Clotel; or, The President's Daughter
Novel written by escaped slave and abolitionist William Wells Brown, published in London in 1853. It is currently considered the first novel to be written by a black American. The president of the subtitle is Thomas Jefferson.
This node contains the following:
- Plot summary
- Narrative techniques and conventions
- Major editions of the text
Plot Summary (So there are spoilers ahead, but this novel is so heavily indebted to nineteenth century popular fiction conventions that I frankly don't think they count. You have a beautiful quadroon. What do you think happens to her?)
Clotel and her sister Althesa are the near-white-looking illegitimate daughters of Jefferson by a slave, Currer. All three are sold upon Jefferson's decease. Althesa and the girls' mother Currer are bought by a trader who takes them to be sold in New Orleans. Clotel is bought by a local Virginian.
The following three narrative strands, each pertaining to one of these women, interweave throughout the book:
Currer is bought by a hypocritical southern slave-holding clergyman named John Peck. It is ultimately mentioned in passing that Currer dies of an illness; the real story of this narrative strand revolves around the Pecks. John Peck's northern-educated daughter Georgiana is a devout Christian and wholly against slavery, and convinces Peck's visiting (young, single, atheistic, and northern) friend Carlton that Christianity is antithetical to slavery. The two fall in love, although they do not, as they say, "come to an understanding." Georgiana converts Carlton to Christianity. When Peck dies of cholera, Georgiana realizes that the only way for her to emancipate the slaves instead of selling them off, as her "tight-fisted yankee" uncle wishes, is to marry someone sympathetic to the idea of emancipation.
Handily, she and Carlton are already in love, so Georgiana proposes to Carlton (!), and the two marry. At first, out of respect for her relatives' wishes, Georgiana institutes a plan of gradual emancipation, crediting each slave with wages to be put toward the purchase of their freedom. When she contracts tuberculosis, however, she realizes that her death may prevent their emancipation, and she frees them all at once, buying some land in the north for them to live on (since their living in the south would always subject them to re-enslavement). Although friends and neighbors urge Georgiana to send her freed slaves to Liberia, she gives a passionate speech about blacks' rights to live in the United States, as it is their native land just as much as the whites'. Less than a week later, Georgiana dies.
Althesa is initially bought by a crass man named James Crawford, but a kind and enlightened young doctor named Henry Morton takes pity on Althesa and falls in love with her. He buys her and marries her, though not legally (obviously). They try to buy Currer, but Peck refuses to sell her. Henry frequently makes passionate antislavery arguments to his southern brethren. He and Althesa help a (white) German woman named Salome, who, because defenseless and alone, has been enslaved by unscrupulous slave traders, to regain her freedom.
Althesa and Henry have two daughters, who are raised as white. When a fever later kills Althesa and Henry, the two refined and utterly white-looking girls do not even realize that they are technically part of Henry Morton's estate. They are auctioned off, each girl to a different disgusting sleaze who intends to use her for sex. One commits suicide rather than submit to such degradation. The other one tries to effect an escape with her true love, a Frenchman who comes to rescue her. Her owner fatally shoots the Frenchman, and she dies of grief.
Clotel is bought by Horatio Green, a young man who is already in love with her. He rents a cottage for the two, and though they cannot legally marry, they have a marriage "sanctioned by heaven." The two live in idyllic bliss for a while, and they have a daughter, Mary. But before long, Horatio develops "ambition," and, beguiled by his political aspirations, starts to think about how advantageous it would be to marry the daughter of a man on whom his political success depends. He leaves Clotel and marries Gertrude. Clotel is heartbroken, but refuses to see him after he leaves her, since she will not be a party to marital infidelity.
Gertrude finds out about Clotel and Mary and insists that Clotel be sold out of the state. She keeps Mary as a servant in order to humiliate Horatio, who she considers to have deceived her (which, in fact, he has). Clotel is sold as a waiting-maid to a harsh mistress, who regards Clotel as a rival and cuts off Clotel's beautiful hair. Clotel's grief at being separated from Mary is so great that her owners fears she will die, so they sell Clotel in order to cut their losses.
Clotel's new owner is not violent, but clearly has lascivious intentions. She and a fellow slave, William, conspire to escape to the north, and do so by dressing Clotel as a man, with William posing as "his" servant. (This echoes the narrative of William and Ellen Craft). They successfully reach Ohio, from whence William proceeds to Canada. Clotel, still disguised as a man, heads for Virginia, to try to reach Mary.
Unfortunately for Clotel, she arrives in the middle of Nat Turner's rebellion. All strangers are subject to scrutiny, and she is discovered. She is taken to a Washington, D.C. slave prison to await the sailing of a vessel for New Orleans. When an old prison keeper's back is turned, Clotel makes a break for freedom by simply running as fast as she can. She is pursued and eventually trapped on a bridge over the Potomac River. Realizing that capture is inevitable, Clotel flings herself into the river and dies.
Meanwhile, Mary's fellow servant and lover George, who is also the illegitimate child of a prominent statesman, is in prison for having taken part in Nat Turner's Rebellion. He is not summarily executed because before the rebellion he courageously saved some important civic documents from a fire, which earns him some legal brownie points. At his trial, George gives an impassioned speech about freedom and the right to rebel against tyranny, drawing legitimation from the American Revolution. The speech reduces the entire courtroom to tears, but George is still sentenced to be hanged.
Mary therefore breaks George out of prison by changing clothes with him and taking his place in the prison, in a move almost straight out of Catharine Sedgwick's 1827 novel Hope Leslie. George escapes to Canada and works hard to accumulate enough money to send an agent to Virginia to redeem Mary from slavery. However, Mary's punishment for aiding George's escape is to be sold out of the state. When George learns this, he departs for Europe in despair.
Like her mother, grandmother, and aunt, Mary is sold at the New Orleans slave market. A young Frenchman named Devenant soon notices her striking resemblance to his sister, though, and (freakily) falls in love with her. He buys Mary from her new owner and marries her, and they live in France. She loves Devenant out of gratitude for rescuing her from her horrible fate, but never forgets George. Mary has a child by Devenant before he dies. Mary and George serendipitously reunite in France and marry. Everything is fine, but the novel ends with the bitter reminder that the two cannot return to America if they want to remain free.
Narrative techniques and conventions deployed in Clotel:
- the tragic mulatta figure - a beautiful light-skinned, refined young woman whose slave lineage and above-average beauty and moral refinement doom her to a tragic death. The earliest example of this that I know of is Cora in The Last of the Mohicans, they are all over American fiction, including Hannah Crafts's The Bondswoman's Narrative. The women in Uncle Tom's Cabin are always on the brink of becoming tragic mulattas. Althesa's daughters and Clotel are the tragic mulattas par excellence in this novel.
- Conventions of sentimental fiction, like the saintly fair woman dying of tuberculosis (Georgiana Peck, echoing Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin), the miraculous reunion at the end, and death/illness by grief. The courtroom weeping scene is also reminiscent of the many instances of communal weeping in, for instance, Uncle Tom's Cabin, among numerous other works of sentimental fiction.
- Appeals to reality, especially in the form of periodicals and public records. Events in the novel are often propped up with the quotations from newspapers that allude to them. Of course, the Jefferson parentage business is also based on the rumors about Sally Hemings that were recently upheld by DNA testing. Allusions to the author's own life and escape from slavery are interwoven into the story.
- Action in this book tends to happen abruptly, in between by long polemical antislavery passages, either in the voice of a narrator or spoken by a sympathetic character. Characters are not developed as such, but rather made to function like gears within the complicated machinery of the story. For example, Georgiana Peck's only motivation in life, down to her marriage, seems to be emancipating her father's slaves.
- Unlike in Uncle Tom's Cabin, true Christian conversion is not the ultimate aim; rather, emancipation is. Christianity only happens to be a happy aid toward that goal.
- Althesa, Clotel, and Mary are all bought by their "husbands," who they barely know. They are happy about this, because usually they've been saved from a degrading situation in which they're dressed up in good clothes and forced to have sex with a man who owns them but who isn't their husband. Wait... what's the difference here?
- No one character is the real protagonist; the women's stories are in many instances interchangeable. The ease with which later editions switched titles and the characters to whom the title referred underscores this interchangeability (see below).
The major editions of the text
The novel described above was the 1853 edition, published in London. In 1860-1 a new version, entitled Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon. A Romance of American Slavery, Founded on Fact was serialized in the African-American periodical The Anglo-African. This version dispensed with most of the heavy press documentation that shows up in Clotel. The Miralda of the title is Mary, renamed. In this novel, Clotel is renamed Isabella, and near-white George becomes all-black Jerome. In this version Miralda is also ultimately reunited with her father, who slowly relinquishes his racism. In this American serialized version, and the versions following, Jefferson becomes an anonymous senator.
In 1867 Brown published an American edition under the title Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine. A Tale of the Southern States. The Clotelle of the title is Mary/Miralda, renamed once again. This version ends with Clotelle and Jerome returning to the U.S. to aid the Union army in the Civil War. Jerome joins the Union army and dies heroically; Clotelle (who, remember, can pass for white) poses as a Confederate woman and helps captive Union soldiers escape.
So, should I read this book?
Well, maybe. Although some critics try to make the case for the jumbled plot, the heavy borrowing from sentimental and abolitionist conventions, and the long diatribes being evidence of formal experimentation, I don't really buy it. It's not a book I would call brilliant, or even well crafted. (Although, let's give Brown some credit here; he spent a large portion of his life as a slave, and as Ann duCille points out, "in a social order that outlawed black literacy, for a slave to read, let alone write a novel, was itself a political act.") It is, however, an immensely interesting and rich cultural text. If you are interested in American literary history/nineteenth century literary culture, the history of passing narratives, or theories of the novel, it's a must-read.
- Brown, William Wells. Clotel; or, The President's Daughter. Ed. with Introduction and Notes by M. Giulia Fabi. New York: Penguin, 2004.
- duCille, Ann. "Where in the World Is William Wells Brown?: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History," in American Literary History 12.3 (2000) 443-462. (Available on Project Muse).