Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl - Harriet Ann Jacobs

"Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery.  They think it is a perpetual bondage only.  They have no conception of the depth of degradation involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown."

Being Canadian, and unlike my U.S. counterparts, I have little knowledge of the details and intricacies of the history of slavery in the United States, so I was pleased to note that my The Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project has a few books that cover this important, yet disturbing, period.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the first book of this ilk on the list.  A book written in the tradition of the slave narrative and the sentimental novel, Jacobs strives to give a voice to the thousands of black men and women, who suffered abuse, injustice and the theft of their true identities under the yoke of slavery.

Jacobs (in the book calling herself Linda Brent), chronicles her story, beginning with her idyllic life within her family who are well-off slaves of a kind owner.  At her mother's death when Linda is six, she is sent to reside with her mistress who teaches her to read and write, but at the death of her owner, she is sold to the Flint family and her suffering begins.  Dr. Flint is harsh and cruel, developing a desire for Linda, and she is continually tormented by his sexual advances.  Thinking to save herself and her virtue, she begins a relationship with another white man and has two children with him in hopes Dr. Flint will cease his attentions.  Instead he is enraged and sends her and her children to do hard labour on one of his plantations.  The book further relates of her escape, her continuous concern about the fate of her children, seven years of her life in an attic so she is not discovered, and her final journey to the north and a relative freedom, although her expectations of her life there are perhaps somewhat disappointed.

Reward for notice for the return of
Harriet Jacobs by James Norcome (Dr. Flint)
source Wikipedia
Jacobs tells a touching and unique story from a woman's point-of-view, highlighting not only all the brutality and abuse the negro people suffered at the hands of some of their masters, but also the degradation to their spirits. Yet although Jacobs shows her people in their suffering, she also is able to emphasis their greatness of spirit:

"Truly, the colored race are the most cheerful and forgiving peole on the face of the earth.  That their masters sleep in safety is owing to their superabundance of heart; and yet they look upon their sufferings with less pity than they would bestow on those of a horse or dog."

While the book is full of horrid examples, Jacobs also strives to mention the white men and woman she met or observed in her life that showed kindness or compassion, and says of her benefactress, Mrs. Bruce:

"The noble heart!  The brave heart!  The tears are in my eyes while I write of her.  May the God of the helpless reward her for her sympathy with my persecuted people!"

Harriet Ann Jacobs
source Wikipedia
While most of this book is at once both heartbreaking and wonderfully illuminating, there was an aspect of it that bothered me.  Jacobs was very clear and concise, and rightly so, with her denunciation of slavery and its assault on human dignity and the human spirit, but whenever a slave committed something from as small as a lack of good judgement to something as large as a crime, Jacobs excused their actions based on the treatment they had suffered under their masters.  For example, with regard to her decision to enter into a relationship and have children with Mr. Sands, she says:

"I feel that the slave woman ought to not to be judged by the same standards as others."

Later she states:

"I like a straightforward course, and am always reluctant to resort to subterfuges.  So far as my ways have been crooked, I charge them all upon slavery."

When she encounters a slave who has stolen money from his dead master, she declares:

"This is a fair specimen of how the moral sense is educated by slavery.  When a man has his wages stolen from him, year after year, and the laws sanction and enforce the theft, how can he be expected to have more regard to honesty than has the man who robs him?  I have become somewhat enlightened, but I confess that I agree with poor, ignorant, much-abused Luke, in thinking he had a right to that money, as a portion of his unpaid wages."

I don't disagree with Jacobs' premise that slavery can drive people to excesses, but I do disagree about excusing wrong behaviour with it.  Because someone has committed a wrong against you, does that give one the right to return the same in kind?  Couldn't this startling reasoning be as dangerous as the reasoning employed to bring the black people into slavery?  It reminded me of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's words, words from a man who had been both a commander and a persecuted soul, effectively both a master and a slave, and who finally learned that: "If only it were all so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evils cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"  The seeds that began slavery and other atrocities are within us all, it's important that man or woman, slave or free, persecuted or persecutor, that we are all aware of that piece and the danger it can do to ourselves and others.

In any case, it was a blemish on an otherwise excellent narrative.  Jacobs hatred of slavery in all its forms shows through as well as her overwhelming love and understanding for her fellow man.

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton

The Club of Queer Trades is a "society consisting exclusively of people who have invented some new and curious way of making money," and Chesterton's delightful collection of fantastical tales give us a view of these entrepreneurs who ply their trades in perhaps an unorthodox manner and often with surprising results.

The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown: The subject of this title seeks out Rupert Grant, an amateur detective, and with the help of Swinburne, the narrator, and Grant's brother, Basil, a former "mad" judge, they proceed to cleverly solve his dilemma.  Retired and living comfortably and quietly in a tiny picturesque villa, Major Brown has a mania for pansies.  One day while strolling down a lane, he meets a man pushing flowers in a wheelbarrow and is convinced to purchase the pansies among them.  Yet before departing, the man whispers that if the Major will only climb the garden wall, he will see the most admired pansies in the whole of England.  Against his nature, Major Brown accepts a boost up and is flabbergasted by what he sees.  It is not the pansies themselves that catch his attention but the arrangement of them, spelling out "Death to Major Brown." Never one to quail in any situation, Brown introduces himself to the gardener of the house who takes him inside to meet a peculiar lady who is staring out the window, but he remembers to warn him beforehand not to mention the "jackal."   They begin to converse but suddenly their conversation is cut short by a blood-curdling screech, "Major Brown, Major Brown, where does the jackal dwell?"  When the Major runs outside, he spies a coal-black decapitated head on the sidewalk, where apparently the screams are coming from.  What is going on?  Who is trying to kill the Major?  And why does idiosyncratic Basil seem unconcerned?   Chesterton ties up his story with his usual aplomb, and yet still leaves you wondering.  There is also a neat contrast between Basil and Rupert, the former using his intellect and the latter acting on impulse.  A very fun tale!

The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation:  Charles Swinburne, the narrator of the last tale, and Basil Grant are travelling on the top of a deserted tramcar, speaking philosophically about the plight of the poor and the perception of them.  Basil declares that in spite of their circumstances, the majority of the poor are good people and that "the very vileness of life of these ordered plebeian places bears witness to the victory of the human soul."  No sooner has he uttered these words than he spies a man on the street and his astonishment is palpable.  He announces that he's observing the most wicked man in the world.  When Swinburne requests to know the man's sins, Grant admits that he has never seen him before this moment.  Swinburne is startlingly perplexed.  How has Basil made his assumption?  But there is no time to question as his friend grabs him and they are off on a chase after the most wicked man in the world.  In a world of fact versus impression and appearance versus reality, how are they to know whom to trust?

The Awful Reason of the Vicar's Visit:  Swinburne is dressing to meet Basil Grant at a dinner party when suddenly the sound of the doorbell resounds through the house.  It is the Reverend Ellis Shorter who has heard of his friend, Major Brown's adventures and has come to seek help.  Swinburne, impatient to be off to his engagement, gets impatient with the Vicar's dodderings and prevaricating whereupon the Vicar gives him leave to go, but states if he does not hear him out before he does, a man will be dead!  He relates a queer story of being kidnapped by a women's sewing club, and a subsequent photograph of himself that had never been taken.  Swinburne is perplexed and takes the vicar to Basil to sort out the mystery!

Reverend Oliver Maron, Vicar of Lancaster
George Romney 

The Singular Speculation of the House Agent:  Lieutenant Keith Drummond manages to excite Rupert's suspicions and barely concealed contempt with his larger-than-life stories and exaggerated claims.  Upon Drummond requesting a loan from Basil and claiming a visit to a house-agent, Rupert near demands to accompany him in hopes of exposing sinister purposes.  All four men set off together, and after a curiously unintelligible conversation between the odd little house agent and Drummond, in which the agent presents a ferret, some lizards and a spider, Drummond escapes before the rest.  When they follow him, they come upon a commotion and find that there has been a brawl. Drummond has been part of it, with his clothes torn and his sword, which he commonly carries with him, drawn.  The police get his address, yet Swinburne, Basil and Rupert discover the next day that the address was a fake.  Rupert is exultant with the proof of his suspicions of Drummond's disreputable character, but Basil merely laughs, claiming that Drummond his one of the most honest men and that truth can be stranger than fiction.  How can this be?  Is some of the mad judge's madness finally showing through?  The truth will be discovered at the address that doesn't exist.

Purley, Surrey (now south London)
source Wikipedia Commons

The Noticeable Conduct of Professor Chadd:  Basil Grant doesn't have many friends, but the ones he does have are a motley collection of idiosyncratic characters.  One day, he is discussing with his friend, Professor Chadd, an eminent ethnologist and expert on the relation of language to savages, the impact of science on the observable knowledge of Zulus versus the knowledge gained by living like a Zulu.  Chadd, a stuffy academic, who has recently been appointed as curator of the Asiatic manuscripts at the British Museum, answers in stuffy, didactic prose.  The next morning, Basil receives a telegram from one of Chadd's three sisters: Chadd has suffered a mental breakdown and Basil is entreated to come at once.  Upon his arrival, Basil discovers that the Professor will not communicate with anyone and, instead, will only move his legs in a kind of rigid, hopping dance.  The doctor is with him and when Basil approaches, he asks for a moment with his friend.  The observers are surprised to see the respectable Mr. Grant with a paper and pencil, following Chadd about and jotting notes as he goes.  They are further astounded when he begins to hop around in a parody of Chadd.  The situation is further complicated with the arrival of Mr. Bingham of the British Museum. Great Scots!  How can a lunatic be curator of the Asiatic manuscripts?!!  Yet Basil declares to Bingham that they need to pay Chadd £800 per year until he stops dancing.  What?  Has Basil gone mad as well?  Are there two lunatics, one or none?

Bedford Gardens, Bloomsbury
source Wikimedia Commons

The Eccentric Seclusion of the Old Lady:  Swinburne is walking with his friend, Rupert Grant, the amateur detective, when Grant spots a milkman walking ahead of them.  Suspicious because of the careless way the man carries his milk can, Grant swears that if they follow him, they will find a mystery at the end of the trail.  When the milkman disappears down area steps to a basement, Grant follows and emerges triumphant.  He has heard a cry for help in the downstairs room, repeating, "When shall I get out?  Will they ever let me out?".  Determined to rescue the imprisoned lady, they enlist Basil's help and with his usual aplomb, Basil gains entry to the house but when he emerges, he claims that the men inside are good chaps.  Incensed, both Rupert and Swinburne insist on entering the house themselves to find the victim.  The "chaps" allow them in but a fight ensues in which our three rescuers are pinned.  Will they get free to release the poor woman who's been detained?  Yet with Basil Grant, nothing is every as it seems.

Milkman and cart 1900s
source Wikimedia Commons

In Basil Grant, Chesterton creates, not a scientifically brilliant detective like Sherlock Holmes, but one who is astute in the workings of human nature, which makes for truly fascinating cases.  Another fantastic effort by Chesterton who keeps the reader guessing, and never quite sure whether up is down or down is up in The Club of Queer Trades.