Filming 'princes' and princesses: race, class, and the regency in the 1990s.

Author:Stetz, Margaret D.

In the process of introducing her 1997 anthology, Black British Feminism: A Reader, Heidi Safia Mirza offered what may appear to be an irrefutable proposition: "Gender is not experienced in the same way when you are positioned as working class or black, or both." (1) It would seem equally uncontroversial to assert that virtually nothing is experienced in quite the same way, depending upon one's race and class. That Mirza felt compelled to say this, however, suggests that the truth of such a statement about the importance of acknowledging difference was by no means self-evident to everyone in Britain, even as late as the mid-1990s. Indeed, as Mirza added, "To be black and British is to be unnamed in official discourse," (2) and with namelessness came continued invisibility. Three years later, Yasmin AlibhaiBrown confirmed this assessment: "we Black Britons remain barely noticed and on the periphery." (3) Black British women--that is, British women of color whose ancestry was African and/or Asian--who were also working-class often felt themselves doubly overlooked, if not deliberately excluded, as the new millennium neared.

But it was not merely from the "official discourse" of governmental pronouncements about Britain and Britishness that recognition of differences in race and class tended to disappear, for the same was true in the unofficial discourse of popular culture. This was so especially when it came to the many filmed recreations of British history that proliferated in the 1990s--representations of those who had played significant roles in the story of British life. Two decades of white British feminist activism had succeeded in making gender visible and, perhaps more important, marketable. Cinematic adaptations of literary texts by and about Englishwomen of the past--particularly about so-called "strong" and "independent" female characters--proved commercially viable in Britain and saleable abroad, so long as those figures were white and of the educated classes. One result of this phenomenon was the mid-1990s boom in both feature films and made-for-television costume dramas based on novels by Jane Austen and set in the Regency. Media critics now identify the year 1995 as a turning point in Austen's cinematic fortunes. Melissa Sue Kort, for instance, writing recently in Ms. magazine, has spoken of "a revival of interest in her work that began in the mid-1990s," (4) while Nancy Franklin has looked back with some amusement at Austen's selection as "one of People's '25 Most Intriguing People of 1995'." This "1995 honor" by an American magazine devoted to celebrating the existence of celebrities came "in recognition of ... that year's productions," imported from Britain, of "a TV miniseries of 'Pride and Prejudice' ... and a film adaptation by Emma Thompson of 'Sense and Sensibility.'" (5) For Kort, the appeal of such representations--and of Austen's novels themselves--was their invitation to audiences to "lose" themselves "in a well-ordered, meticulously described, seemingly simple and secure past," but also their ability to provide revelations about the "complexity" of women's lives and to hold up a mirror to "the complications of our own times." (6) Yet, as Heidi Safia Mirza's remark about gender suggests, the question of which women's lives--either in the Regency or in the present--were or weren't being addressed remained largely unexamined as the Austen adaptations of the mid-1990s proliferated.

Whether by critical or by commercial measures, however, the exception to the success of these productions was the feature-length version of Mansfield Park, written and directed by Patricia Rozema, that appeared slightly later, in 1999. It proved to be, as Pamela Church Gibson has reported, "misunderstood when first released" by Miramax/BBC, and it has been "subsequently ... overlooked and strangely neglected." (7) "Why did it fail?" Andrew Higson has asked. Answering his own question, Higson states bluntly that it "was not Austenish enough," for it was "too knowing, too revisionist in its approach to the past, too austere." (8) Here, the words "revisionist" and "austere" seem to be coded references alluding to the film's uncompromising political stance. What Rozema's adaptation restored to cinematic visions of the Regency was a recognition of the existence of problems of race and poverty, as well as a scathing view of the period's economic dependence upon the iniquities and inequalities of slavery to support life in the great and small country houses alike. As Pamela Church Gibson has put this matter, "It is slave labour, with all its implications, which permits the lavish lifestyle of the Bertram family. Austen was aware of both the abolitionist movement and of the sufferings of the slaves themselves. .. but Rozema takes the topic into terrain where Jane Austen could not or would not go." (9)

Yet even Rozema's "radical" Mansfield Park (10) did not reflect the extent of the black presence in Britain itself during the Regency. In the Introduction to her edition of The History of Maw Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831), Sara Salih cites historians who estimate "the Black population in Britain at this time" to have been between 10,000 and 20,000. (11) Although some were sailors and merchants from Africa, many were former slaves (or the descendants of former slaves) who had been brought by their owners from the British colonies. After the 1772 ruling by a British court that, under English Common Law, slavery in England itself had no legal standing and could not be enforced, they lived in England as free persons. During the period of the "long" Regency, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 outlawed slave trafficking throughout the British Empire, but this legislation did not affect the ownership of slaves in British colonies. Slavery, especially in the Caribbean, continued unabated until the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

Thus, the Regency--the period glamorized in mid-1990s cinematic representations through visions of pastoral landscapes and drawing-rooms furnished in Empire furniture, all populated by decorative young white women in laundered muslin--was roiled by debate over the legal and moral legitimacy of slaveholding, an issue made visible through the presence, especially in London and in port cities and towns, of free black workers. At the same time, both the countryside and the urban spaces alike were the sites of large numbers of poor white Britons (along with smaller gypsy communities), living in destitution. Vagrancy laws that permitted magistrates to confine the homeless forcibly to workhouses also forbade begging and allowed those found guilty of it to be sentenced to prison or even subjected to corporal punishment.

If the Austen adaptations of the mid-1990s failed to dramatize these other sorts of historical realities, and if Rozema's Mansfield Park gestured toward them but still foregrounded upper-class white responses to slavery, rather than black experiences of it, that does not mean issues of race and class, as well as of gender, were absent from British television and cinema or from what is known as the "heritage industry." The year 1995 may have been an annus mirabilis for one kind of Regency representation, but so was 1994 for another.

In that year, BBC TV broadcast The Two Marys, a half-hour episode in the series of five docudramas titled A Skirt Through History. Produced by Philippa Lowthorpe, A Skirt Through History was a feminist enterprise that depicted key moments in Britain's past by focusing on women such as Florence Nightingale and members of the suffrage movement. Unlike the other segments, however, The Two Marys, which was directed by Penny Woolcock, divided its focus between a white woman and a black woman, drawing its incidents and dialogue from two early-nineteenth-century sources on slavery: Lady Maria Nugent's observations in Lady Nugent's Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805 (first published by the Institute of Jamaica in 1907); and Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince, a...

To continue reading