“The Woman of Colour: A Tale”
edited by Lyndon J. Dominique
I encountered this book in one of my college English classes, just a few weeks after I watched the 2013 movie “Belle.” Coincidence? Maybe. Fate? Uh, no. But definitely some food for thought. I don’t believe the book and the movie are both about the same woman, but both seem to draw some connection with this painting from 1779 of a certain “Dido Elizabeth Belle” with her companion “Lady Elizabeth Murray”:
I think a lot of people find a strange fascination in this public image of a mixed-race woman, painted during a time when slavery was still a thing. The movie “Belle” apparently drew inspiration from this portrait, and the story of Belle is a fictionalized, dramatized version of this real-life woman’s story.
On the other hand, I think “The Woman of Colour” does not refer to Dido Belle at all; in fact, there’s hardly a connection, except that Lyndon J. Dominique’s recently published version of it has this painting on the cover.
Oh, and Olivia Fairfield, the protagonist who is the “woman of color” in the story, has a Black handmaid named Dido. That’s probably the extent of the literal connections there.
But yeah, of course, they share that feature of being a colored, gendered literary work. That’s controversy times two.
Personally, I don’t think modern readers would think very highly of “The Woman of Colour” at first glance. This girl Olivia is not a die-hard feminist who fights for female and racial equality, and she’s not exactly in an epic battle against insurmountable societal prejudices. It’s not like she’s working hard to meet and conquer the man of her life, either. Not exactly a romance novel, or a novel of manners (aka Jane Austen), or even a cry for female autonomy, this book feels more quiet – just a woman who’s a little different from other people, trying to live the way she thinks is right.
Her values fall surprisingly close to those held by her white British counterparts: she displays a passive acceptance, even acknowledgement, of British devaluation of Blacks and slaves in a way that defies conventional abolitionist writing. Olivia Fairfield is British. She is coloured, she is female, but still British in her writing and in her thinking.
“‘Ah! my good sir,’ said I, ‘I know what is right, and I trust the Almighty will suport me in the due performance of it.'” – Olivia Fairfield
I think in such a diversely invested character, the strengths and flaws of each of these people groups comes into a more direct tension with each other, letting the reader watch these often contradictory values play out. See who wins. See who makes sense, or who doesn’t. See what Olivia decides to do in the end: marry a rich husband, get revenge, go back to Jamaica where she is from, or something else? This decision holds sway over how we can characterize the book: a satire? A novel of manners? Abolitionist? Feminist? Comedy? Tragedy? None of the above? All of the above?
“Friend. – You have not rewarded Olivia even with the usual meed of virtue – a husband!” – from DALOGUE BETWEEN THE EDITOR AND A FRIEND.
Comparing it to the movie “Belle,” there’s that definite similarity: Belle is also a British woman. Not born, but raised in England as a lady of ranking. Her manners reflect this, and we can see that the people around her (aka white people of high British society) are surprised at this. How is it that a Black woman can conform to the British social rules? This question they ask frames the discourse about slavery, racism, and gender roles throughout the movie, much like “The Woman of Colour”…..though in the end, the triumph of Belle is a bit more pronounced and obviously rewarded than that of Olivia.
We’ve come a long way since these times of slavery, but racism is still a hot issue that gets people thinking and gets others mad. It’s there, under the thin parchment of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s gotten a lot better at hiding itself, then exploding out with violent ferocity through cases like the Ferguson shooting. I think productions like these can, in the very least, remind people that this is still a problem today. In this reminder, there will be thoughts, conversations, debates, even arguments…and hopefully, all this will allow the anonymous writer of “The Woman of Colour” to eventually claim a public name for himself, without fear of retribution.
Source of quotes: Anonymous. The Woman of Colour. Ed. Lyndon J. Dominique. New York: Broadview Editions, 2008. Print.