Anonymous, The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808)

I’m teaching this in my undergrad class this week, too, so I’m just providing my lecture notes here in case they might help people’s reading or research. We’ll use the questions here for weekend blogging or discussion. Good luck!

[page nos. refer to Lyndon Dominique Broadview edition]

BROADVIEW EDITION of WoC AVAILABLE THROUGHGOOGLE PLAY

Chronology:

1760: Tacky’s Rebellion, 1st major island-wide slave rebellion in Jamaica

1772: Lord Mansfield’s decision in Somersett Case renders slavery unenforceable in England or Wales

1791: Haitian Revolution

1795: 2nd Maroon War, Jamaica

1806: Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill Debates (cf. Dominique, Intro, 20-1)

1806: Andrew Wright inheritance case, possible model for WoC (cf. Dominique, Intro 33; App. G, 262)

1808: The Woman of Colour published

Publication: Published anonymously in 1808. Reviews in Lyndon, App. F, 257). The Chronology along with Lyndon’s Intro shows how much awareness British readers might have had for the situation of a biracial Jamaican heiress, which was not an uncommon situation in late 18c/early 19c Britain. When creole and biracial colonial elites from the sugar colonies traveled to Britain, they raised questions about who could be considered British and what constituted properly British behavior, as Jeremiah Grant also showed.

Discussion: Lyndon’s Intro comprehensively surveys the black heroines of 17-18c British literature, beginning with Behn’s Imoinda (whose fertility drives the plot towards tragedy), Southerne’s theatrical adaptation of Imoinda that turns her into a white, Desdemona-like heroine (synthesizing Oroonoko w/Shakespeare’s Othello), and ending with the question of where black female heroines were represented in British literature. Clearly this novel is one of the first pre-20c fictions that centers on a black woman character as a heroine rather than incidental or minor character.

The rest of the Intro explores the significance of the title and her description as a “woman of colour,” in other words as a biracial woman born of a white father and enslaved black mother. Her name, “Olivia,” echoes her “olive” skin and she is contrasted throughout with the appearance and speech of her enslaved maid, Dido. The Intro also discusses the novelistic genres that the Woman of Colour draws upon:

  • the sentimental novel (often epistolary, meaning told in letters, and derived from Richardson and Burney), which describes a young woman’s sometimes difficult entry into polite society, courtship, and ultimately marriage; Burney also used the will as plot device in Evelina and Cecilia;
  • the radical novel (from Wollstonecraft and Hays) that extends the sentimental novel’s exploration of the most unjust and exploitive aspects of marriage and family and their foundation in unthinking prejudice; and
  • the Caribbean novel, which in some sense is centered on the colonial experience of the West Indian who ultimately returns to the West Indies rather than staying in the England metropolis of London.

Characters in Packet the First:

Olivia, biracial heroine with a complicated fortune

Dido, her enslaved maid

Mrs Honeywood, a benevolent companion on the voyage

Honeywood, her son

Augustus Merton, the cousin she is betrothed to via her father’s will

Mrs Merton, a parvenu and city-heiress, rich, vulgar, and hostile to Olivia

Mr Merton, a benevolent and wealthy merchant, her uncle

Q1: Looking at the title page, why is this fiction described as “a Tale”? What features of this book suggest a “tale” rather than a “novel,” or even as a “history” or “adventures” or “life” of its heroine?

Packet the First (53-94) [packet=packet ship, carrying letters; or packet of letters]

As she sails to England, Olivia Fairfield writes to her friend Mrs Milbanke about her traveling companion Mrs Honeywood, her son Honeywood, and her enslaved maid, Dido. She explains the relationship between her now deceased plantation-owning father, Fairfield, and her enslaved mother, Marcia, and the strange will he left that stipulates she either marry his nephew Augustus Merton and convey her 60,000 L fortune to him, or forfeit the fortune and be supported by his brother Mr George Merton. After a voyage, conversation with the Honeywoods, and a storm, they all land in Bristol, where she meets the Mertons. Olivia is insulted by Mrs Merton with a dinner of rice that associates her with the enslaved, and Olivia politely rebuffs her (75); their child George mistakes her skin color for dirt (78) and Olivia again refuses to take the bait or lose her temper with him (78-81). A humiliating English ball (84-88). She finally confronts Augustus but receives no real commitment from him either to marry or reject.

Q2: How and where does Olivia demonstrate her qualities as a heroine, either on the ship with Dido and the Honeywoods, in her embarrassing encounters with the Mertons and others, or in her interactions with Augustus? What kinds of expectations do others have of her?

Packet the Second and Third (94-127)

Characters:

Mr George Merton

Mrs George Merton

Sir Marmaduke Ingot

Lady Ingot

Miss Danby

Mr Waller, the tutor

Frederic Ingot, a posh useless man-child

Mr Bellfield, a despised older relative of Ingots

Mr Lumley, the neighborhood pastor

Caroline Lumley, his daughter

A doomed marriage ceremony in Clifton, and Olivia meets her repulsive in-laws the George Mertons in London. We learn in her letter her jealousy and hatred of Olivia (101). We learn of Augustus’s lack of passion for Olivia but his fear of putting her in his brother’s and sister in law’s power (104). In wild romantic Devonshire, she meets the “nabobs” (rich, vulgar colonial adventurers returned from India) the Ingots who live in a “pagoda” and interfering in local politics. Mrs Honeywood dies, and Olivia attends a nabob dinner party filled with horrible people, including Miss Danby, who flirts and drops hints about Angelina Forrester, who was once involved with Augustus (113-15). She also meets Mr Waller the tutor to the useless Mr Frederic Ingot, and the elderly despised relative of the Ingots Mr Bellfield (116-20), and later Mr Lumley, the worthy, hardworking pastor of the neighborhood and his shy innocent daughter Caroline (121-2). Mrs Merton promises (or threatens) to visit.

Q3: How do Olivia’s manners and morality contrast with those of the merchant family the Mertons, their young friends, or the rich nabob family the Ingots? What do the manners of the elite or fashionable young people suggest about the social consequences of imperial wealth and trade for the people in England or the colonies?

Q4: Looking at the title page, why is this fiction described as “a Tale”? What features of this book suggest a “tale” rather than a “novel,” or even as a “history” or “adventures” or “life” of its heroine?

UPDATE: Here’s Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary (1755) definition of “Tale”:

Screenshot_2020-04-17 A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals, explained i[...]

Q5: How and where does Olivia demonstrate her qualities as a heroine, either on the ship with Dido and the Honeywoods, in her embarrassing encounters with the Mertons and others, or in her interactions with Augustus? What kinds of expectations do others have of her?

Q6: How do Olivia’s manners and morality contrast with those of the merchant family the Mertons, their young friends, or the rich nabob family the Ingots? What do the manners of the elite or fashionable young people suggest about the social consequences of imperial wealth and trade for the people in England or the colonies?

Links:

Melissa M. Adams-Campbell, New World Courtships: Transatlantic Alternatives to Companionate Marriage (Hanover, NH, UNITED STATES: Dartmouth College Press, 2015), http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=4185210.

Brigitte Fielder, “The Woman of Colour and Black Atlantic Movement”Brigitte Fielder, “The Woman of Colour and Black Atlantic Movement,” Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire, May 23, 2016, 171–85, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137543233_12.

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Author: Dave Mazella

I am an Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston, Department of English, specializing in 18th-century British literature.

One thought on “Anonymous, The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808)”

  1. In response to Q1/Q4: Looking at the title page, why is this fiction described as “a Tale”? What features of this book suggest a “tale” rather than a “novel,” or even as a “history” or “adventures” or “life” of its heroine?

    I think the labeling of this text as a tale has a lot to do with the narration. Over 90% of the story is told by Olivia; we only get a handful of letters from other people, so for most of the story we only receive one perspective and Olivia takes on this story-teller role for the audience. In general, “life” stories are told by an observer, not the main character, and it implies that the story is not fiction. I would consider this story a novel, but classifying it as a tale emphasizes the story-teller narration style, and this style implies that the story is meant as a lesson (e.g., cautionary and moral tales).

    In response to Q2/Q5: How and where does Olivia demonstrate her qualities as a heroine, either on the ship with Dido and the Honeywoods, in her embarrassing encounters with the Mertons and others, or in her interactions with Augustus? What kinds of expectations do others have of her?

    I think we see Olivia’s heroine qualities in her forbearance and goodness, and people expect her to be inferior because of her skin color and their association of darker skin with less education. When Mrs. Merton insults Olivia by having her served with a bowl of rice for breakfast, she expects Olivia to be offended and to retaliate with some angry or rude words, but Olivia keeps her cool and behaves exactly as someone of Mrs. Merton’s social standing aught to. By attempting to prove Olivia as a lower class, Mrs. Merton only lowers herself and uplifts Olivia.

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