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Willing Slaves: The Victorian Novel and the Afterlife of British Slavery

Sheehan, Lucy Ludwig

The commencement of the Victorian period in the 1830s coincided with the abolition of chattel slavery in the British colonies. Consequently, modern readers have tended to focus on how the Victorians identified themselves with slavery’s abolition and either denied their past involvement with slavery or imagined that slave past as insurmountably distant. “Willing Slaves: The Victorian Novel and the Afterlife of British Slavery” argues, however, that colonial slavery survived in the Victorian novel in a paradoxical form that I term “willing slavery.” A wide range of Victorian novelists grappled with memories of Britain’s slave past in ways difficult for modern readers to recognize because their fiction represented slaves as figures whose bondage might seem, counterintuitively, self-willed.
Nineteenth-century Britons produced fictions of “willing slavery” to work through the contradictions inherent to nineteenth-century individualism. As a fictional subject imagined to take pleasure in her own subjection, the willing slave represented a paradoxical figure whose most willful act was to give up her individuality in order to maintain cherished emotional bonds. This figure should strike modern readers as a contradiction in terms, at odds with the violence and dehumanization of chattel slavery. But for many significant Victorian writers, willing slavery was a way of bypassing contradictions still familiar to us today: the Victorian individualist was meant to be atomistic yet sympathetic, possessive yet sheltered from market exchange, a monad most at home within the collective unit of the family. By contrast, writers as diverse as John Stuart Mill, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot located willing slavery in a pre-Victorian history where social life revolved, they imagined, around obligation and familial attachments rather than individual freedom. Rooted in this fictive past, the willing slave had no individual autonomy or self-possession, but was defined instead by a different set of contradictions: a radical dependency and helpless emotional bondage that could nonetheless appear willing and willful, turning this fictional enslavement itself into an expression of the will. For Dickens, willing slavery provided an image of social interdependency that might heal the ills of the modern world by offering what one All the Year Round author described as “a better slavery than loveless freedom.” For novelists such as Brontë and Eliot who were no less critical of Victorian individualism, however, fantasies of willing slavery became the very fiction that their work aimed to dissolve.
Chapter One argues that Frances Trollope’s groundbreaking antislavery fiction mirrors West Indian slave narratives in describing the slave plantation as coldly mechanical, and then extends this vision to portray early industrial England as an emotionally deprived social world similarly in need of repair. In the second chapter, I argue that Dickens responds to that emotional deprivation, and the replacement of traditional family bonds with what he describes as the “social contract of matrimony,” by producing a nostalgic account of willing slavery’s dependencies that draws on discourses of slavery found in British case law, where attorneys could exhort the slaveholder to “attach [slaves] to himself by the ties of affection.” The last two chapters argue that Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda ironize this earlier nostalgia through female characters who grapple with the archetype of the willing slave. As their characters adopt and then discard the theatrical pose of willing subjection embodied by melodramatic heroines such as Dion Boucicault’s “octoroon” Zoe, Brontë and Eliot draw attention to the contradictions inherent to willing slavery, reframing it as a fantasy enjoyed exclusively by white Britons intent on shoring up the familial intimacies that helped preserve their social and economic dominance. These ironic reframings reveal a final paradox: though willing slavery helped create an analogy between African chattel slaves and British family members in fiction, this trope ultimately highlights the differences between the chattel slavery of Africans abroad, where the disruption of kinship bonds was a crucial method for exploitation and domination, and the imagined household subjection of English characters, rooted in the putatively binding qualities of family feeling.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Marcus, Sharon
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 3, 2016
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