Season in Hell
Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Planta- tion, 1838-39. By Frances Anne Kemble. Edited by John A. Scott. (Cape, 36s.)
THE introduction of an American `candid out- sider' into a confusing and possibly corrupt Europe was a favourite fictional strategy of American writers as various as Twain and James. But in 1838 a real confrontation of a reverse kind took place. A beautiful, well- educated actress, the finest product of what was best in English society and thought in the early nineteenth century, found herself immersed in an American nightmare: Fanny Kemble visited a Southern plantation in the unpleasant role of the planter's wife. And what she wrote is memorable not only as a vivid detailed picture of that incredible society, not only as the most coolly argued, most tellingly substan- tiated, least hysterical indictment of slavery that society ever provoked, but also as a superb demonstration of her own human and intel- lectual qualities—qualities which for her meant civilisation and progress, qualities which it cost her her husband and children, her personal com- fort, to uphold. This book is more than a col- lection of invaluable contemporary snapshots— though it is that; it is the rare testament of a just, inquiring eye and a generous, analytic mind coupled with a habit of compassion which no sophistries could distract and no sentimentality debase.
Harriet Beecher Stowe had to turn Uncle Tom into a saint to get people to weep over his crucifixion. Fanny Kemble saw no saints: she saw more—the available facts and the actual horror. The most telling aspect of the book is the contrast between the virtues of the prose and the viciousness of the things the prose describes. Fanny Kemble's values could perhaps have only been professed with such Johnsonian confidence and dignity before the Industrial Revolution had endowed England with its own `slave' popula- tion. For Fanny Kemble believed steadfastly in the moral benefits of labour: she upheld the Northern virtues of energy and enterprise against the indolence, sloth and recklessness of the South. She saw that 'as long as labour is considered the disgraceful portion of slaves' the white Southerners would never emerge from their mire of degradation, that the scorn of work produced only a festering idleness of which cruelty and spiritual corruption were the in- evitable flowers.
She believed in self-government, not in the despotic government of others: she preferred the challenges of freedom to the illusory com- forts of feudalism: she advocated an ideal of justice in place of fitful patronage. A true pro- testant, she put self-respect above all else and blamed the Southern whites for robbing the negroes of this inestimable quality. Wherever she went she tried to instruct the slaves in cleanliness, but repelled as she was by all the dirt, ignorance and squalor she always blamed the institution of slavery and was never tempted into that vicious lie which maintains that moral depravity is inherent in a race. And this required courage—for it meant blaming her husband: more, it meant blaming herself. She did not shirk the accusation.
So much is in the prose: what of the scenes? The working conditions, the ordained punish- ments, the meagre rations of the slaves; their filthy hovels, their inferno-like hospitals, the terrible diseases caused by under-nourishment and overwork. All this she saw. Their pitiful self-contempt, their ingrained sadness and fear, the monotony of their misery, their patience which was a `patience of utter despair,' the kind- ness, dignity and affection which sometimes con- trived to persist through all their hopelessness. This she became acquainted with. Conversely she quickly came to see the whites for what they were, saw through their absurd pretensions to gentility and chivalry to the perverted passions, the intellectual corruption, the sadism, the fear and the futility which lurked behind. She saw a dilapidated, neglected, mouldering society trying to pretend it was Athenian. Everywhere she felt 'the curse of stagnation.' And behind, around, under it all there was the exotic, poisonous beauty of the scenery—rattle- snakes crawling out from under the magnolias.
There are some unforgettable details. When she has to watch her husband ordering over- worked pregnant women back into the fields; when she takes a driver's whip and stands there speechless from disgust and helplessness. She spends hours listening to pleas and complaints —gripping the table to keep from crying; she hears of a man being severely flogged for having his wife baptised; she hears how they took a crazed girl, strung her up, tied logs to her feet, and then flogged her mercilessly; she hears how the white overseer used to whip women to make them submit to his lust—and how his wife had them whipped for having submitted. Once she finds a dying slave, abandoned by all except the flies. Once, upon leaving the terrible hospital, she burst into tears and an old crippled slave sitting helpless with his scrofulous idiot daughter looks up and says feebly: `Missis, you no cry; missis, what for you cry?' And there is the old slave who sees Fanny's watch and says: `Ah! I need not look at this; I have almost done with time!'
There are moments of gaiety, and music and humour—melancholy in their very rarity; there is a duel; there are some fascinating comments on road and rail travel and America in general (she notices a `devotion to conformity' and a `dread of singularity'). But mostly it is the night- mare of the husband's plantation—and the agony and rage of the wife's conscience, a con- science which would have preferred being owned to ownership, and which finally pitied the planters their evil more than the slaves their cuts. She knew it would all have to change, and as she watches the planters trying to pacify the Northern abolitionists by allowing the slaves a few token concessions, such as church attend- ance, she prophesies with a conviction which makes the fretful compromises of contemporary prejudice sound for the hollow things they are:
The light that they are letting in between their fingers will presently strike them blind, and the mighty flood of truth which they are straining through a sieve to the thirsty lips of their slaves sweep them away like straws from their cautious moorings, and overwhelm them in its great deeps, to the waters of which man may in nowise say, thus far shall ye come and no farther.
A handsome and timely edition of a minor classic: it should never be out of print again.