The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808)
This week, I want to tell you about a recent new favourite of mine, something I hadn’t even heard of until just last year. When I finally read it, I was sorry I hadn’t found it sooner because it’s absolutely tremendous! Published anonymously in 1808, The Woman of Colour is a romance novel that resists cliché, and that has much to teach us about eighteenth-century society and issues surrounding diversity and inclusivity.
|Attributed to Jean-Étienne Liotard,|
Portrait of a young woman, c. 1790s
(Saint Louis Art Museum)
There has long been a completely inaccurate assumption in popular culture that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British society was almost totally populated with white people. Fortunately, this notion is finally beginning to be challenged, not least through a more accurate, representative approach to casting in TV dramas and films (albeit dented by insidious suggestions that this kind of casting is for “political correctness” rather than because the absence of a variety of skin-tone in eighteenth and nineteenth century society is just plain wrong). The other trap of popular belief is to assume eighteenth-century roles for black people must either be slaves or servants – whilst there were sadly very many people of colour who were enslaved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is also very wrong to assume that people of colour were always and only victims of labour exploitation. In The Woman of Colour, a mixed-race heiress recently orphaned by the death of her white slave-owner father sets sail for England. Her name is Olivia Fairfield and her plan is to follow her beloved father’s last request and marry the younger of her two cousins, Mr. Augustus Merton. On the boat journey she meets an attractive single gentleman and his elderly mother, and you might be thinking that this is all starting to sound quite Austenian – it absolutely is of course, but it doesn’t turn out at all the way you might be expecting it to.
Once ashore and introduced to her uncle and his family, Miss Fairfield becomes the target of the social snobbery of her older cousin’s wife, Mrs Merton, something that would also be quite Austenian were it not for the fact that Mrs Merton’s campaign of snide and malevolence is barbed with the most obnoxious racism. That Miss Fairfield is able to rise above Mrs Merton’s wilful offensiveness is only a further indication that she is a heroine in the truest and best sense of the word. Attempts by Mrs Merton to categorise her ‘with the poor negro slave of the West Indies’ for example, fail simply because a presumption that this would be insulting relies upon a perception of race-based inferiority– something that Miss Fairfield roundly and quite rightly rejects when she describes these people living in slavery as her ‘brethren’.
As the novel progresses, it continues to blend romance with a humanitarian assertion of the rights of all people to equality and freedom. Olivia Fairfield gets married (no, I’m not going to tell you who to), but things don’t always go to plan, and it all wraps up with a final outcome that perhaps shouldn’t be as unexpected as it is. Throughout, Olivia Fairfield is a witty, intelligent, affectionate young woman, deeply committed to liberating and improving the lives of people living in slavery. We don’t know who wrote this book – perhaps we never will. In Lyndon B. Dominique’s introduction to his superb edition of the text, he theorises that it might have been authored by one of two sisters whose lives partially reflect that of the novel’s heroine – but there is no absolute proof. Whoever it was, though, the novel’s biting insight into the experience of being the target of racist abuse, together with the comparatively unusual presentation of a genuinely independent woman who does not consider marriage to be the only means of achieving happiness, must surely make it extremely likely that the author of this extraordinary work was, like its title, a woman of colour.
Happy Reading everyone!
You can find this novel here:
The Woman of Colour: A Tale, ed. by Lyndon J. Dominique (Broadview Press, 2007)(available at most good bookstores – if they haven’t got a copy, they should be able to order it in).