Dr. Leigh-Michil George
Dr. Lillian Lu
Jane Austen Afterlives
“Searching for Miss Lambe: Austen’s Afterlives,
The Woman of Colour, and Regency Noir”
Dr. Leigh-Michil George, a scholar of eighteenth and nineteenth century English literature, addressed the JASNA Southwest meeting at Whittier College on February 11, 2023, on the impact of Jane Austen upon culture and communities, sharing her insights from studying Jane Austen’s Sanditon alongside the 1808 novel, The Woman of Colour.
The Woman of Colour, written by an anonymous author in the year after the slave trade was abolished, was about a Black mixed-race heroine, Olivia Fairfield. Olivia was the beneficiary of her white father’s will, which endowed Olivia with a substantial fortune, conditioned upon her marrying her white English cousin. The novel poses issues under English law and society which are also the subject of Sanditon.
In Jane Austen’s final and unfinished novel Sanditon, Miss Georgiana Lambe, is a “character of color,” who is described by Austen as “a young West Indian of large fortune in delicate health” and the wealthiest person in the novel. The story regarding Miss Georgiana Lambe evokes the life and times of historic contemporaries of Jane Austen: Dido Elizabeth Belle, the wealthy biracial heiress of a white English naval officer raised by Lord Mansfield, and Dorothy Kirwan Thomas (1763-1846), a mixed-race woman who purchased her freedom and acquired substantial wealth.
Recent novels and films enlarge upon the romantic narrative of mixed-race heroines in Regency settings, including Bridgerton, Island Queen by Vanessa Riley, and the eight-volume Regency in Color series, which includes stories by Gabriel Carr, Hildie McQueen, and Elise Marion. Miss Lambe’s character has inspired authors of historical romance, like Vanessa Riley, to “seek the real histories of women of color in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
The author of Island Queen found her process of writing to be ultimately recuperative for the author herself: “finding Dorothy Kirwan Thomas…and so many other black women who had agency and access to all levels of power…restored my soul.” The unfinished novel of Jane Austen thereby continues to impact culture, communities and readers in the 21st century.
Dr. George’s presentation provided an enlightening closer look at Miss Lambe’s “historical reality” by “considering ways in which Black British people inhabited a range of spaces and places in the Regency period.”
“The Bennets are Asian American”
Scholar Lillian Lu examined her relationship to the field of eighteenth and nineteenth century British studies and her own experience as a Chinese American. In Regency literature, Lu found many opportunities to explore identity and social and literary forms. In Jane Austen’s and Frances Burney’s literature, Lu reports that she discovered a deeper understanding of herself.
In her own case, Lu discovered resonances between Austen’s literature and the Asian American experience. Quoting “Captain Kim”, the bachelor of the recent NBC production The Courtship, “Asian culture is like the Regency Period.” All the usual stereotypes come into play: “We’re polite, we sing and dance, we play the pianoforte, we impress the in-laws.”
In the representation of South Asians in a Regency setting, the popular series Bridgerton builds on these cultural parallels, while at the same time managing to confuse Bengali, Tamil and other references, thereby proving that sometimes “misrepresentation can be as bad as non-representation.” Throwing various traditions into “a stew of multiculturalism” can raise questions that never are satisfactorily answered.
Nonetheless, Lu chose the Regency Period to study —“despite the vexation and through the weeds of ambivalence”— because she found joy in the literature of the British nineteenth century and the means of asking questions she wanted to ask.