Move over, tea controversy—turns out Jane Austen’s brother was an abolitionist.
Recently, a series of clickbait articles started by The Telegraph claimed that Jane Austen had been “canceled for drinking tea” and was “under historical interrogation.” That was not the case. In fact, scholars and museums have been trying to parse Jane Austen’s position within the legacy of British slave ownership for years—and this week, new information about the Austen family has come to light. Professor and author Devoney Looser, in the Times Literary Supplement, has revealed that Jane Austen’s beloved brother, Reverend Henry Thomas Austen, was publicly anti-slavery.
It’s been known that another brother of Jane’s, Francis Austen, took staunchly anti-slavery positions in his unpublished diaries, and Jane’s personal letters mention she was “much in love” with white abolitionist Thomas Clarkson’s writings. But Looser has uncovered the first indication of an Austen publicly taking an explicit stance: records showing that Henry Austen was named as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, after Jane’s death, as one of two delegates representing Colchester. This indicates Austen was a known supporter, likely a local leader, of abolition—and at the convention, he would have seen Clarkson, the writer Jane so revered, speak.
This discovery lends color to interpretations of Austen’s writing as being subtly critical of slavery, but doesn’t negate the Austen family’s ties to an Antigua sugar plantation. In the Times Literary Supplement, Looser warns against categorizing the Austen family as solely pro- or anti-slavery—but encourages readers of Austen’s to place her work in its political context. Said Looser to the Associated Press, “Issues of race, racism and racial justice are central to Jane Austen’s day, so we’re not bringing questions and concerns that weren’t there in her time. They were absolutely there.”