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The Woman of Colour: A Tale, by Anonymous, ed. Lyndon J. Dominique

Thursday, March 10, 2011 - 09:04
The Woman of Colour: A Tale, by Anonymous, ed. Lyndon J. Dominique (Broadview, 2007). 268pp (Paperback, ISBN-10: 1551111764; $24.95).

Reviewed by
Patricia A. Matthew
Montclair State University

The allure of editing a text that has been out of print for two hundred years is irresistible to any scholar interested in lesser-known texts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially a novel compelling enough to gain the notice of influential periodicals like The British Critic and The Monthly Review. For anyone interested in histories of prose fiction, Lyndon J. Dominique’s edition of The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808) has much to offer. The novel fits neatly into that period between Frances Burney’s novels of the late eighteenth century and the historical novels of the Romantic era, and anticipates Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). As Dominique convincingly argues, it extends the traditions introduced by Samuel Richardson in Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). The meticulously annotated primary text and the supplemental material Dominique has selected to situate it within its cultural moment has the potential to fill in gaps in our understanding of literary history, expand our understanding of a specific cultural moment and struggle (namely England’s competing projects of abolition and empire), and provide an entry to heretofore marginalized (if not completely unknown) literary traditions, all the while highlighting previously ignored threads in existing ones.

Readers of this Broadview edition of the novel will leave it with a clear sense of the tradition of women of color in fiction that has been largely ignored—for example, The Irishman in London; or, The Happy African (1793) by William Macready and Zoflora, or the Generous Negro Girl (1804) by Jean Baptiste Piquard—and a new understanding of how these figures function in canonical literature, such as Frances Burney’s The Wanderer (1814) and William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847). Most importantly, The Woman of Colour is a more than satisfying piece of storytelling. Despite the novel’s didactic and overt political agenda, it avoids the preachiness of William Godwins’s Caleb Williams (1794) or Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796). This is in part because of the plot turns in the novel, in part because of the heroine’s sense of humor, and in part because the novel uses recognizable eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gender tropes to both humanize the people of color in the novel and highlight the inequities all women of the times faced.

The Woman of Colour is an epistolary novel about the orphan Olivia Fairfield—the biracial daughter of the slaveholder Mr. Fairfield and Marcia, a Guinean woman on his plantation. The story begins at sea with Olivia en route from Jamaica to London to meet Augustus Merton, the cousin her father’s will stipulates she must marry in order to gain access to her inheritance. Without this marriage, Augustus’s older brother and sister-in-law will inherit the estate. Anxious but stalwart, Olivia manages the turmoil of her journey, both her internal unease about meeting her future husband and the turbulent ocean she travels, all the while offering pronouncements, arguing not just for the humanity of people of color but for their equality to their English counterparts: “I see the distributions of Providence are equally bestowed, and that it is culture not capacity which the negro wants!” (55)

In letters to her governess, Mrs. Milbanke, she describes her often painful adventures facing the prejudices of England’s elite, often offering slyly witty critiques of those in the upper classes, which she describes as a “wondrous pile of novelty” (95). As the daughter of a white man and a black woman, Olivia can speak with great authority about several issues: she understands the limits of gender and is uniquely situated to empathize with black women. She is the outsider and “Other” with an insider’s access because of her parentage, which provides her the opportunity to comment on the foibles of England’s parlor culture. Standing between the blackness of her servant Dido and the whiteness of her father, she is the mediator for those in and out of the text, able to discuss the dehumanizing subject position of women and men of color while gracefully and patiently negotiating the bigotry of the elite, whether directed at her in the form of the genuinely ignorant (the three-year old child of her nemesis in the novel) or through the snide comments of his mother. Language has a different tint when spoken by Olivia: as she says to her admirer George Honeywood, “when I set my foot on your land of liberty, I yield up my independence” (66). Words like “liberty” and “independence” ring differently when in the voice of a slave’s daughter, and the entire novel tilts towards a critique of bigotry, even in its most common moments.

The novel reflects the moment of its production with themes and tropes familiar to readers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature: the larger theme of nineteenth-century women’s subject position as chattel, the treatment of fallen women, and notions of the ideal woman, a trope the author complicates, and makes all the more poignant, as it is represented through the bodies of women of color. This representation of double oppression is best seen in the story of Marcia’s death during childbirth. The common plight of nineteenth-century fallen women characters carries a different weight when it is enacted upon the body of a black slave. Punished by “nature” for a crime she has no part in committing (Mr. Fairfield’s prejudice keeps him from marrying the slave he’s fallen in love with and impregnated), death is both a punishment for succumbing to the temptations of the flesh but also an escape from the world’s torment. Marcia is not exempt from the period’s gendered Christian values simply because she is a slave: “In giving birth to me she paid the debt of nature and went down to that grave, where the captive is made free” (55). But the end of Olivia’s statement (“when the captive is made free”) resituates this fallen woman as one freed from two sets of chains: the metaphorical bonds of sexism and the physical ones she would have worn as a slave.

The novel falls near the middle of England’s struggle with abolition (1789-1833) and it reflects this in subtle and explicit ways. The name of Olivia’s betrothed, Augustus Merton, is an allusion to Thomas Day’s immensely popular children’s story The History of Sandford & Merton (1783-1789), which tells the story of two young men: Sandford, who has the right values, and Merton, who must be taught good values by a Gambian boy. In The Woman of Colour, Olivia is the educator of color who teaches those in the text (and presumably its nineteenth-century audience) Christian values—primarily through her own physicality. Thus, for example, she offers a theology of acceptance to the three-year old George when she explains that her color comes from God, and she meets his skepticism by explaining that God has made them all:

The same God that made you made me…the poor black woman [Dido]—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of this world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow mine. God chose it should be so, and we cannot make our skins white, and more than you can make yours black (79).

Throughout the novel, Olivia’s physical body counters the image of the ideal white heroine. The novelist inverts the idea that the model heroine possesses a certain set of physical qualities. And even the immoral Merton sees this and admits in a letter to a friend: “A very few hours served to convince me, that whatever might have been the transient impression made by the colour of Olivia, her mind and form were cast in no common mould. She has a noble and a dignified soul, which speaks in her words and actions; her person is raised about the standard of her sex” (102). He goes on to describe her in detail, and, like the farmer’s daughter Lucy in Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801), who has to overcome her discomfort with the black Juba’s face to realize that he is the ideal partner for her, so Merton ultimately comes to see Olivia’s moral superiority and her suitability as a life partner. One of the most interesting aspects of Olivia is how she reflects on her impact on the vulgarly curious society she navigates in Bristol. With a self-possession and maturity that would be disorienting in an Evelina or any of Austen’s heroines, Olivia Fairfield is aware that she moves through the world differently than other young women. She is keenly aware that in addition to being the object of the male gaze because she is young and female, her circumstances (her racial identity and her father’s will) make her, as she writes to her friend, “an object of pretty general curiosity” (84).

Dominique has bookended this edition with literary history at one end and socio-political texts on the other. After the introduction, which offers an account not only of the cultural moment that produced this narrative but of the critical movement that necessitates its publication, the edition opens with a chronology of drama and long prose fiction from the start of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth that feature women of color. While some names and texts are familiar, most of the 72 listed will be unfamiliar. In addition to showing that Olivia Fairfield is one of many women of color in British fiction, this list also provides a snapshot of the reading landscape available to nineteenth-century readers. The seven appendices include excerpts of fiction that features heiresses of color, historical treatises like Edward Long’s influential The History of Jamaica and other historical documents. Taken together they offer a valuable primer about the politics of race and ethnicity in abolitionist England. The introduction explains the cultural and legal distinctions of West Indians, bi-racial people, and black people within the British empire and the appendices show their presence in literary, legal, and anthropological texts.

If the proof of a marginalized text’s value is in its teaching, then The Woman of Colour passes the test. I have taught the text in two classes—an undergraduate course in the history of the novel from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, and a graduate seminar on Romantic-era British abolitionist literature. In my history of the novel class, The Woman of Colour came between Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811). It teaches well, but students need more help thinking of the novel within its cultural moment than I anticipated. The phrase “woman of colour” has such modern overtones that they begin the novel expecting a more explicit critique of bigotry and place on Olivia their own experiences of reading women of color (primary in American literature)—either as abject victims or cultural warriors. Olivia is neither of these, and even sophisticated graduate students struggled with how dutiful she is as she faces obstacle after heart-breaking disappointment. Her temperament prompts an interesting discussion about the modern student’s idea of what makes a “heroine” (a similar question comes up when students encounter Austen’s Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, a novel with its own complicated relationship with the slave trade). More than a female protagonist, students want a woman who is heroic. So while they might judge Moll Flanders for her sexual machinations and are suspicious but eventually accepting Evelina’s saintliness, they have very clear expectations of a woman of color. They see the sexism that permeates eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction as “of the time,” but this impulse to historicize (primarily as a way to gloss over the nuances of nineteenth-century sexism) does not extend to the bigotry and ignorance of racism. They are frustrated by the decision she makes at the end of the novel and want to see those who have wronged her punished. That Olivia seems complicit in her own loneliness, and that the novel does not end with a neat matrimonial bow around it, leaves them dissatisfied and confused. In this moment, I found Dominique’s introduction most useful and students who took the time even to skim it, while not entirely happy with Olivia (they long to see role models in black women, and she’s not particularly inspirational in this post-civil rights moment), are able to see her more clearly, especially through Dominique’s reading that argues that the novel “deliberately compounds Olivia’s helplessness and vulnerability as a young woman of color in an alien white society because there are political advantages to making her subjection wholly over-determined” (28). This claim demonstrates the intersection of form and content better than any lecture ever can, and because students have such strong opinions about the strength of women of color, they are forced to re-examine their expectations about representations of women in fiction in the Romantic period. Thus Dominique’s edition of The Woman of Colour not only works as a compelling story, but also teaches students to be more self-conscious about their readerly expectations.