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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