Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Strange Music: Engaging Imaginatively with the Family of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from a Creole and Black Woman's Perspective

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Strange Music: Engaging Imaginatively with the Family of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from a Creole and Black Woman's Perspective

Article excerpt

My novel in progress Strange Music (Jonathan Cape, forthcoming, 2008) offers a fictional exploration of the family of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from Elizabeth's own perspective and from that of a Creole and a black woman, and juxtaposes the three women's experiences at a moment of crisis within the Barrett family itself. Strange Music may be more accurately described as a work of bio-fiction, where the distinction between fact and fiction becomes clouded. It is set between 1837 and 1840 in Torquay in Devon and at the Great Houses of Cinnamon Hill and Greenwood, former homes of the Barrett family in Jamaica. The title is taken from the first letter Robert Browning sent to Elizabeth, dated January 10, 1845:

   I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett,--and
   this is no off-hand complimentary letter that I shall write.... I
   can give a reason for my faith in one and another excellence, the
   fresh strange music, the affluent language, the exquisite pathos
   and true new brave thought--but in this addressing myself to you,
   your own self, and for the first time, my feeling rises
   altogether. I do, as I say, love these Books with all my heart--and
   I love you too. (1)

The two main texts that led me to conceive of the work in its current form are Elizabeth's poem "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" (2) and Easton Lee's "Strategy." (3) Elizabeth completed "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point" for American abolitionists during her honeymoon. It was first published in the anti-slavery annual The Liberty Bell in 1848. (4) "I am not mad: I am black" is the slave woman narrator's haunting refrain. The poem expresses Elizabeth's hatred of slavery and the plantation system from which her family wealth was derived. It is with extraordinary power and depth of emotion--considering Elizabeth's situation at the time--that the poet deals with the multiple rape by white plantation workers of a slave woman and the birth of the mixed race child from whom she feels estranged. I will look at some of the factors that enabled Elizabeth to express such a sentiment later in this essay. The slave mother runs away from the plantation where her lover was earlier murdered, suffocates the child, and buries the corpse in black earth, the blackness of the earth symbolizing the color of the mother's own skin: "I am black you see,--/ And the babe who lay on my bosom so, / Was far too white, too white for me." The slave is caught, flogged, and dies, so it is suggested that both mother and child find union and liberty in death.

Easton Lee's "Strategy" presents an opposing but equally controversial and challenging narrative point of view, that of an elderly black woman advising a young female slave to sleep with a white master. The older woman's stance presents a strategy for obtaining power and security from the white man. Her advice is explicit:

   so no tell no man for dem won't understand.
   Some a di Busha dem love black flesh

   When you get in a him bed
   shut you eye tight, grit you teeth

   for all you want is a brown baby
   that guarantee privilege and the more the merrier.
   Is a sure way fi start teck whey Backra power.

Black women's experiences of slavery differed significantly from those of men. In the last thirty years some historical work has drawn attention to these differences, and at the same time there has been increasing awareness that this is a subject area that has been overlooked in literature.

The diary of Thomas Thistlewood, a white estate overseer and small landowner, provides records of births, infant mortality rates, and the high numbers of miscarriages, runaways, and acts of rebellion, giving valuable insights into health issues and women's resistance to Jamaican plantation life in the mid to late eighteenth century. (5) Thistlewood had sexual relations with female slaves with remarkable regularity. (6) The Family of the Barrett, Jeanette Marks' book on the Barretts' Jamaican backgrounds, includes passages that describe mixed race relationships as commonplace. …

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