Posts tagged ‘abolitionist’


Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows. A Tale Of Passion (Part 2)

…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 occurred 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 past-time 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?”
    “Free papers?”
    “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 shell-shocked 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 octaroon 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 dilapidated 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? Idealistic? Unrealistic? Perhaps—but not to be depised on that account.



Retribution; or, The Vale Of Shadows. A Tale Of Passion (Part 1)


They were happy. Their reconciliation was complete…for the time. Well had it been for them had this been their only quarrel. Reader, it was only their first. The cause that produced this quarrel was not removed. The ulcer was scarred over, not healed, liable to break out again at the least irritation. It was a latent, deep-seated distrust in each other’s fidelity, but too well-founded on their knowledge of each other’s treachery. This voice of distrust, audible even amidst the full-toned music of love, became awfully distinct in the silence of cool reflection. There was no lasting peace or happiness for them. A love sown in treason could not possibly flourish in trust. Sin is its own retribution.







Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte was born in Washington D.C. in 1819, and spent her early years in the rural areas of Maryland and Virginia. As a young woman she attended the small college of which her step-father was president, and subsequently became a teacher. In 1840, she met and married Frederick Hamilton Southworth, an inventor. The couple moved to Wisconsin and lived there until 1844, when Frederick Southworth abandoned his family, leaving his young wife pregnant with their second child. Returning to Washington, where her mother and step-father still lived, Mrs Southworth resumed teaching in order to support herself and her children. However, this earned her only $250 a year, and in order to supplement this slender income, she began submitting short stories and novellas to the magazines.

Emboldened by her early literary successes, Mrs Southworth then embarked upon her first novel. Retribution was serialised in the National Era, appearing in 14 chapters across 1849 before being republished in book form in 1850. The novel was an enormous commercial success, selling over 200,000 copies – and as a result its author, now known to the public as E.D.E.N. Southworth, was able to retire from teaching and write fulltime, producing more than sixty novels over the following fifty years. By 1857, she was earning an extraordinary $10,000 a year through her writing and is, by most reckonings, the best-selling American novelist of the second half of the 19th century.

Retribution is – at least at its outset – the story of Hester Grey. Shy, gentle and serious-minded, the orphaned Hester is unpopular at her boarding-school, where the other girls plot and dream of romantic conquests and lives of wealth and luxury and sneer at Hester’s solemn ideas of life and its duties. Taking pity on the lonely girl, one of the teachers tries to bring her out of herself by asking her to take under her wing a new pupil who is like herself an orphan.

When she was only a baby, Guillietta Nozzalina was, with her mother, a survivor of a violent slave uprising in St Domingo, in which the other members of her family were killed. Arriving in Alexandria upon an American ship, the near-catatonic woman and her infant daughter were received into the family of a local merchant. Signora Nozzalina died within a year, but the child – her name changed to Juliette Summers – was raised within the family. However, the Summers’ business failing, at sixteen Juliette found herself faced with the necessity to earn her own living, and has been sent to the school to complete her education and prepare for life as a governess.

Tall, dark and beautiful, with a rebellious and calculating nature carefully concealed from those about her, Juliette could not be more different from the shrinking Hester, who nevertheless, in her aching need for someone to love, immediately takes the newcomer to her heart. Juliette does grow fond of Hester, but her eyes are firmly fixed on the prospect of a comfortable and leisured future, when Hester comes of age and takes possession of the fortune and property currently held in trust for her.

At eighteen, Hester is taken away from school by Colonel Ernest Dent, to whom the care of herself and her property have devolved following the death of his father, General Dent. The guardianship of Hester has created a most unusual situation, with the abolitionist Dents left to manage a large, slave-based estate in Virginia. As Hester recounts in a letter to Juliette, with no legal right to free Hester’s slaves, the Dents instead put them in charge of the neglected farm attached to Hester’s house, known as The Vale, paying them wages in the form of a percentage of the farm’s subsequent earnings: the currently thriving concern becoming a practical demonstration to the surrounding plantations of the increased effectiveness and dignity of paid labour. Hester adds that it is her intention to emancipate her slaves as soon as she turns twenty-one.

In spite of the difference in their ages, Hester soon conceives a deep and worshipful love for her guardian. However, believing that so great and good a man could never care for someone so plain and insignificant as herself, Hester nurses her feelings in secret, only revealing them in her regular letters to Juliette. However, one day Colonel Dent catches her at her letter-writing—and from the depths of humiliation Hester is lifted into disbelieving joy when a proposal of marriage follows…

For Hester, her marriage represents the very pinnacle of human happiness. However, she continues to fret over her unworthiness and weakness, an attitude which increasingly draws from her complacent husband criticism and expressions of disappointment, rather than appreciation for Hester’s many virtues and abiding love. A daughter is born to the Dents, named Julie for her mother’s dearest friend. Hester’s legal attempt to use the occasion of her marriage to bring forward the date at which she may emancipate her slaves is frustrated when it is ruled that she must still wait for her coming of age, but her despondency over this outcome is tempered when Colonel Dent agrees to her request to have Juliette Summers, who has completed her schooling, come to The Vale for a visit.

Juliette, her disinclination to earn her own living having grown in parallel with her conviction that beauty like hers deserves a splendid marriage and a privileged existence, has through the years carefully nursed her relationship with Hester, fully intending that her wealthy but unassuming friend will be the means to her ends. Hester’s marriage is, therefore, something of a blow: Juliette, who has extracted from Hester’s letters an idea of Ernest Dent’s character that would horrify his wife, recognises that the Colonel may be a serious obstacle to her plans. When Hester’s invitation to The Vale arrives, Juliette accepts it avidly, conscious that while Hester herself will be easy enough to deceive and manipulate, she must tread carefully around Colonel Dent, and win his admiration at all cost.

To her surprise and secret glee, Juliette finds the task before her simpler than she could have imagined. Colonel Dent travels from The Vale into the city to collect Juliette, and is struck at first glance by her dark, imperious beauty. By the end of a week in her company, passed in shopping and in introducing Juliette to some of the pleasures of the city such as art galleries and a concert, seeds of discontent have taken root in Ernest Dent’s heart – as Juliette, although feigning obliviousness, is very well aware.

It is with great joy that Hester welcomes her dear friend into her home, marvelling at the way her presence seems to light up the house. Even Ernest seems quite changed! But Juliette has not been long under Hester’s roof before her personal plans undergo a dramatic change—for she, unlike the self-absorbed Ernest, has seen in Hester Dent the early signs of a serious illness…

I commented about Vivia; or, The Secret Of Power, my first encounter with one of Southworth’s novels, that its most striking feature was its bizarre blending of genres, in that case the sensation novel with the religious / didactic tale. It seems that this approach was indeed typical of Southworth’s writing style, as we also find it here in her very first novel, which mixes the sensation novel with the abolitionist tract. Perhaps not surprisingly, Retribution is ultimately something of a failure as a novel—but a failure in ways that are intensely interesting.

The most significant failure here is the character of Ernest Dent. He is clearly conceived as something of a tragic figure, and indeed he dominates the second half of the novel in that capacity; but although all the pieces are there they never quite come together. Our initial sketch of Ernest is quite intriguing. He is the son of another Ernest, who married young and had a child immediately: the two go through life more like brothers than father and son. They enlist in the army together, and fight together at Yorktown; later, they enter the political arena together, both eventually becoming senators, and campaigning for the abolition of slavery.

But as is progressively revealed, it is only the elder Ernest who is a truly great man – “Patriot, philanthropist, and martyr”, as Hester describes him in a letter to Juliette. The second Ernest has, as it were, ridden to greatness on his father’s coattails, achieving success and acclaim without effort, and without sacrifice, and smugly taking himself at the world’s mistaken estimation:

There was much in the circumstances and character of Colonel Dent that the partial eyes of his young wife failed to observe. Colonel Dent was undoubtedly a man of high honor, of sincere philanthropy, and of fervent piety; the country said it—all men gave credence to it—and Colonel Dent believed it most implicitly of all.

It is Ernest Dent’s peculiar destiny to be sequentially involved with two women who bring out the very worst in his nature, although in very different ways: the innocent Hester feeding his egotism and self-satisfaction with her abject love; and the anything-but-innocent Juliette rousing dark passions that, before her arrival, had laid comfortably dormant, so that their owner barely knew of their existence.

The relationship between Hester and Juliette is – and perhaps not entirely accidentally, given this novel’s publication date – rather reminiscent of that between Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp; although unlike Thackeray in his attitude to Amelia, there is little irony about Southworth’s characterisation of Hester—except, perhaps, when she, like Amelia, exhibits a tendency to dwell upon her husband’s non-existent virtues. In this case, however, it is not the unsatisfactory husband who dies.

One of the most unexpected strokes in Retribution is that Southworth “pulls a Psycho“, killing off her unfortunate young heroine less than halfway through the novel. By this time, a dangerous passion has grown up between Ernest Dent and Juliette Summers; although at the time of Hester’s death they are innocent in deed, if not in thought.

The second half of the novel is given over to the disastrous marriage of Ernest and Juliette, as they become one another’s torment, one another’s punishment for their mutual treachery to Hester, who loved them both so dearly. This grande passione is not entirely credible, but perhaps in this case we need not judge it an artistic failure. In 1849, a novel focused squarely on an uncontrollable sexual attraction would hardly have found its way into the magazines—or even into publication, except, perhaps, in France.  As it builds to its climax, Retribution descends into melodrama of the most unabashed kind, with Southworth arranging for her anti-heroine a fate so horrifying that it supports my growing theory of 19th century novel-writing: that it took a really nice woman to write a really shocking novel.

There’s a deeply curious aspect to the pattern of this story, one made clear in the quotation that heads this review: the sense that Southworth wasn’t prepared to “leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her”. Instead, Southworth seems rather annoyed with God, and his tendency to forgive; she wants her sinners thoroughly punished on earth. It is, inevitably I suppose, Juliette who pays the ultimate price; Ernest, suffering miseries, pulls back from the brink, his proud spirit finally broken and, in his new humility, with some prospect of finally achieving true greatness.

While doubtless we’re intended to be glad of Ernest’s belated reformation, I have to say I found it singularly unconvincing. The problem, I suspect, is that his creator’s heart just wasn’t in this section of her novel the way it was in many of its earlier scenes. There’s a real – and, frankly, fascinating – sense here of Southworth writing to a theoretical plan, rather than with sincerity; because try as she might to make him a genuinely tragic figure, the plain fact is that Ernest Dent is never so believable as a character as when he’s being a selfish, self-absorbed jackass of a husband.

I have no idea whether Frederick Southworth ran off with another woman or not, but be that as it may, it is impossible to read of the Hester-Ernest-Juliette triangle without feeling that Southworth’s own marital experiences were fueling her writing. There is a simmering resentment underlying these scenes, one that imbues them with an aching reality that just isn’t evident in the more melodramatic parts of the novel.

Frankly, we fear for Hester from her first introduction to Ernest Dent. Criticising Hester soon becomes Ernest’s favourite hobby; and so desperate is she to love and be loved, she receives his unwearying strictures with pathetic gratitude, taking them as a sign of his moral superiority:

    “Am I so very unlovely then, Colonel Dent?”
    “No. Oh, no, Hester. But you are not the girl to attract a young man’s admiration. You are aware that I never flatter, Hester.”
    Yet I should like to have been flattered and petted a little just then. With his keen penetration, he must have perceived my foolish thought, for he answered it.
    “This is childish and puerile, Hester, and unworthy of you and me. It springs from an incipient self-love and vanity that you must root out and cut off.”
    Now, this was worse than before. There was nothing good in me, within or without. I felt provoked to bid him to go about his business, and marry a cast-iron woman, if it pleased him; but I looked up in his face—his unclouded, truthful, glorious face—the countenance of an archangel reproving folly—and my spirit fell at his feet again.

Of course, the consequence of all this is that, just as he estimates himself by the world’s opinion of him, Ernest begins to take Hester at her own estimation: she believes herself not good enough for him, and before too long he agrees with her. Into this situation walks Juliette, who is everything that Hester is not: beautiful, poised, self-respecting—and a challenge.

It is the sharp-eyed Juliette who first sees in Hester the warning signs of the illness that will end her young life, and from that moment she embarks upon a dangerous game of inflaming Ernest’s passion for her while righteously scorning him for it…although at the same time managing to hint that she secretly returns his love. But even Juliette herself is startled by the demons that these tactics arouse:

    “Colonel Dent, you should blush for yourself,” said Miss Summers, in a tone of withering scorn. “This is ungenerous, unmanly, cruel!”
    “And my love is cruel! exacting, fierce, and cruel! If I were about to die this moment, Juliette, I should kill you, lest anyone else should have you. If I were condemned to eternal misery, I should try to draw your spirit down to perdition with mine, from the love I bear you!” exclaimed he, passing his arm around her waist.
    Juliette darted her head down quick as lightning, and, setting her teeth in the flesh of his hand, bit it to the bone, exclaiming, as the blood spouted from the little semi-circle of wounds—
    “Now, lunatic! will you release me?”
    “Beautiful Vixen!—no. Bite again, Juliette. I like it!”

This violent scene takes place on the very night of Hester’s collapse, when it becomes clear to all parties that she is dying of consumption. The Dents and their guest are in Philadelphia (at this time still the national capital), where Ernest has gone to take his seat in the Senate. They are, of course, invited to all the most desirable and glittering social affairs; and upon Ernest Dent’s appearance with two women upon his arms, a mistake – perhaps a natural one – is made by the other guests, who assume that the tall, beautiful woman is “Mrs Colonel Dent of Virginia”, and the small, plain one, “Oh! that!—that is Miss—Miss—Wint—no, Summer. A poor relation, or a governess, or something; I don’t know what, exactly.”

This error gets around, eventually reaching the ears of the three people most concerned in it. It fires Juliette’s ambition to actually be “Mrs Colonel Dent of Virginia”; it enrages Ernest against his unassuming wife, demonstrably unworthy of so great a man as he; while Hester—Hester thinks it’s funny.

She ceases to do so, however, over the course of an evening recorded with painful minuteness by Southworth. The lovely Juliette attracts a swarm of interested men as Ernest looks on in a jealous rage, taking out his anger and frustration on the unfortunate Hester who, her illness and her husband’s unkindness overcoming her simultaneously, collapses—but not before signaling the extremity of her condition by, for the first and only time, talking back:

    “Dear Ernest, I am sick; feel my fingers, how cold they are; and put your hand on my forehead—see how hot it is.”
    “Sick! Why, I never saw you looking better in my life. Your cheeks are glowing. Sick! You can’t be with that color, unless, indeed, you rouge. I hope you don’t rouge, Hester.”
    His wife replied by taking his hand and placing it against her burning cheek.
    “Yes, I see it is very hot. Well, no wonder. You are every way unfit for such a scene as this, Hester. Indeed, I don’t know why you should have wished to come. I should have supposed that you would have preferred staying at home with your child.”
    “Why, colonel,” said Hester, in a manner slightly petulant, from feverish and nervous irritability, “don’t you know I did want to stay at home, but you wouldn’t consent to it? Don’t you know that you insisted on my coming to chaperone Juliette, because she was anxious to be here?”
    “So I did. Very well; then I will not insist upon your coming again, since it puts you in such a bad humor as to make you forget the commonest respect due me.”
    “Dear Ernest, forgive me if you think I spoke petulantly. I am not in a bad humor, but I am faint, and feverish, and every nerve in my body seems quivering; my eyes are dim, and my head swims. Please let me go home.”
    “Heavens!” exclaimed Colonel Dent, with startling energy, “if there is not Juliette tête-à-tête with Murray in the alcove. Hester! no languishing and whining now; take my arm, and come and join them.”

The subsequent confirmation that Hester is fatally ill produces a certain reaction in Ernest of guilt and shame, but his obsession with Juliette is not one whit abated. Indeed, the knowledge that Hester is dying, that it is only a matter of time, grips both parties to this illicit passion, who silently, separately, watch and wait…

So Hester Dent, the loving, but unloved; the gentle, yet oppressed; the confiding, though deceived, was dead at last. The low, sweet voice, whose tones were never heard but in words of sincerity and affection, was hushed; the gentle eyes, whose mild beams ever shone with the light of truth and love, were closed; the little hands, ever so busy in the service of them—the treacherous, who neglected and deceived her—were cold, stiff, and useless. Hester was dead—and out of the way.

But wait! – didn’t I say that Retribution is an abolitionist tract? Yes, so it is; and so important, and so interesting, is that aspect of this novel, that it really deserves its own post; so—

[To be continued…]