Literature of the Carribean

An Invisible Writes Back: Jamaica Kincaid Answers Jane Austen

Temperance David' 05, State University of New York at Purchase

The following essay was originally written for LIT 3700.20, Literature and Empire, at SUNY Purchase College

The microcosmic worlds of both Jane Austen's Persuasion and Jamaica Kincaid's A Small Place construct and reflect back images of the British Empire and reevaluate imperialistic economies. The conflicting values of a changing British society at the end of the Napoleonic Wars are epitomized in Anne Elliot's difficult time with finding an appropriate husband. In opposition to the privileging of a class of inherited wealth, Persuasion exalts an empire-based economy through its valorization of the British Navy, whereas Kincaid's polemic works to demythologize the glories of a British imperial economy by exposing its insidious residual effects in places like emancipated Antigua. A Small Place paints a miniature of European Empire as it continues to appear in its former colonies and writes back to Persuasion, though indirectly, by making central what is only peripheral in Austen's love story.

In Persuasion, all the dynamic elements interact in "a small place," that is, among a small group of upper and upper-middle class people as they move within a very limited geographical setting in England. Though Anne Elliot originally rejects Frederick Wentworth, his work for the British Empire explains and justifies his protracted absence from her life. The British Empire also explains why Mrs. Smith's late husband could own "property" in the West Indies to which she is entitled. Likewise, the novel renders the British Navy in its role of empire building as doing its duty to England, and it presents the captured booty of enemy ships as necessary and good. However, since the plot hinges on Anne and Captain Wentworth getting back together and the novel begins just as the war has ended, empire itself plays a relatively minor role in preventing or accomplishing their reunion other than that it has made Captain Wentworth rich and therefore more of a socially acceptable match for Anne.

In contrast, Kincaid's A Small Place addresses the history of European imperialism and its aftermath in Antigua, an island so peripheral to Mrs. Musgrove's world that she would be unlikely to have heard of it (66). In that sense, it is about an even smaller place than that of Persuasion. As "event" is defined as "a thing that happens or takes place," nowhere in particular, Kincaid accesses our indifference to and designation of the peripheral in her use of the nonspecific word "event" to describe how the British Empire happened to Antigua. The present tense of "event" is accessed as Kincaid directs the narrative along several paths, covering a lot of historical, geographical, and emotional territory to prove that the evils of European colonialism continue to unfold, or happen, in Antigua even after Emancipation. She accomplishes this goal by employing a number of narrative strategies, like anecdotes, digressions, embedded narratives, and direct address, as well as different narrative points of view. To answer her own question, "Is the Antigua I see before me, self-ruled, a worse place than it was when it was dominated by the bad-minded English and all the bad-minded things they brought with them" (41), Kincaid sets up a long digression in which she details the history of Antigua's old library and recalls the pleasant afternoons she spent there as a child . Kincaid suggests with her meandering narrative that her original question wrongly presupposes that Antiguans are free from the legacy of corrupt British rule. Their inheritance of "bad-minded things" and ways from the British colonizers prolongs Antiguans' cultural and economic enslavement, making the idea of self-rule seem like an unrealistic premise (41).

What Wentworth says to Louisa (and Anne overhears) in the hedgerow, "It is the worst evil of too yielding and indecisive a character, that no influence over it can be depended on. -- You are never sure of a good impression being durable" (81) could have emerged from any imperialist's mouth in Austen's day. Why Antiguans after Emancipation, did not just pick up the ball of capitalism and run with it, Kincaid explains to her reader-as-Imperialist, "Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it's because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital" (37). However, Persuasion's works to make the capitalism of a Captain Wentworth more honorable than that of a Sir Walter Elliott. Even the polite society of Austen's novel generally considers the British Navy a legitimate profession. Perhaps the only character that speaks ill of the navy is Sir Walter Elliott, who thinks it brings "persons of obscure birth undue distinction" and causes its men to look too weather-beaten (20). Comparing Kellynch Hall to captured booty, Sir Walter jokes, "A prize indeed would Kellynch Hall be to him; rather the greatest prize of all, let him have taken ever so many before" (18). Still, it is understood that Sir Walter does not mean he disapproves of any particularly unjustifiable means a navy man might employ to get wealthy, such as legalized piracy, but rather that a navy man may attain through work a level of distinction previously attained only through inheritance. Nevertheless, Sir Walter's objections are directly and indirectly countered on so many occasions throughout the text that the navy's image grows to be rather rosy. In convincing her father to consider even the possibility of renting Kellynch Hall to a sailor, Anne defends the navy "who have done so much for us, have at least equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give. Sailors work hard enough for their comforts, we must allow" (20). This focus on the hard work and sacrifices of navy men is often alluded to. Captain Harville describes how a sailor "suffers when he takes a last look at his wife and children" (220) before setting out again to sea.

In retrospect, Anne sees how Wentworth's "genius and ardour seemed to foresee his prosperous path" suggesting that, in Anne's world, intelligence and determination would guarantee a man's good living in the navy. Because the Captain's good qualities were sure to have seen him through the inherent dangers of navy life, Anne realizes she'd overcautiously given too much weight to "every anxiety attending his profession" (29). She becomes certain that Wentworth must "by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune" and "she could not doubt his being rich" (29). The image of Louisa Musgrove bursting forth "into raptures of admiration and delight on the character of the navy-their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness; protesting that she was convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved" (92) is certainly tempered by our knowledge that she has a crush on Captain Wentworth but the text's valorization of Admiral and Mrs. Croft, the Harvilles, and even Captain Benwick would suggest that Louisa's description of the navy's character is not far from the mark.

A Small Place sets the British navy in a rather different light, or rather, on a different island. Re-contextualized, the heroes of the British Empire become the criminals of Antigua's colonial history. She writes that the street she lived on was "named after an English maritime criminal, Horatio Nelson," and that, "all the other streets around us were named after some other English maritime criminals" (24). Similarly, the sort of captured booty that goes unspecified in Persuasion is given the face of slavery in A Small Place. Kincaid's polemic enters post-colonial discourse by giving voice (or voices) to the losing side of imperialism, the side that is still losing, and challenges anyone who would claim the West got rich by legitimate means. Kincaid mimics the omission of slavery in Western economic histories when she writes that

the West got rich not from the free (free-in this case meaning got-for-nothing) and then undervalued labour, for generations, of the people like me you see walking around you in Antigua but from the ingenuity of small shopkeepers in Sheffield and Yorkshire and Lancashire, or wherever; and what a great part the invention of the wristwatch played in it, for there was nothing noble-minded men could not do when they discovered they could slap time on their wrist. [10]

She could just as well be talking back to Anne's conception that Captain Wentworth's "genius and ardour" got him rich, for surely after "taking privateers enough to be very entertaining," and going on to "capture the very French frigate" (61) he wanted, Captain Wentworth would have come into contact with wealth created by the colonized (or the colonized themselves in the form of slaves) of either the French or British empires.

To his credit, and in contrast to the idea of wealth as guaranteed to the talented and hardworking, the character of Captain Wentworth frequently calls himself lucky. He knew "he should soon be rich" because he knew he'd "always been lucky" and would always be lucky even though Lady Russell believed he had "no hopes of attaining affluence" (27). In the dining room of the Great House at Uppercross, Captain Wentworth's tales of seafaring fascinate and impress the Miss Musgroves with his bravery, though his luck is remarked upon six times between pages 61 and 62 (once by Admiral Croft, once by Mrs. Musgrove and four times by himself). During the same dinner party, the not-so-lucky fate of Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove's ne'er-do-well son, "poor Richard," who earlier had been described through Anne's free indirect discourse as "nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead," starkly contrasts with Wentworth's "deserved" success (48). Persuasion does not question or hint at the moral problem of privateers, rather it works to build up an image of the navy as a noble vocation and suggests that the most talented navy men are justly blessed with good fortune.

In addition, all the travelers in Persuasion avoid becoming colonials because they eventually return home. The characters confined in a "small place," find sailors interesting and exciting. "What a great traveler you must have been ma'am!" Mrs. Musgrove exclaims, encouraging Mrs. Croft to give details of her journeying alongside the Admiral. On the other hand, as anti-travel narrative, A Small Place disparages sailors, adventurers, travelers, and tourists. Kincaid writes, "There must have been some good people among you, but they stayed at home. And that is the point. That is why they are good. They stayed at home" (35). Though the sailors of Persuasion return to England at the end of the war, it is evident that British colonials continue to live abroad because Mrs. Smith is certain she can claim entitlement to, with Captain Wentworth's help, "property" in the West Indies under British law. If her claim is to be pursued and satisfied and the proper transference of wealth is to be made, then a significant or at least representative body of colonial power capable of enforcing such claims would necessarily live or operate in the West Indies. A Small Place supports the historicity of a Mrs. Smith. Only some time after it was founded in 1939, Kincaid explains, the Antigua Trades and Labour Union effectively organized as a political party, "demanding land in Antigua not be owned by syndicates made up of English people (most of whom still lived in England and had never laid eyes on Antigua), but by Antiguans, and demanding that Antiguans rule Antigua" (69). Persuasion hints at no doubt as to whether Mrs. Smith is entitled to the property her late husband has left her and implies the injustice Sir William Elliot has committed in denying her aid. Kincaid explains, "the criminal understands the word 'wrong' in this way: It is wrong when 'he' doesn't get his fair share of profits from the crime just committed; he understands the word this way: a fellow criminal betrayed a trust" (32).

Kincaid imagines the root cause of imperialism to be loneliness and emptiness, "a European disease" (80). She might find some description or proof of this disease in British novels like Persuasion, where women often seem to lead such lonely, empty lives. In attempting to convince Captain Harville of women's longer-lasting loyalty, Anne describes women's lives this way: "We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us" (218). Of course, European men would have to be afflicted with loneliness and emptiness as much or more than European women, since they are the dominant actors in the spreading and defending of empires. Anne explains to Captain Harville, "You have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately . . . " (218). Certainly, Captain Wentworth could be said to have been lonely and empty after Anne rejected him, and so, using Kincaid's theory, he threw himself fervently into the game of empire. Kincaid retells a tale, well known to Antiguans, about an English princess who came to Antigua "because she had fallen in love with a married man, and since she was not allowed to marry a divorced man she was sent to visit us to get over her affair with him" (33). Not being able to marry Anne, traveling became at least a distraction if not a cure for Wentworth's heartache.

In Austen, the West Indies becomes a kind of portal into obscurity wherein its characters may conveniently fade into two-dimensionality or emerge not only unscathed but rich. West Indians themselves are not peripheral; they are invisible, erased. Kincaid writes of the British colonizer, "you loved knowledge and wherever you went you made sure to build a school, a library (yes, and in both places you distorted or erased my history and glorified your own)" (36). In its business of glorifying the British navy, Persuasion both distorts and erases the histories of West Indian peoples and their awesome contributions to the wealth of European empires. Fortunately, A Small Place gives us the opportunity to reread important novels like Persuasion with peripheral vision.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. London: Penguin, 1918, 1988.

Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York: Ferrar, 1988.

Postcolonial Web Literature of the Caribbean Jamaica Kincaid

Last Modified: 30 April 2004