The Woman of Colour: A Body of Politics [Essay]

This is an essay by Amber Soha.

The Woman of Colour, published anonymously a year after the English Parliament abolished the British slave trade, is a tale in which the main character, a female, is compelled for one reason or another to brave the perils of the sea. In this case, Olivia Fairfield, the daughter of a plantation owner in Jamaica, inherits her father’s wealth upon his death—with strings attached. She must marry her cousin in England in order to remain a beneficiary of her inheritance; otherwise it’s forfeited to some other male member of her family; the money goes, whether she goes with it or not. Olivia marries her cousin, Augustus, only for it later to be revealed that he was already married, and made her believe through some villainous plot of revenge that his wife was dead. Olivia’s marriage is therefore annulled or was never valid to begin with. Her wealth is then transferred to her uncle, and she resigns herself to being supportive of her cousin’s happiness. Later, her uncle dies, she gets her money back, and she rejects the interests of other men; she chooses a life of woe-is-me melancholy martyrdom. The end. A simple narrative with some straightforward 18th century themes, one would think. 

However, after the story ends, there’s an editorial note at the end of the book titled “DIALOGUE BETWEEN THE EDITOR AND A FRIEND” in which the “friend” makes the statement that they don’t understand the purpose of all this work “as undoubtedly there is no moral to the work!” and the “editor” defends their position by saying, “Virtue, like Olivia Fairfield’s, may truly be said to be its own reward [sic]” and attempts to explain what the moral of the story is. We can’t very well ask the “editor” why this was necessary, but we can use this as a different starting point for reading the tale; if we begin reading backwards, with the perspective of the “editor” in mind, how does this affect our reading of Olivia Fairfield’s character, and why does this matter? It can be argued that the understanding of Olivia Fairfield as a morally virtuous character, combined with the author’s anonymity, cultural expectations, and transatlanticism actually show the story as a primitive precursor to early feminist movements. 

  • Virtues and Morality

The “editor’s” labeling Olivia as “Virtuous” at the end of the book is confusing: she must have been having sex with the man she believed to be her husband, meaning she’s not a virgin and she’s also not married, and this raises questions about what it actually means to be virtuous. One of the elements referred to in this section of the text is “holy faith,” and Olivia is an exceptionally religious character, at least by comparison to those around her.  This also seems to be one of the central themes.

Virtue and faith converge in a conversation with Mr. Honeywood: “You can extract good from every evil,” he tells her, and, “morality from every passing occurrence—you can find sermons in stones, and God in every thing!” At this point, Olivia is on the ship, and hasn’t even met her husband.  Her response is one of confusion in which she couples virtue and morality: “Does Mr. Honeywood imagine that he only has the discernment to discover those great and extraordinary virtues which I possess?” Her faith and her morality are both virtuous qualities she will display throughout the text. 

Her faith also becomes a point of critique for the way she interprets the character of others around her. Olivia learns the ways of English religion from her mother in Jamaica, only to come to England and find that their practices are insufficient. Scholar Octavia Cox states that, “Olivia exposes the lack of English religious practice at home, which she attempts to rectify…” and describes her as a “Reverse-Robinsonade,” meaning that Olivia actually sets out reeducate the English in the ways of virtue and morality with a “focus on England’s moral degradation” (Cox 177, 178). 

In this text, virtue and morality are actually one in the same, so we do not have to read Olivia Fairfield as a “ruin’d” woman when her marriage is annulled—her virtue is not dependent on her bodily purity which deifies everything we know about the expectations of the 18th century female body. The 18th century female body, in this text, takes on the shape of reformation in a role typically written for male characters. Victoria Barnett-Woods, author of “Models of Morality: The Bildungsroman and Social Reform in The Female American and The Woman of Colour,” refers to The Woman of Colour as the “Bildungsroman, a generic form that evolved to be the novel of formation, education, and maturation,” with a “narrative arc [which] begins with a young heroine who develops into a subject of worldly awareness over the course of the novel,” and Olivia as a model of social reform (614, 615). By writing a female protagonist of color into this genre, a new type of English subject, the author makes space for the most marginalized voices in society, and sets Olivia up to “challenge British imperial corruption”(614).  

Olivia is more than just a trope. Olivia, though contrary to her belief at times, is more than just the wealth she brings with her, and she expresses that she is “disappointed in England: [she] expected to meet with sensible, liberal, well informed and rational people, and [she has] not found them” (Anonymous 88). She is unimpressed with her new society and the family she marries into as a part of that society. She challenges the structures of power in place through her existence as a woman of color, and through her writing—a constant critique of her immediate surroundings. Her color and her sex are biological traits that provide her with social disadvantages, but her embodiment of morality and virtue are advantages of her character that provide a “new social imaginary, and figures that exist in the reality of a historical moment” (616).

  • The Body of Politics

The “editor” and the author use a platform of virtue to make Olivia an expert on matters of ethics, and this provides the necessary space for expressing socially advanced and unpopular opinions with the protection anonymity, and the use of her expert testimony. Olivia uses her opportunities wisely when she tells Mrs. Merton that “the feelings of humanity, the principles of my religion, would lead me, as a Christian, I trust, to pray for the extermination of this disgraceful traffic…” during a heated conversation about black slaves where she claims these enslaved people as her “more immediate brethren!” She clearly feels quite strongly about the abolishment of slavery and identifies with the unfortunate victims, but as a woman of color, she would not normally be given the opportunity to voice these opinions. The establishment of this woman of color as the epicenter of morality and the ultimate follower of the non-distorted Christian faith lends her claims legitimacy. It also provides yet another example of the dissolution of social morality into capitalism when Mrs. Merton takes advantage of another opportunity to provoke Olivia by arguing that she “should have imagined that [Olivia] would have entertained quite the contrary side of the question,” simply based on the fact that her father was a businessman (Anonymous 81).  

Olivia’s wealth, virtuous moral character, biracial identity, and transatlantic journey serve a grander purpose, and make the effort toward the destigmatization of Jamaican women.  The wealth Olivia inherits from her father’s plantation is generated through slave labor. This presents a problem in a novel expressing anti-slavery sentiments, and Jennifer Reed aptly explains that “The dilemma is how to approve the influx of capital while excluding from England or erasing from consciousness the undesirable people—both enslavers and the enslaved—who produced that capital” (Reed 510). Olivia’s marriage necessitates transatlantic travel and serves the purpose of moving her father’s wealth from the Caribbean colonies to benefit England’s economy, and her “Double Consciousness” or two-ness places her in this category of “other”; she’s neither fully English nor fully of African descent.  English society does not accept one half of her, so she cannot fully assimilate the way her money can. This separation of person from wealth is used to create a separation from stigma because “Jamaica is a source of corruption, regardless of race,” and Olivia represents that source (Reed 512). 

While Olivia ponders whether or not her husband-to-be actually wants to marry her, she displays a very conscious awareness of her purpose in this situation. She’s determined that because he hasn’t explicitly stated it, that he’s probably sacrificing his happiness for her wealth: “As well my fortune only have crossed the ocean, the nominal wife might still have remained in Jamaica” (Anonymous 90).   She’s experiencing the feeling of being excluded from the domestic space she’s supposedly there to fill while simultaneously demonstrating her understanding that her money is what carries the weight of importance.  

However, Olivia’s wealth is returned to her near the end, after her uncle’s death, which is a strange occurrence given the greed of the white male elite characters. The returning of the money suggests that, no matter how money is moved, there is no real assimilation—the money and the stigma cannot be meaningfully separated. The superior nature of her character, the fact that she’s made an authority on morality, also defies stereotypes about “Women from the West Indies and particularly Jamaica [who] were considered especially corruptible owing to common preconceptions about climate, creolism, and the loose morality of the island” (Reed 513). The continuous marking of Olivia’s virtues pushes back against these preconceived notions. 

Olivia consistently pushes back against many preconceived notions of what womanhood of any kind “ought” to look like. It is explicitly stated in “A Postcolonial Heroine ‘writes Back’” that “The Woman of Colour clearly shares many of the features Bannet outlines for eighteenth-century British feminist fiction’s critique of the institution of marriage.”  With all of her refusals to comply with what’s expected of the illegitimate child of a slave-owner, Olivia continues in her defiance right up until the end of the tale when she refuses the interests of men any further than what she’s already entertained (Adams-Campbell 101). 

Olivia provides the reader with some history and insights into the character of Mr. Honeywood, an interested and pointedly virtuous man himself. Mr. Honeywood defies the white male elite stereotype when he inherits a significant fortune, and is described as “experience[ing] no exhilaration at the acquisition of this property”—a man, but like Olivia, who cares not about money, but is motivated by the idea of long-term happiness instead (Anonymous 187). 

Despite learning of his amiable qualities, Olivia will not marry him. Refusal of marriage is a shock in the way that other 18th century heroines have not previously had this power to exercise; marriage was considered the peak of accomplishments for women at that time. This is “Olivia express[ing] her determination to live a single life and, in doing so, rejects the two powerful narrative conclusions available for fictional women: marriage or death” (Adams-Campbell 98). 

She is a duty-driven daughter, and fulfills the wishes of her father by marrying in the first place–and as noted in chapter 11 of  Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire, “her wealth is tied to the exchange of her female body,” a property transaction she dreads (Fielder). Olivia tells Mrs. Honeywood, before they’re even off the ship that, “when I set foot on your land of liberty, I yield up my independence—my uncle’s family are then to be the disposers of my future fate,” which sounds a lot like the fate of an enslaved person (Anonymous 66).  Lyndon Dominique, the author of the introduction to The Woman of Colour, makes the argument that Olivia’s marital arrangement reinforces the “connection between marriage and slavery,” and that the novel “works to stave off the threat of marital enslavement,” which is an argument applicable to every woman of the 18th century, and not just Olivia (36, 37). The fact that she won’t go through this again defies the typical narrative, societal expectations, and makes space for her to imply that her freedom has been rightfully returned to her. It’s also an early formation of the notion that women do not need to be dependent on men as a determinant for survival. Marriage has always been known to be an arranged exchange of property, but to express the sentiments that it’s analogous to slavery is definitely feminist theorization.

Olivia’s refusal to marry the next “ideal” candidate also represents another point of narrative resistance: paternalism. In Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire, it’s explicitly stated that “Olivia’s insistence on remaining single involves a radical reproductive choice,” a choice that most women, especially women of color, did not have in this white patriarchal power structure (Fielder). Her refusal to marry is also a refusal to reproduce. It’s a refusal to have children and “whiten” her blood line. Just as important as her resistance to paternalist notions of womanhood is the fact that she does have a choice—she has agency and is the sole determiner of her own life trajectory. In the end, she states, “We will revisit Jamaica,” and this is an important piece of her story because it not only proves that she has the free will to make this choice and the freedom of mobility that she wouldn’t have otherwise if she had chosen to marry, but it’s also significant because not many women who have been forced or coerced to travel transatlantically have had the choice to go home—a special precedent for a woman of color.

  • Stakes

The anonymous authorship of The Woman of Colour makes a request for ethical reading. Using the method of storytelling from a personal narrative and first person point of view makes an epistemological connection; it suggests that the author is an authority, a knower of the subject being written about. However, in the 18th century, female writers weren’t taken seriously, especially not a female of color. The lack of attribution to a specific individual asks the reader to read the text for what it is, and not for its authorship because “…even a learned mind can be drawn into error if it leans too heavily on the authority of the author’s name in making judgments” (Robson 353). This expresses the author’s wish for the work to be read without the preconceived notions that would accompany a text written by a woman of color in this time period. Mark Vareschi makes the observation of other anonymous works that “anonymous authorship works alongside textual production and asks for a reading of the content of the text,” rather than the author of the text (4). It’s a layer of protection for the author and the work from hasty criticism; a way to escape persecution and undue attacks from a society in disagreement. There are high stakes involved with writing anything that goes against the heteronormative ideology of identity politics and the anonymity prevents Olivia’s tale from being rejected.

The Woman of Colour is a tale from a period of history in which it could have easily been dismissed. It’s a tale which takes on abolishment rhetoric, the institution of marriage, and paternalism.  Olivia, as a character, can be read as simply haughty or arrogant at times, but if the reader thoroughly engages with the “editor” and becomes a part of the conversation with the friend, Olivia becomes so much more than simply “a mulatto West Indian” who doesn’t get her way. The dialogue between the “editor” and the “friend” has the potential to completely change the way Olivia is viewed as a protagonist, and she transforms into a political space—she becomes a representative for women of color in a time when they were typically completely dehumanized. Olivia is a primitive precursor to early notions of feminism. She expresses explicit views and takes actions that are implicitly feminist. This is important to the interpretation of the book—it’s not just a tale, it’s a device. The Woman of Colour is evidence of early activism. A call to action. Motivation. Constructive, or in contemporary feminist terms, deconstructive criticism.

Amber Soha is a senior and English major at the University of Maine at Farmington. She is also the current editor of The Sandy River Review, and has been known to fill her academia-free time with baking, creative writing, and making art.


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