The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride
American literature has a new varsity member. Wedge open a space on your 19th-century shelf, because a hitherto unknown author has just been dubbed the first female African-American novelist. Professors William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun have published for the first time in book form The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride, an overlooked novel serialized in the Christian Recorder by one Julia C. Collins in 1865.
Don't have a 19th-century shelf? Stifling a yawn? Well, don't mistake "first" for "crude." Collins sustains coherency and lucid symbolic content in a tightly woven, multigenerational story with fragmented chronology. It's true: The Curse of Caste is partly a classroom read. It helps to have an interest in the evolution of literary history or at least a strong stomach for bygone narrative techniques. English majors will have little trouble forgiving overt didactism and a story hung on dozens of improbably coincidental pegs. But this one-sitting read is worth going back to school for.
That genre history can still be renegotiated is as fascinating as the author herself--a historical ghost about whom we know virtually nothing. The editors have provided two possible endings to the novel, whose last chapter was lost when Collins died of tuberculosis. Part of the fun, then, is wading into the murky flow of untested waters.
Caste begins with a star-crossed marriage. Richard Tracy's father shoots him over his marriage to a part-black freed slave. While Richard is busy recuperating, his unfortunate wife dies giving birth. A bizarre villain tells Richard that his child is dead, too, and Richard moves to France. Twenty years later, the decidedly alive Claire has grown into beautiful womanhood, ignorant of her parentage. When she unknowingly takes work in the Tracy home--the home of her blood relatives--the mystery begins to unravel.
Much like a soap opera, this serialized story makes no secret of its secret. Claire's ancestry is well-known to the reader, but the plot rises and falls on the possible revelation of the long-withheld knowledge. A swirl of characters orbit around this central mystery: villains that are delightfully easy to identify and hate, and a charmingly doe-eyed heroine. And fortunately for the plot, these 20-odd characters are unable to meet anyone but each other in a fictional world remarkable for its circumstance and coincidence.
Women possess an exceptionally passionate fragility, and everyone makes appropriate soap-opera eyes and smirks revealingly in this Victorian tale for the postbellum American South. From the first, the narrative's characters are united by an intuitive clairvoyance of the tragedy likely to befall a mixed-race heroine. The very novel itself seems to worry over Claire's unhappy "caste," while simultaneously using her to espouse racial blindness.
It's sometimes hard to read the earnest naiveté of Collins' post-slavery hopes. To read this novel with a 2006 consciousness is to be painfully disappointed at every turn of the page by the historical failure of Collins' expectations for a new age of equality. The uncertainties and regrets of her characters are those of America herself, wrestling with her guilt over slavery. And as Collins warns in an address to one of her characters, "unraveling the mystery that envelopes a beautiful woman is a dangerous business."