Archive for July, 2013

25/07/2013

Be careful what you pray for

You may have all forgotten this detail by now, but the reason I reviewed Lady Patty: A Sketch was that it was my last selection for Reading Roulette. If you had forgotten, it’s probably because I drew it out of the hat towards the end of last year, but didn’t get around to reading, let alone reviewing, it until June this year.

Sigh.

However, with my post on Lady Patty all of my outstanding blogging has finally been caught up – whoo! – and that in turn means that I can finally allow myself to move forward in the Chronobibliography, and to play another round of Reading Roulette.

I was particularly excited about the latter…at least until I saw where the random number generator had landed me:

Steepleton; or, High Church And Low Church: Being The Present Tendencies Of Parties In The Church, Exhibited In The History Of Frank Faithful. By A Clergyman.

Is it just me, or does everything about that scream DEEP HURTING?

Some time back, I reviewed The Novel And The Oxford Movement by Joseph Ellis Baker, which examined the role of popular literature in the inter-factional church brawling of the 19th century. The point was made that although initially both the High and Low Church parties were reluctant to use a despised form of writing like the novel to help shore up their cause, in time they accepted that the novel could be a very powerful weapon in the propaganda arsenal. The earliest efforts of both sides, however, resembled tracts far more than they resembled stories…and I very much fear that Steepleton will turn out to be an example of everything that was wrong with this particular school of writing.

24/07/2013

Lady Patty: A Sketch

hungerford2b    “He can make you a rich woman,” says Lady Patty. “And that’s everything nowadays. Do, dear child, try to think of it. You know all my money lapses after my death back to a cousin of your father’s, and you will be left with nothing but a paltry two hundred a year or so. You say Sir Rufus is mercenary; but when I told him all about that, he spoke most beautifully,—poetically, indeed; said he was willing to take you without a rag, or—”
    “Money is nothing,—nothing at all,” says the young girl, quietly, but with conviction.
    “Oh!” cries Lady Patty, falling back in her seat as if stricken by some mortal blow. “And this is my own flesh and blood!”

The Irish-born Margaret Wolfe Hungerford was a popular and prolific writer of the late 19th century. In 1877, after only six years of marriage, she was left a widow with three young children to care for. Like so many other women before her, Hungerford—or Mrs Argles, as she was then—turned to her pen to supplement her income, and soon found herself in the happy position of having a public clamouring for her work. Although she remarried in 1882, and bore three more children, Hungerford continued to write at a ferocious clip, publishing short stories and journal articles as well as literally dozens of novels. She was successful on both sides of the Atlantic; in America, her novels were published simply as by “The Duchess”.

Hungerford is a good example of new kind of novelist that appeared in the wake of the collapse of the circulating libraries and the death of the three-volume novel. She specialised in single-volume works that offered bright and breezy dialogue, vivid character sketches, and a view of Society that was cynical yet understanding. Though her works themselves are largely forgotten today, Hungerford left a permanent mark on the world when, in her second novel, Molly Bawn, she coined the phrase, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Published in 1892, Lady Patty: A Sketch is a representative Hungerford work, albeit one from the less substantial end of the scale: a frothy and amusing sketch of modern society, though not one without a darker undercurrent. The Lady Patty of the title is Lady Patricia Gifford, a flighty widow, good-natured but frivolous and fundamentally selfish, whose comfortably hedonistic life gets a crimp in it when her only child, Helen, reaches an age to be launched into society.

Although Lady Patty enjoys a comfortable income, without a son her estate will revert upon her death to a cousin of her late husband’s; Helen has no separate fortune. We learn that at the period of her widowhood, when Helen was still a baby, Patty did briefly contemplate reducing her expenses and living a simplified life in order to make provision for her daughter; but…

    From this idea, however, Lady Patty had revolted early in her widowhood. If she were to retrench to the last farthing, and convey herself and her baby into squalid lodgings (she always went to extremes in everything), would that really be doing her duty towards her little daughter? Who would marry a girl who was brought up in penury, uneducated, unknown? No! clearly it was not her duty. Better, far better to go boldly into society,—put a good face on it, live among decent people, and give the girl a fair chance of meeting eligible partners. Probably the little one would turn up trumps in the long run if given a fair opening. And a small house in Park Lane, and a brougham, were indispensable for this chance! Helen should have them! Yes, she should!
    Helen was an infant in arms when she came to this heroic determination; but that did not matter…

Seventeen years later, however, Helen’s provision has become a matter of some urgency. Having looked around for a sufficiently wealthy match for her daughter, Lady Patty seizes upon the rich but coarse-natured and miserly Sir Rufus Greyly, impatiently dismissing the fact that her innocent daughter finds him both physically and morally repellent as a mere detail, and of no importance.

We learn very little about the specifics of Helen’s upbringing, but are able to infer easily enough that she has only minimal time in her mother’s company. (In the letter to her sister-in-law which opens the novel, we find Lady Patty packing Helen off to Florence: “So sweet of dear Lady Western to take darling Helen off my hands for so many months…”) Helen has grown up to be everything that Patty is not: which is to say, naïve, earnest and trusting. This creates something of a dilemma for her mother. On one hand she revels in the fact that her daughter takes her entirely at her own estimation—Patty has impressed upon Helen the idea that her life has been one long sacrifice for her child’s benefit—but on the other, it requires constant vigilance, so as not to let the mask slip. And how to balance a full social calendar, a passion for dancing and a love of flattery and flirtation with a reputation for single-minded motherly devotion?

    “And do you know,” says Helen confidentially, “why she is youthful always? It is because she is so sweet and good.”
    Lord Vysely stared a little harder.
    “She loves everybody,” goes on the girl, her charming face aglow with tenderness. “She is kind to everybody. She has a lovely mind. I shall not be as young as mamma, when I am her age.”
    Vysely, who had seen Lady Patty half an hour earlier flirting vigorously with a handsome Guardsman, of distinctly questionable morals, in the dim recesses of a conservatory, begins to wonder whether, if she is really ‘so sweet and good’, she had not been trying to redeem that artful Guardsman from the error of his ways. But Lady Patty’s face, painted and powdered, is still before him, and Lady Patty’s fan alone might have given one a lesson in coquetry. A sense of amusement takes possession of him, mingled with a profound tenderness for this grave, earnest, loving child beside him…

The depiction of high society in Lady Patty is unusually, even disturbingly, cynical for a novel of this type. It is not the shallow, mercenary Lady Patty who surprises us, however, but that the narrative does little to contradict her assumptions about how the world really works. Early on we are introduced to Caroline Cholmondeley, whose clear-sighted attitude to her sister-in-law and her sense of humour seem to tag her as the novel’s voice of reason. It is something of a shock, therefore, when Mrs Cholmondeley’s opinions on money and marriage turn out to coincide with Lady Patty’s own. Far from recoiling from the notion of a marriage between the delicate Helen and a gross sensualist like Sir Rufus, she is only irritated with the obvious blunders the baronet has made in the course of his heavy-handed courtship (giving away his atheism, for instance), and wonders aloud why he has not sealed the deal by plying Helen with diamonds. Her own thorough dislike of the man impacts in no way upon her view of him as an eligible husband.

Mrs Cholmondeley is, as it happens, in very much the same situation as Lady Patty, having been left a widow in straitened circumstances and with one child, her son, Tom. Like Lady Patty she takes it for granted that the only sensible basis for marriage is money, let the chips fall afterwards where they may; and so long and so thoroughly has she impressed this point upon Tom, she foresees no danger at all in allowing him, even encouraging him, to spend time with his penniless young cousin. Patty, on the other hand, takes it for granted that since Tom is an impecunious officer, he is exactly the kind of ineligible young man that Helen would fall in love with. And after all, why would she resist Sir Rufus so strenuously, unless she loved another?

As Patty devotes more and more time and energy into trying to force Helen into a wholly mercenary marriage, it becomes harder and harder for her to keep up the pretence of nobility. She compromises by pretending honestly to believe that Sir Rufus is the one man capable of making Helen happy—which is, after all, all that she wants from life. Helen doesn’t believe it, but she does believe that her mother believes it. Must she break her mother’s heart, then, or marry a man she despises?

The crudity of the baronet’s courtship exposes Lady Patty’s venality every bit as much as it does his own. His attempt to force kisses on Helen sternly rebuffed, Sir Rufus does eventually try bribing her with diamonds instead—at the calculated urging of the far from disinterested Tom, who knows very well that the girl’s reaction will be the polar opposite of what her tight-fisted suitor expects:

It is a handsome gift, no doubt. In fact, Sir Rufus, having been fortunate beyond his wont over his moderate betting, had felt he might now spend a little of his winnings on the woman he has elected to honour. It had hurt him sorely to expend that three hundred pounds; but he had so far sacrificed himself. They—the diamonds—would be sure to buy the girl. No woman, he thought, gazing of the sparkling stones and counting the cost of them, could be cruel to the giver of them. And once married, no more gifts need be bestowed. In that way marriage would be a saving…

Helen’s instinctive, disgusted rejection of the gift brings matters to a crisis, and for the moment exposes the real woman behind Lady Patty’s mask:

    “But, mamma, I don’t like him; I don’t care for him.”
    “What on earth has that got to do with it?” exclaims Lady Patty, throwing up her pretty bejewelled hands in quite an agonised fashion. “What does it matter how you regard him? He is rich. He has money, position; that means he is a power,—a creature to make use of.”
    “Oh, but there must be something beyond all that!” says the girl, pressing her slender fingers together.
    “There is not,” says her mother with decision. “There is a great deal of nonsense talked about love, and independence, and so forth,—if there wasn’t, how could the poets and novelists live?—but it is all a fraud. Nothing is of any consequence save comfort, and ease of mind, and good frocks, and a decent house; and money means all that.”

The second surprise bordering on shock in Lady Patty is that Helen’s artlessness is not the object of unalloyed authorial approval. Throughout the novel people are moved to stop and stare at Helen in disbelief, trying to decide whether anyone could be as ingenuous as she seems to be, or whether it is all a brilliantly maintained bit of play-acting, just what one would expect of a daughter of Lady Patty Gifford. There is more than a hint in the text that although Helen’s high-mindedness and simplicity might be all very well in an ideal world, this is not an ideal world—but rather, one in which such impractical attributes do not necessarily wear well.

There is, in the end, even something cruel about Helen’s naivety. Lacking the capacity to put herself into the mindset of others, she has a tendency to assume that others feel as she does, until painfully taught otherwise. Thus, her cousin Tom, being no more to her than the brother she never had, must necessarily hold brotherly feelings towards her. She does not hesitate to appeal to him for help, or to ask his advice—or to confide in him her love for another…

In spite of his mother’s stern life-lessons, Tom does fall in love with Helen almost at their first meeting. But though he does his best to avert the threat of Sir Rufus Greyly, he is not foolish enough to imagine that this will have any effect upon his own situation. With his worldly goods not even amounting to the “few hundreds” that will be Helen’s portion should her mother die before she marries, Tom can only fight to conceal his secret misery when an oblivious Helen pours out the joy of her heart to him, after discovering most unexpectedly that she is loved:

    Then, all suddenly, a most lovely light grows upon her face… “He loves me! He loves only me. Do you mind letting me speak to you about it, Tom? There is only you, you know, and it is such a comfort to tell somebody about it. I never,” eagerly, “thought he could possibly be in love with me! Did you, Tom?”
    “No, I did not,” shortly.
    “It was a revelation,” says the girl. She lifts her hands and presses them against her pretty head. A smile, rich as spring in promise, parts her lips. “I feel alive for the first time today,” says she,—“alive and awake. Oh, how dear and lovely a thing it is to be living!” She turns to him impulsively and holds out her hands. “How beautiful a place is the world,” cries she, gladly.
    Cholmondeley takes her hands, but hardly presses them. He has grown very pale…

The impression we get from Lady Patty is that the basis of Margaret Wolfe Hungerford’s success as a writer was her happy knack of having her cake and eating it, too. Thus she may both produce an amusing but unnerving sketch of society and poke fun at her own rather humourless heroine, but in the end—along with all the other “poets and novelists”, we gather, who have to make a living, after all—she is moved to stretch out a kind, authorial hand and pluck the innocent Helen out of the wolf’s den, removing her to a place of safety.

Soon after her debut, Helen makes the acquaintance of the Marquis of Vysely, a wealthy and serious-minded young man who devotes himself to social reform and charitable works in the East End; Lady Patty, unsurprisingly, considers him a dead bore. Common report has given Vysely to a Miss Chester, a plain but equally wealthy and serious-minded young woman who is also devoted to philanthropic works. (There is much dissatisfied muttering about the selfishness inherent in two rich people marrying each other.) Helen, knowing no better, takes gossip for gospel; and so, though there is no-one she likes better than Lord Vysely, she views him as, in effect, a married man, and treats him accordingly.

But common report has gotten it wrong as usual: Miss Chester is engaged to a friend of Vysely’s, at present in India; their friendship is based equally upon this shared connection, and their mutual interest in good works. Vysely is literally the last to know what is being said about him, and is thus quite unable to get a handle on the infuriating detachment with which Helen behaves towards him:

    “There was nobody there I cared to see.”
    “Miss Chester was there,” says Helen, very softly.
    “Yes, yes; she was a relief, certainly. She is one in a thousand,” says Vysely. “One can converse with her; one can only talk to the others. But still—”
    His pause is eloquent, but the girl, filled with her belief in his engagement to Miss Chester, sees nothing in it. She looks back at him sweetly, calmly; and, meeting that undisturbed glance, a sense of disappointment fills Lord Vysely’s breast.
    Has she no feeling? Is she at heart what she looks outwardly, a pale, lovely statue, a thing of marble? Was there ever so still a girl? Oh, to move her!

Helen, in fact, is in no doubt of her own feelings, but considering Vysely as forbidden fruit, she buries them as deeply as she can—and so successfully that Vysely comes to the gloomy conclusion that she is lacking in passion—“an icicle”. Yet with every meeting he is more and more drawn to her sweetness and innocence. At last he begins courting her, at least after a fashion—not in ballrooms or in any of the usual ways, but by finding moments alone with her and trying to resolve the apparent contradictions in her nature.

(In one unexpected and charming interlude, Vysely takes advantage of a confidence and meets Helen at the zoo: This…makes Vysely look at her with an expression too ardent by far, but providentially she is looking at a camel…)

And at last, he speaks to her of love. Still thinking him Miss Chester’s fiancé, this revelation of her idol’s feet of clay is a terrible blow to Helen. Her involuntary recoil, however, reveals her heart just as thoroughly as Vysely could wish:

    He kisses her little hands, and, lifting them, lays them around his neck. Is it—can it—be true that they seem to gladly clasp themselves there? “I have doubted so often—you have made me suffer so much,” whispers he, “that I still doubt. Helen, say you love me.”
    “I do, oh, I do indeed!” whispers she back, clinging to him. Is this his icicle?—the cold indifferent creature he had often imagined her—?

But how to tell Lady Patty?—Lady Patty, who that very day has taken to her bed in a state of nervous collapse brought on by her frantic worry over her daughter? Seeing that Helen is genuinely frightened at the prospect of breaking the news of her engagement to any man other than Sir Rufus, Vysely bites back the cynical words that rise to his lips, but recognises only too clearly—as indeed he has done from the very beginning of their acquaintance—that Helen has a bitter disillusionment in store for her:

    “I wish you would read his letter first,” says Helen, faintly. “He meant you to read it first. It is Lord Vysely, mamma, and—”
    “What?
    “I knew I should make you ill again; but he said I had better tell you at once; and so did Tom. Darling mother, forgive me. I know you have set your heart on Sir Rufus, and I know you consider George—Lord Vysely—dull, and stupid, and a bore, but—but I don’t!”
    “Do you mean to tell me,” says Lady Patty, leaning forward and speaking almost hoarsely, “that the Marquis of Vysely wishes to marry you?”

And with that, the mask comes off—once and for all, and with a resounding clatter:

    “And now,” gayly, “we can give that odious Sir Rufus his congé without any further delay.”
    “Odious! Sir Rufus! Mamma!” says the girl, growing very pale.
    “Well, well, darling—yes, I know, of course, what you mean.” She has the grace to be faintly ashamed of herself. “But— A most estimable young man, I dare say, Helen; but if you could know what he has cost me in mental anxiety— I assure you,” says Lady Patty, with an angry little moue, “the way that man has been tormenting poor unfortunate little me would fill a book. But now—”
    A forlorn feeling that there is unmistakeable revenge in her mother’s expression at this moment drives Helen into absolute silence. Her mother!—who had seemed to love Sir Rufus!—to regard him as the one desirable person to whom her daughter might safely be given! Perhaps something in the girl’s wide gaze reaches the mother’s heart in spite of the crust that has grown over it.
    “Of course, I esteem him highly—highly,” says she, laughing rather uncertainly… “I say, Helen,” says Lady Patty presently, with a quick, bright smile of intelligence, “wasn’t it well you didn’t accept that diamond necklet?”

Sir Rufus chooses this inauspicious moment to call. Nervous collapse, sick headache and imminent lingering death long forgotten, Lady Patty leaps from her bed, looking forward to dismissing forever the the man to whom she promised far too much, and who is now nothing more to her than a unwelcome reminder of her own crass selfishness. The prospective mother of a marchioness, Lady Patty sweeps downstairs in fine fettle, oblivious to the bewildered distress left in her wake:

    “Don’t be frightened, darling. (Where’s that gold bangle?) I’ll polish him off in no time. Hideous little monster! It always went against my sense of justice, Helen, that he should be given to so charming a girl as you. Now, bear me out in that with Vysely. But no matter; I’ll make short work of him now. I’ll give him to understand he can’t come here any more, tormenting and worrying and whimpering, just as if he could ever hope to marry a girl like you! Really, you know, such presumption! (Is my hair all right at the back?) You don’t want him coming here, talking his insane nonsense, darling? On the whole, I do think he is the vulgarest young man I know—eh?”
    “I thought him so,” falters Helen, vaguely. Is it all true? If not, what is true? What is she to think,—believe?…

14/07/2013

The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana

octoroon1b     “Why did you not tell Mrs Montressor the truth?” asked Gilbert.
     “What would have been the use, since I cannot tell it to Miss Leslie? That is what seals my lips. Her father has concealed from her her real origin. She thinks she is of the European race—I discovered that in my interview with her—and I dare not reveal a secret which is not mine to tell.”
     “And you fear that her return to New Orleans will cause sorrow to herself,” said Gilbert.
     “I do,” replied the young South American; “every door at which she dares to knock will be closed against her. Even my cousin, her friend, will turn from her in pity, perhaps, but with contempt. You, who dwell in a land where the lowest beggar, crawling in his loathsome rags, is as free as your mightiest nobleman, can never guess the terrors of Slavery. Genius, beauty, wealth, these cannot was out the stain; the fatal taint of African blood still remains; and though a man were the greatest and noblest upon earth, the curse clings to him to the last. He is still—a slave!”

When it comes to Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana, I find myself in the uneasy position of being inclined to disagree with the experts. In her introduction to the novel (which was reissued by the marvellous Sensation Press), Jennifer Carnell asserts confidently that, “Braddon began The Octoroon in November 1861…”—after, that is, the success of The Trail Of The Serpent. Yet in every respect, The Octoroon feels like an earlier effort than The Trail Of The Serpent, even allowing for the significant revision of that novel after its first release and failure as Three Times Dead. The jaunty confidence and outrageous streak of humour that characterise The Trail Of The Serpent are nowhere to be found in The Octoroon, which is a very po-faced melodrama indeed.

Possibly Braddon felt that outrageous humour, at least, would have been out of place in a novel about the horrors of slavery; but in any event there is a certain tentative quality to The Octoroon, an inclination to make big dramatic gestures instead of truly engaging with its subject matter, that seems like the mark of an inexperienced writer. I know there is a scholarly group out there that lists The Octoroon as Braddon’s first novel, tagging it as 1859 rather than 1861, and that feels about right to me. Perhaps she wrote a version of it first, but it wasn’t published until later? Or perhaps it was serialised to no effect in 1859, and then reissued in 1861? Or was it indeed a case of the notorious sophomore-effort syndrome? Whatever the truth, after the many and varied pleasures of The Trail Of The Serpent, The Octoroon was a bit of a let-down, if not without a certain charm of its own.

This is the third novel considered at this blog to deal significantly with slavery, after The Rebel’s Daughter and Retribution, and all three of them have resorted to exactly the same ploy: focusing upon a beautiful young woman of mixed blood, who is able to pass for white. (In fact, I’m beginning to wonder whether, other than the seminal Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there was any novel of the time addressing slavery that didn’t pull this stunt.) The main difference between Braddon’s novel and its fellows is that it is, of course, British. Blithely ignoring Britain’s own slave-trafficking past, and certain grim realities of its present, Braddon presents her homeland as the bastion of personal freedom, a sanctuary for the oppressed, and a realm free of race prejudice. In fact, she pours on the British virtue with such a heavy hand, takes it so very much for granted that the British are to an individual morally pure and upright, clean-living and right-thinking, that it would take a very brave person indeed to – per the little iconoclast of The Life Of Brian – put up their hand and say, “I’m not.” It is difficult to decide whether all this jingoism is just melodramatic exaggeration and extremism, Braddon stroking her audience’s ego, or a deliberate tactic to spike the guns of those inclined to criticise her thesis; most likely, a healthy mix of all three.

We do notice, however, that Braddon’s position on race relations isn’t quite as steadfast as her assertion of general British superiority. She seems to have taken on board the fact that someone could strongly oppose slavery and yet have no truck with the idea of race equality. Her way of avoiding turning off her potential audience by taking *a* stance on the subject is not to take one. Instead, she draws her line in the sand—slavery is bad, mmm’kay?—and then scatters through her text just about every possible attitude towards the subject of race relations; everything, that is, from:

The slave—the negro—the thick-lipped and woolly-haired African—the lowest type of a despised and abhorred race—

—to—

Enthusiastic and hopeful, the young student looked forward to a day when, from the ranks of these despised people, great men should arise to elevate the African race, and to declare aloud in the Senate, and before the assembled nations, the EQUAL RIGHTS OF THE GREAT BROTHERHOOD OF MAN.

—and all points in between, and then allows each reader to find their own level. It’s a tactic that makes Braddon’s own views exceedingly difficult to pin down; although I like to think that those capital letters are indicative.

In Gilbert Margrave, The Octoroon‘s hero, we have the very personification of British perfection; one described upon first introduction – and with a straight face – as “artist, engineer, philanthropist, poet”. He is “handsome and accomplished”, with “flashing black eyes” and a “superb forehead”, besides positively bristling with “manly energy”. He is also wealthy, courtesy of an invention adopted by the cotton industry, and he dreams of technology that will make slavery redundant. Gilbert is attending a London ball with his friend, Mortimer Percy; a somewhat unlikely friend, we might think, given that Mortimer is an American slave-owner, but be that as it may. Mortimer is engaged to his cousin, Adelaide Horton, who is currently visiting England under the guardianship of her aunt, Mrs Montressor. Also present at the ball is Adelaide’s dear friend, the beautiful Cora Leslie, with whom Gilbert falls desperately in love at first sight. There’s just one problem:

     “Can you tell me who she is?”
     “No. But I can do more. I can tell you what she is.”
     “What do you mean?”
     “I mean that your angel, your nymph, your goddess, your syren 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.”

One of the most cherished beliefs of the 19th century is that you could tell what a person was just by looking at them. Mock-sciences like phrenology fed easily into the need felt by the upper classes, at a time when the world was changing and long-standing privileges under threat, for reassurance that they were indeed not just different, but better. “Birth” showed itself in certain physical traits, and so for that matter did “good” and “evil”; sin invariably left a mark. Sensation fiction generally went out of its way to challenge and undermine this assumption, and Braddon herself, over the course of her career, was one of the leading exponents of the unnerving counter-theory that you never can tell. Here, however, plot purposes demand that Cora Leslie be betrayed by her fingernails and “the extreme corner of her eye” (!?), and so this pernicious nonsense is allowed to stand (though I’m struggling against a Morbo-like cry of, Blood does not work that way!!).

Of course, the other thing that tends to leap out of this passage at the modern reader is its outrageous sweeping assumption that anyone of African blood is automatically a slave, rather than just…someone with African blood. And again, it turns out that with respect to Cora, Mortimer is quite right. Her father is a slave-owner, her mother was a “quadroon” slave with whom he {*cough*} fell in love. To his uneasy surprise, Gerald Leslie felt a deep affection for the white-skinned daughter born of this connection, and finally decided to save her from her otherwise inevitable fate by sending her to be raised and educated in England, sternly warning her throughout their subsequent correspondence not to return to Louisiana, but never telling her why. After many years of vacillation, Leslie resolves to sell up his plantation and move to England to be with Cora, but before he can do so, events intervenes.

At the ball, Cora presses Mortimer for news of her father, and he reveals that Leslie was injured during a slave revolt provoked by the brutality of his overseer—allowing the characters to air their various views. Still more reluctantly, Mortimer adds that he believes Leslie to be in severe financial difficulties, and about to lose his property.

Cora, whose boring perfection quite matches Gilbert’s, turns out to be one of those exasperating 19th century daughters whose only response to parental neglect and mistreatment is to grovel still more abjectly, and immediately determines to ignore her father’s prohibition and return to New Orleans, to “comfort and sustain him”.

(On the other hand— Although she never reproaches him for his treatment of herself, I am pleased to be able to report that Cora angrily confronts and shames her father upon learning her mother’s history. It turns out that Leslie, unable to bear the silent misery and reproachful looks of his mistress after her daughter was taken from her, sold her to a man who desired her for the same position in his own household. Threatened with rape, Francilia committed suicide.)

Mortimer is appalled by Cora’s decision to return to Louisiana, knowing full well what will happen to her if she sets foot on Southern soil, but decides that the secret is not his to tell. Cora ends up travelling to New Orleans in company with Mortimer, Gilbert, Adelaide and Mrs Montressor, a situation that leads to a tangle of thwarted passions, violent outbursts and mixed motives.

Mortimer and his cousin Adelaide are indifferently engaged, fond of each other but marrying mostly to keep the family money and property together. However, Adelaide falls in love with Gilbert, who falls in love with Cora. This is hard enough for Adelaide to take when she and Cora are best friends, but when Cora’s real identity is revealed—and when it makes no difference at all to Gilbert’s feelings—his preference for Cora and his complete indifference to her become an insult that Adelaide cannot bear:

     “I insinuate nothing, Mr Margrave,” answered Adelaide. “I simply tell you that the—the person of whom you speak is no companion for me. Whatever friendship once existed between us is henceforth forever at an end—Cora Leslie is a slave!… African blood flows in her veins. She has never been emancipated; she is, therefore, as much a slave as the negroes upon her father’s plantation.”
     “I was led to believe something to this effect on the very night of your aunt’s ball in Grosvenor Square, Miss Horton. So far from this circumstance lessening my respect for Miss Leslie, I feel that it is rather exalted into a sentiment of reverence. She is no longer simply a beautiful woman; she henceforth becomes the lovely representative of an oppressed people.”

Meanwhile, Adelaide’s brother, Augustus, one of the novel’s two main villains and a real moustache-twirler if ever there was one, becomes sexually fixated upon Cora. When she spurns him in outrage and disgust, he becomes obsessed with the idea of possessing and degrading her. He gets his chance when Villain #2, Silas Craig, a career plotter with a chip on his shoulder whose financial machinations are extremely numerous and generally illegal, pulls the rug out from under Gerald Leslie. (It was Craig to whom Leslie sold Francilia, who killed herself rather than let him touch her.) Leslie’s financial ruin is the outcome of a deep-laid scheme by Craig, who hates the plantation owner with a passion, and which climaxes in Leslie’s forced eviction and the sale of all his property:

     For some moments there was a pause. Several amongst the crowd asked what the next lot was to be. The voice of the auctioneer responded from his rostrum, “The Octoroon girl, Cora!”
     Again there was a pause. There were few there who did not know the story of Gerald Leslie and his daughter, and every one present seemed to draw a long breath. The Octoroon emerged from a group of slaves, behind whom she had been hidden, and slowly ascended the platform.
     Never in her happiest day—never when surrounded by luxury, when surfeited by adulation and respect, had Cora Leslie looked more lovely than to-day. Her face was whiter than marble, her large dark eyes were shrouded beneath their drooping lids, fringed with long and silken lashes; her rich wealth of raven hair had been loosened by the rude hands of an overseer, and fell in heavy masses far below her waist; her slender yet rounded figure was set off by the soft folds of her simple cambric dress, which displayed her shoulders and arms in all their statuesque beauty…

A bidding war erupts between Gilbert and Augustus Horton, but Gilbert is hampered by the necessity for immediate payment: he goes to his limit of $30,000, only for the obsessed Augustus to buy Cora for the sum of $50,000.

The resolution of Cora’s plot is one of the weaknesses of The Octoroon (though it does include one neat and unexpected twist), which is perhaps not entirely Braddon’s fault. At the time this novel was written there were limits to what an author could get away with, particularly a female author (and unlike The Trail Of The Serpent, The Octoroon has a distinctly female “voice”). Braddon clearly found it necessary not only to dance around the specifics of Cora’s situation, but to have the girl simultaneously “aware” and “unaware” of the nature of her danger, presumably by way of properly preserving her purity, mental as well as physical. Consequently, those passages dealing with Augustus’s intentions towards Cora are exceedingly mealy-mouthed.

Thus we can have Cora asking herself, Could there be any doubt as to his motive in choosing this lonely villa for the retreat of the Octoroon?, and recognising that she is doomed to be no more than, A profligate’s hour of pleasure, to be trampled beneath his feet when the whim has passed; and yet as she sits and waits for Augustus to appear in her room, she can worry that, “Again I may hear those words which are poison to my soul; and this time he may force me to listen to his infamous proposals.”

“Force me to listen to his infamous proposals”— I suppose that’s one way of putting it.

Cora wards off her fate by climbing out of a window and making a break for it, but she runs straight into Augustus, who seems genuinely surprised at her objections to their arrangement:

     “So, Cora,” he said, “this is how you repay me for my foolish indulgence. This is how you show your gratitude for being received at Hortonville like a princess! Do you know how we treat runaway slaves in the South?… I’m afraid they neglected your education in England.”
     “They did,” replied the Octoroon; “the free citizens of that land of liberty forgot to teach me that beneath God’s bounteous Heaven, there live a race of men who traffic in the bodies and souls of their fellow-creatures!”

This confrontation ends with Cora unexpectedly rescued by Gilbert and her father, although not before she has defied Augustus and humiliated him by threatening to strike him across the face as he would strike a slave. Augustus has the law on his side now, so his main concern is preventing Gilbert and Cora from “escaping to the Free States of America”. And Augustus is indeed so mortified that his love for her (or whatever you want to call it) immediately turns to hate, and he entirely changes his plans for Cora:

“They have,” answered Augustus with an oath, “but they shall not long escape me. Listen to me, Adelaide; you may wonder at the passion I feel upon this subject, but my pride has been humiliated by the cool insolence of the Octoroon, and whatever motive I may had had for my conduct at the slave-sale yesterday, I have now no purpose but that of bringing Cora Leslie’s haughty spirit to the dust. I will have her found and brought back to New Orleans, and I will give her to you as your lady’s-maid. I know there is little love lost between you, and that I could not easily inflict a greater humiliation upon my fine lady.”

Of course not; because being a lady’s-maid is so much more humiliating than BEING RAPED EVERY NIGHT.

Dearie me.

In addition to internal struggles such as this (this one being merely the most pronounced), The Octoroon‘s main flaw is its structure—or rather, its lack thereof. There is an entire, major B-plot in this novel that I haven’t even touched upon here, for the simple reason that Plot A and Plot B barely touch. Rather, Plot B exists as a strange sort of independent outgrowth, with the only real point of intersection being Silas Craig, who also does plenty of machinating over in that section of the novel. Of course, The Octoroon was serialised, and it is easy enough to see that Plot B is as much about Braddon’s word count as anything else. Her difficulties in integrating her separate plot-threads in a meaningful way, which was so much better handled in The Trail Of The Serpent, is another reason why The Octoroon feels like the work of a less experienced writer.

The main characters of The Octoroon, Cora and Gilbert on one hand, and Augustus and Silas Craig on the other, are disappointingly lacking in shading; but amongst her supporting cast, Braddon does a better job of showing what she’s capable of when working in shades of grey. In many ways, the most interesting character in this novel is Mortimer Percy, introduced to us as a bored, blasé young man-of-the-world, a slave-owner who lets his business partner do all the dirty work while he lives comfortably on the profits, a man prepared to marry a woman on no more than tepid liking if it means inheriting a fortune and not rocking the boat. The impression we eventually get of Mortimer is that he has never stopped to think about the way things are—because he’s never had to. It is not until he is a spectator at close range of the relationship between Cora and Gilbert—until Adelaide, sick with jealousy, turns viciously upon the girl who was once her best friend—that Mortimer begins to ask himself some hard questions. It turns out he doesn’t much care for the answers:

     “I understand. As a worthy member of society, then, as a Christian and a gentleman—in the sense in which we regard these things—he may send his daughter to toil sixteen hours a day on his plantation; he may hand her to his overseer to be flogged, if she is too weak (or too lazy, as it will most likely be called) to work; he may sell her, if he will, no matter to what degradation—no matter to what infamy; but let him dare to love her—let him dare to look upon her with one thrill of fatherly affection—let him attempt to elevate her mind by education, to teach her that there is a free heaven above her, where slavery cannot be—let him do this, and he has committed a crime against society and the laws of Louisiana.”
     “Exactly so,” replied Silas Craig.

Note that parenthetical interjection: this is not so very many pages after Mortimer excuses the brutal behaviour of certain overseers by saying unconcernedly, “The planter finds himself between the horns of a terrible dilemma; he must either beat his slaves or suffer from their laziness…” As the battle-lines are drawn, the newly inspired Mortimer sides against his fellow plantation-owners and lends his support and assistance to Gilbert. He also breaks his engagement to Adelaide, in disgust with her behaviour towards Cora—though he recognises that she is driven by jealousy rather than prejudice, which he considers some excuse, if not enough. Adelaide, too, develops shading over the course of the story. She repents her treatment of Cora and seeks for a way to redeem herself, in Mortimer’s eyes as well as in her own. She eventually finds one, too, in one of the novel’s best touches.

And though I don’t want to get into Plot B in any detail, it is there we find The Octoroon‘s most typically Braddon-esque touch, as well as its other most interesting supporting character. Briefly, Pauline Corsi grows up thinking she is born of the French nobility, only for it to be revealed that her barren mother, in desperation, passed off a peasant’s baby as her own—prompting Pauline’s outraged “father” to turn her out on the streets. Unfortunately, this occurs not long after Pauline’s lover, a talented but poor young artist, is likewise thrown out of the house for daring to raise his eyes to her. Pauline follows her lover to America, but is unable to find him. After suffering poverty and deprivation, she secures a thankless position as a governess-companion and begins to brood over her wrongs, growing hard and bitter and swearing to herself she will win a secure position in life no matter what she has to do. At length she tries to “buy” the hero of Plot B, who has been framed for theft and imprisoned, offering him his freedom in exchange for marriage, though she knows he loves another woman—and that woman her own trusting friend. When he spurns her, she resorts to literally blackmailing her noble employer into a betrothal by threatening him with her knowledge of his guilty secret.

Then, the day before the wedding, Pauline’s long-lost lover turns up—

—and Pauline undergoes instant reformation. And the text, in effect, pats her on the head and says cheerfully, “Well, off you go, then!”

The other fascinating thing about Plot B is its hero who, it eventually turns out, is also an “Octoroon”. His mother was “a favourite Quadroon slave” of his noble father, who actually did marry her, but hushed it up. Upon making this discovery, the young man thanks Providence: “Humble though my mother may have been, her son has no cause to blush for her.”

So there.

The curious thing is, no-one over in Plot B seems to care about the boy’s mixed blood. Perhaps these things are less important in men than in women? Or perhaps Braddon just really needed to get her novel wrapped up…