“Crouched in a high-backed chair sat a shriveled, dead-alive, mummy-like figure, as thin and fleshless as a skeleton,—an apparition, sinister, white, and wasted as a corpse new-risen from the grave. Its chin upon its folded hands, its hands about one knee, the knee upheld by the heel crooked at the chair-seat’s edge, the other gaunt leg dangling across the upraised foot, the spector smiled on Margot a bleak Saturnine smile. Its face was greatly wasted; all the life of it seemed gathered into the brilliant, terrible eyes, which blazed with infernal light, in a splendid scorn, without remorse, sardonical; a countenance such as God alone endures to look upon unmoved…”
The circumstances surrounding John Bennett’s 1921 retelling of the legend of Madame Margot are at least as interesting as the story itself, and as informative. Bennett, a native of Ohio, moved to Charleston in 1898 and not only fell in love with his new home but, most rarely in those days, fell in love with the reality he saw about him and not with the myth of “the Old South”.
Fascinated by the black culture of Charleston – and this at a time when to the vast majority of white people the notion that there could be such a thing as “black culture” was ridiculous, outrageous and even insulting – Bennett began to study the Gullah language spoken by the local black population and to collect spirituals and folk-tales, some of which emanated from Africa, and some which had grown up over the decades of slavery.
Immersed in his studies and entranced by the richness and beauty of the material he was gathering, Bennett evidently failed to perceive how far he was wandering from the realm of acceptable behaviour, or how infinitely differently the “nice” people of Charleston felt about such matters. Early in 1908, he found out. Having earned an early reputation for his writing on more mainstream topics, Bennett was invited to speak before the Federation of Women’s Clubs. He accepted, giving his talk the title of “Old and Grotesque Legends of Charleston”. It is fair to say that both the audience and John Bennett got more than they bargained for.
The centrepiece of Bennett’s talk was a recitation of the legend of Madame Margot, a story not only of illicit love, but of love across the colour barrier. Bennett saw only the passion and the beauty of the tale; the ladies of Charleston, however, saw a calculated insult, in which the guest speaker’s use of the scandalous word “chemise” was the final straw. And so John Bennett awoke the next day to find himself an outcast in his adopted home.
Several miserable years followed for Bennett, and he did not regain something of his standing until after America’s entry into WWI. This was a time of growing racial tension in Charleston, and after an outbreak of rioting local officials appealed to Bennett for help, as a white man who could “talk to the blacks”. Whatever Bennett may have thought of owing his invitation back into society to the same perceived transgression that saw him exiled in the first place, he did as he was asked; and in fact, Bennett’s reputation amongst the black population as an honest and unprejudiced individual allowed him to help resolve the conflict.
In the years immediately following the war, Charleston underwent great and rapid change. “Old Charleston”, as John Bennett saw, was disappearing fast, and this compelled him to try once more to preserve the old legends and folk-tales. Of all of them, however, it was still the story of Madame Margot that held him in thrall; and in 1921 John Bennett submitted his version of the tale for publication. Madame Margot: A Romance Of Old Charleston (Bennett’s publishers disliked his original subtitle) was praised by critics everywhere, and a commercial success in the northern states – but in the south it was déjà vu all over again, as Bennett’s tale was dismissed as “obviously the work of a Northerner” and Bennett himself as “no gentleman”.
Madame Margot is a strange and often disturbing work. John Bennett’s use of language is closer to poetry than prose, as he piles adjectives and descriptors on top of one another in an evocative rush that is sometimes intoxicating, sometimes frankly suffocating. Bennett may not have bought into the revisionism of “the Old South”, but his vision of Charleston is equally mythic. His tale takes place in a never-never land of endless summer, of flowers perpetually in bloom, and of young people chastely in love:
“Those were charmed days indeed. The town has changed since then. The world seems to have grown weary and gray, and the hearts of men bitter. The young were younger then; the old not so sorry for everything as they have been since. Then, someow, it seemed to be always summer morning, morning before the sun had burned the world to a dun crisp with his meridian heat, scorching bitter and blinding bright; before the advent of gasping afternoon with its languid leafage and evaporated sap. The calendar seemed to have paused among the daffodils, between the jessamine and the June, in that paradise of the year. The delicate and virginal camelia bloomed then, untarnished by rough wind or rain; its petals were sweet, which since then have grown so bitter…”
Everything is beautiful; everyone is beautiful; but most beautiful of all, with perhaps one exception, is Marguerite Lagoux, Charleston’s leading milliner and a woman of mystery…
“Her passionate, rich-colored, handsome face was like a line from an old enchantment, which took men’s souls captive, then cast them away without the least regret, or with a Circean spell that turned men into beasts. Her neck was a deep-colored, ivory tower poised perfectly over her breast. The dazzling orange-tawny skin of her broad bust turned to golden-russet before it reached her cheeks, and was there flushed to dusky rose, like the skin of a ruddy-gold peach. In the burnt splendor of her cheek the darkly eloquent blood in her veins made its golden proclamation…”
While it still upset Charleston, it is evident in the light of the novella’s history that the written version of Madame Margot is not quite the same story as John Bennett told to his shocked audience on that fatal afternoon in 1908. For one thing, the racial aspect is played down to the point of being almost unobservable, unless the reader is already aware of it. Madame Margot herself is known by a variety of names to her various classes of acquaintance – Marguerite, Rita, Margoton – evidence of her ultimate “unknowability”. She is a tawny beauty, but no clear reference is made to her mixed blood; except perhaps in that deliberately contradictory description of her neck as “deep-colored ivory”. In a passion, Margot breaks not into Gullah, but into French. The word “creole”, used to describe the community in which she dwells, is ambiguous, as indeed is Margot’s “darkly eloquent blood”.
Still more extreme, and more misleading, is Bennett’s description of Margot’s daughter, Gabrielle, whose golden beauty is so rapturous that it takes a full five pages to describe (Margot’s own takes three and a half). In this dizzying word-picture, the original significance of Gabrielle is quite lost. The tale that offended John Bennett’s audience was one of a love affair between a white man and a woman of mixed blood; their daughter, although like her mother condemned as “coloured” by the world outside, is a vision of golden perfection able, and with ease, to pass as white.
Or at least, she could if her mother ever allowed her to be seen. As it is, Margot and Gabrielle inhabit a tiny, enclosed cottage in a secret corner of Charleston, a house surrounded by high walls and thick vegetation, where Gabrielle matures and blossoms in secret, hidden from the world by her terrified mother, who can foresee none but a tragic fate for such transcendent beauty: “Ever before her imagining was Gabrielle, dishonored and betrayed, abandoned to scorn and poverty…”
And so Gabrielle lives a life of lonely innocence behind the barriers, the “cloistral hedges”, of her mother’s creation. Moved beyond words or understanding by the burgeoning loveliness of early spring, Gabrielle discovers a great yearning in her heart for something she does not understand and can barely give a name to, until the day when the inevitable happens:
“As she stood thus, brooding on life’s inexplicable theme, she was aware of a sudden shadow which fell on the grass beside her, and turned in voiceless terror. There was a face in the green hedge, smiling, two butterflies hovering over it,—a lad’s face, laughing and debonair, with yellow hair curling around it like crisp little golden flames… Gabrielle, startled and terrified, shrank back against the magnolia’s black bole, one trembling, hesitant hand extended in doubt. Speechless she stared at that bright, boyish face with its nimbus of sunlit, yellow hair, until her dry eyes gushed tears, dimming her sight,—stared in wonder and adoration…”
There is a shy reaching out, an embrace, a tender kiss, a promise of a further meeting… For Margot, one glance at her enraptured daughter is enough to tell the tale; the cloak of happiness that envelops Gabrielle repels her mother’s despairing railing against love as folly, as a lie, as the source of all wretchedness: “God keep you from it. Two parts are pain, two sorrow, and the other two parts are death…”
Margot has already prayed that Gabrielle be saved from this fate – “she prayed for her daughter as she had never prayed for herself” – and that night, as a violent storm builds, she throws herself down before her crucifix and implores heavenly intervention, first begging, then demanding, a sign from God that He has heard her prayer and will answer it. Hour after hour she prays, but no sign comes:
“Margot clung to the foot of the crucifix. ‘Pourquoi, O Dieu, rejettes-tu?’ she asked in a voice grown shriveled and thin. She crouched a moment, motionless, her head on one side, listening. There was no reply. Heaven maintained its brassy silence. Her face went gray; her eyes were hard as stones; she turned her back on the crucifix, saying, ‘I will call upon You no more.'”
And with that, Margot directs her prayers in another direction, towards someone terrifyingly prompt to answer them…and who does so in person…
We are left, in Madame Margot, to draw our own inferences about the life-history that drives Margot to this desperate pass; and here too there is a sense that John Bennett’s renovation of the story has interfered somewhat with its original intent. Clearly, Margot’s terror is rooted in her belief that her own sins are to be visited upon her daughter, her knowledge that Gabrielle, however immaculately innocent herself, is a child of sin. Yet this is contradicted somewhat in the text itself, where Margot’s cry to God that, “You breathed into her life; by your law she was made”, implies that Gabrielle was indeed born within wedlock, albeit a marriage kept secret, brief and unhappy.
This uncertainty about Gabrielle’s standing, along with the omission of any detail about the identity of her father, leads to an unsettling ambiguity. Margot’s anguished prayers finally settle into a mantra – “Plus blanche que la neige! Gabrielle, ma fille, mon Dieu! plus blanche que la neige!” – in which it is disturbingly unclear whether she is asking that Gabrielle be kept pure, “whiter than snow” – or that Gabrielle literally be turned white.
“Forgive in her my transgression; pardon in her my sins; deliver her from her inheritance…O my God!…let her be white!” she first prays to God; and then, when her re-directed prayers are answered, she begs for her “heart’s desire”: “That my daughter, Gabrielle, should be white to all eternity.”
At the time of John Bennett’s writing, the word “white” was used – by white people, of course – to imply not only purity, but honour; to “be white” was to behave in an honourable fashion. This jumbling of racial, social and linguistic issues and the triple-loading of the word “white” within the text makes it impossible to dissect out Bennett’s meaning here, or to be quite certain what it is that Margot is asking. Is Gabrielle’s “inheritance” her mother’s sin, or her mother’s blood? Or are the two inseparable? Does one signify the other? – and conversely, is to be white to be without sin?
With frightening promptitude, Margot’s prayers are answered. Gabrielle is whisked away to “a convent-school for orphaned girls kept by the nuns in New Orleans”, and there she remains until the memory of the golden boy has faded: “God made memory cruel, that men might know remorse; but the Devil devised forgetfulness, anodyne of regret.” She is in time married to a wealthy planter’s only son, and, “Secure in a faithful man’s unaltering love, she dwelt serene, in a country where the fruits of the earth and the flowers of the forest spread natural loveliness about fields of unsurpassed fertility. She never knew winter, want, nor war…”
(Given what we know or suspect of Gabrielle’s heritage, however, there is something singularly disturbing, in the midst of the account of her life of perfect happiness, about hearing that, “A thousand slaves were happy, being hers…”)
Margot’s bargain with her midnight visitor, then, yields the desired result; the promises made were kept. But there was another aspect to that dark agreement, and in due course, Margot must pay her outstanding debts. And if we are in doubt about how to interpret the language in which the bargain was struck in the first place, those doubts are perhaps resolved by the fact that, even as Gabrielle is kept whiter than snow, white to all eternity, her mother begins to change colour…
“As unbleached muslin sallows to dingy isabella, as metal tarnishes from neglect, as white paper dulls in the sun, as the spot on bruised fruit turns brown, Margot Lagoux was changing; she was becoming tawny, swart, bisblanc as the Creoles say. Her golden-ruddy cheeks had turned a morbid olive-brown as if a somber fountain were playing in her blood… She changed like a portrait whose shadows, painted in bitumen, have struck through and distempered the rest. Like a strange, nocturnal creature she seemed to absorb the gloom. Her glorious eyes grew jaundiced; her rose-brown lips grew dun; the delicate webs that joined her fingers grew yellow as bakers’ saffron. Malice laughed at her thickening lips…”