Patricia A. Matthew
Montclair State University
The allure of editing a text that has been out of print for two hundred years is irresistible to any scholar interested in lesser-known texts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially a novel compelling enough to gain the notice of influential periodicals like The British Critic and The Monthly Review. For anyone interested in histories of prose fiction, Lyndon J. Dominique’s edition of The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808) has much to offer. The novel fits neatly into that period between Frances Burney’s novels of the late eighteenth century and the historical novels of the Romantic era, and anticipates Bertha Mason in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847). As Dominique convincingly argues, it extends the traditions introduced by Samuel Richardson in Pamela; Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). The meticulously annotated primary text and the supplemental material Dominique has selected to situate it within its cultural moment has the potential to fill in gaps in our understanding of literary history, expand our understanding of a specific cultural moment and struggle (namely England’s competing projects of abolition and empire), and provide an entry to heretofore marginalized (if not completely unknown) literary traditions, all the while highlighting previously ignored threads in existing ones.
Readers of this Broadview edition of the novel will leave it with a clear sense of the tradition of women of color in fiction that has been largely ignored—for example, The Irishman in London; or, The Happy African (1793) by William Macready and Zoflora, or the Generous Negro Girl (1804) by Jean Baptiste Piquard—and a new understanding of how these figures function in canonical literature, such as Frances Burney’s The Wanderer (1814) and William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847). Most importantly, The Woman of Colour is a more than satisfying piece of storytelling. Despite the novel’s didactic and overt political agenda, it avoids the preachiness of William Godwins’s Caleb Williams (1794) or Mary Hays’s Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796). This is in part because of the plot turns in the novel, in part because of the heroine’s sense of humor, and in part because the novel uses recognizable eighteenth- and nineteenth-century gender tropes to both humanize the people of color in the novel and highlight the inequities all women of the times faced.
The Woman of Colour is an epistolary novel about the orphan Olivia Fairfield—the biracial daughter of the slaveholder Mr. Fairfield and Marcia, a Guinean woman on his plantation. The story begins at sea with Olivia en route from Jamaica to London to meet Augustus Merton, the cousin her father’s will stipulates she must marry in order to gain access to her inheritance. Without this marriage, Augustus’s older brother and sister-in-law will inherit the estate. Anxious but stalwart, Olivia manages the turmoil of her journey, both her internal unease about meeting her future husband and the turbulent ocean she travels, all the while offering pronouncements, arguing not just for the humanity of people of color but for their equality to their English counterparts: “I see the distributions of Providence are equally bestowed, and that it is culture not capacity which the negro wants!” (55)
In letters to her governess, Mrs. Milbanke, she describes her often painful adventures facing the prejudices of England’s elite, often offering slyly witty critiques of those in the upper classes, which she describes as a “wondrous pile of novelty” (95). As the daughter of a white man and a black woman, Olivia can speak with great authority about several issues: she understands the limits of gender and is uniquely situated to empathize with black women. She is the outsider and “Other” with an insider’s access because of her parentage, which provides her the opportunity to comment on the foibles of England’s parlor culture. Standing between the blackness of her servant Dido and the whiteness of her father, she is the mediator for those in and out of the text, able to discuss the dehumanizing subject position of women and men of color while gracefully and patiently negotiating the bigotry of the elite, whether directed at her in the form of the genuinely ignorant (the three-year old child of her nemesis in the novel) or through the snide comments of his mother. Language has a different tint when spoken by Olivia: as she says to her admirer George Honeywood, “when I set my foot on your land of liberty, I yield up my independence” (66). Words like “liberty” and “independence” ring differently when in the voice of a slave’s daughter, and the entire novel tilts towards a critique of bigotry, even in its most common moments.