The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 2)


 
    She is a slave!” murmured Susan, in a low, but emphatic tone.
    Louis looked perplexed, bewildered, and did not reply. Susan smiled sadly at his embarrassment, as she continued gravely—“You would say, Louis, that you were already aware of that fact; that this was nothing new or extraordinary in her position—that, in a word, you know she is a slave; but do you also know, Louis, all that means to her?”
    He did not reply, but seemed engaged in thought. Susan continued, in a low, earnest voice—“No; you, like other excellent men I know, look on slavery with indifference. It is the nonchalance of custom. But this girl! I tell you, Louis, that were you or myself now reduced to slavery—were we to change positions with one of our slaves—become his property, subject to his orders—a thing to be chained, imprisoned, beaten, bought, sold, at his whim—neither you nor I could have a more poignant sense of degradation than she suffers…”

 

 

 
While the power struggle over Louise is foregrounded in The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays, something else is going on in this novel that I felt was worth highlighting.

Unlike Southworth’s first novel, Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows, this is not an abolitionist tract, as such: slavery is not present on what we might call “the large scale”, with the only slaves we do see being the house servants of the main white characters. The reality of slavery is still prominent in the narrative, however; and much is conveyed about the individual characters via their attitude towards it, and their treatment of their servants. There are references to who has freed their slaves, and who hires their servants for wages.

At one end of the character spectrum is, unsurprisingly, Mrs Armstrong—of whom it is observed in passing:

Only she avoided the Northern cities, to which she could not carry her slaves. Mrs Armstrong abhorred the attendance of any one over whom she did not possess absolute control…

We’ve seen up close how Mrs Armstrong treats her own daughter; Southworth leaves us to infer how she treats her slaves.

At the other end of the spectrum is Gertrude Lion, who Southworth allows to do some extraordinary things. Insisting passionately upon her own individual freedoms, Gertrude not only abhors slavery, but displays a distinct tendency towards all-men-are-created-equal in those words’ most literal sense. At one point, having come across a bad carriage-accident in the mountains, Gertrude is dealing with the situation when she encounters a runaway slave – one of Mrs Armstrong’s – who has taken refuge in a cave:

    The haggard and wolfish features of the slave relaxed a little, as he said, in a hoarse voice—“And you’ll not set the constables on me, Miss Gertrude!”
    “Explode the constables! no, I’d do you good, I said. Listen; I know you, Antony, you are Mrs Armstrong’s fugitive slave. Now, I don’t adore Mrs Armstrong myself, and if you will do me a favour, I will assist your escape from the State.”

A deal is struck between them, and after Antony has performed his part – honestly and diligently – Gertrude keeps her side of the bargain:

“Here is the pass I wrote for you.” She took it out and read it—“‘Antony Burgess has my permission to again pass and re-pass from Peakville to Alexandria, free of molestation, between the first of June and the first of July inclusive…’ There, Antony, that is exactly the pass that I give to my own men when they want to go to town. Now, it is true that you are not my own man, but that is no reason why I should not give you my  consent to go where you please, since I have no objection to it; and so, when you present that, people will naturally think it comes from your owner. And even if it fails, it cannot get you or me into trouble, since I only express my consent.”

And when Gertrude finally parts from the man (emphasis mine):

“Do you attend to what is left behind; bury the poor dead coachman, and don’t forget to recite the ten commandments over the grave. Now, good-by.” And shaking hands with him, Gertrude turned and lifted up her patient…

Much is also implied throughout The Mother-In-Law about the nature of Virginian society as a whole: almost all of the people of colour in this novel are of mixed blood; and though Southworth does not overtly pursue this point, we are left to ponder the structures and practices of the society that produced this situation.

One intriguing detail concerns Mrs Armstrong’s waiting woman, Kate Jumper: she is the niece of the local midwife, who works chiefly amongst the poor people and the servant class, and who is referred to as “Kate Jumper’s white aunt”. Though this is probably due to the low social status of each, the lack of any attempt to deny the relationship is striking. (Mr Jumper is nowhere to be found, of course…)

Kate Jumper is also important because she represents the one point in the novel where we might feel Southworth has resorted to nasty stereotyping, with much emphasis placed upon her wild and repulsive appearance. However, in this Kate is the exception to the rule; and in time it is evident that her appearance is rather meant as an externalisation of her role as the do-er of Mrs Armstrong’s dirty-work.

With all the other servants in the other households, Southworth emphasises their honesty, loyalty and intelligence. Most daringly of all, she makes a tacit argument that the supposed “inferiority” of people of colour is due purely to opportunities denied them. When in childhood, Susan Somerville is sent to the local school, her devoted servant – and “foster-sister” – Anna, insists upon accompanying her each day—being allowed, bit by bit, to creep into the classroom to sit quietly at Susan’s feet. Simply by sitting and listening, Anna absorbs as good an education as was given to any girl at the time. Far from displaying any “natural” stupidity, or “inferiority” of talent, Anna proves intelligent and thirsty for knowledge; she comes away from her indirect lessons with a thorough understanding of the world and a passion for literature and history. (Susan has already taught her to read, a dangerous undertaking at the time.)

There are two different slavery plots in The Mother-In-Law, linked, but used for different purposes. The first concerns the position of the Somervilles’ house servants, Harriet and George, and Anna, their daughter. Anna, by the way, is another of Southworth’s roster of beautiful brunettes:

And now he observed for the first time that she possessed the most lofty style of beauty. Her tall, full, graceful figure was finely curved, as she leaned upon the high back of an old leather chair, looking abstractedly from the window, the light from which fell upon her superb head, covered with a magnificent suit of black hair, that, dividing above her broad, pale forehead, rippled off into thousands of tiny jet-black, glistening wavelets over her temples and around her cheeks, and was gathered into a large knot confined by a silver bodkin behind. Her sloping, gloomy, but beautiful eyes, the sad expression of her full, red lips, closed as they habitually were, were  added to the fascination of a face that attracted without volition or consciousness. Her dress was of the coarse linsey-woolsey worn in winter by Southern house-servants, but hers was plaid, of very brilliant colours, made high in the neck, with sleeves reaching the wrists, fitting. accurately her charmingly developed form, and harmonising well with her dark, imperial style of beauty. Louis looked at her, at first, in obedience to Miss Somerville’s indication; then with surprise and admiration at the singular beauty he had never before noticed…

But the key phrase there is “broad, pale forehead”: Harriet and George are both “mulatto”, and Anna – was her background not fully known – could “pass”.

Unlike some other of the novel’s servants, Harriet, George and Anna are still slaves, owned by the elderly Major Somerville. Southworth uses the Major as an illustration of nearly everything wrong with Virginia society: he has exhausted his land by stubbornly refusing to budge from old-fashioned farming methods, and has fallen into debt he cannot possibly meet. The house, likewise, is falling into ruins, held together by the joint efforts of Susan and the servants. Meanwhile, at the end of his life, the Major clings to his dignity, wary of doing anything that could be interpreted as conceding power. Thus, despite Susan’s persuasions, he refuses to free any of his slaves—insisting that, as a woman, she doesn’t understand these things.

She does, of course—but not as well as the slaves themselves. A conspiracy of silence keeps Susan from knowing exactly how bad the situation is; so that, while she sees a profound depression taking hold of Anna, she interprets it as caused by the girl’s growing understanding of her degrading situation. What she does not know is that Major Somerville’s creditors are circling; that the bailiffs could descend any moment; and that, should that happen, Harriet, George and Anna will be sold along with all the rest of the Major’s property.

And this comes to pass when the Major dies suddenly of apoplexy. Susan takes immediate steps to free the servants, but is forestalled by the arrival of the deputy-sheriff and his goons. Even then Susan does not understand: she thinks they have come to do an assessment of the property for tax purposes, and is only angry that they have come so hard on the heels of her grandfather’s death:

    “How many slaves have you about the house, then, Miss Somerville.”
    “None, sir.”
    “What! my dear young lady.”
    “Sir, I have my foster-parents, George and Harriet, who brought me up, and my foster-sister and companion, Anna, who has always shared my room, my table, and my school. They are quadroons. I do not call them slaves.”
    “They were the slaves of the late Major Somerville, however?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “And they are yours now.”
    “No, sir! I do not for a moment acknowledge any right in myself to hold them. My dear grandfather’s funeral took place only on yesterday afternoon, and to-morrow morning I go to Richmond to take measures for their emancipation!” said Miss Somerville, in a cold, severe tone—for now she believed herself in conversation with a would-be purchaser.
    “Will you? Ah! yes, well! A generous and praiseworthy design on your part, my dear young lady,” said the deputy sheriff, perceiving for the first time that Susan was entirely unsuspicious of the object of his visit. “Will you, however, let me see these people, my dear Miss Somerville?”

Still under her misapprehension, Susan does, sending Anna to call her parents:

    Anna, who had conquered herself, and now stood calm, cold, and impassible, went out to obey.
    “Is that one of them?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “That girl?”
    “Yes, sir.”
    “Why, she is white!”
    “Very nearly, sir.”

Once the family is all present, the real purpose of the visit is made brutally clear:

    The assessor looked at Anna; and, as his sensual eyes roved all over her girlish figure, gloating on her beauty, he muttered an exclamation—“She is a handsome girl, and it would be a good spec’ to take her to New Orleans. She’d bring twelve or fifteen hundred dollars…”
    “That is not the question; what would she bring here?”
    “Gentlemen, I beg of you—” commenced Susan Somerville.
    “Be patient, young lady. What is her value here, Jones!”
    “Gentlemen, I insist—” began Susan again, with her cheeks burning and her eyes flashing, “I insist that this is arrested. I command you to finish your business and leave us.”
    “One instant, Miss Somerville. Well, Jones, her value is—”
    “Three hundred dollars…”
    “Miss Somerville,” began the deputy, “I have now to perform a very painful duty; a simple and short one, however.”
    “Yes, as short as an execution,” muttered George.
    “Miss Somerville, I attach this property at the suit of Spier & Co., Grocers, Peakville.”
    Susan started to her feet, clasped her hands, and turned deadly pale, as the truth suddenly struck her…

George and Harriet have tried to remain dignified and still in the face of this humiliation, and their knowledge of far worse to come; but when the assessor makes to lay hands on Anna, it is more than flesh and blood can stand. A short, ugly scene ends with George unconscious and in handcuffs, and Susan in a state of collapse. Anna is allowed to stay, temporarily and under guard, to care for Susan – a white lady, after all – but her parents are carried away to the slave auction in the nearby town of Peakville.

This situation rescues Anna from the otherwise inevitable—but only at the cost of her life: the next morning, Susan finds her dead. Heart failure is the medical ruling; although the jurors at the subsequent inquest, who know the circumstances, think differently:

The coroner’s jury came nearer the truth in their verdict—“A VISITATION OF GOD.”

We learn later that Susan had sent to the Palace for help, but the message miscarried. Hearing afterwards of these shocking developments, Louis promises Susan to get George and Harriet back at whatever cost required. He sets out after the bailiffs, but when he arrives in Peakville, he discovers that the two have already been sold to a slave-trader, necessitating a further journey to Alexandria.

And it is while Louis is away from home on this mission of mercy that Mrs Armstrong, taking advantage of his absence, regains possession of Louise.

The second slavery-related subplot in The Mother-In-Law is far less forthright, far more sensation-novel-y and plot-contrivance-y, yet still manages to make some very cogent points.

Our first hint of something untoward – well, the second, following the revelation that she was a doorstep baby – comes when old Mr Dove notices the developing situation between Zoe and Brutus Lion, albeit that there was been no overt declaration on either side. Having extorted from his blushing daughter a confession of love for Brutus, and her belief that he loves her, Mr Dove reacts with grief and dismay. There are many overt reasons, he tells Zoe solemnly, while a marriage between herself and Brutus would be unlikely and even unsuitable; yet it is a covert one that must determine her fate—

    “He is of an old and haughty family—you, Zoe, are a foundling.”
    “I know it,” murmured the maiden.
    “Yet you, in your secret heart, hoped that this might be overcome; that he might stoop to lift you to his level—on your truth, did you not?”
    Zoe bowed her head lowly, sadly.
    “He is wealthy, you are penniless; but you thought never of this as an objection, but believed that his superfluities might supply your deficiencies. Ha, child?”
    Again she bowed her head, slowly, lowly.
    “All this might happen, Zoe—the patrician might stoop to the plebeian; the millionaire to the beggar. Brutus Lion might offer his hand and name in marriage to Zoe, yet Zoe can never be the wife of Brutus Lion—”
    “Father!”
    “It is true!”
    “Father!”
    “It is fixed, inevitable, irrevocable.”

Now—this is early in The Mother-In-Law, before we have taken its measure; so those of us with experience of the sensation novel might have already leapt to a conclusion (and yes, I am looking at you, Dawn!). Amusingly, and to Southworth’s credit, she immediately takes that particular bull by the horns:

    “An insurmountable obstacle to your union exists, my dear,” said the old man, with the tears dimming his eyes.
    “Father,” said Zoe, in a suffocating voice, “father, I am a foundling, as you say—do you know or guess—that I am of—of—very near kin to Brutus?”
    “You are no kin to him, Zoe but it is not less certain that you can never, never be his wife.”

More amusingly still, when Zoe later rejects Brutus’ proposal, explaining the situation as far as she understands it, the same objection occurs to him: he reassures Zoe that both his parents died before she was born.

When Brutus brings himself to discuss his situation with Gertrude, she suggests a different possibility…

    “Now why, Gertrude, do you disapprove of Zoe??—why do you hate Zoe?”
    “I don’t hate Zoe; neither do I hate humble-bees, but I do not particularly affect either; and I will not have a little coffee-brewing, cake-baking fool in the house.”
    “You despise her for her birth!”
    “I do not despise her for her birth, although I know, as you do not know, that she is a mulatto!”
    “A mulatto!” echoed Brutus, in dismay.

***

    “Zoe is of mixed African blood, I tell you. Look at the dead white skin—”
    “Susan Somerville’s is the same.”
    “Susan Somerville’s is pure white—clear white. Zoe’s is opaque white. Look at the darkness around her finger nails; look at her
rippling black hair—not brownish black, like the English or American hair, or bluish black, like West of Ireland hair, or purplish black, like Italian hair, but jetty black like African hair, and with the little, undulating, wavy curl all through it.”
    “Pooh! Nonsense! The devil! It is not true. You know nothing about it!” exclaimed Brutus, very pale, and very much troubled.

Of course, Gertrude, being Gertrude, sees an up-side to the situation:

“I shall go by for Zoe this evening, and wrap the little one up in a cloak and take her in my sleigh to Miss Armstrong’s wedding. Ha, ha, ha! Little does Mrs Armstrong guess that in Zoe Dove she will have a mulatto guest!… Little does Mrs. Armstrong suspect that her daughter’s second bridesmaid is a mulatto—-a slave!”

At this point Brutus chooses to shrug off Gertrude’s unsupported assertion; but later, Mr Dove confirms all of his worst fears:

    “I love Zoe; I wish to marry Zoe; I will devote my life to her happiness; consent to our marriage, and her future is secured!”
    “Brutus, you love her?”
    “God knows it!”
    “Only her?”
    “Only her, of all womankind!”
    “Brutus, you cannot marry her.”
    “You have said so before, but that does not prove it.”
    “Brutus, swear that you will not divulge what I tell you.”
    “I swear it, sir.”
    “ZOE IS A SLAVE!”
    Brutus Lion reeled as if struck by a cannonball.
    “Great God, sir!”
    “And there are some in this neighborhood that know it…”

I hardly know where to start with this—and in fact I’m going to start almost at the end, with the explanation finally offered of Zoe’s origins: that she is another child of George and Harriet, born in secret and smuggled away in order to save her from the threat under which Anna lives her entire life.

Mr Dove himself has only just learned of Zoe’s origins from Nancy Jumper, who many years before was called out one night to attend a patient in labour, under conditions of great secrecy intended to conceal the mother’s identity from her; but who later, unseen herself, saw an obviously stricken Harriet leave a baby on Mr Dove’s doorstep. She kept the secret, however (we get the impression that keeping family secrets has necessarily been part of her stock-in-trade), until an encounter with Mr Dove on the 17th April – the date of these memorable events – brought it all back to her mind. Furthermore – being now old and unreliable and struggling to get by – Nancy sells the truth about Zoe to Major Somerville’s creditors.

The effect of all this upon Mr Dove is devastating—not because of Zoe’s origins, but because, a desperately poor man, he cannot afford to buy her. The old man suffers a psychotic break of sorts, during which money obsesses him to the exclusion of all else; and finally collapses altogether into a state of second childhood.

The ugly reality is that Zoe’s birth makes her every bit as much the Major’s property as her parents and sister; and she, too, is to be sold to meet his debts. Fortunately, when the deputy-sheriff comes for her, Zoe is at The Lair with Gertrude. At this moment she has no knowledge or understanding of her own position, and is more confused than frightened. Gertrude, however, grasps the situation at once:

    The bailiff walked up to Zoe, and touched her on the shoulder.
    “HANDS OFF!” shouted Gertrude, bringing the loaded end of her riding-whip down upon the floor with the force of a hammer on the anvil, the walls resounding with the report. The bailiff involuntarily started back.
    “Come here, Zoe,” said Gertrude, holding out her arms for the child. The poor girl—the victim of a vague terror—fled to her protector.
    Gertrude, with flashing eyes, raised the end of her whip, menacing the bailiff, while she encircled the waist of Zoe by one arm, and laid the head of Zoe gently on her own broad, soft bosom.
    “There, there, there, there, don’t be terrified, Zoe; nothing shall hurt you, Zoe. I’ll horsewhip the fellow within an inch of his life, if he does but lay his hand on you again, so I will.”
    “Miss Lion, are you aware that you are transgressing the law?”
    “Mr Bailiff, I don’t care a fox’s brush for any law but the ten commandments!”
    “Do you know that in harboring a slave you expose yourself to—”
    “Mr Jones, your way home lies straight out behind you. I give you two minutes’ grace; and if at the end of that time you are not out of this hall, I’ll put you out!” exclaimed Gertrude, her bosom heaving like the ocean waves in a tempest, her lips quivering, her nostrils distended, her eyes flashing, sparkling, and scintillating, as though they would explode.
    “Miss Lion, do you know, are you aware, that you are threatening an officer of the law?”
    “Ha, ha, ha, ha!—ha, ha, ha! Yes, and if an ‘officer of the law’ don’t take himself out of my sight in double quick time, I’ll take an ‘officer of the law’ by the nape of his neck and the straps of his pantaloons, and throw an ‘officer of the law’ over the precipice. You know me, sir! I am Gertrude Lion!”

He does; and consequently slinks off with his tail between his legs, to round up reinforcements; though by that time Gertrude has Zoe concealed in that same cave in the mountains.

There is some extraordinary stuff buried in this subplot—and not so buried. When the truth about Zoe becomes public knowledge, it makes no difference to anyone in the neighbourhood – except Mrs Armstrong – other than that everyone goes out of their way to love and care for her. Remarkably, Zoe herself is basically unbothered by the revelation, except for how it has impacted Mr Dove; she certainly does not react as we would expect a gently-bred white girl in a 19th century American novel to react.

But it is the response of Brutus and Gertrude that we must examine in detail—being very careful to do justice by Brutus. Certainly he recoils at Gertrude’s first suggestion of Zoe’s situation; and when Mr Dove confirms it, we get this exchange:

    “This child, Brutus! I loved her as my own!”
    “Ah, sir!” heavily sighed Brutus.
    “You do not know all she was to me!”
    “Oh, sir! yes, I do.”
    “She was the life of my heart.”
    “Oh! Heaven, sir! of mine too!”
    “I called her Zoe—life!”
    “God have mercy on us…”
    “Brutus!”
    “Sir!”
    “You can never marry her.”
    “Oh! I know it,” groaned the young man.
    “Therefore, Brutus, there must be no more love passages between you.”
    “Oh! no, no, sir,” sighed the Lion, dropping his shaggy head upon his hands…

We have to be very careful in interpreting this correctly: Brutus’ “recoil”, his despair upon receiving this confirmation, his agreement that he cannot marry Zoe, are entirely because that at the time, and in Virginia, such a marriage was illegal. The marriage is impossible not because Brutus will not, but because he cannot.

He does, however, go straight to Susan, still reeling from the triple tragedies of her grandfather’s and Anna’s deaths, and the sale of George and Harriet:

    “If she is mine, as you say, I will free her at once!”
    “But, my dear Miss Somerville, that will not do. To emancipate her would require time and trouble. In the mean while, another writ of attachment, at the suit of some other creditor, would be served on her, and your benevolent designs defeated. What I propose is the only safe way. It is very easy. Here is the deed. You have only to write your name at the bottom, and she is mine—she is safe. Come, Miss Somerville, do it,” pleaded Brutus, putting the pen in her listless fingers, and laying the deed before her.
    “Well, well; as you think best.”
    And, scarcely conscious of what she did, Susan Somerville wrote her name at the bottom of the bill of sale, and Zoe became the property of Brutus Lion.

And indeed—Zoe is inclined to think slavery not so bad, if she might be Brutus’ slave. But he having none of that, nor of anything less than marriage (Southworth shows a streak of pragmatism here unusual in this sort of fiction):

    “After all, it is nothing but the name; only it came on me like a shock; and I was a little proud; that’s all. I shall not be sad. People will say that the schoolmaster’s adopted daughter, who used to be so proud of her house-keeping, is a slave. Well; I shall not hear them say it. I shall be here with Brutus; waiting on Brutus; and I shall be happy. Don’t grieve for me, Brutus; indeed, I am not unhappy. Do you think that Zoe considers it such a misfortune to belong to Brutus? No, indeed. Come! don’t weep, Brutus! dear Brutus! I hate to see tears in manly eyes;” and she raised her apron and wiped away the tears from the eyes of her great big lubberly nurse, who was quivering with emotion like a mammoth blanc mange.
    “Zoe, my child !” he said, “did you think I would hold you bound a moment longer than I could help! Zoe, you should have been free to-day, but that the court-house was closed before I had even completed the purchase. Zoe, you shall be free to-morrow; and then you must return with your adopted father to the Dovecote.”
    “Must I leave you, Brutus?”
    “Zoe, my dear child, yes. You cannot be my wife, Zoe—and I will not make you my mistress; and loving you as I do, Zoe—loving me as you do—that would be your fate if you lived with me, dear child. Take her, Gertrude;” and pressing one passionate kiss upon her lips, he tossed her in his sister’s arms…

Now—there’s one other thing I want to consider here, before moving on to how Southworth resolves her plots—or rather, this point more or less forms the bridge for such a consideration.

You may remember that in The Octoroon; or, The Lily Of Louisiana, her second novel, Mary Elizabeth Braddon pulled exactly the same “racial identifier” stunt as Southworth does here, with its white-skinned, mixed-blood heroine being “outed” on the basis of her fingernails and “the corner of her eye”. Well—I have no doubt that Braddon read Southworth, and little more that (sitting in England, writing a book set in the American South), she swiped certain details from The Mother-In-Law, published ten years before.

And likewise, Braddon did what Southworth and others did at the time, in handling the dynamite that was abolitionist literature: she took it for granted that white people were only capable of really sympathising with a slave who was, effectively, white herself (and it is invariably a beautiful girl in these novels).

Here’s the thing, though:

Zoe isn’t of mixed blood after all. She is not the daughter of George and Harriet, but of two people who couldn’t be whiter. And whatever it was that Gertrude thought she saw, she was wrong.

This might at first glance seem like a cop-out, but the way that Zoe behaves, and is treated, once her supposed secret is out negates that possibility; and even as she takes the knowledge of her supposed birth and status in her stride, she is unaffected by the discovering the real truth except so far as it alters her relationship with Brutus.

No—Southworth is making a different point here and, when you think about it, an amazingly courageous one—one built around the twin characters of Zoe and Anna, the one a white lady of high social status, the other a born slave, the two of them physically indistinguishable. Not only does she explode the notion that “you can always tell”, that however white a person might look, there were certain infallible signifiers, but at a time when the pernicious “one drop of blood” scenario was firmly entrenched, she actually dared to say, in effect—What actually IS the difference, if you can’t even TELL the difference??

Meanwhile, Southworth handles this reverse-revelation rather curiously, but in doing so she’s making yet another serious point. We are made aware that Gertrude, Susan and Brighty have discovered something about Zoe; they don’t reveal it, or who was their source of information, other to say that they know for a fact she isn’t of mixed blood.

As it turns out, there are many more shocking secrets surrounding Zoe’s origin than “mere” slavery—and most of them have to do with Mrs Armstrong. They have remained a secret so long because the only witness to the events in question was Harriet. As Gertrude later explains (to a non-American), to do Zoe any real good, Harriet had to keep quiet until after the death of Major Somerville:

    “But the servant, then—Harriet! Why did she not disclose the secret?”
    “Because it would have done every sort of harm, and no good. It would have covered an honest family with shame and confusion, without restoring Zoe to her rights.”
    “I do not see that.”
    “Do you not know, then, that, however honest and good they may be, the oath of a slave or other colored person, will not pass in a slave State against a white person?”

The various plots of The Mother-In-Law come together when word filters back to Virginia of Louise’s intended marriage to James Frobisher.

Frobisher—as I did not before mention—was the only survivor of that carriage-accident in the mountains, from which he was rescued by Gertrude and carried back to The Lair. While nursing him back to health, Gertrude falls in love with him—allowing Southworth to have some fun with the gender-role reversal, with tall, powerful, domineering Gertrude attracted to the weak, helpless Frobisher – who she calls her “pretty boy” – precisely because he is weak and helpless. Frobisher is dazzled by Gertrude, but even more doubtful of her qualifications for aristocracy than he was of Brighty’s; they become sort-of engaged, until a miscommunication leaves Frobisher believing Gertrude has rejected him. Back in Washington, his wandering fancy then drifts to Louise…

Gertrude, however, considers herself plighted to Frobisher—and she is not about to let Mrs Armstrong take her “pretty boy” away from her (she knows Louise has nothing to say in the matter):

“I have felt a long time as though I ought to roll up my cuffs and take that woman in hand! This is a judgement on me for not doing it. I have let her scheme and plot, and marry and unmarry, and torture and break hearts to her own heart’s content. Oh, just God! I that I have spent so much time in ridding the woods and mountains of wolves and bears, and that I have let this human hyena walk abroad among women, and never resolved to deal with her, until she struck her fangs into my own heart! Selfish that I was! Not for the sake of Susan, of Louise, of Louis, of Zoe, of all the hearts that she has trampled in the dust, did I resolve to punish her! Now she would plant her cloven foot upon my bosom—would marry off my boy—my own, own boy—the gift of the mountain cataract to me; my own beautiful white water-lily, that I found broken and half drowned amid the foam of the torrent and the peaks of the rocks…”

And with that, Gertrude is onto her horse and off to Washington—determined to put a stop to the wedding if she has to publicly reveal every one of Mrs Armstrong’s guilty secrets to do it.

Ahem. She does.

Brighty is one of those to whom Gertrude declares her intention, and when she carries the news home to the Palace, Louis also sets out on a desperate chase to Washington—to stop Gertrude stopping the wedding, not because he doesn’t want it stopped, but because of what he fears such an appalling scene will do to Louise. But he knows he has no real hope of catching Gertrude, and sure enough, by the time he makes his way to the house where the wedding is being held, the assembled guests—

…members of the House of Representatives, Senators, members of the Cabinet with their families, foreign Ministers with their suites, were present. The President himself honored the occasion with his presence…

—are standing aghast in the face of Gertrude’s enthusiastic response to being invited to speak of any just cause or impediment

Louis is, however, just in time to witness what may, in a book full of outrageous touches, be the most outrageous:

    “Young lady,” began the Bishop, “will you please to—”
    “SHUT UP,” snapped the giantess.

 
 

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5 Comments to “The Mother-In-Law; or, The Isle Of Rays (Part 2)”

  1. Is Gertrude Lion the coolest character you’ve ever blogged here?

    • With the single possible exception of the head of the secret criminal organisation in Braddon’s The Black Band, who keeps a tiger on hand just in case he has to punish a traitor. 😀

  2. Why, I can’t think why you would be thinking of me!
    I wonder if Zoe’s resignation at the idea of being a slave is from having been a foundling for so many years. At that time, foundlings weren’t really much better thought of.

  3. I found this on Hathi, and skipped to the end. I wanted to find out Mrs. Armstrong’s guilty secrets. And boy, I was not disappointed.

    • 😀

      But you see, it’s like I said: the suggestion is illegitimate half-siblings.

      Zoe’s resignation is because the reality of her situation is never allowed to touch her; Brutus rescues her before it can. Otherwise, because of her isolated existence, “slavery” to her probably means Anna’s relationship with Susan, i.e. not that scary. Mind you— If Gertrude hadn’t been there when the bailiffs arrived, she would have found out fast enough.

      I was not disappointed

      She was a busy lady!

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