Would Jane Austen have met black people in England?

by Brenda S. Cox

“Here I see a variety of people in every street . . .” — Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey

In Jane Austen’s England, black people were a tiny percentage of the population. Few lived in villages like Steventon and Chawton; Austen probably did not meet black people in the countryside. Black mariners, though, often visited port cities like Southampton, so she probably saw black people when she lived there.

In London, at least, black residents were quite visible. Many were servants of the upper classes, working as pages or footmen. It was even the fashion to have a black servant in your portrait. According to Professor Gretchen Gerzina, many of the black people who appear in portraits were “borrowed” from someone else who had a black servant. Apparently their skin tones added contrast to the skin tones of the people being painted.

It’s possible that when Jane Austen visited her relatives in London or Bath she might have met black servants, either working for her relatives or their friends. Or she may have met mixed-race people who were part of society there, heirs or heiresses like Austen’s character Miss Lambe of Sanditon. Owners of plantations in the West Indies sometimes sent their mixed-race children to England where they became fully a part of English society.

Jane certainly knew a relative of one such woman. Elizabeth Murray Finch-Hatton lived near George Knight, Jane’s brother. Elizabeth was raised by Lord Mansfield, along with his great-niece Dido Elizabeth Belle. Dido was the mixed-race illegitimate daughter of Lord Mansfield’s nephew. (See Paula Byrne’s Belle for more of this fascinating story.) Jane met Elizabeth (though she didn’t think much of her.) It’s possible Jane might have also met Dido, but we just don’t know.

Fiction and letters of the time show us that black people in England faced personal prejudices and pejorative language. However, they apparently did not face legal restrictions like those in the United States at that time. Black people could and did testify in court. They brought court cases against those who wronged them, and won. They could, and did, marry white people and become fully part of white communities. They were baptized, married, and buried in the same churches as everyone else. Black people were members of most of the denominations of the time. Some, like Olaudah Equiano, were ardent evangelists for Christian faith. Black and mixed-race people became missionaries and clergymen.

For her book Untold Histories, Kathleen Chater explored the situation of black people in eighteenth century England by examining records of the time: court records, baptismal records, newspaper accounts, and much more. To see a little of what she discovered, check out my post this week at Jane Austen’s World, “Black England: No Wall of Separation?” Next month I’ll continue with individual stories of some of the black and mixed-race people in Austen’s England.

For more on the lives of individual black people in Austen’s England, including clergy and a missionary, see “Introducing Some People of Color Living in Austen’s England.”

In America, we take for granted that we see people from many backgrounds all the time. I love that I have neighbors of multiple races and nationalities. It’s great to learn from each other and bless each other. How can you show love to someone from a different background than yours today?

Next week, we’ll go to a totally different topic—a review of a delightful new Jane Austen variation! This novel gives Henry Crawford a second chance.

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