Posts tagged ‘slavery’


Julia de Roubigné: A Tale, In A Series Of Letters (Part 2)

    The truth rises upon me, and every succeeding circumstance points to one conclusion. Lisette was to-day of a junketing party, which Lonquillez contrived for the entertainment of his friend Le Blanc. Mention was again made of old stories, and Savillon was a person of the drama. The wench is naturally talkative, and she was then in spirits from company and good cheer. Le Blanc and she recollected interviews of their young mistress and this handsome elève of her father. They were, it seems, nursed by the same woman, that old Lasune, for whom Julia procured a little dwelling, and a pension of four hundred livres, from her unsuspecting husband. “She loved them (said Le Blanc) like her own children, and they were like brother and sister to each other”—“Brother and sister, indeed!” (said Lisette.) She was more sagacious, and had observed things better.—“I know what I know, (said she) but to be sure, those things are all over now, and, I am persuaded, my mistress loves no man so well as her own husband. What signifies what happened so long ago, especially while M. de Montauban knows nothing about the matter?”
    These were her words: Lonquillez repeated them thrice to me.—Were I a fool, a driveller, I might be satisfied to doubt and be uneasy; it is Montauban’s to see his disgrace, and, seeing, to revenge it…


That Henry Mackenzie intended Julia de Roubigné as a criticism of the theories of sentimentalism is most evident by the mid-novel juxtapositioning of Julia receiving posthumous instructions from her mother, and Julia succumbing to irrational fears upon first setting foot in her husband’s house.

Before Julia sets out with de Montauban, her father gives her an unfinished letter from her mother, which is full of advice and admonitions about a wife’s duty. As with her earlier observation about Julia not listening, we get the impression that Mme de Roubigné is passing on hard lessons learned through bitter experience; that we saw her as an exemplary, self-sacrificing wife speaks for itself. The miserable idea passed on to the reader of 18th century marriage is, alas, no doubt accurate:

    “Sweetness of temper, affection to a husband, and attention to his interests, constitute the duties of a wife, and form the basis of matrimonial felicity. These are indeed the texts, from which every rule for attaining this felicity is drawn…
    “Never consider a trifle what may tend to please him. The great articles of duty he will set down as his own; but the lesser attentions he will mark as favours; and trust me, for I have experienced it, there is no feeling more delightful to one’s-self, than that of turning those little things to so precious a use.
    “If you marry a man of a certain sort, such as the romance of young minds generally paints for a husband, you will deride the supposition of any possible decrease in the ardour of your affections. But wedlock, even in its happiest lot, is not exempted from the common fate of all sublunary blessings; there is ever a delusion in hope which cannot abide with possession. The rapture of extravagant love will evaporate and waste; the conduct of the wife must substitute in its room other regards, as delicate, and more lasting. I say, the conduct of the wife; for marriage, be a husband what he may, reverses the prerogative of sex; his will expect to be pleased, and ours must be sedulous to please.
    “This privilege a good natured man may wave. He will feel it, however, due; and third persons will have penetration enough to see, and may have malice enough to remark, the want of it in his wife. He must be a husband unworthy of you, who could bear the degradation of suffering this in silence…
    “Above all, let a wife beware of communicating to others any want of duty or tenderness, she may think she has perceived in her husband. This untwists, at once, those delicate cords, which preserve the unity of the marriage-engagement…”

This (and much more) is transmitted in its entirety by Julia to Maria…yet Julia’s very next letter finds her not only reporting her doubts and unhappiness to her friend, but indulging in gloomy forebodings about the future. Here is only a short excerpt of the new wife’s feelings:

Why should I wish for long life? Why should so many wish for it? Did we sit down to number the calamities of this world; did we think how many wretches there are of disease, of poverty, of oppression, of vice, (alas! I fear there are some even of virtue) we should change one idea of evil, and learn to look on death as a friend…

So ends the first volume of Julia de Roubigné; the second starts with an interjection from our editor, explaining the difficulty he had working out how to organise his second batch of letters, since they clearly overlapped the first batch in date and in content. As always, “sentiment” is allowed to have the final word:

Many of the particulars they recount are anticipated by a perusal of the foregoing letters; but it is not so much on story, as sentiment, that their interest with the reader must depend…

The second batch of letters were written by Savillon, beginning at the time of his arrival in Martinique, and sent from there to his friend, Beauvaris, in Paris. Though he speaks of his duty to both M. de Roubigné and to his uncle, one theme dominates:

Julia de Roubigné!—Did you feel that name as I do!—Even traced with my own pen, what throbbing remembrances has it raised!—You are acquainted with my obligations to her father: You have heard me sometimes talk of her; but you know not, for I tremble to tell you, the power she has acquired over the heart of your friend…

Though Savillon feels himself unfitted for business, and in particular the business conducted by his uncle (of which, much more shortly), he knows his only hope of being considered a fit husband for Julia is to succeed and make his fortune, which might now weigh in the balance against his (relative) lack of birth. He therefore grits his teeth and knuckles down—but immediately finds himself confronting a barrier he cannot surmount, namely, that his uncle, a planter, runs his business on slavery.

As noted, Henry Mackenzie was in general a fairly conservative individual, who resisted the advanced social theories of his contemporaries; yet in Julia de Roubigné we find him espousing what would, in 1777, have been considered not merely “advanced”, but radical. This is one of the very earliest works of fiction not merely to protest slavery, but to suggest there was a better way; a way both more humane and more productive—and that it appeared more than one hundred years after Aphra Behn deplored the cruelty and mutual degradation of slavery in Oroonoko is a profoundly depressing thought. This time-gap is a chilling indication of the brutality that was the hallmark of the so-called “Age of Reason”. Conversely, we must keep in mind that whatever absurdity and self-indulgence may have belonged to the “cult of sensibility”, it also gave birth to the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

And whatever Mackenzie thought about sentimentalism in general, we have no reason to think he isn’t sincere about the words he puts in Savillon’s mouth:

To a man not callous from habit, the treatment of the negroes, in the plantations here, is shocking… I have been often tempted to doubt whether there is not an error in the whole plan to negro servitude, and whether whites, or creoles born in the West-Indies, or perhaps cattle, after the manner of European husbandry, would not do the business better and cheaper than the slaves do. The money which the latter cost at first, the sickness (often owing to despondency of mind) to which they are liable after their arrival, and the proportion that die in consequence of it, make the machine, if it may be so called, of a plantation extremely expensive in its operations. In the list of slaves belonging to a wealthy planter, it would astonish you to see the number unfit for service, pining under disease, a burden on their master.—I am talking only as a merchant: But as a man—good Heavens! when I think of the many thousands of my fellow creatures groaning under servitude and misery!—Great God! hast thou peopled those regions of thy world for the purpose of casting out their inhabitants to chains and torture?—No; thou gavest them a land teeming with good things, and lighted’st up thy sun to bring forth spontaneous plenty; but the refinements of man, ever at war with thy works, have changed this scene of profusion and luxuriance, into a theatre of repine, of slavery and of murder… Habit, the tyrant of nature and of reason…stifles humanity, and debases the species—for the master of slaves has seldom the soul of a man.

In fact—the most radical part of that might be Savillon’s reference to the slaves as “my fellow creatures”: that black people were not fully human was the basic argument of the slavers; while the anti-slavery movement defiantly operated within a broader concept of “the brotherhood of man”.

Savillon persuades his uncle to let him try an experiment. He starts by forming a bond with an intelligent if understandably wary slave called Yambu, who was the former leader of a band of men captured together in Africa:

Next morning I called those negroes who had formerly been in his service together, and told them that, while they continued in the plantation, Yambu was to superintend their work; that, if they chose to leave him and me, they were at liberty to go; and that, if found idle or unworthy, they should not be allowed to stay. He has, accordingly, ever since had the command of his former subjects, and superintended their work in a particular quarter of the plantation; and, having been declared free, according to the mode prescribed by the laws of the island, has a certain portion of ground allotted him, the produce of which is his property. I have had the satisfaction of observing those men under the feeling of good treatment, and the idea of liberty, do more than almost double their number subject to the whip of an overseer. I am under no apprehension of desertion or mutiny; they work with the willingness of freedom, yet are mine with more than the obligation of slavery…

But while we must highlight and celebrate this interlude, it is only a diversion within the main narrative of Julia de Roubigné. Another comes in the form of a developing friendship between Savillon and an Englishman, William Herbert, which offers the reader both the inevitable “interpolated narrative”, as Savillon reports the details of Herbert’s life to Beauvaris, and the equally inevitable “tragedy we can all wallow in” as, after striving for years to support the wife and children he adores but is separated from, Herbert finally sends for them—and promptly loses them in a shipwreck.

This is somewhat curious, as it exactly the kind of thing that “real” novels of sentimentalism delight in, yet is presented straight in what we interpret as a critique of the genre.

Even more curious is that despite Savillon’s various outbursts of romantic agony about Julia, and about his ideas on friendship (most of which I’ve spared you), Mackenzie uses him from time to time as the novel’s voice of reason—which is to say, he puts into his mouth the frequent (and not unwarranted) rebuttal of “sensibility”, that it was simply a form of self-indulgence:

I begin to suspect that the sensibility, of which your minds are proud, from which they look down with contempt on the unfeeling multitude of ordinary men, is less a blessing than an inconvenience.—Why cannot I be as happy as my uncle, as Dorville, as all the other good people around me?—I eat, and drink, and sing, nay I can be merry, like them; but they close the account, and set down this mirth for happiness; I retire to the family of my own thoughts, and find them in weeds of sorrow…

We should note, however, that at another point Mackenzie is generous enough to make a distinction between “real” sensibility and “false” affectation; although we do come away with the impression that he felt most of it was affectation.

Meanwhile, we continue to hear of Savillon’s life in Martinique, and his affectionate but somewhat uneasy relationship with his business-hardened uncle, and of a new acquaintance:

At one of those dinners was a neighbour and intimate acquaintance of my uncle, a M. Dorville, with his wife and daughter. The young lady was seated next me, and my uncle seemed to incline that I should be particularly pleased with her. He addressed such discourse to her as might draw her forth to the greatest advantage; and, as he had heard me profess myself as lover of music, he made her sing, after dinner, till, I believe, some of the company began to be tired of their entertainment. After they were gone, he asked my opinion of Mademoiselle Dorville, in that particular style by which a man gives you to un|derstand, that his own is a very favourable one. To say truth, the lady’s appearance is in her favour; but there is a jealous sort of feeling, which arises in my mind, when I hear the praises of any woman but one; and, from that cause perhaps, I answered my uncle rather coldly… Her father, I am apt to believe, has something of what is commonly called a plot upon me; but as to him my conscience is easy, because, the coffers of my uncle being his quarry, it matters not much if he is disappointed…

Now—you might be struggling at this point to conceive of a marriage between Savillon and Mlle Dorville, and you’d be right:

    My uncle, who had staid some time behind me with Dorville, came in. He was very copious on the subject of Mademoiselle. I was perfectly of his opinion in every thing, and praised her in echo to what he said, but he had discernment enough to see an indifference in this, which I was sorry to find he did not like. I know not how far he meant to go, if we had been long together; but he found himself somewhat indisposed, and was obliged to go to bed.
    I sat down alone, and thought of Julia de Roubigné…

Like Mme de Roubigné, Savillon’s uncle goes to bed never to rise from it. Having inherited a fortune, Savillon himself embarks for France as soon as he can manage it, with only one thought on his mind. His correspondent at this point switches from M. Beauvaris to Mr Herbert, and for more reasons than one: when Savillon arrives in Paris, he discovers that Beauvaris has suddenly died. This shock is bad enough but, as we know, there is another in store…

While all this has been going on, there have been a few other interpolated letters—from Julia to Maria, and from de Montauban to Segarva: the former, trying to take her mother’s advice, has little say that isn’t superficial; the latter showing himself increasingly aware of the significant differences in temperament and character between himself and his wife. Guests, in the form of a M. de Rouillé and a Mme de Sancerre, drive the point home: de Montauban is often unable to enter into the spirit of their conversation, though his duty as a host requires him to at least seem pleased. He is particularly annoyed when he sees how the often “melancholy” Julia is brightened by de Rouillé’s cheerful and joking demeanour:

    Why should I allow this spleen of sense to disqualify me for society?—Once or twice I almost muttered things against my present situation.—Julia loves me; I know she does: She has that tenderness and gratitude, which will secure her affection to a husband, who loves her as I do; but she must often feel the difference of disposition between us. Had such a man as Rouillé been her husband—not Rouillé neither, though she seems often delighted with his good humour, when I cannot be pleased with it.—
    We are neither of us such a man as the writer of a romance would have made a husband for Julia.—There, is indeed, a pliability in the minds of women in this article, which frequently gains over opinion to the side of duty.—Duty is a cold word.—No matter, we will canvas it no farther. I know the purity of her bosom, and I think, I am not unworthy of its affection…

Perhaps not—but Julia’s “duty”, if not her “affection”, is about to be seriously challenged, and a new emotion reignite her correspondence:

    I have just now received a piece of intelligence, which I must beg my Maria instantly to satisfy me about. Le Blanc, my father’s servant, was here a few hours ago, and among other news, informed Lisette, that a nephew of his, who is just come with his master from Paris, met Savillon there, whom he perfectly remembered, from having seen him in his visits to his uncle at Belville. The lad had no time for enquiry, as his master’s carriage was just setting off, when he observed a chaise drive up to the door of the hotel, with a gentleman in it, whom he knew to be Savillon, accompanied by a valet de chambre, and two black servants on horseback.
    Think, Maria, what I feel at this intelligence!—Yet why should it alarm me?—Alas! you know this poor, weak, throbbing heart of mine! I cannot, if I would, hide it from you.—Find him out, for Heaven’s sake, Maria; tell me—yet what now is Savillon to your Julia?—No matter—do any thing your prudence may suggest; only satisfy me about the fate of this once dear—Again! I dare not trust myself on the subject—Mons. de Montauban! Farewell!

Maria and Savillon do meet in Paris; the outcome is reported to Mr Herbert:

    When I told you, my Beauvaris was no more, I thought I had exhausted the sum of distress, which this visit to Paris was to give me. I knew not then what fate had prepared for me—that Julia, on whom my doating heart had rested all its hopes of happiness;—that Julia is the wife of another!
    All but this I could have borne; the loss of fortune, the decay of health, the coldness of friends, might have admitted of hope; here only was despair to be found, and here I have found it!
    Oh! Herbert! she was so interwoven with my thoughts of futurity, that life now fades into a blank, and is not worth the keeping…

Maria, meanwhile, has the painful task of letting Julia know the truth:

    What do you tell me! Savillon in Paris! unmarried, unengaged, raving of Julia! Hide me from myself, Maria, hide me from myself—Am I not the wife of Montauban?—
    Yes, and I know that character which as the wife of Montauban, I have to support: Her husband’s honour and her own are in the breast of Julia. My heart swells, while I think of the station in which I am placed.—Relentless Honour! thou triest me to the uttermost; thou enjoinest me to think no more of such a being as Savillon.
    But can I think of him no more?—Cruel remembrances?—Thou too, my friend, betrayest me; you dare not trust me with the whole scene; but you tell me enough.—I see him, I see him now! He came, unconscious of what Fortune had made of me; he came, elate with the hopes of sharing with his Julia that wealth, which propitious Heaven had bestowed on him.—She is married to another!—I see him start back in amazement and despair; his eye wild and haggard, his voice lost in the throb of astonishment! He thinks on the shadows which his fond hopes had reared—the dreams of happiness!…

This passage is the most extravagant example of something that recurs throughout Julia de Roubigné, with the characters, Julia and de Montauban in particular – it’s the one thing they do have in common – able to summon up imaginary scenes more real to them than reality. For example, Julia’s early realisation of her love for Savillon came accompanied by a terrifying vision of confessing it to her father, to excuse her refusal of de Montauban: Images of vengeance and destruction paint themselves to my mind, when I think of his discovering that weakness which I cannot hide from myself…

This tendency that speaks back to the way in which the correspondence is organised within this epistolary novel, with the absence of responding letters making the emotional reality of Julia and de Montauban and Savillon its only reality. In Julia’s case, Mackenzie repeatedly places her outbursts against some piece of prosaic reality or unwelcome duty, in order to point out the growing distance between what she should be focused upon and what she is focused upon, and the danger inherent in her lack of emotional self-control. The warning conveyed when we were alerted to Julia’s habit of separating “thought” and “conduct” here comes to poisonous fruition.

Even before she learned that Savillon was not in fact married, Julia’s exact degree of success in driving him from her heart was conveyed to us in a letter from de Montauban:

I was last night abroad at supper: Julia was a-bed before my return. I found her lute lying on the table, and a music-book open by it. I could perceive the marks of tears shed on the paper, and the air was such as might encourage their falling: Sleep however had overcome her sadness, and she did not awake when I opened the curtains to look on her. When I had stood some moments, I heard her sigh strongly through her sleep, and presently she muttered some words, I know not of what import. I had sometimes heard her do so before, without regarding it much; but there was something that roused my attention now. I listened; she sighed again, and again spoke a few broken words; at last I heard her plainly pronounce the name Savillon, two or three times over, and each time it was accompanied with sighs so deep, that her heart seemed bursting as it heaved them…

Now, the fact that she could not bear to part with that miniature of Savillon comes back to bite her (and, by the way, we never do learn Maria’s thoughts on the subject):

    Segarva!—but it must be told—I blush even telling it to thee—have I lived to this?—that thou shouldst hear the name of Montauban coupled with dishonour!
    I came into my wife’s room yesterday morning, somewhat unexpectedly. I observed she had been weeping, though she put on her hat to conceal it and spoke in a tone of voice affectedly indifferent. Presently she went out on pretence of walking; I staid behind, not without surprise at her tears, though, I think, without suspicion; when turning over (in the careless way one does in musing) some loose papers on her dressing-table, I sound a picture of a young man in miniature, the glass of which was still wet with the tears she had shed on it. I have but a confused remembrance of my feelings at the time; there was a bewildered pause of thought, as if I had waked in another world…

His suspicions thoroughly awakened, de Montauban now sees guilt in every word and action of Julia; and (like so many 18th century male leads, though Henry Mackenzie at least has the grace not to call him “hero”) he seems to take a fierce pleasure in thinking the worst of the woman he is supposed to love. Here, de Montauban too shows his skill in conjuring up visions with which to torment himself:

    We dined alone, and I marked her closely; I saw, (by Heaven! I did) a fawning solicitude to please me, an attempt at the good-humour of innocence, to cover the embarrassment of guilt. I should have observed it, I am sure I should, even without a key; as it was, I could read her soul to the bottom.—Julia de Roubigné! the wife of Montauban!—Is it not so?
    I have had time to think.—You will recollect the circumstances of our marriage—her long unwillingness, her almost unconquerable reluctance.—Why did I marry her?
    Let me remember—I durst not trust the honest decision of my friend, but stole into this engagement without his knowledge; I purchased her consent, I bribed, I bought her; bought her, the leavings of another!—I will trace this line of infamy no further: There is madness in it!…

De Montauban’s Spanish upbringing now kicks in, at this perceived affront to his honour—an “honour” which doesn’t prevent him from setting his servant to spy on his wife, or from seeking intelligence about her amongst the other servants. Typically, though the vast majority of what he hears is capable (and rightly) of a perfectly innocent construction, it is the passing suggestion of Lisette that Julia once loved Savillon that de Montauban seizes upon; and from a childhood crush to the guilt of adultery is a small step in his disordered imagination. Lonquillez, the servant (Spanish, and therefore capable of stooping to anything in the name of his master’s honour), persuades de Montauban that Julia and Savillon must be corresponding, and that he should confirm his suspicions by intercepting their letters—

—a decision which coincides with the single exchange of letters between the two, with Savillon finally persuading Maria to send onto Julia a letter from himself begging for a single meeting, and Julia’s reply agreeing to it. The honourable de Montauban has no hesitation sending his discoveries to Segarva, in the name of self-justification:

    “I know not, Sir, how to answer the letter my friend Mademoiselle de Roncilles has just sent me from you. The intimacy of our former days I still recal, as one of the happiest periods of my life. The friendship of Julia you are certainly still entitled to, and might claim, without the suspicion of impropriety, though fate has now thrown her into the arms of another. There would then be no occasion for this secret interview, which, I confess, I cannot help dreading; but, as you urge the impossibility of your visiting Mons. de Montauban, without betraying emotions, which, you say, would be dangerous to the peace of us all, conjured as I am by these motives of compassion, which my heart is, perhaps, but too susceptible of for my own peace, I have at last, not without a feeling like remorse, resolved to meet you on Monday next, at the house of our old nurse Lasune, whom I shall prepare for the purpose, and on whose fidelity I can perfectly rely. I hope you will give me credit for that remembrance of Savillon, which your letter, rather unjustly, denies me, when you find me agreeing to this measure of imprudence, of danger, it may be of guilt, to mitigate the distress, which I have been unfortunate enough to give him.”
    I feel at this moment a sort of determined coolness, which the bending up of my mind to the revenge her crimes deserve, has confered upon me; I have therefore underlined some passages in this damned scroll, that my friend may see the weight of that proof on which I proceed. Mark the air of prudery that runs through it, the trick of voluptuous vice to give pleasure the zest of nicety and reluctance. “It may be of guilt.”—Mark with what coolness she invites him to participate it!—Is this the hand writing of Julia?—I am awake and see it.—Julia! my wife! damnation!

…all of which goes to show exactly how much de Montauban knows about the women he is married to. But then, we recall his low opinion of the female sex in general – the usual masculine self-fulfilling prophecy, which puts the worst possible construction upon everything on the flimsiest of evidence – and we see it in action when de Montauban calls upon the simple, kind-hearted old Lasune who (having nursed them both) thinks of Julia and Savillion both as her own children, and as brother and sister. But even here de Montauban sees only conscious guilt:

    Whether they have really imposed on the simplicity of this creature, I know not; but her answers to some distant questions of mine looked not like those of an accomplice of their guilt.—Or, rather, it is I who am deceived; the cunning of intrigue is the property of the meanest among the sex.—It matters not: I have proof without her.
    She conducted me into an inner room fitted up with a degree of nicety. On one side stood a bed, with curtains and a bed-cover of clean cotton. That bed, Segarva!… It looked as if the Beldame had trimmed it for their use—damn her! damn her! killing is poor—Canst thou not invent me some luxurious vengeance?

Segarva is, we gather, fully in sympathy with his friend’s homicidal rage; his only caution is that de Montauban should keep his revenge a secret, not in fear for himself, but so that general knowledge of Julia’s guilt should not posthumously tarnish his, ahem, “honour”:

I am less easily convinced, or rather I am less willing to be guided, by your opinion, as to the secrecy of her punishment. You tell me, that there is but one expiation of a wife’s infidelity.—I am resolved, she dies—but that the sacrifice should be secret. Were I even to upbraid her with her crime, you say, her tears, her protestations would outplead the conviction of sense itself, and I should become the dupe of that infamy I am bound to punish.—Is there not something like guilt in this secrecy? Should Montauban shrink, like a coward, from the vindication of his honour?—Should he not burst upon this strumpet and her lover—the picture is beastly—the sword of Montauban!—Thou art in the right, it would disgrace it…

Julia’s agreement to the meeting, however, has not come without agonies of doubt, and many changes of mind; her longing to see Savillon one last time battling with her painful consciousness that if she does so, she will no longer be able to draw that comforting if specious distinction between “thought” and “conduct”. At the last she accepts that she must not do it, and sends via Maria a message to Savillon telling him not to come.

The matter does not rest there, however: Maria, having been subjected to the full battery of Savillon’s own agonies, is overborne, and joins him in persuading Julia to a single meeting. Julia finds herself unable to resist temptation, when it comes from the person she is used to considering as the voice of reason:

    You intreat me, for pity’s sake, to meet him.—He hinted his design of soon leaving France to return to Martinique.—Why did he ever leave France? had he remained contented with love and Julia, instead of this stolen, this guilty meeting—What do I say?—I live but for Montauban!
    I will think no longer.—This one time I will silence the monitor within me…

The meeting, if impassioned, is of course innocent (despite the bed in the corner of the room):

I spoke of the duty I owed to Montauban, of the esteem which his virtues deserved.—“I have heard of his worth (said Savillon) I needed no proof to be convinced of it; he is the husband of Julia.”—There was something in the tone of these last words, that undid my resolution again.—I told him of the false intelligence I had received of his marriage, without which no argument of prudence, no paternal influence, could have made me the wife of another.—He put his hand to his heart, and threw his eyes wildly to Heaven.—I shrunk back at that look of despair, which his countenance assumed.—He took two or three hurried turns through the room; then, resuming his seat, and lowering his voice, “It is enough (said he) I am fated to be miserable! but the contagion of my destiny shall spread no farther.—This night I leave France forever!”

Overwhelmed by the emotion of their final parting (though not so much that she can’t write to Maria about it), Julia is again the victim of her imagination; and we reach the most thoroughly Gothicky bit of the novel:

    You know my presentiments of evil; never did I feel them so strong as at present. I tremble to go to bed—the taper that burns by me is dim, and methinks my bed looks like a grave!…
    My fears had given way to sleep; but their impression was on my fancy still. Methought I sat in our family monument at Belville, with a single glimmering lamp, that shewed the horrors of the place, when, on a sudden, a light like that of the morning, burst on the gloomy vault, and the venerable figures of my fathers, such as I had seen them in the pictures of our hall, stood smiling benignity upon me! The attitude of the foremost was that of attention, his finger resting upon his lip.—I listened—when sounds of more than terrestrial melody stole on my ear, borne, as it were on the distant wind, till they swelled at last to music so exquisite, that my ravished sense was stretched too far for delusion, and I awoke in the midst of the intrancement!…

…though of course, for once this may not be just imagination:

    Chance has been kind to me for the means. Once, in Andalusia, I met with a Venetian empiric, of whom, among other chymical curiosities, I bought a poisonous drug, the efficacy of which he shewed me on some animals to whom he administered it. The death it gave was easy, and altered not the appearance of the thing it killed.
    I have fetched it from my cabinet, and it stands before me. It is contained in a little square phial, marked with some hieroglyphic scrawls, which I do not understand. Methinks, while I look on it—I could be weak, very weak Segarva.—But an hour ago I saw her walk, and speak, and smile—yet these few drops!…

Julia de Roubigné is by no means—by NO means—the only novel of this period (not even amongst just those few we’ve examined in detail) to get its effects out of star-crossed lovers, misunderstanding and tragedy, or to wallow in the emotions of its own situations. The central premise, indeed, is very like that found in Elizabeth Griffith’s The History Of Lady Barton, which also has its heroine married to one man but in love with another. However, there seems to me to be a significant difference between this novel and most of its ilk, in its implicit condemnation of its characters and their behaviour. Most novels of “sensibility” seem to suggest (consciously or unconsciously) that if you have “sensibility”, then the rules don’t apply to you: you’re “above” all that petty, day-to-day stuff. Consequently, it is not uncommon to find the heroes and heroines of such novels behaving with complete self-absorption, in a context exasperatingly free of criticism.

(Which is, of course, exactly the attitude that Jane Austen is attacking via Marianne Dashwood in Sense And Sensibility.)

It is this preening, and the accompanying tacit exemption from the ordinary obligations of life, that Henry Mackenzie takes issue with in Julia de Roubigné. Though he is by no means without sympathy for the way in which his characters have been trapped by circumstance, he obviously considers that they need to just bite the bullet. Julia’s privileging of her emotions is, in Mackenzie’s mind, a recipe for disaster; while her nursing of her feelings for Savillon after her marriage constitutes a real and serious violation of her duty. It is interesting, however, that Mackenzie does not consider Julia the only, or even the worst, offender. On the contrary, he clearly views de Montauban’s “honour” as another form of self-indulgent posturing—and one even more dangerous than the ordinary cultivation of “sensibility”. In this respect, the novel we have examined previously that is closest in spirit to Julia de Roubigné may be John Robinson’s Sydney St. Aubyn, which likewise casts a jaundiced eye over the hysterical self-pity of its misbehaving “hero”.

(In her introduction to the 1999 reissue of Julia de Roubigné, Susan Manning makes the wry point that the novel is, in effect, a version of Othello in which there is no Iago…because there is no need of an Iago.)

For all its effectiveness, there seems to me to be a flaw in Julia de Roubigné—which, ironically, concerns her flaw: it is not clear to me whether Mackenzie thinks that Julia’s “fatal flaw” lies in her marrying one man while loving another, or whether it is that, having done so, she is not able to smother her now-guilty love. Similarly, I’m not sure what to make of the silence that persists between Julia and Savillon prior to his departure for Martinique—his imposed by, sigh, “honour”, hers by “delicacy”. Whether or not Mackenzie intended a criticism of this prevailing societal norm, we cannot be other than painfully aware that if either of them had brought themselves to speak one single word at the time, then none of this would have happened.

(Mind you— Were Julia not so given to turning everything that might happen to her into some sort of dark fantasy, maybe she wouldn’t have been so quick to believe an unsubstantiated report from the other side of the world. I think we can interpret that with confidence.)

Nevertheless, within the context of the novel of sensibility, Julia de Roubigné is a fascinating anomaly; and even were it less successful than it is in offering didacticism in the guise of a familiar tear-jerker, it would still be a novel worth highlighting for its brave early stance on the subject of slavery: one of the first efforts indeed to carry the fight to that section of the public that preferred a novel to a pamphlet.



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—


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…


Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 3)

    And turning to the men that bound him, he said, “My friends, am I to die, or to be whipped?”, and they cried, “Whipped! No, you shall not escape so well.” And then he replied, smiling, “A blessing on thee”, and assured them, they need not tie him, for he would stand fixed like a rock, and endure death so as should encourage them to die. “But if you whip me,” said he, “be sure you tie me first.”
     My mother and sister were by him all the while, but not suffered to save him, so rude and wild were the rabble, and so inhumane were the justices, who stood by to see the execution… Thus died this great man; worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise; yet I hope the reputation of my pen is considerable enough to make his glorious name to survive to all ages…

I allowed the anti-slavery aspects of Oroonoko to stand at the end of the previous post because I do think that they are remarkable, and deserve to be highlighted; but for all that I hold fast to my contention that this is not, at heart, an anti-slavery text. Certainly Aphra Behn’s approach to the subject here bears similarities to that we have already seen deployed throughout the 19th century in actual anti-slavery stories, which focus upon a single, sympathetic figure (in those later instances, usually a girl who is essentially white) rather than attempting to engage with the broader aspects of slavery; but whereas those texts use the specific to criticise the general, Behn never gets beyond the specific. Rather, it becomes increasingly evident that she has no real interest in the fate of any of the slaves but Oroonoko himself; and in fact, in the pursuit of the story she is actually telling here, she needs the rest of the slaves to be what the pro-slavery faction insisted that they were – “naturally inferior” – weak, cowardly, and untrustworthy. For all that she so bluntly exposes the degradations of slavery in Oroonoko, Behn never really contends that slavery in general is wrong, just that it is wrong with respect to Oroonoko—for reasons made evident in the subtitle of her work, where the operative word is not “slave”, but “royal”.

Before we get into that, however, we should return to the actual story. The first part of Oroonoko is, as we have seen, supposedly a transcription of events told by Oroonoko by The Narrator, who comes to prominence in the text following Oroonoko’s arrival in Surinam, and his purchase at the auction block for the estate upon which she is living. After being tricked into captivity, placed in shackles, and publicly sold, Oroonoko suffers one more profound humiliation: he has his name changed:

I ought to tell you, that the Christians never buy any slaves but they give ’em some name of their own, their native ones being likely very barbarous and hard to pronounce; so that Mr Trefry gave Oroonoko that of Caesar…

Robbing a subjugated people of their personal and cultural identity is a standard colonial practice, of course; and while Behn does not explicitly list this habit amongst the miseries of slavery, her use of the word “Christians” here indicates that she is fully aware of the implications.

From the very first, Oroonoko’s innate superiority is evident to his owners, who distinguish him from the other slaves and begin to grant him certain privileges. He is removed from general duties, and included in various of the settlers’ parties, where he is treated as something between a honoured guest and a pet. His prowess as a hunter is displayed when, armed only with a bow and arrow, he kills a tiger that has long terrorised the settlers. (Behn uses the word “tiger” here as a generic term for “big cat”; presumably the animal is a jaguar.) There is even a roughly comic episode when, refusing to believe that a fish could injure a man, Oroonoko insists on investigating the powers of a “numb-eel” for himself, with unfortunate consequences.

Stories are then told of a beautiful and virtuous she-slave, who has all the men in the settlement, white as well as black, mad with passion. Mr Trefry, who purchased Oroonoko for the plantation of which he is overseer and who becomes one of his main adherents, describes her in extravagant terms, and is mocked when he admits that, instead of taking his many opportunities to force his “love” upon the girl, her very modesty has compelled him to treat her with respect. We are not long in recognising in this paragon none other than Imoinda herself – now known as Clemene – and she and Oroonoko are rapturously reunited.

(John Trefry is one of Oroonoko‘s real identities: he was the agent of Lord Willoughby, who opened Surinam for colonisation in the first place.)

With the permission of the English, Oroonoko and Imoinda are formally married and allowed to live together. However, when Imoinda falls pregnant, the thought of his child being born into slavery drives Oroonoko to take increasingly desperate action. At first he tries to treat with his captors, promising them a fortune in exchange for his freedom and that of his family, but is put off with references to the imminent arrival of a new governor of Surinam. At last Oroonoko realises that the English have merely been stringing him along until they can gather their forces, and have no real intention of letting him go. In a state of anger and outraged honour, Oroonoko does indeed raise a revolt amongst the slaves…

Oroonoko is in many ways a disconcerting work of fiction, never following the expected paths (or at any rate, the paths we expect these days) but wandering off on tangents and putting its emphasis in unexpected places; and in fact it can be quite difficult to let go of those expectations and consider this short work for what it is, instead of what we feel it should be. Though it is perfectly understandable that people today would focus upon the anti-slavery aspects of Oroonoko, which certainly make it an easier “sell” for teaching purposes, I have to say that the more that I thought about it, the more that aspect of the story receded, or took on other forms, while two alternative readings emerged very clearly from the text.

The first of these concerns The Narrator. The actual narrative of Oroonoko seems to me to have received far too little attention over the years, probably because its real significance has been obscured by all the ridiculous arguments over the truth or otherwise of the story itself. As is the case with Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister, we find in Oroonoko some remarkable experimentation with narrative form. In the earlier work—in addition to, to all intents and purposes, inventing the epistolary novel—Aphra Behn tried out a variety of different approaches to the telling of her tale. In the third volume, for example, which is told predominantly in the third-person, there is an abrupt switch to first-person-eyewitness for the description of a particular incident, a move which adds both urgency and intimacy – and above all, authority – to the telling.

And authority is what Oroonoko most gains from Behn’s choice to narrate in the first-person. Time and again The Narrator diverges from the actual story to question or criticise the actions of her fellow English, in a manner that powerfully suggests a real emotional response to real events; while the combination of local colour with the well-known real-life figures who populate the story creates a backdrop for the story that is dangerously convincing—“dangerously”, because to my mind what we have here is a very early example of the concept of the unreliable narrator.

Though we need to be careful to distinguish between Aphra Behn and The Narrator, it must be said that one of the more amusing aspects of Oroonoko is the way that Behn uses its pages to shore up her public image, her reinvention of herself as a person of higher birth and better breeding than was, almost certainly, actually the case. The Narrator, we learn, is in Surinam with her family, consisting of her mother, sister and brother (and a brother at least Behn did have; he later accompanied her to Antwerp), not as mere settlers, but because her father was appointed “lieutenant general of six and thirty islands, plus the continent of Surinam”—although his death during the journey meant that he never assumed the position. The family must finish their journey, of course, and are forced to stay in Surinam while they wait for transport to take them away—probably the same ship that is bringing the replacement governor, whose arrival is much anticipated throughout the story but never actually happens.

Being the teller of the tale, The Narrator is able to control its form and tone, as well to place herself carefully within the action. She is loud in her expressions of admiration and pity for Oroonoko, and of her abhorrance of the Englishmen who betray and murder him. So far, so familiar: it is a standard tactic in a certain branch of historical fiction to have this sort of story told by a white woman, who stands on the sidelines of the action wringing her hands over the immorality of it all, but (being a woman) is powerless to help or to change anything, and is therefore exonerated of blame. While at first glance Oroonoko fits this profile, something more complex is actually going on, with The Narrator using her stance of moral authority not merely to assign blame, but to evade it. By foregrounding her identification with Oroonoko, and by reiterating her condemnation of those directly responsible for his gruesome death, she almost succeeds in disguising just how self-serving her account of his life and death really is, and her own culpability in his fate.

The Narrator is quick to position herself as a person of some importance, making sure that we know that, As soon as I came into the country, the best house in it was presented me, called St John’s Hill. She is fascinated like all the English by this strangely superior slave, of whom she hears from Mr Trefry, and takes pains to befriend both him and Imoinda, and so hears the story of how they came to be in Surinam. Much of the narrative here dwells upon Oroonoko’s perfections; we hear tales of his strength, his courage, his intelligent conversation.

But there is something dark and dangerous lurking behind this surface idolatry. The settlers admire Oroonoko trememdously, but as their admiration grows, so does their fear of him. Violence is never far away in Oroonoko: stories of revolt, by the natives or by the slaves, pepper the narrative; and the English are quick to see the potential danger posed by Oroonoko in this respect. Their response is to “handle” him – and their main agent is The Narrator herself.

There is a moral elusiveness about The Narrator that grows increasingly worrying. On one hand she seems to proudly represent “the other”, setting herself apart from the white male power complex of which she is so critical, and positioning herself with the slaves in her support of Oroonoko and Imoinda, and with the natives, of whom she speaks so admiringly. She brags repeatedly about her friendship with Oroonoko, and his admiration of her, and her influence over him—but too often that vaunted influence is exerted not to help Oroonoko, as she promises (and we are given no indication that she really tries to), but to persuade him into passivity on behalf of the slave-owners:

    They fed him from day to day with promises, and delayed him till the lord governor should come, so that he began to suspect them of falsehood, and that they would delay him till the time of his wife’s delivery, and make slave of that too, for all the breed is theirs to whom the parents belong. This thought made him very uneasy, and his sullenness gave them some jealousies of him, so that I was obliged by some persons who feared a mutiny (which is very fatal sometimes in these colonies, that abound so with slaves that they exceed the whites in vast numbers) to discourse with Caesar, and to give him all the satisfaction I possibly could…

       We had all the liberty of speech with him, especially myself, whom he called his great mistress; and indeed my word would go a great way with him. For these reasons I had opportunity to take notice to him that he was not well pleased of late as he used to be, was more retired and thoughtful, and told him, I took it ill he should suspect we would break our words with him…

    Before I parted that day with him I got, with much ado, a promise from him to rest yet a little longer with patience, and wait the coming of the lord governor, who was every day expected on our shore. He assured me he would, and this promise he desired me to know was given perfectly in complaisance to me, in whom he had entire confidence. After this, I neither thought it convenient to trust him much out of our view, nor did the country, who feared him…

(These posts are already running to untenable lengths, so I won’t make the attempt here, but if it hasn’t been done already, someone needs to sit down and analyse Behn’s use of pronouns in Oroonoko – particularly when The Narrator chooses to say “us” and “we” and when she does not.)

Finally, pushed past breaking point by the ill faith and constant lies of the English, Oroonoko does raise a revolt, leading the other slaves in an attempted escape. It ends in disaster, with a violent conflict between the slaves and the plantation-owners, who are led by William Byam, the Deputy Governor, and the betrayal of Oroonoko by the other slaves, who are promised mercy if they will desert him. Oroonoko himself, thanks to the intervention of Trefry, is finally brought to surrender after terms are made—only to learn yet again what an Englishman’s word is worth. Brutally whipped in public, Oroonoko swears vengeance on the false Byam, who takes his menaces seriously enough to pronounce sentence of death on him.

Oroonoko does not fear death, but he fears for Imoinda and his child—enough to take the final extreme step of killing Imoinda with her own consent, so that their child will not be born a slave, and so that she will not be defiled after his death. He intends also to kill himself, but the sheer shock of what he has done almost overpowers him, and he spends two days in a near stupor by her grave. There he is found by the English, who recoil in horror when they realise what he has done, but who fear to approach him even in his weakened condition. Oroonoko then tries to conclude the suicide pact, slicing off bits of his own flesh before partially disembowelling himself before his pursuers’ eyes. At this point they stop and seize him—only to perform the legal system’s most perversely cruel act, nursing him back to health so that they can execute him, in a scene even more bloody and grotesque than the attempted suicide:

The executioner came, and first cut off his members, and threw them into the fire; after that, with an ill-favoured knife, they cut his ears, and his nose, and burned them… Then they hacked off one of his arms, and still he bore up…but at the cutting off the other arm, his head sunk and…he gave up the ghost without a groan or reproach… They cut Caesar into quarters and sent them to several of the plantation owners…

And where is The Narrator while all this is going on? Elsewhere. As the story she is telling moves towards its hideous climax, The Narrator discovers within herself a remarkable talent for being somewhere else just at the critical moment – all the while assuring the reader that things would have been very different, if only she had been there. We see this first when the slaves revolt:

When the news was brought on Monday morning that Caesar had betaken himself to the woods and carried with him all the Negroes, we were possessed with extreme fear which no persuasions could dissipate that he would secure himself till night, and then, that he would come down and cut all our throats. This apprehension made all the females of us fly down the river to be secured, and while we were away they acted this cruelty. For I suppose I had authority and interest enough there, had I suspected any such thing, to have prevented it…

—and then again when Oroonoko is to be executed:

…his discourse was sad and the earthly smell about him so strong that I was persuaded to leave the place for some time (being myself sickly, and very apt to fall into fits of dangerous illness upon any extraordinary melancholy), the servants and Trefry and the chirurgeons promised all to take what possible care they could of the life of Caesar, and I, taking boat, went with other company to Colonel Martin’s, about three days’ journey down the river. But no sooner was I gone…

Pulled from their context, these passages expose The Narrator as almost pathetically delusional.

When Aphra Behn published Oroonoko late in 1688, she was already seriously ill, and as it happened had only a few months more to live. It is not hard to think that she might have stopped to look back over her life and her choices—particularly as she sat down to commit to paper a story that she had, apparently, told verbally at various points in the past (or at least a version of it), and which was drawn from the experiences of her youth. In this respect the protean form of The Narrator becomes particularly interesting. Conflating authors with their characters is always a risky business, but it is nevertheless tempting to read into The Narrator, with her overt support of Oroonoko and her dreams of power, and her covert allegiance to a power structure she declaredly despises and her ultimate powerlessness, an examination by Aphra Behn of some of the contradictions of her own life; particularly her ongoing fight for personal autonomy, while she used her talents to support for a political system that would, as a matter of course, have relegated her to a subordinate, dependent role, even had she ever succeeded in getting that toe-hold on the fringes of the Stuart court for which she fought so long and so hard – and so vainly.

But whatever Behn might have intended of a personal nature in Oroonoko, in the end it is something much bigger: a story of the world that was crumbling about her ears even as she wrote it…

[Sigh. I did hope to get through this in three, but The Narrator got away from me. So—to be continued…]


Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (Part 2)

“And why,” said he, “my dear friends and fellow sufferers, should we be slaves to an unknown people? Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honourable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves? This would not anger a noble heart, this would not animate a soldier’s soul; no, but we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools, and cowards, and the support of rogues, runagates, that have abandoned their own countries for rapine, murders, thefts, and villainies. Do you not hear every day how they upbraid each other with infamy of life, below the wildest savages, and shall we render obedience to such a degenerate race, who have no one human virtue left to distinguish ’em from the vilest creatures? Will you, I say, suffer the lash from such creatures?”

So, let us consider Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slaveas a work of fiction. Let us also agree at the outset to refer to the in-text teller of this tale as The Narrator, so as not to fall into the trap of confusing Aphra Behn, Writer with Aphra Behn, Literary Construct; a trap that seems to have lured quite a number of otherwise intelligent individuals to their doom, or at least into making jackasses of themselves.

The consensus of recent scholarship is that Aphra Behn did in fact visit “Surinam” (the Republic of Suriname), probably in 1663. It also seems that it was there that she became acquainted with, and possibly involved with, William Scott, in pursuit of whom she was sent to Antwerp in 1666. It was during her time in Surinam that Aphra acquired the nickname (later code-name) “Astraea”. Beyond this very little is certain, although there is an amusing gap between those accounts of her that suggest that her father was (as is asserted in Oroonoko) intended for a high government post, and those that identify him as a barber from Kent. We should note here that Aphra’s birth and connections got higher and better through all of Charles Gildon’s revisions of her “biography”, upon which people who really ought to know better rely far too much. The first of these, the account of her life that prefaces the posthumous publication of The Younger Brother, is lifted straight out of Oroonoko. The most probable explanation for Aphra’s presence in Surinam is that her family (generally now believed to be “the Johnsons”) responded to the call for English colonists issued in 1662, which promised gifts of land for settlers. She was there for between eighteen months and two years, and may have left following the death of her father, although there is no extant record of the latter.

So much we know, and little enough. However, the reality is—it doesn’t matter. Whether Aphra’s “local colour” in Oroonoko is based upon her own observation, or whether she copied it all out of published accounts from the 1660s, as Ernest Bernbaum contends, makes not the slightest difference to her tale, which is anything other than a simple “travelogue” of the kind so popular during the Restoration. Indeed, given the brevity of Oroonoko – only 67 pages, as I have mentioned before – it is truly remarkable how much it has to say. It is a work that expresses a startling point of view at almost every turn.

The first thing that we might need to consider about Oroonoko is—how could anyone ever have mistaken this for anything other than a work of fiction!? It seems to me so self-evident – and not just with the benefit of hindsight – that we can only consider the selective blindness of certain parties to be the result of some kind of psychological block, a kind of Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse. Most obviously, the first section of this story – or at least the first after The Narrator’s brief description of the flora, fauna, climate and natives of Surinam – is essentially another of Aphra’s short stories, full of love and sex and intrigue and thwarted passions, which occupies 25 pages (or better than 35%) of the total text. Moreover, although this part of the story was supposedly told by Oroonoko to The Narrator, it is full of details that he could not possibly have known. We’re used to this sort of convenient omniscience in fiction; in “A True History”, it creates problems.

We hear, then, of the young Prince Oroonoko, heir to his grandfather, the King of Coromantien; of his great and innate nobility, and his glorious successes as a warrior. The other side of his nature is awakened when he meets the beautiful Imoinda, his female counterpart. He woos and wins her – not least by promising her monogamy, in a polygamous society. They observe “a certain ceremony”, but the marriage is not consummated, pending Oroonoko informing his grandfather of the step he has taken. This mark of filial respect turns out to be a fatal mistake.

The king, though “a man of a hundred and odd years old”, has any number of wives as well as an extensive harem and is always looking for something new to excite his exceedingly jaded palette. Hearing of Imoinda’s surpassing beauty, he decides that he must have her. Curiously, Behn here expresses scorn for the notion of “the divine right”, at least as exercised by kings who are also dirty old men:

…’twas past doubt that she loved Oroonoko entirely. This gave the old king some affliction, but he salved it with this: that the obedience the people pay their king was not at all inferior to what they paid their gods, and what love would not oblige Imoinda to do, duty would compel her to do.

The king sends Imoinda “the royal veil”, which is, as they say, an offer she can’t refuse; among other things, it marks her as the king’s exclusive property. Imoinda tries to argue and plead her way out, finally enraging the king by confessing her marriage. Terrified that the royal wrath will fall upon Oroonoko, she also confesses her virginity – which seals her fate. When Oroonoko hears what has happened, he is driven half out of his mind with grief and anger, but finally, upon the urging of his friends (and one argument of theirs in particular), he conceals his emotion and goes about his normal business in an attempt to convince the king that he is not still dwelling upon Imoinda, all the time plotting to steal into the Otan, where the harem is kept: an intrusive that will mean his life if he is caught.

The one thing that helps Oroonoko keep himself under control is the thought that, as his friends suggest, the king’s great age means that he is almost certainly impotent – and so it proves to be. This is another of numerous instances in Behn’s writing in which an overtly powerful man turns out to be anything but when it comes to the crunch. The king, though he forces Imoinda to “expose her lovely person” to him, is unable to do anything about his passion for her. However, when Oroonoko, with the help of his friend, Aboan, and one of the king’s discarded mistresses, manages to make his way to Imoinda’s room in the Otan, he experiences none of the same difficulties:

The prince softly wakened Imoinda, who was not a little surprised with joy to find him there, and yet she trembled with a thousand fears. I believe he omitted saying nothing to this young maid that might persuade her to suffer him to seize his own, and take the rights of love, and I believe she was not long resisting those arms, where she so longed to be; and having opportunity, night, and silence, youth, love, and desire, he soon prevailed and ravished in a moment what his old grandfather had been endeavouring for so many months.

But the lovers have been betrayed. Imoinda persuades Oroonoko to leave her and return to the army camp, where the king will not dare to assail him because of his popularity with his men, while she saves her own life by the perverse tactic of swearing that Oroonoko raped her, and that she was therefore not responsible. This lie has unforeseen consequences, however, though the king does not entirely believe it: it is a strict law that no woman who has belonged to one man may belong to another in the same family, and in his mingled rage and revulsion, the king commits the heinous crime of selling Imoinda into slavery; literally a fate worse than death:

He began to repent him extremely of the contempt he had, in his rage, put on Imoinda. Besides, he considered he ought in honour to have killed her for this offence—if it had been one. He ought to have had so much value and consideration for a maid of her quality, as to have nobly put her to death, and not to have sold her like a common slave, the greatest revenge and the most disgraceful of any, and to which they a thousand times prefer death and implore it, as Imoinda did, but could not obtain that honour.

Disgusted with himself, and frightened of Oroonoko, the king spreads a false story of Imoinda’s death. Oroonoko is so shattered by the news that he loses interest even in his military campaigns, and his people are almost overrun by a neighbouring enemy. Almost at the last, Aboan rouses Oroonoko from his stupor, and the young prince not only turns the tide of battle but wins greater glory than ever before, as well as capturing the leader of the opposing forces, with whom he subsequently forms a close friendship.

But disaster awaits. An English slave-trading ship arrives, and its captain, offering friendship, and on the pretence of feteing Oroonoko for his victories, invites him on board. Suspecting no treachery, he attends along with “about an hundred of the noblest youths of the court”. In the midst of the entertainment, the captain springs his trap—and Oroonoko finds himself in shackles, on his way to Surinam…

Though, as I say, this opening section of Oroonoko bears a superficial resemblance to a number of Aphra’s unhappy love tales, it is also full of touches that resonate later in the narrative. For one thing, it declares Oroonoko and his people to be from “Coramantien” (Ghana). The Coromantee people did have a reputation for being war-like and aggressive, and several slave revolts in the Caribbean around the time of Oroonoko‘s publication were led by people from this region. It is likely that Aphra’s readers would have understood the allusion, and been prepared for the direction taken by her story. (In fact, in the 18th century there was a push to stop taking slaves from this area, because they were more trouble than they were worth.)

Behn’s – or rather, The Narrator’s – description of Oroonoko himself is perhaps the first of the novella’s real surprises, particularly when we consider it against the attitude that we find in such more or less contemporaneous works as The Isle Of Pines and The English Rogue. The sheer revulsion expressed by the male narrators of those tales when confronted with non-Caucasians, most specifically non-Caucasian women (though of course, they grit their teeth and have sex with them anyway), is a reaction as different as it could be from The Narrator’s delighted appreciation of Oroonoko’s manifold physical attractions:

He was pretty tall, but of a shape the most exact that can be fancied. The most famous statuary could not form the figure of a man more admirably turned from head to foot. His face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes were the most aweful that could be seen and very piercing… The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly formed that, bating his colour, there could be nothing in nature more beautiful, agreeable, and handsome.

I am compelled to admit that Behn – not The Narrator – does bestow upon her black Adonis a rather improbable “Roman” nose and thinner lips than perhaps we might expect; but in view of her refusal to buy into the aesthetics that usually insist upon a lighter skin in these contexts, perhaps we can forgive that. (I’m pretty sure she thought the nose was “more royal”.)

But Oroonoko’s perfections are not merely physical. At The Narrator’s first introduction of him, she also speaks warmly of his intelligence, his generosity, his constancy, and above all his uncompromising sense of honour. Again and again the narrative measures Oroonoko against the various Europeans with whom he comes in contact, who are invariably found embarrassingly wanting in comparison.

One of the most common readings of Oroonoko is as an early example of the “noble savage” literature that proliferated in the Deist / sentimental literature of the 18th century, which argued for the natural goodness of man and the corrupting influence of so-called civilised life. Undoubtedly there are aspects of this in the novella’s presentation of the natives of Surinam, who in spite of wearing next-to-nothing:

…are extreme modest and bashful, very shy, and nice of being touched. And though they are all thus naked, if one lives forever among ’em, there is not to be seen an indecent action, or glance, and being continually used to see one another unadorned, so like our first parents before the Fall… ‘Tis most evident and plain that simple Nature is the most harmless, inoffensive, and virtuous mistress. ‘Tis she alone, if she were permitted, that better instructs the world than all the inventions of Man. Religion would here but destroy that tranquility they possess by ignorance, and laws would but teach ’em to know offence, of which they now have no notion.

The Narrator goes on to describe the natives’ alarm and disgust at the casual dishonesty of the English they encounter, foreshadowing the tragic interaction of her hero and her countrymen.

However, Behn’s presentation of the Africans emphasises that they are not “savages”, noble or otherwise; while Oroonoko himself is as perfect a gentleman as could be produced by any court in Europe, and a great deal better than most. Though the product of a culture with naturally high ideas of honour, and where a man’s word is his inviolable bond, he is by no means in “a state of nature”: not only is the heir to an ancient monarchy, who has been raised and trained accordingly, but he has received further education from:

…a French man of wit and learning, who…perceiving him to be very ready, apt, and quick of apprehension, took a great pleasure to teach him morals, language, and science…

Oroonoko, then, when the story opens, has been exposed to European civilisation, but not to European corruption; the theory, not the practice.

Whatever else Oroonoko is, it offers in its brief pages a stingingly contemptuous indictment of white / male / Christian / European society, which is presented as irredeemably deceitful, hypocritical and corrupt. This theme makes itself felt right from the outset, when the Surinam natives are first introduced to the concept of “lying”; a passage which also establishes the untrustworthiness of the incumbent English administration:

They once made mourning and fasting for the death of the English governor, who had given his hand to come on such a day to ’em, and neither came, nor sent; believing, when once a man’s word was passed, nothing but death could or should prevent his keeping it, and when they saw he was not dead, they asked him what name they had for a man who promised a thing he did not do. The governor told them that such a man was a liar, which was a word of infamy to a gentleman. Then one of ’em replied, “Governor, you are a liar and guilty of that infamy.”

During Oroonoko’s courtship of Imoinda, Behn again draws an explicit contrast between the conduct of her regal lovers and that of their European counterparts, declaring the African people morally superior despite their usual practice of polygamy – it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it:

Nor did he use those obligations ill that love had done him, but turned all his happy moments to the best advantage; and as he knew no vice, his flame aimed at nothing but honour, if such a distinction may be made in love, and especially in that country, where men take to themselves as many as they can maintain and where the only crime and sin with woman is to turn her off, to abandon her to want, shame, and misery. Such ill morals are only practised in Christian countries where they prefer the bare name of religion and, without virtue or morality, think that’s sufficient. But Oroonoko was none of those professors; but as he had right notions of honour, so he made her such propositions as were not only and barely such but, contrary to the custom of his country, he made her vows she should be the only woman he would possess while he lived…

It is the deceit and treachery of the English captain that dooms Oroonoko to slavery; and while we cynics may say it serves him right for trusting a slaver, to Oroonoko all that matters is that he was invited on board under professions of friendship. The betrayal that follows is so overwhelming, Oroonoko can barely grasp the implications of it, while even after this initial treachery, he knows no other way of proceeding but by trying to deal with the captain on terms of equal honour:

…the still-doubting captain, who could not resolve to trust a heathen, he said, upon his parole, a man that had no sense or notion of the god that he worshipped. Oroonoko then replied, he was very sorry to hear that the captain pretended to the knowledge and worship of any gods who had taught him no better principles than not to credit as he would be credited…

This is the beginning of a pattern of betrayal that recurs throughout the novella, with the Englishmen justifying their conduct in terms of everything from political expediency to, like the captain, the fact that Oroonoko is just a heathen, just a slave; no-one to whom “honour” is owed. In this the English are depicted as incapable of grasping what is so self-evident to “the heathens” they encounter, slave and native: that honour is something a man owes to himself.

So the Prince Oroonoko arrives in Surinam in chains, to be sold off at the auction block – and so enters the consciousness of The Narrator, who is staying at the plantation which buys him. As he is dragged off the ship, he gets the final word:

…he only beheld the captain with a look all fierce and resentful, upbrading him with eyes that forced blushes on his guilty cheeks. He only cried, in passing over the side of the ship, “Farewell, Sir. ‘Tis worth my suffering to gain so true a knowledge both of you and of your gods by whom you swear.” And desiring those that held him to forbear their pains, telling ’em he would make no resistance, he cried, “Come, my fellow slaves, let us descend and see if we can meet with more honour and honesty in the next world we shall touch upon.”

They don’t.

Though it was not the financial success that Aphra Behn needed it to be, Oroonoko was popular at the time of its publication and became increasingly so over the course of the 18th century. It was particularly well-received in France, where right from the beginning it was read as an explicit anti-slavery tract and remained one of the pillar works of humanitarian argument. It is probably in this context that the novella is best known today. This interpretation becomes somewhat problematic, however, when we consider that Oroonoko himself practises slavery – and never, as you might anticipate, learns to “know better”. Oroonoko is a warrior-prince; he and his people are constantly at war with one neighbouring tribe or another, with the prisoners on either side sold to the slave-traders who visit the area on a regular basis. Within the context of this tale, this is neither wrong nor despicable. When Oroonoko arrives in Surinam, he recognises amongst his fellow slaves a number of individuals who he himself captured and sold – and they have no hard feelings; these are merely the fortunes of war.

But if Oroonoko does not go quite as far as most people would prefer these days, we must not lose sight of the very real achievement of Aphra Behn, who does three remarkable things here, things perhaps unprecedented in the literature of her time: she presents slavery without disguise as both physically and spiritually degrading; she shows how slavery vitiates the moral sense of those who practise it; and above all she considers slavery from the slave’s point of view:

[Oroonoko]…made an harangue to ’em of the miseries and ignominies of slavery, counting up all their toils and sufferings under such loads, burdens, and drudgeries as were fitter for beasts than men, senseless brutes than human souls. He told ’em it was not for days, months or years, but for eternity; there was no end to be of their misfortunes. They suffered not like men who might find a glory and fortitude in oppression, but like dogs that loved the whip and bell and fawned the more they were beaten; that they had lost the divine quality of men, and were become insensible asses, fit only to bear; nay worse, an ass, or dog, or horse, having done his duty, could lie down in retreat, and rise to work again, and while he did his duty, endured no stripes, but men, villainous, senseless men such as they, toiled on the tedious week till black Friday, and then whether they worked or not, whether they were faulty or meriting, they promiscuously, the innocent with the guilty, suffered the infamous whip, the sordid stripes from their fellow slaves till their blood trickled from all parts of their body, blood whose every drop ought to be revenged with a life of some of the tyrants that impose it.

It is not the least of Oroonoko‘s virtues that its text never loses sight of Oroonoko’s overriding point here, that slaves are nevertheless men – “human souls” – and that slavery is not something done by the superior to the inferior, but something done by men to men. It is also implies that the Englishmen’s uneasy consciousness of this truth is at the root of the very cruelties that they commit.

The attitude of Oroonoko towards its English characters is one of the most intriguing things about it. Slavery itself is humiliating enough, but there is nothing, we gather, more humiliating than being enslaved by the English. Even at the end of his tether, when he is trying to rouse his fellow slaves to rebellion, Oroonoko is able to find a sort of nobility in slavery as a result of being made a prisoner of war, “honourably vanquished”; a man might endure that. But the English do not capture their slaves this way – they don’t capture their slaves at all – they pay other people to do it for them – not caring what dirty tactics are used. (Though other slaving nations are mentioned, the captain who tricks Oroonoko is of course an Englishman.) Oroonoko’s word for the English is “degenerate”. To be enslaved by such people, to be bought and sold by them like any other commodity, is uniquely, intolerably degrading.

In fact, in an oblique, muted sort of way, Oroonoko dares to question almost everything that the average Englishman of the time would have taken for granted – albeit that The Narrator carefully distances herself from this aspect of the text. Nevertheless, the respect shown to Oroonoko’s opinion throughout the story encourages us to listen when he speaks, and when he condemns the English colonisation of Surinam, and by inference the nation’s spread across the globe, as “rapine” and “theft” – when he sums up the English in terms of the manoeuvring dishonesty that characterises their interactions with other peoples – it carries weight. That Oroonoko is a daring work altogether we have already seen; yet I’m not sure that it’s single most daring touch isn’t the quiet way that Aphra Behn ties colonisation and slavery together into a single, morally untenable bundle.

[To be continued…]