Apart from a few comments scattered throughout her books, and the plantation in Antigua that finances the running of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen manages to keep all mention of slavery from her work. Avoiding the topic as she did with the many wars waged throughout her writing career, she chooses, rather, to focus on “three or four families in a country village”. This ability to write without dipping into the deeper social issues of her time have helped keep her works feeling current and fresh. Still, the issue of slavery was a hot topic during her day.
When, in Emma, Jane Fairfax mentions “There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect”, Mrs. Elton replies, “Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.” One tends to think that Jane was also a “Friend to the abolition”, if Fanny Price’s feelings on the subject are meant to be any reflection of her own. Many in Austen’s own circle of family and friends fought for the rights of slaves. These included her brothers in the Navy, as well as several of her favorite authors, such as William Cowper, Doctor Johnson and Thomas Clarkson.
In 1792 the House of Commons voted in favour of “gradual” abolition, and in 1807 parliament outlawed the African slave trade by legislation. This prevented British merchants exporting any more people from Africa, but it did not alter the status of the several million existing slaves, and the courts continued to recognise colonial slavery. The abolitionists therefore turned their attention to the emancipation of West Indian slaves. Legally, this was difficult to achieve, since it required the compulsory divesting of private property; but it was finally done in 1833, at a cost of £20 million paid from public funds in compensation to slave owners. From August 1, 1834 all slaves in the British colonies were “absolutely and forever manumitted.”