Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Rewriting Heroines: Ruth Todd's "Florence Grey," Society Pages, and the Rhetorics of Success

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Rewriting Heroines: Ruth Todd's "Florence Grey," Society Pages, and the Rhetorics of Success

Article excerpt

When the beautiful, light-skinned title character of Ruth Todd's "Florence Grey" (1902) is abducted from a garden party at her family's villa, it takes her friends some time to realize her absence is not voluntary. They do not know that the chaste belle of "Negro aristocracy" (1) has rebuffed the less-than-honorable attentions of a wealthy white man, Richard Vanbrugh, who now intends to imprison Florence in a "haunted" mansion and make her his concubine. Eventually the evidence of foul play accretes; Florence's friends and family find a shred of lace from her dress, the roses she carried, and "the much admired pearl-headed pin she wore in her hair" (185) on the ground. This last object seems to be the key; after its finding, Todd obliquely tells us, "for a while consternation and distraction reigned supreme" (185). We are to assume that Florence's fate has been guessed. But instead of directly narrating the details of police interrogation, search party organization, and the inevitable fainting women that accompany a society belle's abduction, Todd offers her readers only the one vague sentence about generalized "consternation and distraction" and brings her narrative to an abrupt halt with the statement that "what followed can better be described by the insertion of a couple of extracts from the Washington newspapers" (185).

With such a promise, Todd's audience might expect the lengthy newspaper extracts that follow (replete with headlines) to reveal new information about the kidnapping case, or at least about the things not covered in Todd's own narration. But these newspaper extracts disclose only the barest facts about the case, and they are things we already know: Florence was missing, assumed abducted, the search began and an award has been posted. Why, then, should two journalistic accounts of Florence's disappearance--one from a white paper and one from a black paper--interpose to delay the narration of her rescue? One suggestion comes to mind if we back up to the discovery of Florence's absence, looking carefully at the way her friends and family talk about the evidence she has left behind. The frantic mother does not identify Florence's flowers as "her roses," but as "the roses my darling carried in her hand." The guest who finds Florence's pin, apparently more concerned with description than with communicating quickly in a crisis, calls out that she has found "the much admired pearl-headed pin [Florence] wore in her hair!" (185). Even in a moment of stress, and even though the speakers are her family and close friends, Florence's accessories are being spoken about as if they were details in a society column.

The conventionally hyperbolic and deceptively vague descriptions that hover around Florence begin to undermine her position as the "heroine" of the story, and her lack of interiority and consequent unavailability for identification complete the process. A reader encouraged to identify with characters whose thoughts and feelings are either like one's own, or approximate what one wants to think and feel, has no hold on Florence Grey. In what follows, I will argue that the very magazine in which Todd's story appeared encouraged its readers to practice a particular style of identificatory reading, and that by frustrating such readings Todd forces us to look elsewhere for the heroine whose story could encourage "an industrious black citizenry to retain their faith in hard work, education, and frugality as a practical means for attaining social and economic prosperity, indeed for demonstrating their worthiness as U. S. citizens." (2) Not only does Todd draw on the society pages with which her reader would have been familiar to make her point, she also re-writes Pauline Hopkins' serial novel Hagar's Daughter (1901) to accommodate the possibility of a dark-skinned, upwardly-mobile heroine. This heroine is Todd's intervention in a long tradition that defines African American personhood through literacy, as well as her answer to an American culture of success in whose literature "race" is utterly absent as a hermeneutic category. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.