I’m a White middle class feminist, and I spend a long time studying the White middle class feminists at the Victoria Press. In my writing, and in the writing of other scholars, we often characterize the women of the Victoria Press Circle as sympathetic champions ahead of their time, working earnestly for their cause. But MAKE NO MISTAKE: Like other White feminist movements throughout history, the Langham Place women contributed to the oppression of people of color.
A good example of the kind of racism that the EWJ perpetuates can be read in its articles about slavery. Most of the run of the periodical coincided with the American Civil War. EWJ contributors were resolutely opposed to slavery and frequently denounced it. In 1860 an editor writes:
That Slavery, the foulest blot the world has ever known, should exist at all among the enlightened citizens of what claims to be a model republic, is a personal scandal and disgrace to every American, man, woman and child, for not more guilty is the Southerner, who grows slave cotton and slave sugar, than is the Northerner who uses the one in his manufactories and the other in his house. (IV.23.359)
Okay, strong words. This author carefully takes into account the guilt that Northerners share in perpetuating slavery (although she doesn’t go so far as to implicate Britain). But this account is NOT REPRESENTATIVE of the tone of the publication in considering the issue of slavery. More typical is the author of an 1858 article, who actually asserts that slavery is WORSE for White people than it is for Black people.
Slavery destroys family feeling, and affords the Whites every temptation to immorality. It nourishes their ignorance, their despotism, their overbearing pride and brutality—in fact it is more hurtful to the White man than the black. (II.8.97)
In this account, slavery turns wonderful White people into IMMORAL BRUTES against their will! It isn’t hard to find the roots of White victimhood in accounts of Black suffering.
Bluntly, Black people in this Journal are synonymous with enslaved people. In factual articles and in serialized fiction, the EWJ consistently portrays enslaved people and formerly enslaved people as childlike innocents who do not understand their condition. They are ignorant, they are victims, and they are as comic as they are tragic. In one of the most offensive articles, “A. S.” reports from an American church service led by a “slave preacher.” “A fine young black (quite black)” is leading some lessons. In another pew, our correspondent observes a “pretty little delicate White girl” teaching a group of “woolly headed” boys (V.25.42). Commonly in the EWJ, authors reduce Black people to Black bodies, a collection of hair and skin, while White people are either polite observers, or religious teachers.
Throughout “Slave Preaching,” the article’s author maintains a sense that she is not complicit in the system. During the service, she reports:
I sat humbly down on a back seat, a negro said “Ma’am, go forward to the front, ma’am,” so I moved into a pew higher up, but not quite in advance; the negroes in the pew said “Go to the front seat.”
I said ” No thank you, but why?”
“Whv! because Whites don’t like to sit with blacks.”
“I am English, not American!” (42)
The correspondent insists on her difference, her liberal impartiality. She will not be mistaken for a caricaturist, because she takes what she evidently sees as a clearheaded, sociological approach: “The negroes here have a very agreeable manner, nothing exaggerated or ridiculous, such as the American caricatures would lead you to suppose.”(45)
And yet the picture she draws in “Slave Preaching” is broadly comic, portraying enslaved people as simple, childlike, and easily manipulated. The Black audience, for instance, has short attention spans: “A certain pathetic expression of resignation was the prevailing expression, which changed to radiant merriment the instant any occasion was presented.” (46) When our correspondent actually hears the preacher, an enslaved man, she subjects him to a humiliating “grammar” lesson in her text, winking at the reader behind his back: “Generally Benjamin’s grammar was good; the mistakes I noticed I have given, he always said expired man for inspired, and confused corrected and directed; said borned for born, and pronounced going gwine.” (47) The EWJ correspondent consciously portrays herself as a kind of amused outsider, not culpable in the scene or, by extension, in slavery itself. But every word of her text reinforces the system she purports to deplore.
Unlike this author, most EWJ readers did not have firsthand experience of slavery, but they often drew direct comparisons between Black Americans and other “races” with whom they came in contact, particularly the Irish. From the previous article, we get this description of perceived racial characteristics:
…the upturned heads of the negroes all round, with their deep expression of attention, was a very wonderful picture. I was very near them, and saw their faces; some full, and some black profiles against the light. Some I should have taken for Jews, and some were Scotch in outline, with strongly marked features, and no negro trace; yet these same, when I saw their full face, were very black and had woolly hair. (48)
Their profiles clearly mark them as “other” before she can even see the color of their skin or texture of their hair. They might be Jews, they might be Scots, but they are not White.
An October 1858 article on “Slavery in America” shines some light on the association between Black Americans and European “others.” The author first denigrates slavery by describing its impoverishing effect on the South, where “all tells of neglect, and men look listless, and satisfied to let things be. Even the blacks, with few exceptions, have a contented, careless air, resembling that of the Italians. The desire to improve their condition has not entered into the mind of the mass.” (94)
Again, enslaved people are a “mass” without agency, and also ignorant. In the passage above they share their characteristics with another “Southern race,” the Italians. Below, in another passage from the same article, they share “attributes” with the Celt.
…the mulatto and quadroon are human beings, capable of being virtuous and useful members of society, and are eminently distinguished for gentleness, kindness, and all the gifts of the imagination; perhaps they are inferior to the Anglo-Saxon in certain mental attributes, but on the whole very superior to the Celt.
We visited schools for colored children and carefully examined competent persons who agreed with us that the mulatto and quadroon are equal in mental endowments to many European races. In Louisiana, the colored race is superior, both in health and beauty, to the White; and it seems probable that some day the shores of the Gulf of Mexico will be peopled by a race springing from the White and black, endowed both with the African’s physical power to labor in the sun, and the American’s intellect to guide and control commerce. (98)
Throughout the EWJ, the sociological approach, the careful tabulation which is so prevalent throughout the writing of Langham Place feminists, contributes to the rhetoric of eugenics. When applied to the subject of slavery, this impulse of classification is destructively racist.
The Victoria Regia (1861), another Victoria Press publication, is transparently a document of imperialism. Its title celebrates the Queen of Empire, and multiple British authors in the anthology approve of the “civilizing” force of empire. There is a repeated insistence that enslaved people in America are fiercely loyal to Queen Victoria: “her most devoted subjects” (EWJ V.25.48). In Harriet Martineau’s contribution, “Birth of a Free Nation,” she writes about the “spectacle of civilization” arising out of “barbarism” in Haiti (98). She discusses the “mulatto race” in Haiti from a pseudo-sociological perspective, “in whom the current of native feeling still ran strong, whether mixed with the pride of the Whites on the one hand, or the terror of the negro soul on the other” (101).
W. M. Thackeray, in his contribution, writes about a visit to Savannah, Georgia, where he meets two young boys on a plantation while dining with “their kind masters” (123). He relates their own story in a parody of their speech: “They both work in de garden. Jim has been licked by Master but Sady never.” (124). This matter-of-fact account of children being beaten is a source of humor for Thackeray.
[Above: Images from The Victoria Regia, p. 124-5]
The sketch obviously romanticizes slavery, portraying it as a benevolent institution. It concludes with a plea for peace that reduces the Civil War to nothing more than a dinner-table squabble among family members: “I have had so much kindness there, and I grieve to think of friends in arms, and brothers in anger.” (125) In this sketch, slavery is preferable to violence. Abolition is not worth the spilled White blood.
Then there’s “Loo Loo.” “Loo Loo” is a two part serialized story by Maria S. Child,* appearing in the EWJ from December 1858 to January 1859. A young American named “Alfred Noble” (PLEASE) falls in love with Loo Loo, an enslaved girl, when he first sees her as a young child (ICK). A little later he buys her and they live as husband and wife. But when he loses his fortune, he is forced to sell Loo Loo to the terrible “Mr. Grossman” (get it? he’s GROSS; “the oil of a thousand hams seemed oozing through his pimpled cheeks.”) Eventually Alfred rescues Loo Loo and they are married where it is legal in Canada. At the end he gives her a portrait of their daughter as a present, and this is his dear wife’s response: “Her eyes moistened as she gazed upon it; then kissing his hand, she looked up in the old way, and said, I thank you, sir, for buying me.” (332). HER HUSBAND LITERALLY BUYS HER, and she loves him for it. So Loo Loo is doubly enslaved, but repeatedly describes herself as “grateful” and “blessed” for her “wonderful” life (331). As they were printing this story, the female editors of the EWJ were busy campaigning for rights for married White women, so that they wouldn’t be treated as the property of their husbands.
What do I do with the overwhelming irony of the English Woman’s Journal, which campaigns for the rights of White married women while normalizing the idea of Black women as property? I don’t ignore it, for a start. I write about it. As a literary scholar, I hope it is possible to read the work of these female authors without eliding or excusing the racist tropes to which they contributed. They were not “ahead of their time.” They were in it, in the weeds of it. I don’t aim to read them “objectively”—that’s not possible anyway. But I do want to read widely, with clarity and without fragility. Now more than ever, I promise to keep my eyes open.
* Possibly related to the American abolitionist Lydia Maria Child? I haven’t been able to verify.