…plans of emancipation, elaborated from the brain of the patriot, found their way through his brother-son to the Senate hall of the Commonwealth. These were then freely admitted and discussed; but, as the years went by, opposition rose against them. The season had gone by; the enthusiasm for the cause of general emancipation, raised by their recent glorious victories in the cause of Liberty, had subsided. Like that of self-deceived converts to Christianity, they had become false to their first love, recreant to their first faith, lukewarm to the cause of universal liberty. And projects for the emancipation of mankind were fast giving way before selfish (miscalled patriotic) plans of national glory…
To begin frankly— I am perfectly ignorant when it comes to the way slavery was addressed in novels of the 19th century. Like most people, I suspect, when it comes to abolitionist literature, I think “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and that’s about it. Retribution is the first time I’ve come across abolition as a plot thread in what we might call an “ordinary novel”, a novel of entertainment; and while here again E.D.E.N. Southworth is not entirely successful in her presentation of her material, the fact that, at a time when she was writing to earn a living for her family, she nevertheless had the courage to tackle such a controversial theme to any degree seems to me admirable. I gather that, later on, when she was more established as a writer, Southworth wrote at least one more novel that dealt more forthrightly with slavery than does Retribution.
(I should probably mention here that Emma Southworth and Harriet Beecher Stowe were good friends.)
Although written in 1849, Retribution is set from the late 1790s through the first decades of the next century. This distancing of the story is not merely a safety mechanism for its author, divorcing the novel’s events from contemporary attitudes; it also allows Southworth to vent her frustration and disappointment with her countrymen. The two Ernest Dents and Hester’s father were all veterans of the War of Independence; and we hear, through Hester, her creator’s dismay at the way that the high ideals on which a nation was founded, the dreams of the equality of man and inalienable rights, were so swiftly compromised, reinterpreted and set aside.
One of those guilty of this is Hester’s own father, a Virginian and a slave-owner. Although the friendship forged at Yorktown leads him to name his comrade Ernest Dent as his daughter’s guardian, politically the two men could not be more divided. Thus an active abolitionist finds himself entrusted with a plantation of some three hundred slaves. General Dent’s compromise is, using his own money in the first instance, to begin running the property on a principle of wage-labour, with the slaves paid a percentage of its earnings. The experiment is a success; and General Dent further introduces an education program, under which the slaves are taught to read and write. All this is explained to Hester when her soon-to-be husband removes her from school. She is as enthusiastic about the scheme as the Dents could wish:
I have aims and objects now that occupy all my thoughts and employ all my faculties. I told you that Colonel Dent’s plan was a progressive one. Our final object in wishing to make this farm the very best and most beautiful in the state, is that, first, our nearest neighbours, who have seen every stage of this improvement, and then others, may perceive its benefits, and be induced to adopt it—thus paving the way to an emancipation that shall be agreeable and profitable to all parties. We wish to demonstrate on this farm the practicability of this plan.
One of the perpetual arguments against abolition was the question of what would happen if there was a blanket emancipation under which countless former slaves found themselves homeless and with no way to support themselves. I imagine that schemes such as the one Southworth articulates here in her novel, a graduated move from slave-labour to paid-labour, was one of the mooted alternatives – at least before history overwhelmed the situation.
Soon after her arrival at her family home, Hester learns that the property, known as The Vale, has a strange and bloody history, one which impacts upon her inheritance of it and her subsequent actions. Out riding with Ernest, Hester hears how her ancestor, determined to have the rich valley for his own, arranged the slaughter of its native inhabitants; and how the last survivor of the tribe, a woman, put a curse upon the land and those who would subsequently occupy it – a curse which in part threatened, that he who had murdered her sons before her face, be sonless to the end of time; he and his children. Ernest, of course, scoffs at this as nonsense, and sharply scolds Hester for the emotion she betrays; but he cannot get away from the fact that there has never been a son born to the owners of The Vale; that, in a strange sort of reverse entail, the property, destined to pass to the direct heir, has been handed down from mother to daughter over many generations. Men marry into it; they never own it.
(There are other aspects to this comprehensive curse, all of which also come true over the course of the story – including the threat of domestic treachery and misery: When they most fondly loved and trusted, might they still be most darkly betrayed…)
Although married at eighteen, Hester nevertheless will not control her property until she turns twenty-one. She is bitterly disappointed, but must resign herself to the legal ruling. In the meantime, promising the slaves that they will be free as soon as she comes of age, she continues the wage system and the education programs initiated by the Dents.
But by the time her coming-of-age is imminent, Hester is dying. Even in this extremity, her thoughts are upon the solemn promises she made. Ernest, between his political commitments and his secret, sickening guilt, is away from home. Hester summons a lawyer and has the deeds of manumission drawn up. Having done so, she must then cling to life through two days and two nights, holding desperately to the last fibres of her existence until the clock strikes midnight and she may set a wavering signature to the papers. By seven the next morning, she is dead.
And then Ernest, good old Ernest, points out that Hester was born at 10.00 pm; that she was strictly twenty-two hours short of her majority when she signed the papers, which are therefore invalid.
I may say that I have no idea whether Ernest’s objection would in fact be legally binding. The bigger question seems to be why he said anything at all. Possibly this hair-splitting was meant to illustrate the height of his principles, but it is more likely to strike us as a case of narrowness of the soul. It should, however, be pointed out that Ernest does not profit directly by his actions: Hester’s property descends to her daughter, the infant Julie, to be held in trust until she is of age; and the slaves, having waited so many years, must wait again:
“But I hope to persuade you, Colonel Dent, to leave Minny with your daughter. Believe me, she will need a younger pair of feet than mine to follow her little steps about.”
“Then take one of the girls from the plantation; take Kitty or Harriet.”
“Oh! sir, Kitty or Harriet won’t do. They dislike the child; all the colored people do; although it is not like colored people to do so; but they have been so bitter, and grumbled so much, since their young mistress’s death.”
“Yes, sir, grumbled. They say that Mrs. Dent loved her child better than she loved right and justice. They complain that she broke her promise; and, instead of setting them free, has left them all, with their children, and their children’s children, forever and hopelessly enslaved. And they dislike the child, as the supposed cause of their misfortune. It is very unjust, but you must allow for their disappointment, Colonel Dent.”
It is a valid criticism of Retribution that it tends to look at slavery from a safe distance. The slaves, with one exception, are never characters; they are more like a theory being worked out. But this might only be a reflection of the fact that, as a young woman and a non-slave owner, Southworth was lacking first-hand knowledge, and preferred to stick with what she did know. Her argument here, which allows her to stay with Ernest and Juliette, is that slavery degrades all parties to it, slave owners and slaves alike.
Juliette’s attitude to the institution is another black strike on her character: she enjoys not just the leisured existence, but the feeling of power that comes with “ownership”; and for a time the besotted Ernest indulges her. Ernest himself, whose political career continues to flourish, is appointed Ambassador to France. The newlyweds arrive just after the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine (if you pay attention, there’s a careful timeline in this novel), and Juliette, La Circe Americaine, soon becomes the cynosure of the court. The revenues from The Vale, which belong to the child Julie, are squandered on jewels, gowns and other extravagances.
It is belatedly made quite clear that Juliette herself is also the child of slave owners, with a sudden and shocking account of the uprising in St Domingo (that is, Saint-Domingue, Haiti) from which the young Giullietta so narrowly escaped with her life. It is also made clear that slavery is a form of violence that can only beget vilence; and that Juliette’s heritage has left her tainted – marked for retribution almost from her cradle:
“A burning homestead, smoke, flames, falling roofs, glowing beams and blazing rafters hurled through the air before the furious blast, and hundreds of dark demons leaping, capering, and exulting in frantic orgies through the scene. These were the sights. The reverberation of the thunder—the roaring of the sea—the noise of the cataracts—the howls and shrieks of the wind—the groans of the wounded and dying—the screams of the women and children, and the triumphant shouts of the blacks. These were the sounds. Yes, Ippolyto! borne in a pair of strong, rugged arms, rested against a coarse, rough chest, through this scene of night and tempest, of flame and massacre, of shouts and groans, I was hurried, whirled. Yes, Ippolyto! that is the first thing I recollect of life. And the scene lives before me now, not as a retrospect, but as a vision—not as a memory, but as a prophecy.”
And indeed, by this stage of the novel, night and tempest, flame and massacre essentially describes Juliette’s character; while she is doomed in the reader’s eyes long before this sense of foreboding grips her. There is a second plot thread in this novel that addresses slavery, apart from Juliette’s and Hester’s relative backgrounds and their attitudes; and the two collide when Juliette, in a sick jealous rage, become convinced that the Dents’ single house slave, Minny, is Ernest’s mistress. Her vengeance is swift:
“Mrs. Wimset, I have sent for you to request you to send Minny Dozier to the quarters—to the quarters of the field negroes—with a note to the overseer, directing him to set her to work tomorrow with the others.”
Mrs. Wimset, the housekeeper, instead goes directly to Ernest, who as she anticipates intervenes. This both confirms Juliette’s suspicions and pushes her over the edge; and when Ernest, the root of the matter made clear to him, makes the mistake of laughing at his wife, Juliette’s response is to pick up a pistol…
Early in the novel, in one of his few uncompromised acts, Ernest Dent purchases a female slave, to rescue her from the fate that her youth and beauty would otherwise seem to make inevitable. At first, the girl’s erratic behaviour makes Hester worry that she is slightly unbalanced; but her entire devotion to the Dents is very clear. She becomes the baby Julie’s nurse; and as the two girls draw together over their love for the child, Hester extracts from Minny the terrible secret of her life—that young as she is, she too is a wife and a mother…
The story of Minny is one of Retribution‘s most frustrating aspects – but perhaps we need to blame the marketplace, not the author. Here is Hester’s description of Minny, in a letter to Juliette:
She is gentle and docile, but not quick in intellect. The child delights what you term my artistic love of beauty. Her frame is slight, but rounded and graceful; her hands and feet beautifully delicate; her head small; her forehead low, but shaded with a quantity of shining purplish black hair; her complexion is of that opaque white usually seen in quadroons, and sets into stronger relief the straight black eyebrows and long black eyelashes; her eyes are large and soft, tender and still. I have never seen her eyes sparkle and her cheeks glow…
Now, we’ve seen this tactic before, in The Rebel’s Daughter – which was written fifty years after Retribution, remember – the implication that readers, white readers, can only be expected to sympathise with a slave who is beautiful, who is in some other way remarkable, and above all who is herself – and it always is a girl, it seems – essentially white. And whether society or her own sensibilities dictated it, in the end Southworth’s portrait of Minny manages to be both ridiculously idealised and extremely moving.
Minny is the child of a white father and a half-caste mother; and while her father, Alphonse Dozier, a French West Indian, did sincerely love the woman he took as his mistress, the fact that she was his slave, that she had no choice, broke her heart and her spirit. She died young, leaving behind a quarter-blood child, Erminie – Minny – who became her stricken father’s constant companion. It barely occured to either of them that Minny, as well as being her father’s beloved daughter, was his slave, his property.
As she grew, the child proved to have an extraordinary gift for music, her favourite pasttime being to learn from, and to sing back to, the birds; and it is while she is doing this that she attracts and captivates a young man, Guillieme La Chappelle, himself a singer, and the son of a great maestro engaged to perform in Havana. And so Guillieme and Minny were married. Even then it did not cross Alphonse Dozier’s mind to reveal Minny’s history, or to make arrangements for her future. Of course, he meant to, some day…
In the meantime, Guillieme lived with his wife and her father, teaching her to read and write, to draw, and to play musical instruments – until being summoned to Paris by news of his own father’s illness. His departure triggers two great shocks – Minny gives birth prematurely to a daughter, and Alphonse dies of apoplexy. In Guillieme’s absence, Dozier’s property falls into the hands of his cousins, who are swift to put Minny in her place:
“Ole massa never offered for to give your free papers, did he?”
“Dem’s dey—have you got dem?”
“I don’t know what you mean, aunty.”
“Sorry for you; dis is what I mean. You ‘longed to ole massa jes’ as much as any of us; all de same you hadn’t been his darter; mudder slave woman—darter slave too.”
“But my husband will return.”
“Ef he does he can’t do nuffin’ ‘t all; you don’t ‘long to him. Property is property, and you anoder man’s property.”
The shellshocked Minny is promptly separated from her daughter – having a baby with her will lower her market price – and sold off to a slave merchant. She first ends up in New Orleans, where she is sold again to a plantation-owner from Richmond. She is rescued from life as her new owner’s whore in the first instance due to her hysterical grief, which ruins both her looks and her constitution, but ultimately only because of the death of her master. She is then returned to the auction block – and catches the eye of Ernest Dent.
This is the story that Minny tells to Hester – who, sickened and distressed by it, is still more deeply moved by knowing the end of it, which Minnie does not know: of a terrible tragedy, of a fire aboard a ship in which, after saving numerous lives himself, the young opera singer Guillieme La Chappelle is presumed to have perished. But this Hester does not reveal…
The abolitionist plot recedes in Retribution while it concentrates upon the spiralling misery of Ernest and Juliette; but after Juliette’s attempt on her husband’s life, it returns to the fore. It is Minny’s story which is first resolved. It is in Ernest’s power, he having bought Minny in the first place, to free her – and this he does. At first Ernest offers Minny the choice between retaining her place in the household at a fair salary or having her way paved for a career as a singer, but both options are forestalled when, in town, Ernest is confronted by a grave young man leading a lovely little child by the hand; a man whose long search has finally borne fruit.
Guillieme explains to Ernest that not only was he seriously injured in the maritime disaster on his way back to Havana, but that he had the further misfortune afterwards to be picked up by a ship heading in the wrong direction – back to Europe. At length returning, he discovered to his horror Minny’s fate, and managed to trace her to New Orleans – but no further. The child, however, contrary to what Minny had been told, was still at her grandfather’s former plantation. Here, too, Guillieme reveals that Alphonse Dozier did, at the last minute, do the right thing: not only granting his daughter her freedom, but making her the legal heir to his property…only he gave the papers to Guillieme, just before he left for Paris…
Why prolong this scene? Who can not follow, in imagination, the little, reunited, joyful family, through the hours, too blissful for eating or sleeping, that immediately followed their meeting? The next morning…they set out for Norfolk, whence in a few days, they sailed for Havana, they reached the Dell, where, reader, they still live prosperous and happy…
Oh, they do, do they? The French opera singer – and his quadroon wife – and their octoroon children? In the early 1800s? I’d love to think so; I really would.
Still, let’s not criticise Southworth for her optimism, but rather, let’s see how she wraps up her other plot. Following the final implosion of the second Dent marriage, Ernest crawls back to The Vale, broken in spirit and older than his sixty years. He finds his own situation and state of mind reflected back at him by his daughter’s neglected property, left to him in trust:
The fences and out-houses are in a miserably delapidated condition; the fields have been wretchedly tended, and the crop is nought; the trees in the orchard are, some of them, for the want of props, broken down with fruit, some of them covered with cobwebs and caterpillars, and some infested with worms; the grape vines in the vineyards,broken down by the storm of years, have been left untrained and unbound, trailling on the ground—dead—the caterpillars have woven over them a shroud of gossamer; the garden has grown up in weeds, and the cattle have trampled down the flowers; the apiary is a ruin. What had wrought this change? When the soul departs, the body falls into dissolution. The soul of liberty and hope had departed from the model farm…
And yet there is hope – but it lies in the next generation: in Julie Dent, long-neglected like her inheritance, who combines her father’s strength with her mother’s spirit and ideals. Ernest spells out to his daughter exactly what her sacrifice will involve – not only the surrender of any prospect of a leisured life, but the loss of the man she loves, who has already made it clear that if Julie proceeds, if she deliberately divests herself of her inheritance, it will mean the end of their engagement. She hesitates, but only for a moment:
Julie carried out her purpose of emancipation. Every man, woman, and child, to the number of three hundred, were freed…
It is often the case, I gather, in the novels of E.D.E.N. Southworth, that a young woman is left to carry the torch of progress, in spite of the many obstacles placed in her way by the law, by male expectation and demand, and by social convention. Optimistic? Ideallistic? Unrealistic? Perhaps—but not to be depised on that account.