The Shadow of the Octoroon in T. E. Brown’s Christmas Rose

The Shadow of the Octoroon in T. E. Brown’s Christmas Rose

Victorian Poetry
Volume 38, Number 2, Summer 2000
pages 289-298
DOI: 10.1353/vp.2000.0023

Max Keith Sutton

In Impossible Purities, Jennifer Brody writes that the multiracial “woman of color” in Victorian literature “both conceals and reveals conflicting ideas of difference.” The light skin of an octoroon, for example, conceals the African heritage that constituted a legal difference from other light-skinned people in the United States (though not in Britain), disqualifying her from marriage with a man officially defined as white. In Dion Boucicault’s melodrama of 1859, The Octoroon, this official distinction gives the heroine a sense of moral difference as well: “I’m an unclean thing,” she tells her Caucasian suitor, equating uncleanness with the difference defined by law. Conceiving of her identity as the state of Louisiana defined it for her, the woman tries to erase it through suicide, becoming one in the series of “tragic octoroons” appearing “in at least a dozen works between 1836 and 1861” and in more that followed. Significant in their own right, these figures also may provide a frame of reference for other heroines who share the octoroon’s sense of being different and therefore unfit for life in the society around them. In T. E. Brown’s narrative poem, Christmas Rose (1873), a sense of sexual difference from women who fall in love and marry as a matter of course burdens the title character, who only expresses erotic feeling when she runs out to the shore and bares her bosom to the storm. In her alienation she resembles Boucicault’s Zoe, although she has no tragic passion for any man and no knowledge of her origins beyond the story of how a brave African gave his life to save her as an infant when a ship sank in a storm off the coast of the Isle of Man. Like the octoroon, Rose sees death as the only escape from the burden of being different.

By linking Rose with the black man who preserves her life, the poem introduces the theme of difference that she will embody and suggests a way of viewing her that eludes the Manx yarnspinner, Tom Baynes. He sees her as bewitched or as an alien spirit, “sent / Into the world to be different.” Expecting the sailors in the forecastle to accept supernatural explanations, he realizes nonetheless that folklore alone cannot explain her: “say what you will, / The Christmas Rose was a puzzle still” (ll. 1833-34). In the end he admits that no one ever knew “who or what” she was—a unique human person or some strange spirit (a “what,” unless the word refers only to her condition by birth). As her advocate, Tom Baynes may want her to remain a puzzle in order to counter his shipmates’ readiness to see her as just another femme fatale, cruelly arousing and thwarting masculine desires. Since his range of reading is limited, folklore rather than some literary prototype provides his chief frame of reference for picturing the heroine. Knowing Don Quixote, for example, only from what others have told him, he describes it for his shipmates but makes no mention of the fair Marcela, who, like Rose, prefers outdoor freedom to marriage and by rejecting a lovesick suitor gets blamed for his death (Part I, chaps. xii-xiv). Tragic octoroons in plays and novels of the time lie outside Tom’s experience: he knows a good deal more about ghosts and fairies. But the poem itself (written by an Oxford-educated schoolmaster) suggests analogues that the narrator could never imagine, one of them being the alienated figure of the woman of mixed race. Although Rose never associates race with her predicament, the theme appears at the outset of this story of a girl who comes to resemble the tragic octoroon in her beauty and sexual desirability, her problematic identity, and her sense of being unfit for this world..

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