February Books 10) Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation

10) Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839, by Frances Anne Kemble

Well, after my grumbling about her latest biography, I thought I should put my theory to the test and dowloaded the shorter of her two works from Project Gutenberg.

And it’s really good. Published in 1863, this is a series of letters from Kemble to her friend E[lizabeth Sedgwick] describing her four months as the wife of a Georgian plantation owner, and going into considerable detail about the living conditions of the slaves. It is horrific stuff, an eloquent argument against slavery, published twenty-five years after the event in a deliberate attempt to undermine British sympathy for the Confederacy in the middle of the Civil War. I haven’t read any of the editorials in the Times that she is reacting to, but I do remember the right-wing British press on apartheid, Northern Ireland, and (more dimly) Rhodesia. Sadly, I have little difficulty in imagining pompous British journalists of the day trying to reassure their readers that slavery was actually a very good deal for the slaves. (It is also a shameful fact, remembered by few, that Irish nationalists of the 1860s sympathised with the Confederacy too, as they sympathised with the Boers at the end of the century.)

Bearing in mind that the author was an actress, I was alert for clues that the letters might have been somewhat revised for publication to put her case in the best possible light. But I ended up doubting that this was the case – there are enough internal repetitions that a good editor would have taken out to ensure a better flow of the narrative. I am sure that she did delete certain more personal details about her husband and daughters, but I feel that otherwise this is pretty much the horrified account of a thirty-year-old woman trying (and ultimately failing) to come to terms with the society she had married into, rather then her fifty-five-year-old self retrospectively justifying it; a famous and glamorous English actress, who had married a rich and charming young American and only gradually come to a realisation of exactly how his family’s fortunes were sustained.

Her very first letter, critiquing a letter from her husband trying to convince her that slavery was all right really, sets forth several of her key political points. For instance, on the education of slaves:

I do not admit the comparison between your slaves and even the lowest class of European free labourers, for the former are allowed the exercise of no faculties but those which they enjoy in common with the brutes that perish. The just comparison is between the slaves and the useful animals to whose level your laws reduce them; and I will acknowledge that the slaves of a kind owner may be as well cared for, and as happy, as the dogs and horses of a merciful master; but the latter condition — i.e. that of happiness — must again depend upon the complete perfection of their moral and mental degradation. [My husband], in his letter, maintains that they are an inferior race, and, compared with the whites, ‘animals, incapable of mental culture and moral improvement:’ to this I can only reply, that if they are incapable of profiting by instruction, I do not see the necessity for laws inflicting heavy penalties on those who offer it to them. If they really are brutish, witless, dull, and devoid of capacity for progress, where lies the danger which is constantly insisted upon of offering them that of which they are incapable. We have no laws forbidding us to teach our dogs and horses as much as they can comprehend; nobody is fined or imprisoned for reasoning upon knowledge, and liberty, to the beasts of the field, for they are incapable of such truths.

She goes on to tackle mixed-race relationships (“amalgamation”):

I am rather surprised at the outbreak of violent disgust which [my husband] indulges in on the subject of amalgamation; as that formed no part of our discussion, and seems to me a curious subject for abstract argument. I should think the intermarrying between blacks and whites a matter to be as little insisted upon if repugnant, as prevented if agreeable to the majority of the two races. At the same time, I cannot help being astonished at the furious and ungoverned execration which all reference to the possibility of a fusion of the races draws down upon those who suggest it; because nobody pretends to deny that, throughout the South, a large proportion of the population is the offspring of white men and coloured women.

At the end of the first letter, she then combines the two themes of mixed-race relationships and education:

Now it appears very evident that there is no law in the white man’s nature which prevents him from making a coloured woman the mother of his children, but there is a law on his statute books forbidding him to make her his wife; and if we are to admit the theory that the mixing of the races is a monstrosity, it seems almost as curious that laws should be enacted to prevent men marrying women towards whom they have an invincible natural repugnance, as that education should by law be prohibited to creatures incapable of receiving it.

And finishes with a dig at her husband, and a flourish on behalf of her own country:

As for the exhortation with which [my husband] closes his letter, that I will not ‘go down to my husband’s plantation prejudiced against what I am to find there,’ I know not well how to answer it. Assuredly I am going prejudiced against slavery, for I am an Englishwoman, in whom the absence of such a prejudice would be disgraceful.

The rest of the book confirms that slavery was every bit as awful as one might have thought, going into what livejournal users would call TMI about the female slaves’ gynaecological problems (I’m frankly stunned that she was able to publish this kind of thing in the 1860s, in England or America) and other questions of diet, hygiene, education, religion, and (in one memorable passage) fleas:

There is one among various drawbacks to the comfort and pleasure of our intercourse with these coloured ‘men and brethren,’ at least in their slave condition, which certainly exercises my fortitude not a little, — the swarms of fleas that cohabit with these sable dependants of ours are — well — incredible; moreover they are by no means the only or most objectionable companions one borrows from them, and I never go to the infirmary, where I not unfrequently am requested to look at very dirty limbs and bodies in very dirty draperies, without coming away with a strong inclination to throw myself into the water, and my clothes into the fire, which last would be expensive. I do not suppose that these hateful consequences of dirt and disorder are worse here than among the poor and neglected human creatures who swarm in the lower parts of European cities; but my call to visit them has never been such as that which constrains me to go daily among these poor people, and although on one or two occasions I have penetrated into fearfully foul and filthy abodes of misery in London, I have never rendered the same personal services to their inhabitants that I do to [my husband]’s slaves, and so have not incurred the same amount of entomological inconvenience.

That phrase, “entomological inconvenience”, is just superb, isn’t it? It pulls together the language of polite society and scientific discourse with the horrid squalor of the life of the poor, especially the enslaved.

Finally, she decides to leave, but to try and leave something good behind her at least as regards one particular slave:

I certainly intend to teach Aleck to read. I certainly won’t tell [my husband] anything about it. I’ll leave him to find it out, as slaves, and servants and children, and all oppressed, and ignorant, and uneducated and unprincipled people do; then, if he forbids me I can stop — perhaps before then the lad may have learnt his letters. I begin to perceive one most admirable circumstance in this slavery: you are absolute on your own plantation. No slaves’ testimony avails against you, and no white testimony exists but such as you choose to admit. Some owners have a fancy for maiming their slaves, some brand them, some pull out their teeth, some shoot them a little here and there (all details gathered from advertisements of runaway slaves in southern papers); now they do all this on their plantations, where nobody comes to see, and I’ll teach Aleck to read, for nobody is here to see, at least nobody whose seeing I mind; and I’ll teach every other creature that wants to learn.

Alas, this is a very brief up-tick in her mood. Much more typical is a letter where she writes of the slaves coming to beg her intercession on their behalf with her husband for clemency, including this horrendous story:

Another of my visitors had a still more dismal story to tell; her name was Die; she had had sixteen children, fourteen of whom were dead; she had had four miscarriages, one had been caused by falling down with a very heavy burthen on her head, and one from having her arms strained up to be lashed. I asked her what she meant by having her arms tied up; she said their hands were first tied together, sometimes by the wrists, and sometimes, which was worse, by the thumbs, and they were then drawn up to a tree or post, so as almost to swing them off the ground, and then their clothes rolled round their waist, and a man with a cow-hide stands and stripes them. I give you the woman’s words; she did not speak of this as of anything strange, unusual or especially horrid and abominable; and when I said, ‘Did they do that to you when you were with child?’ she simply replied, ‘Yes, missis.’ And to all this I listen — I, an English woman, the wife of the man who owns these wretches, and I cannot say, ‘That thing shall not be done again; that cruel shame and villany shall never be known here again.’ I gave the woman meat and flannel, which were what she came to ask for, and remained choking with indignation and grief long after they had all left me to my most bitter thoughts.

I went out to try and walk off some of the weight of horror and depression which I am beginning to feel daily more and more, surrounded by all this misery and degradation that I can neither help nor hinder.

I leave her with this conclusion, actually from one of the earlier letters, in conversation with one of the local dignitaries:

Thank heavens there were people like her prepared to bear witness to what slavery actually meant. There’s much more here (and so little of it touched in the woeful Jenkins biography), but I must finish for tonight.

One last thought. I find it difficult to sympathise with her husband; but one thing I did pick up between the lines of the biography was this. Fanny Kemble made her name as Juliet, and that is presumably who Pierce Butler thought he was marrying, as a Romeo from the other side of the Atlantic. But from her teenage years, her favourite Shakespeare character had been not Juliet, but Portia, who symbolised for Fanny the virtues of feminine assertiveness but also a thirst for justice and mercy. It is good that she got to live out her ideals; it is unfortunate that her husband does not seem to have bothered to inquire what they were before they married.

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1 Response to February Books 10) Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation

  1. xipuloxx says:

    I can’t think of another novel which portrays the use of cocaine in such a positive light

    Well, that won’t last! There’s more than one story later on where Watson rails strongly against Holmes’s use of it. And then there’s the story partly set in an opium den, which is in large part about the evils of that drug.

    Perhaps Doyle became more aware of the downside of drugs later on, or perhaps in his attempt to represent Holmes’s views here he felt that he had been unwisely uncritical.

    Also: cool userpic! 🙂

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