Beyond reason

British Women Writers and Race, 1788-1818: narrations of modernity

Eamon Wright <em>Palgrave Macmi

In 1788, two major anti-slavery poems by women were published: "Slavery", by the evangelical Christian Hannah More, and "A Poem on the Inhumanity of the Slave Trade", by the radical former milkwoman Ann Yearsley. From quite different perspectives, the women found a common cause in opposition to the trade. Their discussions were, however, perhaps less straightforward than they seemed. For many writers of the Romantic period, the issues of slavery and race were a means to broach other subjects, often of personal concern. Categorising "the other" was also a way of defining "the self".

Eamon Wright describes this method as "agential". Writers, he claims, were "working with one idea to underscore another". So when Yearsley wrote her polemic, her rage was driven as much by her experience as a peasant woman forced out of work by the vagaries of the market as by her desire to highlight the unjust treatment of African slaves. Hannah More's attacks on slavery also served as a defence of her evangelical Christianity.

Both Yearsley and More raged against the attitude, then prevalent, that Africans could not feel as Europeans did. Yet both seemed equally certain that Africans could not reason. "Tho few can reason, all man-kind can feel," More wrote. Reason, that superior attribute so prized by the women and men of the Enlightenment, was reserved for westerners. By asserting that slaves had feelings, writers such as Yearsley and More raised them above the level of chattels. By assuming that slaves lacked reason, they placed them below themselves. Drawing attention to the plight of slaves was a way for these authors to define themselves as rational beings. It was the start of an argument that later generations were to call feminism.

Mary Wollstonecraft employed slavery as a metaphor when she demanded gender equality with the rhetorical question: "Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalise them?" Maria Edgeworth, writing on contemporary education, casually conflated Islam with mental backwardness and female oppression when she complained: "Till of late women were kept in Turkish ignorance." The echoes of such arguments can be heard in our age - in the way, for instance, that freeing women from oppression was one of the arguments invoked to justify attacking Afghanistan.

Writings from the Romantic period abound with racial stereotypes: consider the novels of Ann Radcliffe, which are full of gypsies, blackamoors and banditti. But some other works are just as notable for what they don't say about race. It becomes possible to take a new perspective on Jane Austen when we consider what happens off-stage in her novels. In Persuasion, the horror of slavery lurks behind Captain Wentworth's financial and naval success in the West Indies. And the society depicted in Mansfield Park looks less worthy of protection when we remember why Sir Thomas is forced to absent himself for so long: to deal with "troubles" in Antigua.

In poems, plays, tracts, journals, essays and letters, women of this period supported and attacked, destroyed and constructed racial stereotypes. The nature of commerce, the responsibilities of government, the demands of religion and, above all, women's sense of their own identity were all explored through racial discourse.

What this gave to subsequent generations was an oblique, self-referential way of writing about race in which the meaning of the term is curiously elastic. Though Wright's "narrations of modernity" were written 200 years ago, we are still living them out today.

Kathy Watson is the author of The Devil Kissed Her: the story of Mary Lamb (Bloomsbury)