Atlantic Thinking in Jane Austen’s Novels
Understood in its historical moment, Austen’s fiction can be seen as a reflection on two key aspects of British national identity in a period of historical transformation: England’s strong maritime presence in the Atlantic world and a cultural imaginary based in landed estates. While the interpretation of Mansfield Park has rightly drawn attention to the significance of plantation estates for her fiction, this novel does not exhaust Austen’s Atlanticism. This chapter argues that Austen’s Persuasion articulates a picture of mobility associated with naval life (meritocracy, mapping, ethical individualism), rather than with the culture of the plantation or the landed estate. As a kind of psychological corollary to the British navy’s meritocratic culture, Austen valorizes the fluidity of mind that survives the exigencies of fortune and even profits from them. Seeing Nelson rather than Napoleon, Trafalgar rather than Waterloo, as her ethical model, Austen’s novel is a lesson in engaging with otherness—that is to say, in engaging Atlantically with the world.