slavery is erased from the narrative.
Perhaps the connections were not present in every mind, and therefore invisible to the gilded class we write about. Regardless, I give double extra points to the rare authors that acknowledge it.
I’m going to give a typical Elena response to your question, which is “it depends”. I’m OK with books not going into detail on the darker elements of the historical background when they’re not particularly relevant to the main characters and the romance, and especially if the tone is light and funny and the story can’t be mistaken for anything realistic. On the other hand, if the history is relevant, then it can add to the story. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that some historical romances set in the antebellum South gloss over the issue of slavery and instead talk about “plantation workers”. I haven’t read any like that, but that would be where I draw the line and the reason that for me, that era can’t be romanticized.
When I try to imagine how my characters would likely have thought about slavery and all the myriad products there of which would have been impossible to escape and endemic to their lives, the closest I can get is our general disinterest/ignorance about the production of all the stuff we import today. Sure it’s great to get a t-shirt for $10 and boy do we love our iPhones, but there’s a dark side to the production that allows us to live/consume like we do and 99% of the time, most people don’t think about it (or if they do, they ignore the sick feeling in their gut because “there’s nothing they can do about it”).
So while I struggle with the glossing over, I do believe that it’s entirely realistic and historically accurate to do so (and I don’t want every book out there to turn into an ode to abolition). But it seems like there might be room for a little more reality and grit.
I’m one book out from my hero based on the Chevalier St-Georges, so this is all very much present in my brain. IRL, the guy I based my character on was the son of a slave brought back to France. He was raised a gentleman and inherited a fortune that was made from plantations in the West Indies. How must he have felt about that? He certainly took the money and I haven’t found any information about him being involved in abolition (though I haven’t finished his biography yet).
Isobel, interesting post!! I agree with you –and with Elena. I think most people then didn’t think about it, either by choice or because it didn’t impact them directly (much like today’s issues). Therefore, glossing over or leaving it out seems reasonable for characters like that. OTOH, to ignore it when dealing with characters who -do- have a reason to think about it does a disservice to the readers and the story. After all, we try to create a sense of the world our characters inhabit. So, as Elena said, I think it depends. Good question!
Mrs. Bingley’s comment: “How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!” “Odious” has a different ring to it if you consider Darcy may have been writing about an investment in, say, a slave ship to inquire whether it had just landed and what the pay off might be. Or a sugar plantation where there was a recent uprising. The word “odious” in the mouth of Miss Bingley is meant as tedious, we assume. But I like to think Elizabeth Bennet thought it an apt word for other reasons. And perhaps Mr. Darcy did, too. In his position as a landowner and inheritor of an estate he may have felt he must go along with the immoralities, however distasteful. Out of duty. Pride. I always thought Elizabeth’s attraction for Darcy lay chiefly in the way she seemed to show her knowledge that it was all a facade held up by vice and evil, and the clever ways she played with that knowledge in her social interactions. As white gentry, there was nothing immediate they needed to do with this knowledge they (may have) both shared. In any event, they didn’t seem to do anything constructive about it. But they were drawn to one another because of that mutual knowledge.