Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Iola Leroy (1892)

Iola Leroy. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. 1892. 256 pages. [Source: Bought]

I've been meaning to read Iola Leroy for several years now. Iola Leroy is one of the first novels written by an African American woman. The novel isn't arranged chronologically. It starts during the Civil War. Readers meet a handful of slaves who are deciding whether or not to leave their plantations and join the Union army or to stay on their plantations and continue to serve. A chapter or two keeps us with the army, following a few soldiers. The character of Iola Leroy is then introduced. She's a young woman who could easily pass as a white woman--if she wanted; one doctor with the army, a Dr. Gresham falls madly in love with Iola Leroy. He knows "the truth" about her ethnicity, her background, and it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference to him. She is THE ONE for him; he knows it. But can he convince her that his love is the real thing?

After briefly meeting Iola Leroy and Dr. Gresham and a handful of others, the novel then takes us back several decades in time. Readers meet Iola's mother, Marie (a slave), and her father, Eugene (a slave-owner). This portion of the novel feels forced, scripted, a bit unnatural. It begins with a conversation between Eugene Leroy and Alfred Lorraine. He is telling Lorraine of his intentions to free Marie, marry her, and bring her back to the plantation as his wife, his hopes to raise his family in the south.
"You never saw Marie?"
"No; and I don't want to."
"She is very beautiful. In the North no one would suspect that she has one drop of negro blood in her veins, but here, where I am known, to marry her is to lose caste. I could live with her, and not incur much if any social opprobrium. Society would wink at the transgression, even if after she had become the mother of my children I should cast her off and send her and them to the auction block."
"Men," replied Lorraine, "would merely shrug their shoulders; women would say you had been sowing your wild oats. Your money, like charity, would cover a multitude of faults."
"But if I make her my lawful wife and recognize her children as my legitimate heirs, I subject myself to social ostracism and a senseless persecution. We Americans boast of freedom, and yet here is a woman whom I love as I never loved any other human being, but both law and public opinion debar me from following the inclination of my heart. She is beautiful, faithful, and pure, and yet all that society will tolerate is what I would scorn to do."
"But has not society the right to guard the purity of its blood by the rigid exclusion of an alien race?"
"Excluding it! How?" asked Eugene.
"By debarring it from social intercourse."
"Perhaps it has," continued Eugene, "but should not society have a greater ban for those who, by consorting with an alien race, rob their offspring of a right to their names and to an inheritance in their property, and who fix their social status among an enslaved and outcast race? Don't eye me so curiously; I am not losing my senses."
"I think you have done that already," said Lorraine. "Don't you know that if she is as fair as a lily, beautiful as a houri, and chaste as ice, that still she is a negro?"
"Oh, come now; she isn't much of a negro."
"It doesn't matter, however. One drop of negro blood in her veins curses all the rest."
"I know it," said Eugene, sadly, "but I have weighed the consequences, and am prepared to take them."
"Well, Eugene, your course is so singular! I do wish that you would tell me why you take this unprecedented step?"
Eugene laid aside his cigar, looked thoughtfully at Lorraine, and said, "Well, Alfred, as we are kinsmen and life-long friends, I will not resent your asking my reason for doing that which seems to you the climax of absurdity, and if you will have the patience to listen I will tell you."
"Proceed, I am all attention."
"My father died," said Eugene, "as you know, when I was too young to know his loss or feel his care and, being an only child, I was petted and spoiled. I grew up to be wayward, self-indulgent, proud, and imperious. I went from home and made many friends both at college and in foreign lands. I was well supplied with money and, never having been forced to earn it, was ignorant of its value and careless of its use. My lavish expenditures and liberal benefactions attracted to me a number of parasites, and men older than myself led me into the paths of vice, and taught me how to gather the flowers of sin which blossom around the borders of hell. In a word, I left my home unwarned and unarmed against the seductions of vice. I returned an initiated devotee to debasing pleasures. Years of my life were passed in foreign lands; years in which my soul slumbered and seemed pervaded with a moral paralysis; years, the memory of which fills my soul with sorrow and shame. I went to the capitals of the old world to see life, but in seeing life I became acquainted with death, the death of true manliness and self-respect. You look astonished; but I tell you, Alf, there is many a poor clod-hopper, on whom are the dust and grime of unremitting toil, who feels more self-respect and true manliness than many of us with our family prestige, social position, and proud ancestral halls. After I had lived abroad for years, I returned a broken-down young man, prematurely old, my constitution a perfect wreck. A life of folly and dissipation was telling fearfully upon me. My friends shrank from me in dismay. I was sick nigh unto death, and had it not been for Marie's care I am certain that I should have died. She followed me down to the borders of the grave, and won me back to life and health. I was slow in recovering and, during the time, I had ample space for reflection, and the past unrolled itself before me. I resolved, over the wreck and ruin of my past life, to build a better and brighter future. Marie had a voice of remarkable sweetness, although it lacked culture. Often when I was nervous and restless I would have her sing some of those weird and plaintive melodies which she had learned from the plantation negroes. Sometimes I encouraged her to talk, and I was surprised at the native vigor of her intellect. By degrees I became acquainted with her history. She was all alone in the world. She had no recollection of her father, but remembered being torn from her mother while clinging to her dress. The trader who bought her mother did not wish to buy her. She remembered having a brother, with whom she used to play, but she had been separated from him also, and since then had lost all trace of them. After she was sold from her mother she became the property of an excellent old lady, who seems to have been very careful to imbue her mind with good principles; a woman who loved purity, not only for her own daughters, but also for the defenseless girls in her home. I believe it was the lady's intention to have freed Marie at her death, but she died suddenly, and, the estate being involved, she was sold with it and fell into the hands of my agent. I became deeply interested in her when I heard her story, and began to pity her."
"And I suppose love sprang from pity."
"I not only pitied her, but I learned to respect her. I had met with beautiful women in the halls of wealth and fashion, both at home and abroad, but there was something in her different from all my experience of womanhood."
"I should think so," said Lorraine, with a sneer; "but I should like to know what it was."
"It was something such as I have seen in old cathedrals, lighting up the beauty of a saintly face. A light which the poet tells was never seen on land or sea. I thought of this beautiful and defenseless girl adrift in the power of a reckless man, who, with all the advantages of wealth and education, had trailed his manhood in the dust, and she, with simple, childlike faith in the Unseen, seemed to be so good and pure that she commanded my respect and won my heart. In her presence every base and unholy passion died, subdued by the supremacy of her virtue."
"Why, Eugene, what has come over you? Talking of the virtue of these quadroon girls! You have lived so long in the North and abroad, that you seem to have lost the cue of our Southern life. Don't you know that these beautiful girls have been the curse of our homes? You have no idea of the hearts which are wrung by their presence."
"But, Alfred, suppose it is so. Are they to blame for it? What can any woman do when she is placed in the hands of an irresponsible master; when she knows that resistance is vain? Yes, Alfred, I agree with you, these women are the bane of our Southern civilization; but they are the victims and we are the criminals."
"I think from the airs that some of them put on when they get a chance, that they are very willing victims."
"So much the worse for our institution. If it is cruel to debase a hapless victim, it is an increase of cruelty to make her contented with her degradation. Let me tell you, Alf, you cannot wrong or degrade a woman without wronging or degrading yourself."
"What is the matter with you, Eugene? Are you thinking of taking priest's orders?"
"No, Alf," said Eugene, rising and rapidly pacing the floor, "you may defend the system as much as you please, but you cannot deny that the circumstances it creates, and the temptations it affords, are sapping our strength and undermining our character."
"That may be true," said Lorraine, somewhat irritably, "but you had better be careful how you air your Northern notions in public."
"Why so?"
"Because public opinion is too sensitive to tolerate any such discussions."
"And is not that a proof that we are at fault with respect to our institutions?"
"I don't know. I only know we are living in the midst of a magazine of powder, and it is not safe to enter it with a lighted candle."
Eugene does exactly as he plans. Marie is freed; the two are married; they have three children. But his plans are set aside after his death. Alfred Lorraine, his closest white relative, insists that Marie is a slave, and that her three children are slaves too. He gets his way. Iola is tricked into coming home, but her brother is safe at school in the North. (The youngest child dies.)

Most of the novel focuses on life AFTER the war is over, AFTER the slaves are freed, during the messy period of Reconstruction. Iola Leroy and her uncle (whom she just happens to meet) are searching desperately for their families. There are plenty of happy reunion moments in between the social commentary. There's also a romance squeezed in for Iola Leroy. (It is NOT Dr. Gresham.)

The narrative falls into two types: dialect and lecture. I found the dialect to be more interesting and more enjoyable. The narrative style in the 'lecture' sections reminded me of A Pilgrim's Progress.
© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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