Academic journal article African American Review

"'Ruse It Well": Reading, Power, and the Seduction Plot in the Curse of Caste

Academic journal article African American Review

"'Ruse It Well": Reading, Power, and the Seduction Plot in the Curse of Caste

Article excerpt

Readers of fiction in the United States during the 1860s immediately would have recognized the narrative conventions that Julia C. Collins uses to unfold the "dark mystery" (14) of her novel--the story of the ultimately tragic courtship and marriage of Claire Neville's parents, Richard and Lina. In chapters five through 13, Collins presents this story-within-a-story as a fully formed, conventional seduction plot, which might be schematized in its generic terms as follows. The two lovers meet as total strangers to one another and tumble into infatuation at first sight. They quickly pledge their love, heedless of their imperfect knowledge of each other's character or social standing. When their impetuous promises of the heart prove socially untenable, the lovers enter into an elopement opposed by family and community, and facilitated in particular by deception of a parent. They retreat to a remote cottage where they are further isolated from community regulation or contact. Once there, the male lover abandons his new--and newly pregnant--bride. She, upon learning that he has deserted her, promptly succumbs to a lingering and intensely sentimentalized death in childbirth, casting her innocent babe defenseless on the world. Collins flags the full range of this predictable plot for her readers in the very first conversation between Claire's parents. Lina worries, "[P]erhaps you would cease to love me, and, if so, I should die," while Richard swears in response, "I will never desert you, so help me God!" (20). Heavy foreshadowing, this: he will desert, and she does die.

As any reader of The Curse of Caste then or now must testify, though, while Collins crafts the story of Richard and Lina to arrive at each of the formulaic stations of the seduction plot, she nonetheless enormously complicates that most well-worn narrative of mid-century popular American fiction. She expands the cast of characters, calls their intentions into question, redeems the seducer, and silences his victim--invoking the established conventions of the seduction novel it often seems, only to thwart and deconstruct them. In this dance with literary formula and reader expectations, Collins participates in an engagement with mainstream novelistic genre that recent critics have identified as exemplary of antebellum fiction (and, to a lesser extent, crafted autobiography) authored by African American writers. Seeking to explain and to revalue the predilection of these early fiction writers for sentimental romance--a predilection once derogated as insufficiently political and overly obsequious to mainstream precedents like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin--critics such as Robert Reid-Pharr argue that "one cannot understand how sentimentality operates" in antebellum African American literature, "unless one also understands the methods of its contestation" (90). In a similar vein, Ann duCille proposes that antebellum fiction "often misdiagnosed by critics as sentimental melodrama" in fact creates "an ideologically charged space" by juxtaposing" 'the real' and 'the romantic,' the simple and the sensational the allegorical and the historical" (18).

This important critical movement--toward a more nuanced understanding of the work of mainstream sentimental form in antebellum African American fiction--resonates with a similar quest on the part of US literary historians to account for the relevance of seduction novels in the early Republic. Collins's choice of the seduction plot framework for her novel, as well as its romantically aristocratic Old South setting, may seem jarringly out of touch with the epoch during which she wrote it, oblivious to the momentousness of the year 1865 in the history of African America. But scholars of late-18th-century US literature confront a similar disconnect between historical moment and literary form when they puzzle over the obsession of the founding fathers with the novels of Samuel Richardson, or wonder at the unilateral triumph of Susannah Rowson's formulaic seduction novel Charlotte Temple among American readers just after the Revolution. …

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