"A Nobler End": Mary Webb and the Victorian Platform

Article excerpt

This article calls for a more careful examination of dramatic reader Mary Webb, one of the first black women to take the public platform in Great Britain. It examines four sets of issues surrounding Webb's "performance" of race and takes the materials surrounding her 1856 Stafford House reading as its central texts. First, it considers the intersections of race, gender, and the public platform embodied in the promotion of the Stafford House reading. Second, it considers the spectacle of Webb's reading--including the ways in which Webb's public reading of Harriet Beecher Stowe's work breaks significantly with Stowe's relative silence on her first British tour. Third, it comparatively examines Webb's dramatic/rhetorical practices in dialogue with those of other black anti-slavery orators in Britain. Fourth, it begins to analyse the constitution and representation of Webb's audience.

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Mary Beecher Perkins, sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote from London in July of 1857 that "it would have made a southerner gnash his teeth to see the attention" paid to African-American elocutionist Mary Webb by "dukes & duchesses & lords & ladies without number," including Lord Shaftsbury, Lord Clarendon, and Lord and Lady Hatherton. (1) Indeed, as Perkins noted, Mary and Frank Webb were "in high feather" throughout the several months they spent in Britain; the highlights of those months included Mary's triumphant reading of The Christian Slave (Stowe's dramatized version of Uncle Tom's Cabin) at Stafford House under the auspices of the Duchess of Sutherland as well as the publication of Frank's novel, The Garies and Their Friends. (2) Although I am only beginning to piece together a sense of Mary Webb's performances after Stafford House, anecdotal evidence suggests that she read regularly until her health necessitated a trip to the South of France, then home to the States in March 1858, and then to Jamaica, where she died in 1859. (3)

As such, Mary Webb was one of the first black women to take the public platform in Great Britain and so is of importance to the study of both transatlantic abolitionism and British conceptions of race and slavery--as well as, of course, to the history of British oratory. And yet, though scholars on both sides of the Atlantic are familiar with the British tours of former slaves like Frederick Douglass and are beginning to reconsider the larger issues surrounding oratorical performances in nineteenth-century Great Britain, Mary Webb remains largely forgotten. She is not even mentioned in Clare Midgley's landmark Women Against Slavery or in Audrey Fisch's more recent American Slaves in Victorian England (4); she is similarly left out of previous studies of British and transatlantic abolitionism like those by Benjamin Quarles and R.J.M. Blackett. (5)

This essay creates a foundation for a more careful examination of Mary Webb's time in Britain. It takes as central texts the promotional materials and responses surrounding Webb's July 28, 1856 reading at Stafford House. (6) It examines four sets of issues that highlight the ways in which Webb "performed" race on British public platforms. First, it considers the intersections of race, gender, and the public platform embodied in the promotion of the Stafford House reading, including the biographical introduction Frank Webb wrote for the British edition of The Christian Slave. (7) Second, it considers the spectacle of Webb's reading--including the ways in which Webb's public reading of Stowe's work breaks significantly with Stowe's relative silence on her first British tour. Third, it comparatively examines her dramatic/rhetorical practices in dialogue with those of other black anti-slavery orators in Britain. Finally, it begins to analyze the constitution and especially the public, textual construction of Webb's audience.

The July 28 reading at Stafford House was scheduled to begin at 3:30 p.m. and to end at 5:00 p. …