One of the biggest objections you could make to the otherwise accomplished novels I’ve looked at as part of my Neo-Victorian Voices series is that they are often peopled with ‘Mary Sues’—idealised characters who have surprisingly 21st-century morals and ambitions despite the 19th-century setting.
In Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White there was the implausibly educated proto-feminist prostitute Sugar, in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus the magical Cirque des Reves allows its inhabitants to live outside the strictures of Victorian society, and in Natasha Pulley's The Watchmaker of Filigree Street love blossoms between a civil servant and his Japanese watchmaker friend, without any internal struggles about the practicalities of pursuing an interracial homosexual relationship in 19th-century London.
|Valerie Martin (1948-)|
Valerie Martin’s Property, winner of the 2003 Orange Prize, runs into no such issues. With unflinching realism it tells the story of a white plantation owner’s wife in the American South, in her own words—and her views are every bit as foreign to our modern way of thinking as you’d expect.
Manon Gaudet is a victim of a patriarchal society, epitomised by her nameless and tyrannical husband. She’s denied the right to own property or determine the course of her life and is unable to ward off her husband’s unwanted sexual advances. But she fails to note the obvious parallels between her position and that of the black slave Sarah (by whom her husband has fathered two children) or that her position is one of extreme privilege when compared to all the slaves owned and used by her husband.
Instead she is a perpetrator of abuse. She judges her husband for his cruelty in the opening moments of the novel, as he ‘tests’ the young men on the plantation and whips one for getting an erection in the course of his twisted game. But it becomes increasingly clear that she dehumanizes the slaves too, and, in one of the most shocking moments in the novel, she takes possession of Sarah’s body, just like her husband, drinking milk from her breast to comfort herself on the death of her mother.
Reading Property as a white woman makes you feel dirty, horrified to think that you might be Manon had you been born into the world she inhabits. At the start of the novel, I was worried that the villainous husband was a little too morally straightforward, that this would be a book that put the ‘blame’ for the problematic history of the American South squarely on white men, but the ending shows that this is a story about how escaping a racist patriarchy doesn’t just mean escaping one man or men. Manon is part of the problem, even if she suffers for it. And Martin isn’t going to swoop in with a moment of unlikely revelation for her, even if her protagonist is aware that others, in the North, think about black men and women differently.
Short, tautly written and quietly brilliant, Property is well worth reading—just don’t expect a happy ending.