Thursday 4 February 2010

More from the Orange Prize

Property by Valerie Martin was the Orange Prize winner in 2003. This is a very different book from any I have read recently. It is set nearly 200 years ago in the south of America. The 'Property' referred to in the title is, of course, human beings. This made it quite hard to read, from a political point of view, as the author very convincingly writes from the perspective of her protagonist, Manon Gaudet, a young, unhappily married woman, who's husband runs a sugar plantation.

Within two pages I found myself cringing as Manon describes her covert observations of her husband's treatment of a group of young boys. She passes no judgement and appears quite dispassionate about their situation and possible fate. Her hopes for a happy and prosperous marriage has been tainted by her husband's financial mismanagement and his 'relationship' with her slave Sarah, by whom he has had two children. It is this strange contradictory feeling that she has towards Sarah, despising her but also in a way feeling belittled by her husband's all too obvious preference, that seems to dominate her thinking. In the background of her personal hell is the developing threat of a slave uprising, tales of escapes and the ever present fear of violence. But mostly the book has a very claustrophobic atmosphere, hardly venturing outside the closed world of her domestic concerns. The boy Walter, Sarah's son, is like a wild creature, without communication (it turns out he is deaf) and out of control. He is an ever present reminder of everything that is wrong in her life.

An epidemic of yellow fever and cholera is sweeping the locality and on hearing that her mother is ill Manon leaves for New Orleans to take care of her, taking Sarah with her, though mostly to punish her husband. The mother promptly dies but Manon is reluctant to return to her marital home. She discovers that she will inherit some small income, but despairs because she knows that her husband with have the right to control and dispose of it to his own benefit. This understanding, whilst not challenged in her mind (she has no notion of the idea that women might have property rights of their own) creates new resentments and, on hearing of a woman who has successfully divorced and kept her own property, new desires. However, this is not a story about a feminist awakening and she is much more wrapped up in her concerns about Sarah and a mysterious man she sees one night watching the house.

So she is obliged to return to the plantation and then the worst happens. News circulates about a gang of escaped slaves, and whilst preparing to protect themselves against possible attack the family are caught out, her husband is murdered and Manon herself is shot and then escapes into the marsh. Sarah meanwhile takes the husband's horse and absconds herself, taking her young baby with her. Manon's aunt arrives to care for her while she recovers and the slaves are rounded up and mostly hung by the militia. So, in spite of the huge trauma and her debilitating injury, Manon has got her wish, freedom from her unhappy marriage, but instead of relishing her new found liberty she becomes obsessed with recovering the escaped Sarah. It turns out that with the help of a free Negro who had previously wanted to buy her (and presumably free her and then marry her) she has travelled in disguise as far as New York, where the bounty hunter is obliged to kidnap her from the people aiming to get her on a boat to Europe.

This is a book about slavery. It is a story that gets right inside the experience of a young woman, sees her life without passing opinion on the rights or wrongs of the society she lives in. Although I found it hard to begin with after a while I stopped passing judgement on their society and just read the story for what it would tell me about this woman's experience. I think that the way people thought about their slaves is very different from the racism that came later. The book was obviously well researched and the author worked very hard to show something of the relationship between slave owners and their slaves. When you watch Manon with her slaves, it is not as if she thinks of them as lesser people than herself, it is more that she barely thinks of them at all. She does not consider that they have thoughts or feelings or wishes of their own. They are more like part of the furniture, or 'property' as the title says.

"The cholera has carried off over one hundred people this week, many of them negroes, at great expense to the community." (p.71)

It says something about how well the book is written that you begin to understand something of the mindset of these people. What you do get a sense of is how completely dependent they were on their slaves. Manon is utterly without skill, and utterly without occupation, appears to actually do very little. There is an interesting contrast between Sarah, who plainly desired her freedom and despised her owners, and Peek, the mother's cook, who seeks out new owners for herself after the mother dies, as she knows that Manon will not wish to keep her, and it is in her interests to find a decent situation rather than being sold and ending up with someone abusive.

(spoiler warning)
I am going to quote the final part of the book, because it captures the essence of what it is all about. Sarah has been returned and has sullenly returned to her duties but the uncle rightly points out that she has been totally changed by what has been quite an extensive experience of real freedom, and being treated by people she encountered in the north as an equal human being. she has had her eyes opened to the reality of life having other possible outcomes. She describes to Manon how she was served with tea by the people who helped her:

"I considered this image of Sarah. She was dressed in borrowed clothes, sitting stiffly at a bare wooden table while a colourless Yankee woman, her thin hair pulled into a tight bun, served her tea in a china cup. The righteous husband fetched a cushion to make their guest more comfortable. It struck me as perfectly ridiculous. What on earth did they think they were doing?" (p.209)

This story is set in 1828, quite some time before the Civil War and the subsequent emancipation of the slaves in 1865, and on reflection I think that the transformation of political and social opinions over that period is quite astounding if this book gives just an inkling of what the abolitionists were up against. This book does not try and say anything about the slaves' experience, that would be quite a different story, but it was certainly a very enlightening read. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I have also read this book:

    You could count it toward the Women Unbound reading challenge, as it tells us about the lives of several very different women. Thanks for a very good review.


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