Austen in Antigua: Literary and Cinematic Explorations of Rural Britain’s Colonial History

Module code: EN3202
Module coordinator: Dr Corinne Fowler

Recent years have seen a renaissance in historical research about rural Britain’s global and colonial connections. Major historical landmarks include the publication of Slavery and the British Country House (2013) and David Olusoga’s BBC series Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016), which presents archeological and archival evidence of the early black presence in Roman, Tudor and pre-twentieth-century Britain.

New historical investigations of rural Britain’s colonial connections are founded on a seminal book by Peter Fryer, called Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984), which remains influential to academics and writers alike. As more information comes to light, writers are responding as never before to the countryside’s black histories. In so doing, black Britons have – almost unnoticed - reshaped and redefined pastoral writing about William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’. This represents a ‘rural turn’ in writing by black Britons (Fowler, 2016).

Much of black Britons’ writing about the countryside is set against a backdrop of rural racism, a phenomenon which remains widespread, virulent and persistent. This is demonstrated in Rural Racism (2004), by Neil Chakraborti and Jon Garland, which also contends that the countryside is commonly presented as a repository of lost or endangered British values. This module explores literary and cinematic interventions into the countryside’s black histories. The early weeks explore some classic texts, including Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights and The Moonstone, which either register a black rural presence or connect the countryside with colonial trade or slave-derived wealth. Accordingly, we will explore the black histories of some iconic sites of British rurality: country houses, the Cotswolds, the Lakes, villages and moorlands.    

Topics covered

The module is structured around classic literature and contemporary responses to rural black histories in contemporary writing and film. We will explore:

Classic 19th century texts (and some film adaptations) which register the colonial connection:

  • Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (1814)
  • Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847)
  • Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone (1868)
  • Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips’ (1892)

Contemporary films about the countryside’s global connections, including:

  • Raymond Williams: The Country and the City (1978)
  • Horace Ove: Playing Away (1986)
  • Amma Asante: Belle (2014)
  • A Regular Black: The Hidden History of Wuthering Heights (1999)

Contemporary responses to historical work about the countryside’s black history. This includes work by VS Naipaul, David Dabydeen, Grace Nichols, John Agard, Manzu Islam, Tanika Gupta and Caryl Phillips.  

Beginning with some well-loved literary works, we will consider how the countryside’s colonial histories have been represented before exploring recent historical research into the topic. Correspondingly, we will consider how contemporary writers and film-makers are intervening in, and reshaping the British pastoral.

Teaching and Learning

  • Ten 90 minute seminars
  • Seven film screenings with introductory talks
  • Individual tutorials in week ten

Assessment

  • Presentation (20%)
  • Essay, 4,000 words (with the option of incorporating a creative element) (80%)