Monthly Archives: July 2013

More on “The Octoroon”

I didn’t think this novel would be useful, but actually, I’ve just come up with some interesting connections between The Octoroon and Lady Audley’s Secret.

To begin with, here’s Nella Larsen in Passing (wrong century, I know, but still a helpful quote):

Did that woman, could that woman, somehow know that here before her very eyes on the roof of the Drayton sat a Negro? Absurd! Impossible! White people were so stupid about such things for all they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. (16)

This is a perfect articulation of what I was reacting to in my summary of The Octoroon–you can’t tell by looking that someone has that proverbial “one-drop-of-African-blood”!!! But of course, white people’s perspectives in 1861 were quite different than they are now. Mortimer Percy is able to discover, on page 4 of the novel, that Cora Leslie is a slave.

“A slave?” exclaimed Gilbert.

“Yes. The African blood runs in those purple veins. The hereditary curse of slavery hovers over that graceful and queen-like head.”

“But her skin is fairer than the lily.”

“What of that? Had you been a planter, Gilbert, you would have been able to discover, as I did, when just now I stood close to that lovely girl, the fatal signs of her birth. At the extreme corner of the eye, and at the root of the finger nails, the South American can always discover the trace of slavery, though but one drop of the blood of the despised race tainted the object upon whom he looked.” (4)

In Braddon’s novels, there’s a lot that a man can tell about a woman just from looking. Or at least, there’s a lot he thinks he can tell. This moment of recognition in The Octoroon–this moment of a man looking critically at the female body and discerning a secret–happens also at two key points in Lady Audley’s Secret. When George Talboys and Robert Audley look at Lady Audley’s portrait, they think they can interpret it just as accurately as Mortimer Percy interprets Cora Leslie. But even more similarly, the mad doctor who looks at Lady Audley also thinks he can see the one drop of blood, the hereditary taint of insanity–again, just by looking. This connection strengthens the strain of scholarship that sees Lady Audley as a victim of the male gaze, since she gets treated the same way as an American slave (and again, although The Octoroon engages plenty of offensive stereotypes, it’s clear that Braddon was anti-slavery). In both of these cases, the female body becomes a problem to be solved, or a mystery to be detected. This is strikingly apparent in The Octoroon, since the entire novel devotes its gaze to Cora Leslie and whether she does or does not look like a slave… but Paul Lisimon is in exactly the same situation she is, and nobody cares or even notices that he’s an octoroon. This process gets complicated a lot more in Lady Audley’s Secret, as it’s sometimes unclear who is mad–Robert or Lady Audley. And of course, the mad doctor initially thinks he might be there to diagnose Robert. Anyway, these are interesting connections, so perhaps The Octoroon will make it into my dissertation….?

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“The Octoroon: Or, the Lily of Louisiana,” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

This was a fascinating novel to read, although I don’t think it will factor into my dissertation at all. I just really wanted to read a British anti-slavery novel, since I’ve never read one before. It was pretty much what I expected: slavery is bad, and the British can’t understand why barbaric Americans are barbaric. The “barbaric American” part is pretty accurate, and certainly in line with American anti-slavery novels, but…. good thing the British never engaged in barbaric acts of oppression against people of other nationalities. In other words, it seems like British anti-slavery novel = pro-British-nationalism novel. Not surprising. The Octoroon makes so many references to how everyone in England is free that I’d love to see what would happen if The Octoroon met Mary Barton or North and South. Very fascinating, nonetheless.

Here is a character list:

Cora Leslie (aka “the OCTOROON!!!”): Daughter of Louisiana plantation owner Gerald Leslie and Francilia, his quadroon slave. Gerald takes Cora from her mother when she is about 5 and sends her to England for her education. She looks white and is raised as a white woman in England (where everyone’s free, so it doesn’t matter anyway). As the novel opens, she finds out that her father is on the verge of financial ruin, and she insists on going home to Louisiana with her friend Adelaide and Adelaide’s family, to comfort her father. Of course, as soon as she hits southern soil, she’s a slave, and everyone seems to know her history except for her. Her father’s mulatto slave, Toby, finally tells her the truth, and when her father’s estate is foreclosed upon, she is seized and sold to Augustus Horton, a super-racist plantation owner (“super-racist plantation owner” = redundant) who wants to make her his mistress. Her British lover, Gilbert Margrave, tries to buy her, but Augustus outbids him. Then he steals her and marries her. They live happily ever after in the wonderful land of England, where everyone is free and happy (believe it if you can).

Gilbert Margrave: Obscenely perfect British guy who is so British that he just can’t seem to wrap his head around the concept of slavery. (The British have no experience with such things, after all). In fact, he’s invented some machinery that will supersede slave labor. Technology is the answer to slavery…. He’s a poet, a painter, and a super-rich speculator, and he falls in love with Cora Leslie at first sight. His friend, Mortimer Percy, tells him that she’s clearly a daughter of the “accursed race of Africa,” but that only makes him love her more (he’s the knight-in-shining-armor type). He follows her to Louisiana and defends her honor against Augustus Horton, who insults her repeatedly. They fight a duel and Augustus wounds Gilbert, but Cora nurses him back to health. After she is seized as a slave, Gilbert tries to buy her for $20,000, but Augustus outbids him (for $50,000). Then Gilbert and Gerald Leslie organize a rescue operation and steal Cora back from Augustus. True to his word, Gilbert marries Cora and takes her back to merry old England.

Mortimer Percy: He’s a plantation owner who’s engaged to his cousin, Adelaide Horton (Augustus Horton’s sister). He’s not romantic, and not really in love with Adelaide, which is not a problem at first, since Adelaide’s in love with Gilbert. He’s also one of those frustrating characters in white anti-slavery novels: he’s a “good” slave owner, who doesn’t beat his slaves or work them too hard. In fact, when he hears that Gerald Leslie was wounded in a slave rebellion, he responds, “when dogs are too violently beaten, they are apt to bite” (11). See? Slavery can work as long as everyone is nice to each other–or maybe it’s still really wrong…. These are the vacillations of this novel…. As Mortimer explains Mr. Leslie’s dilemma to Cora, he says: “the planter finds himself between the horns of a terrible dilemma; he must either beat his slaves or suffer from their laziness. [yes, poor plantation owner! see how much slavery makes him suffer!] Mr. Leslie is not considered too indulgent a master; but he only follows the example of the greater number of our colonists. However, it is not he, but his overseer who was the chief cause of this revolt” (11). So… this character is odd. He’s also an embodiment of that myth that white people could tell immediately, just by looking, whether someone has even a drop of African blood. He discerns Cora’s entire history just by looking at her finger nails. Whaaaat?! Anyway, he stands up for Cora repeatedly, and he breaks off his engagement with Adelaide when she acts too racist, so he’s meant to be portrayed as a good guy. He ends up marrying Adelaide when she ultimately proves that she’s not super-racist, by hiding the escaped Cora and Gilbert from her brother.

Adelaide Horton: She and Cora have been best friends all through school. She abandons Cora as soon as she learns of her heritage, but it turns out that it wasn’t really from prejudice… it was from jealousy, since she loves Gilbert Margrave, who loves Cora. A fit of jealousy leads her to denounce Cora in front of a boatload of passengers and make her move to the back of the boat because of her single drop of African blood (what is the 19th century’s obsession with this “single drop” of African blood? THAT’S NOT HOW BLOOD WORKS!!!). Mortimer Percy, who basically spends the entire novel keeping tabs on the finer points of Adelaide’s racial sympathies (you know, in all the free time he has while his slaves are picking his cotton) eventually breaks off the engagement (although, strangely, it’s more because of Augustus’s reprehensible behavior than Adelaide’s). Adelaide saves the day at the end of the novel and proves herself not-a-racist by taking her brother up on a promise to transfer ownership of Cora from himself to Adelaide (he means to make her a lady’s maid in return for her running away). As Cora’s lawful owner, Adelaide transfers ownership from herself to Gilbert, who sets Cora free. She also hides the lovers in her bedroom, right under Augustus’s nose. When Mortimer finds out about this, he falls in love with Adelaide (or realizes that he always loved her?) and they get married.

Gerald Leslie: Cora’s father and the owner of a big plantation and lots of slaves. He fell in love with Francilia, a quadroon slave, and Cora’s mother. Although Francilia was in love with another slave, Toby, Gerald made her his mistress (he thought his own wife was a bitch, and she didn’t have any kids, so it was okay, right?). Francilia was super-depressed about being Gerald’s mistress, but things started looking up when Cora came along. But Gerald loved Francilia, and he loved Cora, too. And the thought he should do the right thing and take Cora away from her mother and send her off to be educated in England. So that’s what he did. And Francilia was super-depressed again, and he couldn’t stand to look at her sad face making everything all sad, so he sold her. To Silas Craig. Silas figured he could sleep with her pretty easily, but she wouldn’t consent, so he decided to rape her, but she killed herself. Cora begs Toby to tell her this story, and she denounces her father after she hears it. Then she goes an visits her mother’s grave (which Toby made) and forgives her father. But he’s still in financial ruin because Silas Craig cheated his partner, Philip Treverton, out of $100,000. So he loses his estate, his slaves, and his daughter (who is technically a slave) until Silas Craig is proven to be a usurer. Then he gets everything back and moves to England with his daughter and Gilbert. Good thing it all worked out for him. Blerg.

Silas Craig: He’s a lawyer and a usuer. Among his many illegal maneuvers, he owns a gambling house that everyone seems to patronize, but that everyone also seems to hate themselves for patronizing. He’s got several scams going in this novel. One of the big ones relates to Gerald Leslie and his partner, Philip Treverton. When Gerald Leslie heads to England to visit his daughter, he leaves Philip Treverton with $100,000 to pay Silas Craig back for a loan. Treverton pays Craig the money, but then Craig conspires to have Treverton killed, and when Leslie comes back, he is told that the money has not been paid. So he goes bankrupt. At the last minute, one of Craig’s henchmen, William Bowen, reveals the plot, since he’s mad that Craig stopped giving him blackmail money. (Also, William Bowen didn’t actually kill Philip Treverton. He nursed him back to health, and then Treverton became a gold-digger in California. He shows up just in time to denounce Silas). The other big scam relates to Don Juan Moraquitos and the forged will of his brother-in-law, Tomaso Crivelli. Tomaso Crivelli leaves all his money to his son, Paul Crivelli (aka Paul Lisimon). But with Silas Craig’s help, Don Juan kills Tomaso (who is already on his deathbed), forges a new will that leaves everything to himself, and tells Paul that Tomaso is not really his father. Don Juan’s daughter’s governess, Pauline Corsi, overhears this entire transaction, and eventually reveals it, blackmailing Silas Craig to send the real will to Paul. After these scams are revealed, Silas Craig leaves town in disgrace, lest he be subject to the Lynch Law.

Don Juan Moraquitos: He’s Camillia’s father, Tomaso Crivelli’s brother-in-law, and Paul Lisimon’s ward. He’s super-rich, and not a very nice guy, except to his daughter, whom he loves. He seems to treat Paul well, having him articled to become a lawyer (although he has him articled to Silas Craig), but in reality he has stolen his inheritance through a forged will. Other than Silas Craig, the only other person who knows about this is Pauline Corsi, his daughter’s French governess. After sitting on the secret for 13 years, Pauline eventually decides to blackmail Don Juan with it, and tells him to marry her or else she will reveal the secret. He agrees, and everything seems fine. But the day before the wedding, she meets her long-lost lover, and then she has a secret meeting with Don Juan (who knows what happens?), and he kills himself shortly afterward.

Pauline Corsi: She is raised for the first 17 years of her life as the only heir of an Italian Duke. This Duke had fallen out of love with his Duchess when she had not been able to give him an heir. She and her maid finally stole a peasant child one day and raised her as the heir. But on the maid’s deathbed, she confesses to the bait-and-switch, and Pauline’s true heritage is revealed. Her parents throw her out onto the street with $3000, and she goes to America in search of the French painter they wouldn’t let her marry. He’s also looking for her, but they don’t find each other until the day before her wedding to Don Juan. He’d been out digging for gold in California with Philip Treverton. Pauline makes a few under-handed attempts at blackmail through the course of the narrative, but meeting her long-lost lover restores her to virtue and they get married and move back to France.

Paul Lisimon/Crivelli: He’s the son of Tomaso Crivelli, Don Juan’s brother-in-law. He’s actually an octoroon too, but nobody seems to care about that nearly as much as they care about Cora being an octoroon. He has always been in love with Camillia, and she is in love with him too, although her father knows nothing of their arrangement. When Augustus Horton decides he’s going to marry Camillia, he discerns that Paul is his only rival, so he decides to get him out of the way. Since Paul works for Silas Craig, Horton arranges with Craig to entrust Paul with a pile of money and the key to his office, and to then accuse Paul of stealing the money. This works out okay, and Paul goes to jail. But he gets broken out by some sailor friends of his father’s, and he heads off to be a pirate with them for awhile. He eventually comes back just in time to rescue Camillia from losing her reputation at the hands of Augustus Horton, who has kidnapped her on the pretense of taking her to see her suddenly-sick father. Eventually, Pauline Corsi blackmails Silas Craig to publish a retraction to his accusation of theft against Paul, and to send Paul his father’s real will. Paul and Camillia eventually get married, after waiting a respectful amount of time for her to grieve for her dead father.

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Theater in “The Black Band; Or, The Mysteries of Midnight”

One of the main reasons I read this book was due to an article about three of Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “theater novels,” The Black BandOnly a Clod, and The Cloven Foot. The article observed that it was strange that theatrical adaptations of these theater novels didn’t include any of the theatrical elements of the novels. You’d think that theatrical adaptors would have a heyday with novelistic actresses, actors, and playwrights, right? Nope. The article argues that since the class position of people associated with the theater was so delicate, and since playwrights and actor-managers were keen to see their class positions gain more clout, they effaced all references to the theater, even if they were positive. While novels could portray theater workers completely sympathetically as middle-class workers, theatrical professionals themselves didn’t want to foreground their own labor.

This is a great argument, and based on what I’ve read so far, I completely agree with it. Moving in a different direction, the thing that interest me most about theater in The Black Band is the echoes of Hamlet I’m seeing (or trying to see?). I’m interested in tracing Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s use of Hamlet in Lady Audley’s Secret, and I feel like there’s a lot to be said about The Black Band as well. Here, I’ll just try to trace some broad parallels.

First of all, the most obvious connection: Antony Verner is a tragedian who routinely plays Hamlet. And just like Robert Audley (the other Hamlet I’m identifying), he’s an amateur detective figure who falls in love with a girl named Clara (wow, Mary Elizabeth Braddon repeats names A LOT). Here’s my favorite quotation: “‘I dare not stop a moment longer to investigate this matter now,’ he added, looking at his watch, ‘or they will have to perform the tragedy of Hamlet with the part of ‘Hamlet’ omitted; but the first thing tomorrow morning, we will have the boxes cleared away and open this door, even though it should lead to some haunted chamber and I have to encounter the ghost single-handed” (274).

This brings us to the murderous brothers, which is a part that’s definitely missing from Lady Audley’s Secret. While Antony Verner is not investigating his own family, he’s still investigating the usurpation of one brother by the other. Frederick Beaumorris (Claudius) steals the inheritance of his brother, Jasper Melville/Arthur Beaumorris (Hamlet Sr.), and later tries to kill him via (what else?) poison. This fraternal usurpation is doubled in the Willoughby household, as Lionel usurps his brother’s title.

This gets me wondering about the use of play-acting to evaluate guilt. According to many accounts of the Victorian anti-theatrical prejudice, it seems like Hamlet’s method of trapping his uncle (in the famous Mousetrap scene) would be odious to Victorian audiences. In fact, Robert Audley doesn’t do much of this–he’s usually pretty direct with Lady Audley, as I remember. And the same goes for the aristocratic/upper-class characters in The Black Band: Robert Merton confronts Lady Edith directly, for example. However, Joshua Slythe (the word “sly” is even part of his name) definitely uses play-acting to catch criminals. This might be an interesting thing to investigate further… More later.

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