"My poor mistress": marital cruelty in The History of Mary Prince.
Like any autobiography, particularly the slave narrative, History has been and continues to be plagued by questions concerning its authenticity. During the time of its publication, pro-slavery advocates maligned Prince's character and accused her of exaggerating the abuse she suffered. (1) Con temporary critics tend not to focus on the integrity of the narrator but are instead concerned with the degree to which her voice was manipulated by Strickland and Pringle. (2) Many are accordingly interested in the conspicuous gaps in Prince's otherwise detailed narrative of suffering. Jenny Sharpe and Moira Ferguson, for example, argue that silences surrounding Prince's sexuality in particular indicate her inability to fully disclose her circumstances in the face of the moral imperatives of the Christian abolitionists who supported and legitimized her story (Sharpe 121; Ferguson, Subject to Others 281). Such narrative gaps are likewise the focus of this essay, although I am less interested in the authenticity of the narrative than in the interconnectedness of the narrative with contemporaneous feminist discourse. Rather than address absences that signal what remained difficult to narrate regarding the intimate experiences of the slave, then, I want to consider History's patent reluctance to represent the marital cruelty (3) that it suggests exists among slave-owning families.
History represents the violent treatment of slaves in a highly graphic manner, clearly. Cruelty toward slaves' mistresses, on the other hand, is implied, I will show, but never similarly explicit. Attending to this disparity allows us to more clearly grasp how Prince's story engages with particular configurations of the relationship between marriage and slavery. That is, although the narrative at points suggests that married women and slaves have similar relationships to their shared "masters," the conspicuously inconsistent level of representation afforded to the abuse of slaves and the misfortunes of their mistresses reveals the inadequacy of an increasingly common "married woman as slave" analogy that emerged in eighteenth-century feminist writing. The narrative underscores, I argue, not only the dissimilarities between married women and slaves but also that the root of the suffering that incited writers to compare marriage to slavery--the hierarchies of middle-class domestic life--actually fostered the conditions for publicly and legally sanctioned brutality.
There are, of course, serious ethical issues involved in the sort of reading I am undertaking. To begin, it risks occluding History's primary concern--slavery--with the domestic abuse of white women and in turn reinscribing a hierarchy of suffering entrenched in racial prejudice. The tendency to focus on white women's historical relationships to slavery has been justifiably decried by a number of feminist and postcolonial critics. Jane Haggis, for example, criticizes the "colonizing and Eurocentric discourses of mainstream colonial and imperial histories in their narration of white women's stories" (45), while Anthony Neal admonishes the bias of historians whose "preoccupations with humanizing the slave-holders" (15) take precedence over studies of the brutality of slavery. In the interest of learning more about the social conditions that produced and sustained slavery, that is, too many critical histories have privileged the experiences of white subjects.
Such methodologies are especially difficult insofar as they replicate the white supremacist elements of the early Romantic and Victorian women's movements. As several critics have noted, many married middleclass activist women in eighteenth-century Britain and the United States understood and articulated their oppression through involvement with anti-slavery campaigns and their growing knowledge of slavery (Midgley 14, Burton 78, Kish Sklar xiii). Moreover, the legal doctrine of coverture, under which married women were "covered" by the legal personhood of their husbands, and therefore unable to own their own property or enjoy individual legal status (Blackstone 1:430), made the "married woman as slave" analogy a pertinent, if not entirely suitable, comparison. Mary Astell, for example, who famously asked, "If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?" (107), relied on the public's understanding of slavery's brutality to heighten the difficulties faced by married women. Almost a century later Mary Wollstonecraft took up Astell's question in Vindication of the Rights of Women, which blames the social conditions of middle-class life for leaving women without the mental energy required for emancipation: "Man, taking her body, the mind is left to rust: so that while physical love enervates man, as being his favourite recreation, he will endeavour to enslave women--: and, who can tell, how many generations may be necessary to give vigour to the virtue and talents of the freed posterity of abject slaves?" (84). Although Wollstonecraft had directly criticized the institution of slavery in Vindication of the Rights of Men, here she favours the call for women to be treated better than slaves over the call for slaves to be free. In turn, Mary Robinson's "A Letter to the Women of England" imagines women able to transcend the trappings of middle-class ennui and uses slavery to illustrate that for such a woman the "slavery" of marriage is particularly denigrating:
Supposing that destiny, or interest, or chance, or what you will, has united a man, confessedly of a weak understanding, and corporeal debility, to a woman strong in the powers of intellect, and capable of bearing the fatigues of busy life: is it not degrading to humanity that such a woman should be the passive, and obedient slave, of such an husband? (42)
Each of these writers deploys a mode of rhetoric that bell hooks faults American suffragists for using: an expression of "outrage" at being treated like the subaltern that supplants outrage over the subjugation of the subaltern (127). These women helped to perpetuate the notion that a nation's civility depended on its treatment of women, the security of the bourgeois home, and on the virtue and health of the women within it, and they set out to prove that Britain could not preserve this standard while treating white affluent women like slaves. However, as hooks puts it, "When white reformers made synonymous [slavery and] the impact of sexism on their lives, they were not revealing an awareness or sensitivity to the slave's lot; they were simply appropriating the horror of the slave experience to enhance their own cause" (126). In other words, early feminist activists compared marriage to slavery in order to scrutinize the sacrosanct construction of the middle-class home but in doing so privileged the experiences of white women and shifted the debates over slavery away from the slave. Although they drew on public support for abolitionism, their work was often less concerned with the problem of slavery than it was with the patriarchal subordination of affluent white women.
I am conscious of the fact that this article similarly draws some attention away from the suffering of slaves in order to address an issue only related to that suffering. I am not, however, using slavery to shed new light on the difficult plight of the middle-class wife. Rather, my aim is to illustrate how History's references to marital cruelty belie the conflation of marriage and slavery. That History even has an identifiable agenda beyond anti-slavery, though, may trouble some readers; it may seem unlikely, for instance, that a slave would take up the problems of middle-class marriage when her own suffering was so severe. Complicating the issue is the fact that, although such a critical awareness of how marriage bore on slavery would certainly not have been impossible, the narrative's heavy mediation renders impossible the location of a single authorial agent. Referring to Prince as the author of this narrative presents considerable difficulty, not only because she is called by a number of different names in her narrative and in the editorial material that accompanies it and not only because attempts to name Prince by her editors and others reiterate abusive colonial power relationships by refusing to acknowledge her self-identification. (4) The concepts of authorship and authorial intent complicate any slave narrative, for, as Gillian Whitlock puts it, when we read one "amidst its supplementation"--prefaces, footnotes, and appendices typically written by white abolitionists and contemporary critics--the "authentic" author and the sum of her narrative plan become difficult to discern (13). Instead of attempting to pin down that individual authorial agent, then, I am following Whitlock's model for reading History: as a text in which authorial identity is relational and in which the narrator, a voice constructed by many supplementary forces, is "a subject constituted in and through differences" (13). I acknowledge the multiple authorial agents at play in the narrative, and my use of the name Prince refers to a textual subject constructed by the woman herself as well as by a variety of mediating forces. I am not, therefore, suggesting that Prince as a discrete author actively embedded a response to the marriage/slavery analogy into her story, nor am I suggesting that the text is bereft of agendas beyond abolitionism. Rather, I am attending, as Whitlock does, to the narrative's "textual specificity"--a term that Ross Chambers uses to explore how meaning is produced through reading practices, through "the way the relation of text and reader is mediated," and not exclusively through authorial objective (6). I am not, then, necessarily concerned with proving what Prince meant to do in relation to debates regarding middle-class marriage; I am working with what the highly mediated narrating subject Prince achieves in the context of this broader social discourse and the elements of the text that enable those achievements.
Approaching the text in this way allows us to see that, although there is no explicit statement of the similarities between marriage and slavery in the narrative, there are several instances during which Prince (the narrative voice, that is) likens her mistresses to her fellow slaves and thus identifies shared vulnerabilities among women of very different rank. This is perhaps most obvious in the sketch of Prince's early childhood as a playmate or "pet" (57) purchased for the daughter of Captain John Williams, which includes a generous and even pitying description of her first mistress. Here, in what Sharpe contends is the typical "Edenic" beginning of the slave narrative designed to present slaves as born into innocence (130), Prince portrays an idealized domestic world where her mother and mistress are practically interchangeable. The second and third paragraphs of the narrative describe Mrs Williams and Prince's mother respectively, inviting the reader to draw comparisons, and illustrate the young slave's impression that the two women served very similar roles in her life. Prince recalls, for example, that she and her biological siblings were invited to play with Mrs Williams's daughter Betsey "with as much freedom almost as if she had been our sister" (58) and even goes so far as to admit that she "was truly attached to [Mrs Williams], and, next to [her] own mother, loved her better than any creature in the world" (58).
In addition to their shared maternal status, Prince informs us, her mother and her mistress shared a subordinate position under Mrs Williams's husband. Prince describes Captain Williams as "a very harsh, selfish man" and notes that, just as the slaves "dreaded" his presence, Mrs Williams "was herself very much afraid of him" (58). Mrs Williams "bore his ill-treatment with great patience," and as an apparent consequence her slaves not only loved her but pitied her, too (58). (5) Prince accordingly refers to Mrs Williams as her "poor" mistress, a term with great significance in the narrative, for it was typically reserved for slaves in abolitionist rhetoric. From the famous protest against slavery in Germantown in 1688 (Hendericks et al.), to William Cowper's 1788 "Pity for Poor Africans" (l.n), and even Lord Bryon's 1819 Don Juan (5:7), the word "poor" has played a prominent role in describing the dehumanization of slaves. For the most part, History uses the term in the same way. Throughout most of the narrative, "poor" refers to slaves enduring extreme violence or the breaking apart of their families. When faced with the sale of her slaves, for example, Prince notes that Mrs Williams's daughter cried, "Oh, my poor slaves!" (61). Prince then recalls watching her "poor mother, weeping for the loss of her children" (61). When the brutal Captain I purchased Prince, she notes, two slave women referred to her as a "poor child" (64), and Prince later refers to two young slave boys as "poor" when describing how their mistress beat them. When Prince confesses that her "pity for these poor boys was soon transferred to myself" (66), we see that "poor" is also part of a vocabulary through which she identifies with other slaves. (6) Prince's reference to Mrs Williams as her "poor mistress," then, indicates a sense of identification with the middle-class wife, too, a sense that she understood her mistress as a subject not unlike herself and the other slaves.
This is not to suggest, though, that History merely affirms the connections between marriage and slavery made in the work by Astell, Wollstonecraft, Robinson, and others. Prince admits that she was "too young to understand rightly my condition as a slave" (57), and History emphasizes the difficult nature of this naivete in various ways throughout the text. Most notably, it does so through its juxtaposition of graphic depictions of violence against slaves with carefully edited depictions of ambiguous turmoil among middle-class families. Such juxtaposition underscores the disparate cultural values associated with the bodies of slaves and married women. The battered and violated bodies of slaves are crucial to History's abolitionist agenda; they provide evidence of slavery's horrors. Prince recalls, for example, that her master Captain I used to whip one particular slave and then "call for a bucket of salt, and fling upon the raw flesh till the man writhed on the ground like a worm, and screamed aloud with agony" (74). She describes another slave being strung up, whipped, and finally stabbed: "We found the poor creature hung up when we came home; with a pool of blood beneath him, and our master still licking him, but this was not the worst.... [His son] ran and got a bayonet, and whilst the poor wretch was suspended by his hands and writhing under his wounds, he run it quite through his foot" (74). These brutal images encourage readers to sympathize with slaves; more specifically, as Janice Shroeder points out, they constitute empirical data in support of abolitionism and thus scientifically justify that sympathetic response (262). (7)
Such depictions reveal the extent to which the slave body became a site of public scrutiny--a cultural text ironically denied privacy for the sake of freedom. In a letter appended to the third edition of the narrative to the Birmingham Ladies' Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, for example, Mary Pringle responds to public demand for evidence of damage to Prince's body:
My husband having read to me the passage in your last letter to him, expressing a desire to be furnished with some description of the marks of former ill-usage on Mary Prince's person,--I beg in reply to state, that the whole of the back part of her body is distinctly scarred, and, as it were chequered with the vestiges of severe floggings. Besides this there are many large scars on other parts of her person, exhibiting an appearance as if the flesh had been deeply cut, or lacerated with gashes, by some instrument wielded by most unmerciful hands. (130)
Schroeder suggests that this letter constructs Prince's body as Mary Pringle's proof and that, as such, it constitutes a space through which the Pringles assume authority over the body (270). In other words, by re-writing Prince's body, and by interpreting that body, Mary Pringle denies it the agency of "speaking" for itself. She also supplants Prince's own interpretation and ultimately reflects a paradox of the slave narrative's role in abolitionism: physical privacy and autonomy were, in many ways, the necessary costs of exposing a system that assaulted those same liberties.
Acknowledging the role of the slave body in narratives like History casts light on another ethical dilemma in my work. Like Mary Pringle I am using brutality against slaves as evidence, but unlike her I am not exploring or citing this evidence with the primary goal of garnering pity or sympathy for slaves, nor am I working to end anyone's suffering. Rather, I am re-recording descriptions of graphic pain and suffering to make a point about the relationship between the historical representation of slavery and middle-class marriage. My use of these descriptions is certainly not gratuitous, but it nevertheless benefits from a consideration of what Susan Sontag describes as the cultural discomfort that arises in relation to witnessing the suffering of others. In her discussion of war photography, Sontag ponders the assumption that "perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken--or those who could learn from it" (34). By this logic--that only those who can stop or learn from the suffering should look at it--History's images are justified, but my use of them may not be. While there is, hopefully, something to learn from this article, because it has nothing at all to do with helping the suffering subjects I describe, my looking at their bodies, and my request for my readers to look at their bodies, lacks a particular mode of ethical responsibility. (8)
To address this concern I turn to Elaine Scarry's discussion of the problems that inhere in describing physical suffering in relation to external issues. Scarry laments that, against the reality of suffering, discussions of pain in the context of related problems appear to be "trivializations, a missing of the point, a missing of the pain" (60). In other words, there is a sense that the only reason to regard pain is to regard pain and that discussing suffering in relation to anything else is inadequate, if not unethical. Thus the "powerfulness" of pain, Scarry tells us, "ensures its isolation, ensures that it will not be seen in the context of other events" (61). My use of the graphic violence in History is an effort to bring pain out of the isolation that Scarry suggests is a consequence of a cultural refusal to contextualize. It is an attempt to elucidate how pain participates in the production of social meanings. Granted, there have been great insults leveled at victimized subjects in the history of contextualizing pain. The marriage/slavery analogy is a case in point, since it involves two other forms of the "missing of the pain" that Scarry locates (like Sontag, in representations of war): omission--simply failing to represent pain--and redescription--referring to suffering as something it is not (69). Feminist writers often referred to slavery without elucidating the degree of suffering slavery involves; they did this because they were often less concerned with slaves themselves than with married women. They also did this because slavery had to represent something it was not, that is, marriage, and to depict the full extent of the suffering of slaves would be to compromise the legitimacy of the analogy since middle-class marriage was, in fact, not comparable to the base degradation of the slave trade. But to resist speaking of suffering slaves in the context of marital cruelty would be to deny the historical discursive connections that have been made. It would be to deny the social meanings created around the slave's body, and it would, in terms of History, be to deny the narrative's capacity to participate, however surreptitiously, in the discourse. (9)
My point is that History may draw some similarities between free married women and slaves, but it ultimately disavows the omission and redescription of slave pain in the "marriage/slavery" analogy. Understanding this disavowal, of course, depends on an understanding of the explicit suffering I have just cited in contrast to the narrative's ambiguous depictions of marital cruelty. Unlike slaves, whose bodies the anti-slavery movement put on conspicuous display, mistresses were protected by strict ideological codes. So, even when the narrative provides us with a clear-cut case of domestic abuse--Prince's master beating his daughter, for example--Prince resists describing that brutality with the same sort of detail she affords the slave beatings. While readers are privy to slaves' licked, flogged, and bloodied flesh, following her beating Mr D's daughter is "not fit to be seen" and Mr D's words were "too wicked--too bad to say" (77). Although we learn that Mrs Williams was being treated poorly, moreover, we are never privy to the exact nature of her suffering, and we never know exactly what it is that she fears in her husband. This refusal to depict the origins of Mrs Williams's fear is perhaps a consequence of the fact that Prince simply did not witness any violent or otherwise abusive encounters between her master and his wife, yet it is also important to consider Mrs Williams in the context of what Sharpe identifies as the subversive function of History's lacunae. Following Toni Morrison, who argues that we need to attend to what gets left out of slave narratives as much as to what gets included because those interstices account for all that the slave was not socially permitted to claim (110), Sharpe suggests that the conspicuous silences in History encourage readers to interrogate the non-narratable aspects of a slave's daily (121). History, she argues, predicates the slave's freedom on her capacity to adopt Christian piety and therefore glosses over Prince's exploitation of sexual relationships. However, if we attend to these glossed-over instances, we can better understand the intersectionality of abolitionist rhetoric, sexuality, and the various modes of resistance that may have been available to slaves (123). I am suggesting--similarly, although in a different register--that against the text's explicit representations of cruelty to slaves, marital cruelty appears similarly glossed over--an ill-treatment that Prince implies but never fully depicts--and that if we attend to this additional gap in what History is willing to disclose we can better understand how the narrative engages uniquely with the relationship between married life and slavery.
This approach is apt because, like the sexual abuse of slaves, middleclass domestic abuse was often portrayed as nebulously present but nonnarratable as a result of the ways in which it bore on dominant constructions of acceptability and morality. In the same year that Prince made her journey to London, the Offenses Against the Person Act became the first piece of British legislation to deal with wife assault (Surridge 6), which in turn lead to more domestic violence in court reports (8). Ultimately, this shift appears to have precipitated increased public anxiety regarding the appropriate level of visibility that should be afforded to this particular crime, particularly among middle-class families. Critics identify this period as a "crisis of domesticity," a struggle between the urge to elevate the middle-class home and to deconstruct the illusion of its singular virtue (Chase and Levenson 12, Langland 8, Poovey 29). On the one hand, Victorian writers ranging from Sarah Stickney Ellis to Coventry Patmore promoted the illusion of the bourgeois home as a haven from the ethically compromised domains of economics and politics. (10) For them, the middle-class domestic economy, that is, the well-regulated home in terms of practical affairs, morality, and affective bonds, provided the foundation for social harmony and national prosperity. On the other hand, though, writers including Caroline Norton, Frances Power Cobbe, and Charles Dickens (who was particularly ambivalent about the middle-class home) called for increased scrutiny of the home and its inhabitants, suggesting that because middle-class domestic life influenced and was influenced by political and social activity it was vulnerable to the same moral decline as the ostensibly distinct public sphere. (11) In the decades following the publication of History, then, those authors who explored the problem of bourgeois wife abuse often did so through subtle strategies of implication or inference, making that violence detectable but not explicit. (12) As Kate Lawson and Lynn Shakinovsky's study of domestic violence in the nineteenth-century novel reveals, this manner of partial representation renders the non-narratability of middle-class abuse conspicuous; it persuades readers to inquire after that which is left unsaid in polite literature and society regarding women's suffering and to ask why certain stories about them cannot be told (17). (13)
When we delve deeper into the narrative gaps regarding Prince's mistresses, we find not only a subtext of marital cruelty but also, perhaps more surprisingly, the implication that mistresses' subjugation contributed to the abuses of slavery. It is in this way that History most clearly defies the similarities between marriage and slavery that it establishes in the beginning of the narrative. Prince lets us know, for example, that the conditions of Mrs Williams's domestic experience mandated further cruelty to slaves. We learn that Mrs Williams was not kind to her slaves when her husband was at home (58), which suggests that the structure of authority in the middle-class home informed a household policy on dealing with workers. The exact reasons for Mrs Williams's lack of kindness remain unspoken, but Prince's claim that she was afraid of her husband implies that the change in behaviour appeased her master. If Mrs Williams is implicated in a process of identification and the recognition of mutual suffering as the poor mistress, Prince's description of the sudden refusal of kindness at her husband's behest in effect rebuffs the sympathetic bond and re-establishes the hierarchical mistress/slave binary. Gendered inequality within the domestic sphere, it seems, obliged the mistreatment of slaves, and Prince's attention to this process avows the subjective distance between the mistress and her slaves.
Complicating this cause-and-effect relationship, however, is the fact that the only thing we do know for certain about Mr Williams's treatment of his wife is that "he often left her, in the most distressed circumstances, to reside in other female society, at some place in the West Indies" (58). Here History alludes to the notion that, just as the hierarchies of British domesticity facilitate cruelty to slaves, so the colony became a threat to the ideals of British domesticity. The colonies provided opportunities for men to deviate from the staunch standards of polite British society. Interracial relationships, including those involving concubinage and prostitution, were relatively common in the colonies, even among men married to British women, and such relationships evoked considerable anxiety about the contamination and degradation of British marriage (Midgley 29-31). In his exploration of the disparate standards of sexual conduct in England and the colonies, Ronald Hyam notes that in the West Indies especially married British men kept "coloured mistresses" (93) and that this behaviour was typically justified by the notion that the hot climate encouraged promiscuity (88). The authoritative position of the colonialist, he adds, meant that many such relationships were exploitive (88). By drawing attention to Mr Williams's infidelity as the primarily identifiable form of abuse in the marriage, History alludes to the perception that the colony was unsuitable for British families--that the husband's behaviour in the exotic place contributed to the ignominy of British domesticity as much as the subsequently inharmonious domestic sphere facilitated publicly sanctioned brutality against the slaves in that same place. In effect, then, History illustrates a cycle whereby colonialism generates marital discord and marital discord supports colonial brutality.
When Prince describes her savage mistresses, this cycle becomes particularly prominent. As she does with the poor mistress, through these women Prince suggests that married women and slaves share abusive masters only to disavow the common ground under those masters by underscoring the ways in which domestic turmoil in the colony encouraged the abuse of slaves. Prince provides perhaps her most conspicuous allusion to marital violence in her account of an evening in the household of Captain and Mrs I. She recalls having had a "sad fright" after hearing a nondescript "noise" coming from her mistress's bedroom, immediately following which Mrs I asked a fellow slave, Hetty, if she had finished her work. When Hetty answered "No," Captain I emerged from the bedroom in only his nightclothes, carrying a whip, and beat Hetty until she shrieked "Oh, Massa! Massa! me dead. Massa! have mercy upon me--don't kill me outright" (65). The fact that Mrs I turned to Hetty immediately following the noise suggests that, whatever the noise was, it involved Mr Williams's anger regarding his wife's management of the household work. The husband and wife relationship thus bears on the slave in two discernible ways. First, in this scenario Prince essentially describes Captain I transferring his rage from the wife to the slave she has not managed appropriately and thus to a far more appropriate recipient of his brutality. Second, the resolution of this conflict hinged on Hetty's labour and brutal punishment.
Given that Prince calls attention to the noise originating in a bedroom, to Mr I emerging in his night clothes, and to the fact that Hetty was pregnant at the time, along with the colonial context and the slave narrative's tendency to hint at but rarely depict sexual encounters, we can infer that Hetty's punishment may have involved rape. Ferguson suggests that Mrs I's sudden and exceptional cruelty in the days that followed the incident may indicate jealousy of her slaves and may in turn indicate that Captain I's abuse of Hetty was sexual in nature ("Introduction" 4). Yet Mrs I's behaviour can also be understood as a response to the sexual threat her husband posed. Much of the mistreatment that Prince describes in the days following the noise appears to have protected Mrs I from evenings alone with her husband. Prince notes that after that fateful night Mrs I "often robbed me too of the hours that belong to sleep. She used to sit up very late, frequently even until morning" (66). As she does with Mrs Williams, then, Prince correlates her mistress's abusive behaviour to the non-narratable conflict of middle-class married life, and she implies that the sexual misconduct of the British husband living in the colony informs this conflict.
Prince seems to suggest that life in the colony is not necessarily the source of the problem, though, when she recalls accidentally breaking Mrs I's earthen jar. Mrs I became irate, Prince notes, and Captain I beat Prince so severely that "he was quite wearied, and so hot ... that he sank back in his chair, almost like to faint" (68). Prince then points out that immediately following the beating an earthquake began, a phenomenon she describes largely in terms of its destruction of the home: "Part of the roof fell down and every thing in the house went--clatter, clatter, clatter" (69). The attention that Prince pays to ordering these events appears to imply that the abuse of slaves in the home will destroy the home--after all, the home falls apart right after Captain I beats her. However, Prince also takes the time to tell us that the jar was "already cracked with an old deep crack that divided it in the middle, and in turning it upside down to empty it, it parted in my hand" (68). The fact that the jar is already cracked suggests that the home is already cracked, that the decline of domestic harmony occurs outside of the family's relationship to slavery. Prince merely revealed the crack by allowing the jar to part in her hands. Her horrible treatment in the home, the narrative thus suggests, symptomizes and exacerbates its already existing flaws.
Prince describes her final mistress, Mrs Wood, as her most abusive. And unlike the others, there is no evidence or even inference that she suffered from any sort of domestic abuse that triggered her cruelty. Mrs Wood, according to Prince, was not afraid of her husband; her husband beat the slaves at her request. Nevertheless, Prince presents the brutality that she endured with the Woods in relation to their marriage or, more accurately, to the nature of marriage in the nineteenth century in general. Prince recalls that when Mr Wood learned that she was to be married to a free man "he flew into a great rage" (84). This anger can be attributed to the threat posed to slaveholders by the prospect of slaves entering into the institution of marriage as it currently existed. In both slavery and marriage, one party's subjectivity was subsumed by another party's. In the case of slavery, as Ellen Weinauer puts it, the slave's subject was understood to be "absorbed" into the master's, rendering her meaningful and useful only in terms of her relationship to him, and under the legal doctrine of coverture, married women's legal self was "absorbed" into her husband's (41). Ironically, then, an inequality in marriage that made it comparable to a form of slavery provided the opportunity for female slaves to rebel by getting married and calling into question who, exactly, should encompass her subjectivity. In other words, if slaves or former slaves had the capacity to have dependents, British men's rights to their slaves could be seriously compromised.
When Prince notes that "Mrs Wood was more vexed about my marriage than her husband" (85), moreover, she reflects fears among slaveholders that the duties and responsibilities of a wife to her husband would supersede the duties and responsibilities of the slave to her master (Grossberg 130). Prince was, at this point, a domestic slave; her duties to her master, just like Hetty's, fell under the purview of his wife, who would have been charged with effective and efficient household management. Mrs Wood's wrath, according to Prince, comes from her anxiety that a married slave would spend too much time tending to her new husband's needs and not enough tending to her household responsibilities (85). Household management offered British women a site through which to exercise authority otherwise denied them in the colony (and at home, one might argue), and as Brereton puts it, "defiance by servants--free or slave--was an assault on their status" (244). The marriage risked sabotaging the order of the home and posed a direct threat to Mrs Wood's already limited authority as a married woman.
Prince accordingly tells us plainly that "English marriage is not allowed to slaves; and no free man can marry a slave woman" (84). Significantly, while she notes that her husband claimed ignorance of this fact, Prince herself never claims not to have known. Thus missing an opportunity to exculpate herself, Prince allows readers to believe that she did, in fact, understand that her marriage was illegal and that she got married in spite of the law. In this way, her intent to marry can be interpreted as a wilful act of rebellion. If it provided her with a way to subvert the authority of her master and mistress, of course, it also became the rationale for more brutality; Prince tells us that Mrs Wood convinced her husband to flog Prince with a horsewhip for her transgression: "she was fearful, I think, that I should lose her time, in order to wash and do things for my husband" (85). Her documentation of the fear and anger that her marriage incurred serves as evidence of its capacity to at least temporarily threaten the status quo, but ultimately, she tells us, the gender-based structures of middleclass domestic life superseded her insurgence, and those structures were protected through vicious discipline.
In all three of the mistresses, then, we see that History illustrates the ways in which the nature of middle-class marriage encouraged increased brutality against slaves and that this was not a simple cause-and-effect relationship but, rather, the result of a complex and hierarchical system based on gender and race, of the nexus of the exploitive relationships in the colony. History's attention to the suffering, fears, and anxieties of her mistresses thus constitutes an important intervention in discourse on women's rights and anti-slavery. It may not be that Prince intentionally engaged with earlier feminist tracts that compared marriage to slavery. However, her narrative--a text without a discernible discrete or "authentic" author-agent--suggests not only that middle-class marriage is flawed (particularly in the colonial context) but also that those flaws, particularly in the colonial context, make slavery's pains worse.
History achieves this exposure not through overt depictions of wife abuse, nor through direct discussions of the relationships among marriage and slavery, but, rather, through silences, through inference, and through gaps in narration. By juxtaposing severe slave abuse with far less graphic depictions of marital cruelty or hints of serious violence that never emerge clearly in the text, the narrative invites us to ask questions, not only about the nature of the mistresses' lives but about the significance of those details being left out of the story: the non-narrated moments between husband and wife that occur when a man returns from his adulterous liaisons, the encounters that occur behind bedroom doors, and what these particularities mean in the context of slavery. Initially, the narrative's suggestions of wife abuse appear to locate common ground between middle-class women and slaves. However, closer inspection inevitably turns our attention to the conspicuous disparities in how the narrative represents slave abuse and how it represents wife abuse, which in turn underscores the disparities between the cultural values associated with slave bodies and the bodies of middle-class wives. Thus disavowing the common ground it has invited readers to see, History sheds light on the fact that there are gross inequalities and sources of great suffering in middle-class marriage but that these inequalities cannot constitute the grounds for a subjective link between slaves and married women, particularly as they manifest in the colony, because they actually encourage the callous and merciless treatment of slaves by women. Ultimately, then, the narrative illustrates the importance of looking at gaps in representation, not only those surrounding slave sexuality, as critics before me have done, but those involving myriad social contexts. A history constructed by multiple intersecting voices invariably refers to multiple intersecting problems, and the interstices of the slave narrative are rife with reflections of and oppositions to many discursive fields, some of which are only perceptible when we engage in readings that consider the brutality of slavery against the social paradigms that surrounded and informed it.
Astell, Mary. "Some Reflections Upon Marriage." Mary Astell: Political Writings. Ed. Patricia Springborg. Cambridge: Cambridge up, 1996. 1-80.
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(1) The two most recent editions of the narrative, Moira Ferguson's (1995) and Sara Salih's (2000), include appendices that evince the public doubt cast on Prince's account, including excerpts from libel suits filed against Pringle by Prince's former owners (Ferguson, appendix 5 and 6; Salih, appendix 3), and excerpts from the Bermuda Royal Gazette in defence of the Woods family (Ferguson appendix 9).
(2) Indeed, it is difficult to find any critical analysis of History that does not refer to this issue; see, for example, both Ferguson's and Salih's introductions, Jenny Sharpe's Ghosts of Slavery, Janice Shroeder's " 'Narrating Some Poor Little Fable': Evidence of Bodily Pain in The History of Mary Prince and 'Wife Torture in England' " and A. M. Rauwerda's "Naming, Agency, and 'A Tissue of Falsehoods' in The History of Mary Prince" among others.
(3) "Cruelty" would have been the most common term used to describe the abuse of married women at the time of History's publication (see James Hammerton's Cruelty and Companionship, Maeve Doggett's Marriage, Wife-Beating, and the Law in Victorian England, and Martin Wiener's Men of Blood). Legal definitions of the word came to encompass a broad range of actions ranging from verbal threats to life-threatening violence.
(4) A. M. Rauwerda and Kremena Todorova suggest that such practices risk the erasure of the slave's identity (Rauwerda 397, Todorova 292).
(5) Bridget Brereton suggests that such pity for mistresses who were victimized by men in their homes was not uncommon; History provides more evidence of this when Prince recalls preventing another master from continuing to beat his daughter (244).
(6) Rauwerda suggests that the term denotes "instances when one can discern a claiming of allegiance with ... a black woman's experience of slavery" (403).
(7) Barbara Baumgartner notes that pained bodies in History are sites of resistance insofar as they provide proof of slavery's brutality and, at times, justify rest (259-60).
(8) Sontag observes, of course, a significant difference between literature and photography--namely that photography is capable of appearing to constitute "both objective record and personal testimony" in ways that literature is not (23). History's combination of one individual's account of real events with supplementary material designed to appear as an unbiased authorization of that account, though, allows it to function similarly.
(9) History is both an account of slavery and an expression of the interconnectedness of slavery and issues typically associated with the white middle classes. For that reason my analysis of it follows Marcus Wood's approach in Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography. Wood laments the historical predominance of white scholarship on slavery and the consequent focus on white participants in slavery and anti-slavery over slaves' experiences, but he is nevertheless conscious of the importance of engaging with the undeniable link between slavery and other forms of oppression (21). He therefore explores not just slavery but also the responses to slavery that reveal such relations. I am reading History through a similar lens; I see it as both a response to slavery and, albeit to a lesser degree, part of a broad and complex cultural conversation about the relationship between slavery and marriage.
(10) See, for example, Patmore's oft-cited "The Angel of the House" and Ellis's "The Women of England."
(11) This sentiment would be reflected in Norton's pamphlets, including English Laws for Women and A Letter to the Queen, Cobbe's Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors, and in a number of Dickens's novels, perhaps most obviously Oliver Twist.
(12) Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers and Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, for example, tend to render oblique the bourgeois abuse that they thematize.
(13) One reason is that, increasingly idealized as a disembodied angel, the British middle-class wife was rarely portrayed in physical terms; this distinguished her from working- and under-class women and, as Marlene Tromp points out, made her appear less susceptible to the sort of violence that had come to be expected on those women's bodies (23).
Suzanne Rintoul is a faculty member in the Department of CommunicationStudies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her primary area of interest is representations of violence against women in Victorian print culture, and her most recent publications in this field can be found in Women's Writing and Victorians Institute Journal.
Wilfrid Laurier University
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2011|
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