Friday, 13 April 2012

Book Review – Eliza Leslie and the Moral Rectitude of Young Girls

I recently stumble upon the short stories of Eliza Leslie (1787 – 1858) and found their content revealing and curious; but 'curious' not always in a good way. I'd been looking for American and other nineteenth century short stories on Project Gutenberg for download to my newly acquired kindle and stumbled across this name almost by accident.

Eliza Leslie was one of a remarkable number of nineteenth century women writers. Born in Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) in 1787 and lived to be 70. She was certainly a gifted writer and her stories are worth reading even if their style and content is somewhat old fashioned. But then, almost by definition, she's bound to be old fashioned.

Today Eliza is best remembered for cookbooks and her etiquette books. The short biographies I have read concentrate on this arena of her writing. However she also seems to have been a prolific short story writer and to have had many stories published in the magazines of her time. The book I read was STORIES FOR HELEN (1845) and written such that “juvenile readers may derive from them a little instruction blended with a little amusement” and it seems typical of her work in this genre. Clearly from the title (and the titles of her other books mentioned therein: STORIES FOR EMMA and STORIES FOR ADELAIDE) the market Eliza aiming for was what we would today call teenage girls.

The book contains four stories and the third and fourth need hardly detain us. They are amusing, reasonably well written and with a large dose of priggish morality thrown in. The sexist stereotyping is on overload and this must seem fairly typical for this genre; and indeed it is. It's difficult to see a modern teenage girl being taken in by this. She's also not likely to follow the moral precept these stories attempt to force upon her.

If that was all then this comment would never have been written. Now we look at Eliza's first story and is the bit I find really scandalous. Take this passage from the first page of the first story:

Mrs. Evering had a very excellent cook, a black woman, that had lived with her more than six years, and whom she considered an invaluable servant. One morning, when Venus (for that was her name) had just left the parlour, after receiving her orders for dinner, Mr. Evering remarked, in a low voice, to his lady, "Certainly, the name of Venus was never so unsuitably bestowed as on this poor woman. I have rarely seen a negro whose face had a greater resemblance to that of a baboon." In this remark Mrs. Evering acquiesced.

Rosamond was at this time sitting in a corner, looking over her lessons. Just before she went to school, her mother thought of a change in the preparations for dinner, and not wishing to give the old cook the trouble of coming up from the kitchen a second time, she desired Rosamond to go down and tell Venus she would have the turkey boiled rather than roasted. Rosamond went down and delivered the message; but fixing her eyes on the cook's face, she thought she had never seen Venus look so ugly, and she said to her, "Venus, my father thinks you are the ugliest negro he ever saw (even for a negro) and he says your face is just like a monkey's, only worse." Having made this agreeable communication, Rosamond went out of the kitchen and departed for school, leaving Venus speechless with anger and astonishment; for though in other respects a very good woman, she was extremely vain, and had always considered herself among the handsomest of her race.
So in this book, in story one page one, we have a 'joke' which compares a Negro to a baboon! And there is a claimed moral point to the story! And its nothing to do with race. The moral turns out to be one of telling tails, of disclosing someone's comments to others. At no point does the content of the comment come into question. For Eliza there was nothing controversial about the inclusion of a racist dimension; for her it is part of everyday life. Otherwise, why would she place this story first? And it's all the more shocking for the racism being treated so uncontroversially.

Then we have the second story. On the surface it's about a very moral girl doing the right thing both at a midnight feast and in helping a black washer woman.

What's wrong with that? Well where do you start. The fourteen year old girl is seen as in every way superior to the black woman. In fact the black woman is unable to think or act for herself without the girl's help. It's the girl that has feelings and finds solutions. Ultimately the black woman is more of a child then the girl and is always dependent on the girl for her welfare.

Should we get upset about all this? After all it's just a story. But then the author does make claims for the moral instruction of her work and there is something so very immoral about these aspects of it. This racial stereotyping is all the more offensive for Eliza Leslie being quite a good writer. Less skill on Eliza's part and it would be all the easier to dismiss her work.

And don't tell me it's simply a product of the times Eliza lived in. There were plenty of people during that period who saw the immorality of racism – not least amongst blacks themselves.

It's this priggish morality, so straight laced, so sermonising, and then a peppering of racism thrown in, that all seems so odd and offensive. The 'be good to your neighbour' and 'keep the blacks in their place' all mixed together yet the contradiction so blatantly unacknowledged. Then it all being spoon fed to teenage girls with a strong dose of moral hypocrisy; as if it's something to be proud of. All bizarre; totally bizarre.

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