[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the illuminated “T” for Vanity FairGeorge P. Landow.]

Illuminated initial T

his provocative book opens with an arresting anecdote about Charles Dickens's response to a Dublin edition of Frederick Douglass's Narrative of his life as a slave (1845). Sending a copy of this edition to his friend, the actor William Charles Macready, in the spring of 1848, Dickens notes, ''There was such a hideous and abominable portrait of him [Douglass] in the book that I have torn it out, fearing it might set you, by anticipation, against the narrative" (3). Comparing different portraits of Douglass in the various American and British editions of the Narrative, Lee wonders what aesthetic and/or political considerations might have led Dickens to rip out the portrait and thus mutilate the volume. Dickens's motivation remains obscure, but Lee uses the anecdote to suggest the ambivalence of a man whose hatred of slavery did not "necessarily erase racial prejudice" (8). In defacing the book that he nevertheless helps to disseminate, he enacts the contradictions her study will explore.

American slave narratives enjoyed huge popularity in Britain, selling in the tens of thousands in the two decades between the British Abolition Act of 1833 and the Emancipation Proclamation. As major vehicles for encouraging Britons to support abolitionist aims in the United States through groups such as the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, first-person stories of the horrors of slavery and heroic resistance to it engaged a reading audience much wider than anti-slavery activists. In the 1840s and 50s, extended visits and lecture tours by ex-slave authors of these narratives and others further publicized the abolitionist cause and confirmed the authenticity of the stories told. It is an interesting but intricate project to see how British writers were influenced by American slave narratives as a genre distinct from British slave narratives written earlier, as well as from the flood of British anti-slavery literature by whites. Sensibly limiting her investigation to the impact of a single genre, Lee argues that the form, language, and characteristic tropes of the American slave narrative inflect the works of four leading Victorian novelists: Charlotte Brontë, William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charles Dickens. In Lee's exemplary texts, Jane Eyre (1847) , Pendennis(1848-50), North and South(1855), and Great Expectations (1860-61), slavery — she contends —  is neither an overt topic nor simply a metaphor for other oppressions, but rather acts like what Mikhail Bakhtin calls a "'chronotope'": it is one of the "'organizing centers for the fundamental narrative events of the novel'" where "knots of narratives are tied and untied" (18).

This is a larger and more complicated claim than it first appears. Though female slave narratives have their own distinctive features, and though the American male slave narrative of the period between the two abolitions often borrows from other genres, its use of regular and recurring elements is well proven. Yet considering the heterogeneous origins of American slave narratives and the preceding body of writings on slavery in Britain, one might ask how many markers of the American slave narrative must stamp the target text to justify a reasonable case for correspondence. Unless the intertextual reference is explicit or is elsewhere mentioned by the authors or their contemporaries, direct influence of one text on another, or even, as here, of a body of writing on a novel or story is notoriously difficult to prove. Where no explicit proof is available, the generally safer critical strategy is to note suggestive correspondences or to show how disparate influences are combined and condensed by the target text.

Taking a bolder and riskier approach, Lee argues that her four novelists directly and independently appropriate the American slave narrative, which thus generates "narrative friction" as it "slides against adjacent genres" (21). Yet at one stage in her introduction she seems to favor a less restrictive model of influence. Speaking in Britain in 1846, she notes, Douglass remarks that he and other escaped slaves feel a greater sense of agency there. His "power" in making known to the British people "'the conduct of the slaveholders towards their slaves'" is greater '"in proportion to the distance that I am from the United States'" (qtd. 18). Extending this power to the figure of the fugitive slave in the British novels examined here, Lee argues that it is marked by an "insistent teleology towards freedom" (19). This effect, in novels where no one is actually a slave, inevitably prompts us to ask whose freedom is being championed.

As Lee recalls, Douglass himself recognized this problem. Highlighting the role of language in the struggle against slavery, he once cautioned a British audience against the common practice of branding "every bad thing by the name of slavery," such as "intemperance, disenfranchisement, hard work" (qtd. 19). Noting that this "rhetorical asymmetry" can "strip slavery of some of its signifying power," Lee asks key questions: "Were Victorian novels and novelists integrating the slave narrative to disseminate antislavery sentiment? To illuminate alternate forms of injustice? Or simply to cannibalize [sic] the verbal and semantic forms of an exceedingly popular genre? Did Victorian novel and novelist condone and promote the sloppy metaphorization that Douglass so feared?"(20) Predictably, Lee contends that insofar as Victorian novels may have integrated the American slave narrative, they did nothing so simple or straightforward as these discrete questions suggest.

The first of Lee's case studies, which examines Jane Eyre, offers a plausible if circumstantial account of Brontë's possible exposure to the American slave narrative and even to ex-slave speakers such as Moses Roper. She may have known about them, we are told, through friendships, employers, print culture, and proximity to places where speaking events took place. Yet Lee slights or overlooks many other possible sources for Brontë's treatment of slavery, including references to slavery under British colonialism. She never cites the popular History of Mary Prince (1831), a first person account of a West Indian female slave that the Brontës might well have encountered, and beyond noting that Brontë admired Harriet Martineau, Lee scarcely mines the two volumes on her travels in America from the 1830s, which are full of her encounters with slavery and slaveowners. The "most compelling" evidence for the influence of an American slave narrative in Jane Eyre, Lee argues, is internal and linguistic: we are asked to believe that Brontë borrows the language of Frederick Douglass. When Jane recalls her infant rebellion against her bullying cousin John, Lee — like Marcus Wood in Slavery, Empathy and Pornography (2002) — finds Jane appropriating the language and emotions of the rebellious slave. Less credibly, the chastisement of Jane's friend Helen by her Lowood School teacher is said to recall the passage in which Douglass's Aunt Hester is whipped, and Jane's fears when on the run from Thornfield and Rochester are said to be closely allied to Douglass's fears on his perilous journey north.

J. M. W. Turner. Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying —  Typho[on]n Coming On. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Some if not all of the similarities are linguistically and affectively striking, and of course it is possible that Brontë had read Douglass. But moving away from American slave narrative, how likely is it that Jane's watercolor of rough seas, a sinking ship, and a drowned corpse is "clearly inspired by J.M.W. Turner's famous painting, The Slave Ship, or Slavers Overthrowing the Dead and Dying — Typhon Coming On" (43)? While suggestive here, Lee says nothing about how or when Brontë might have seen the work, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840 (43). Since it caused something of a scandal, one supposes she might have read about it, but to say she was "clearly inspired" by it overstates the case.

Like Jane's rhetoric, Lee's argument further expands when she considers allusions to slavery and its "metonymic reach" in the famous passage where Jane, on the rooftops of Thornfield, links the restricted lives of women like herself to the "Millions" who "are condemned to a stiller doom than mine" (qtd. 40). In Jane Eyre, Lee suggests, slavery becomes the "indexical marker" of a "global network" that resolves opposing views of Rochester's wife, the white creole Bertha Mason (41). Is she merely Jane's dark double (Gilbert and Gubar), or a construct of the imperialist imaginary (Spivak), or does her racialization in the text and her rage and madness "evoke" the history of slave rebellion (Meyer)? In spite of her attention to the affective moments of the novel as well as to its linguistic structures, Lee seems to miss the striking absence of any sympathy towards Bertha, either from the other characters in the novel or from its implied author. Not even a "global" concept of slavery can resolve the critical differences about Bertha's role. When Lee contends that Jane is the "literary and political ally" of the degraded and abjected Bertha because Jane is consistently figured as a rebellious slave (41), Lee not only misreads the tone of the novel; she also materializes and oversimplifies its rhetoric. Indeed the cursory treatment of Bertha in the chapter on Jane Eyre is one of its significant weaknesses.

Though excellent in parts, then, this chapter generally overstates the influence of the American slave narrative and intertextual references to it. Much more successful is Lee's chapter on Thackeray, which does not try to stress his specific use of American slave narratives. Instead, Lee shows very well how — in Pendennis —  the vicissitudes of authorship are linked to Thackeray's ironic way of using the familiar anti-slavery slogan, "Am I not a man and a brother?"

Arguing —  against Deborah Thomas and John Sutherland —  that Thackeray's repeated deployment of the slogan hardly makes him an abolitionist, Lee demonstrates how much closer he was to the negrophobic views of Carlyle. Noting his "almost chilling ability to detach form from political content" (71), she quotes his telling paraphrase of his favorite slogan. Writing to his mother from America during his visit of 1852-53, Thackeray repeatedly protests that he doesn't believe that "Blacky is my man and my brother" and adds, "'the very aspect of his face is grotesque & inferior'" (qtd. 71-72).

Elizabeth Gaskell felt otherwise. In two chapters about her work, one on short fiction and another on North and South, Lee explains her many ties to American abolitionists as well as her often expressed refusal to participate fully in their cause. To buttress this point, Lee first cites Gaskell's "The Grey Woman," published in All the Year Round in January 1861, which is "part fairy tale, part gothic horror story, part epistolary narrative, and part historical fiction" (77). Besides evoking Bluebeard and the French Revolution, Lee contends, this story also borrows "sensational plot lines from two contemporaneous American Slave narratives, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl (1861) and William and Ellen Crafts's Running a Thousand Miles to Freedom (78). Circumstantial evidence puts these books within Gaskell's reach. According to Lee, Gaskell might have met Jacobs at the home of the reformist Duchess of Sutherland, and might also have read a manuscript of Jacobs's novel in 1859, when the latter was in England looking for a publisher.

As with Brontë and Thackeray, however, key evidence for "borrowing" lies in the plots and figures of Gaskell's story and the slave narratives, both of which draw, as modern critics of Jacobs's narrative have long noted, on common tropes in women's gothic, sentimental and, realist fiction: threatened seduction, abuse, escape, and disguise. Similarly, Lee ignores the long history of the representation of the poor — in and out of literature — when she argues that "My Lady Ludlow," a story that pits aristocratic prejudice against the movement for working class literacy, "racialize[s]" its cheeky "farm lad," who in Lee's account is a dead ringer for Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The poor, like the Irish, are racialized in the mid-nineteenth century, but while "Brown" complexions strongly signify class and sometimes ethnicity, they do not necessarily suggest African lineage. Nor does Gaskell's depiction of Harry's wish for education need to be "modeled on the American slave narrative." On the contrary, the influence seems to flow the other way when — as Lee herself notes —  Stowe's kindly but passive slaveowner Augustine compares and derides projects for Sabbath day slave education and the Sunday-schools "among the manufacturing population in England" (qtd. 93).

Likewise problematic is Lee's take on the sailor Frederick Hale in Gaskell's North and South. She is both interesting and persuasive in arguing that he represents a cosmopolitan intervention in what is largely considered an industrial, "Condition of England" novel, and in explaining how it stages the tensions between domestic and international issues. As Lee says, the North and South of England do map onto some versions of the American North and South. But as Lee also notes, one of the factors that makes Gaskell so lukewarm in her support of her American abolitionist friends was the strong support of the English North for the American South. As in earlier chapters, Lee's argument strains plausibility. When she insists that Frederick's fugitive status decisively tropes that of the escaped slave, rather than evoking the sea fiction with which his story is generally associated, she mistakes the convergence of related genres for direct appropriation. With British readers, in fact, Gaskell's choice of Frederick as a name for Margaret Hale's brother was less likely to suggest Frederick Douglass than Captain Frederick Maryat, the ex- sailor, pro-slavery author of hugely popular sea adventures who came from a slaveholding family.

By the time Lee turns to Great Expectations, the reader will not be surprised to learn that "its preoccupations with class divisions and connections is radically informed by the genre of American slave narrative" and that in "[r]esituating the slave narrative in a British context," Dickens makes it a shaping "chronotope'" for the story (115). Yet by now the "fugitive slave chronotope" —  though "derived from the slave narrative" —  is so abstract as to encompass "experiences of suffering and violence, of familial and natal alienation, of unfreedom and terror" (116). Her reading naturally highlights Magwitch, and to a lesser extent Pip, but since neither figure is heroic (in Lee's eyes) and the fate of Magwitch is grim, Lee argues that in this novel the slave narrative is radically reshaped. She must also reckon with Dickens's own growing distaste for anti-slavery literature and the limits of what can be done for "the wretched Slave" by "pathetic pictures of his sufferings and by the representations in deservedly black colors of his oppressors "(qtd. 114). According to Lee, Dickens's appropriation of slave narrative and what she regards as his parodic approach to the genre are driven by his growing ambivalence towards anti-slavery positions, specifically his difficulty in reconciling his youthful aversion to slavery with his later doubts about the ways in which it was attacked. But she also understates his disparagement of blacks themselves. While stressing his support for the South, which indicates his increasing "conservatism" (129), she says too little about his well-documented and growing racism in the 1850s and 1860s.

In overstating her case for the direct influence of slave narrative in the short stories and novels she examines, Lee obscures the more complex and compelling story that she herself tells about their focus: almost uniformly rejecting the methods of sentimental anti-slavery literature, they deliberately highlight the oppression and subordination of whites. Lee knows her chosen fiction, and has studied the immediate contexts for the novels and authors that bear on her argument, but she tends to overlook the shifting structures of feeling and the wider debates about empire, race, and slavery in post-abolition Britain, not least the ubiquity and scientific elaboration of racial thinking in the decades that followed emancipation, when twenty million pounds of taxpayer's money was paid to compensate slave owners for their "loss" of property — half of it going to subjects resident in Britain in the 1830s. In posing as the champion of abolition after 1833, Britain repressed its role in the making of slavery as well as its continuing profit from it. In the mid-nineteenth century, the heart of the British economy fed on the income from slave ownership, which remains one of the nation's most powerful but least remembered legacies. When abolition freed the enslaved men and women of the British empire, the metropole faced new questions about their social, political, and economic entitlement. Britain's strategic "forgetting" of its slave owning past helps to explain the popularity of American slave narrative, works of anti-slavery fiction and their authors, how and why slave narratives were appropriated, and how they were used.

Over the last two decades, historians have intensely debated the meaning of empire and race to British culture and society, but Lee scarcely mentions their work. Missing from her bibliography are not only the key text for understanding British views of race in the mid-nineteenth century, Catherine Hall's Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830-1867 (2002), but also relevant work by those who question the importance of race and empire, such as Linda Colley and David Cannadine. Among many other lacunae, Lee also ignores work on the development and popular dissemination of scientific racism from the 1840s through the 1860s. Had this book been more rounded and less driven by a single thesis, it might have better shown the complexity with which Victorian writers received and appropriated American slave narrative.


Lee, Julia Sun-Joo. The American Slave Narative and the Victorian Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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Last modified 12 April 2015