Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture

Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture

by Jennifer DeVere Brody

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Using black feminist theory and African American studies to read Victorian culture, Impossible Purities looks at the construction of “Englishness” as white, masculine, and pure and “Americanness” as black, feminine, and impure. Brody’s readings of Victorian novels, plays, paintings, and science fiction reveal the impossibility of purity and the inevitability of hybridity in representations of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and race. She amasses a considerable amount of evidence to show that Victorian culture was bound inextricably to various forms and figures of blackness.
Opening with a reading of Daniel Defoe’s “A True-Born Englishman,” which posits the mixed origins of English identity, Brody goes on to analyze mulattas typified by Rhoda Swartz in William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, whose mixed-race status reveals the “unseemly origins of English imperial power.” Examining Victorian stage productions from blackface minstrel shows to performances of The Octoroon and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she explains how such productions depended upon feminized, “black” figures in order to reproduce Englishmen as masculine white subjects. She also discusses H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau in the context of debates about the “new woman,” slavery, and fears of the monstrous degeneration of English gentleman. Impossible Purities concludes with a discussion of Bram Stoker’s novella, “The Lair of the White Worm,” which brings together the book’s concerns with changing racial representations on both sides of the Atlantic.
This book will be of interest to scholars in Victorian studies, literary theory, African American studies, and cultural criticism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822396956
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/23/1998
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Jennifer DeVere Brody is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California at Riverside.

Read an Excerpt

Impossible Purities

Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture

By Jennifer DeVere Brody

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9695-6



Women of Colour

Olivia Fairfield to Mrs. Milbanke
At Sea, on board the ****

Launched on a new world, what can have power to console me ... leaving the scenes of my infancy, and the friend of my youth? Nothing but the consciousness of acting in obedience to the commands of my departed father. Oh, dearest Mrs. Milbanke! Your poor girl is every minute wishing for your friendly guidance, your maternal counsel.... Every day, as it takes me farther from Jamaica, as it brings me nearer to England, heightens my fears of the future.... I cannot help asking why ... was it necessary for Olivia Fairfield to tempt the untried deep, and untried friends?—But I check these useless interrogatories, these vain regrets, by recollecting that it was the will of him who always studied the happiness of his child.

My dear father, doatingly fond as he was of his Olivia, saw her situation in a point of view which distressed his feeling heart. The illegitimate offspring of his slave could never be considered in the light of equality by the English planters. Such is their prejudice, such is the wretched state of degradation to which my unhappy fellow-creatures are sunk in the western hemisphere. We are considered ... as an inferior race, but little removed from the brutes, because the Almighty Maker of all-created beings has tinged our skins with jet instead of ivory!—I say our, for though the jet has been faded to the olive in my own complexion, yet I am not ashamed to acknowledge my affinity with the swarthiest negro that was ever brought from Guinea's coast!—All are brethren, children of one common parent!

The soul of my mother, though shrouded in a sable covering, broke through the gloom of night, and shone celestial in her sparkling eyes!—Sprung from a race of native kings and heroes, with folded hands and tearful eyes, she saw herself torn from all the endearing ties to affinity, and relative intercourse! A gloomy, yet a proud sorrow, filled her indignant breast; and when exhibited on the shores of my native island, the symmetry and majesty of her form, die inflexible haughtiness of her manner, attracted the attention of Mr. Fairfield. He purchased the youthful Marcia; his kindness, his familiarity, his humanity, soon gained him an interest in her grateful heart! She loved her master! (italics in original)

This opening passage of the epistolary novel, The Woman of Colour, appropriately begins in medias res with the woman of color, Olivia Fairfield, "at sea"—spatiotemporally, emotionally, and geopolitically. Castaway from her Caribbean context, she sails toward England and an uncertain future that is bound to be overdetermined by her past. Paradoxically, her journey "forward" is also a journey "back," since she moves from a familiar new world to an unfamiliar old one. Printed for the booksellers to the "honourable East India Company" in 1808, one year after England ended the slave trade throughout its colonies, The Woman of Colour stands as a record of the historic "interracial" relations and cultural commerce connected with the colonial enterprise.

This first letter from Miss Fairfield to her nursemaid, Mrs. Milbanke, mimics the former's transportation from the fair fields of a Jamaica plantation to the more mundane "mill (and) bank" of England. Such a journey replicates the exchange of material goods during the triangular trade in which "raw" agrarian materials such as sugarcane, cotton, and slaves were cultivated and then, in industrialized England, refined into white sugar, shirts, and women of color. A direct product of overseas venture-capital expeditions, which formed the basis of imperialism, the text of The Woman of Colour serves as a material reminder (and remainder) of such circum-Atlantic encounters.

These first three paragraphs provide a synopsis of the typical elements expressed in early nineteenth-century narratives about Anglo-American women of color. More often than not, these narratives brought otherwise disparate elements into proximity—sometimes blurring boundaries between binary oppositions such as colonizer/colonized, which were represented, analogically, as a masculinized whiteness and femininized blackness. Olivia Fairfield is but one example of such women of color who traveled across the Atlantic, from America to England, in an order to be connected to their propertied patria.

"The woman of color" (who can be designated also, if not always alternatively, as a mulatta, an octoroon, a quadroon, a mustee, mestico, griffe, or creole) is a highly ambiguous figure. The (in)fractions of blood that govern her constitution occlude more than they reveal. For instance, this list of racialist labels tells us little or nothing about the so-called woman of color's status as either slave or free, nor do the labels easily correspond with "colors," which are figurative, subjective, imprecise, and culturally constructed (as we shall see later, being color-blind is both a social fact and, in some cases, a misguided political ideal). Because no word exists in the English language for this figure and because she functions as a figment of the concept of pigment, I have coined the word mulattaroon to suggest this figure's status as an unreal, impossible ideal whose corrupted and corrupting constitution inevitably causes conflicts in narratives that attempt to promote purity.

Between 1807, the end of the slave trade in England, and 1865, the end of the Civil War in America, such narratives of Anglo-American women of color were produced not only in literary fiction but also in the "parallel discourses" of science, law, and theater. An American invention and New World product, the mulattaroon was a blood vessel who could be described as being neither black nor white, yet also as both white and black. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, the struggle to definitively define her unstable constitution (which, in the United States, included her constitutional instability) was a real concern. Although answers to the problem of her identity and, more crucially, her identifications varied, the mulattaroon usually served as an interstitial ideal whose complicated constitution both marked and masked the nineteenth century mésalliance known as miscegenation.

Narratives of miscegenation are not monolithic. Generally speaking, the sentimental and melodramatic narratives in which the mulattaroon appears represent her as a youthful, beautiful (because light-skinned), obliging, feminine figure of obscure, obscene (and therefore unseen) origins. By contrast, some comic, gothic, and erotic narratives spectacularized the mulattaroon through overt visual representations of her as ludicrous, lurid, or alluring. Like other Anglo-American mulattaroons, Olivia Fairfield, the woman of color, both conceals and reveals conflicting ideas of difference. This chapter charts the complicated, circuitous course of several circum-Atlantic, Anglo-American mulattaroons in conjunction with various circumlocutions that obtain to their respective situations.

More specifically, it traces the roots/routes of three different AngloAmerican mulattaroons: Olivia Fairfield, the central figure of the sentimental epistolary novel quoted above; the mulatta heiress, Rhoda Swartz, from William Makepeace Thackeray's dark comic novel, Vanity Fair; and the white-skinned octoroon, Zoe Peyton, from Dion Boucicault's melodrama, The Octoroon. The differences among these representations of the mulattaroon occur as a result of changing conventions within specific genres (sentimental, comic, and melodramatic respectively) as well as the shifting sociopolitical, historical, and ideological forces associated with the times in which the narratives were initially published (1808,1847-48, and in the case of The Octoroon, 1859 and 1861). That these feminine figures become purified, lightened, and whitened during repeated performances over the course of the century suggests that interest in the dark-skinned mulattaroon gradually fades, as does she.

In most English representations produced before the start of the American Civil War, however, even the "darker-skinned" mulattaroon was permitted to become a "proper" (and perhaps a propertied) lady provided that providence procured for her proximity to a white gentleman. Through controlled commerce with such a savior, she could be spared the sufferings of enslavement. She could secure a shift in her status only with the aid of an upstanding Englishman, typically her father or husband. Surprisingly, the mulattaroon's "singed" skin (or comparable dark mark) signifies not the sin of her white English father, but rather that of her black African mother. Although designated children of Ham, were slated to "follow in the condition of her Mother," Olivia Fairfield, Rhoda Swartz, and Zoe Peyton with varying degrees of success, follow their fathers. When the mulattaroon resurfaced after the Civil War as a stock character in African American fiction, she often performed as a ruined figure who could only be redeemed by a middleclass black gentleman, but more likely than not, was cast(e) aside and read as a traitor to the race. Thus, she must be either black or white—never a subject in between.

The mulattaroon has been marginalized in Victorian discourse, past and present, in part because her own overtly hybrid roots recall the miscegenated borders of the culture itself. Her appearance comments on the "illegitimate" sources of English wealth and the unseemly origins of English imperial power. Bringing her formerly excluded narrative to the fore (centering her for a moment) re-members the always already hybrid origins of the English nation. The mulattaroon's shifting cultural placement is a symptom of the impossibility of purity understood as unmixed and immobile matter. The feminine mulattaroon functions as a floating signifier: torn asunder, she could still bring disparate discourses and differences into proximity. She is perpetually being erased or effaced in an effort to stabilize (reify) the tenuous, permeable boundaries between white and black, high and low, male and female, England and America, pure and impure (or passionate). The contested struggle to define "proper" boundaries—particularly the interdicted boundaries of gender, race, and sexual propriety—comes together in her peculiar person. She is pulled in one of two directions in this struggle: either "forward" (and up) to the homeland of her benevolent white father, or "backward" (and down) into the dark and circling waters of her black mother's womb.

This starkly drawn "choice" required that one move to the northern "free" states of America or to British soil (Canada or England, which welcomed so many slaves after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law), or be sold down South, return to Africa (the choice suggested by Uncle Tom's Cabin), or be "saved" by the sea (as in the stones of the Ibo tribe, whose members walked on water—committed suicide)—thereby refusing to be enslaved. As Olivia Fairfield says of her mother, she "went down to that grave, where the captive is made free" (p. 7). These significations of whiteness and blackness are at work even in semiautobiographical slave narratives.

Because England never had antimiscegenation laws, marrying the mulattaroon was not impossible, although it was viewed as both impolite and impolitic. Indeed, the subplot of the play The Woman of Colour, or Slavery in Freedom (which opened in London on October 22,1853, at the Surrey Theatre) makes this point dramatically. Its heroine, Florida Brandon, undergoes the experience of "slavery in freedom"—an oxy-moronic phrase that confounds the concept of the culture's supposedly separate spheres. The playbill for this drama depicts the climactic "Rescue of Florida Brandon, the Woman of Colour, at the Grand Californian Assembly" (Figure 1). Lord Everton, Florida's devoted, regal lover, rushes in as she is being arrested as the "stolen" property of Colonel Brandon's estate. It is Everton's eloquent speech that saves his beloved from being captured and enslaved.

Of the figures we study here, only Rhoda Swartz, who appears in a comic play of morals, marries a Scottish gentleman. Like Linda Brent's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (and unlike Jane Eyre), these narratives eschew the "standard" marriage plot developed in the English novel. In England, such women are permitted to reproduce the nation since they can be valued for their wealth and beauty; in America, however, where a more rigid binary system began to emerge, such unions were discouraged. Thus, in the United States, black female subjects rarely marry at the conclusion of their texts.

A most precious if precarious bounty, the mulattaroon languished in America until her luxuriousness (sometimes also her literal luxury in dowry form) was recognized by an upstanding English gentleman and she could be imported to England's welcoming, supposedly more democratic shores. In the three paragraphs that open The Woman of Colour, Olivia's own figure appears in the middle of the middle paragraph. Her "identity" is positioned between the primary narrative of her father and that of her mother, which in the order of the text, is secondary. She is here "caught" between the two: unwilling to deny her mother and yet willing to follow her father's orders. A product of the middle passage, she is posited as a figure poised on the edge of New World territories. This is another example of how such narratives privilege the white father.

In the nineteenth century, the emerging concept-metaphors of Europe, Africa, and the Americas, already catachrestically contained, could be narrativized in printed text as a family romance. Indeed, The Woman of Colour exemplifies this possibility. Visual iconography, however, represented Europe, Africa, and the Americas as female figures resembling the three graces, such as the image produced by William Blake for John Stedman's well-known history of Surinam. One of the few, if only, "family" portraits in the nineteenth century of a white father, a "black" slave mother, and a "mulattaroon" child is Redençao de Cam The Redemption of Ham, an 1895 (postemancipation) grouping painted by the Spanish-born Brazilian artist Modesto Brocos y Gomez (1852-1936). The clandestine, illicit nature of such unions made their public exhibition virtually impossible. Family resemblance, inheritance, and constitution had to have an official, readable coherence. Such mesalliances could only be signaled covertly—behind closed doors; therefore, the mulattaroon performs as an iconic sign of miscegenation, whose signification summarizes otherwise unrepresentable, unspeakable acts. Her citation in any given text is a kind of circumlocution. She serves as the supreme signifier of and for miscegenating nations.

The encounter between the African "mother" and the European "father" that results in the birth of a new feminized American daughter has been seen as a spectacle in visual culture only rarely. This family "romance" was explored in slave narratives, which were sometimes called "printed sadism." In Victorian illustrated serial novels, narrative paintings, and even stage productions, the story of miscegenation was told impossibly through absences and glaring gaps. Where indirection was deemed discrete, direct representations of desire were deflected. Thus, many of the narratives of miscegenation end abruptly before the birth of problematic progeny, and as we have seen with The Woman of Colour, begin in medias res. Such circular narratives may be an especially apt representation for the traffic of the triangular trade (in sugar, cotton, and slaves) and of the triangulated relationship between Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

Whether she will be feted or fettered on her arrival in the metropolitan center of London, the fate of the dark daughter is determined by the will (literal and figurative) of her enlightened white father. Obeying his laws, she obliges him by "acting in obedience to the commands of... [her] departed father." Thus is she willing and able to "check ... [her] useless interrogatories, these vain regrets, by recollecting that it is the will of him who always studied the happiness of his child." Concomitant with the woman of color's transportation is her transformation from "colored" to "woman," from "black" to "white," as well as from Jamaica to England, country to city, poor to rich, slave to free. At the end of this first letter, cited above, she states that she would rather have remained on her "native" island and started a school or a philanthropic organization; but she is not free to choose her fate.

Although made in America, she is ensconced in England after surviving the journey across the Atlantic. On her dark body is carved the justification for English moral superiority. This aspect of her constitution consolidated the virility of the Englishmen who came to her rescue. If, as many commentators of Victorian culture have remarked, a revamped "medieval" Chivalry hailed by Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1820) occurred, then the story of the maiden mulattaroon resembles the fairy tale of a dark daughter as damsel in distress who could be remade in marriage by the courtship of a chivalrous English gentleman. The woman of color's collusion with this rescue-fantasy scenario worked in concert with the "civilizing mission." Her degradation provided the Englishman with an object to lavish pity on, as well as to educate and enlighten. He comes to play the part of the white man burdened by the knowledge of the woman of color's background and, therefore, specially suited to alleviate her suffering. The American mulattaroon's transportation and transplantation to English shores, shored up English moral superiority (as a similar importation would revive the cash-strapped aristocracy at the end of the century, when American heiresses such as Jennie Churchill and Henry James's Wings of a Dove were in vogue). Far from being seen as undesirable, the mulattaroon is portrayed over and over again in sentimental, melodramatic narratives as the most desirable woman imaginable.


Excerpted from Impossible Purities by Jennifer DeVere Brody. Copyright © 1998 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix Acknowledgments xi Prologue: Complicating Categories 1 Chapter One: Miscegenating Mulattaroons 14 Chapter Two: Casting the Dye 59 Chapter Three: Masking Faces 98 Chapter Four: Deforming Island Races 130 Epilogue 170 Notes 177 Bibliography 221 Index 245

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