Property - Introduction
by Valerie Martin
An Abacus 40 Publication
It strikes me that the most useful way to introduce British readers to my novel Property might be to elaborate upon certain oddities of the society in which the narrator, Manon Gaudet, fails to thrive, a society she finds oppressive and enraging. The year is 1828, and the action of the novel takes place both in New Orleans, where Manon lived before her marriage, and at her husband’s sugar plantation, a day’s horseback ride up the Mississippi river from the city.
Manon is the daughter of a creole mother and an American father. At that time and in that place the word creole referred to a person of French or Spanish ancestry who was born in Louisiana. The ‘inbred’ creole families in the old French Quarter of New Orleans viewed the influx of Americans following the Louisiana purchase as an invasion by a foreign horde who were determined to make up with money what they lacked in taste and culture. Hostilities between the two groups were intense. A significant example of this occurred in the 1830s after a duel in which a creole gentleman, having killed an American, was subsequently tried for murder (dueling being illegal) and acquitted by a court packed with creoles. The next day the judge was attacked in his home by an American mob.
Yet, however backward and rude the American parvenus proved to be, they were industrious and they prospered. To the consternation of their new neighbors, they built ostentatious houses and amassed great fortunes. Intermarriage between the Americans and the ‘old money’ creoles was as inevitable as it was frowned upon.
Another singularity of the period was most trenchantly documented by the radical British proto-sociologist Harriet Martineau, who visited New Orleans in 1834 and found much that appalled her. The plaçage system, in which Creole men entered into a type of common-law marriage with free quadroon women, was considered by Martineau to be both ‘universal’ and ‘melancholy’ and was doubtless the wrecking ball of ‘domestic purity and peace’ that she claimed it to be.
The Quadroon girls of New Orleans are brought up by their mothers to be what they have been; the mistresses of white gentlemen . . . Every young man early selects one, and establishes her in one of those pretty and peculiar houses, whole rows of which may be seen in the Ramparts. The connexion now and then lasts for life; usually for several years. In the latter case, when the time comes for the gentleman to take a white wife, the dreadful news reaches his Quadroon partner, either by a letter entitling her to call the house and furniture her own, or by the newspaper which announces his marriage. The Quadroon ladies are rarely or never known to form a second connexion. Many commit suicide; more die brokenhearted. Some men continue the connexion after marriage.1
This system, well in place by the period of my novel, had a lasting effect on the city’s demographic make-up. A class of free women of color who owned property they could pass on to their children was not to be found anywhere else in the country. The wealthy Mr Roget, who attempts to buy Sarah from Manon, is doubtless the son of such a union. The letters ‘h.c.l.’ following his signature on the card he leaves for Manon stand for homme de couleur libre, a designation required by law on all public documents signed by free men of color.
When Manon Gaudet’s aunt tells Manon that her childhood sweetheart Joel Borden’s new father-in-law is unlikely to tolerate the expense of ‘a little house on the Ramparts’, she is referring to her conviction that any young man of means may have a quadroon mistress as well as a second family of children to support. Manon’s soliloquy on the subject of ‘the lie at the center of everything’ is largely provoked by her contemplation of the open secret of plaçage.
The final oddity of Manon’s circumstances, so very odd that it is known as ‘the peculiar institution’, was the holding of human chattel. Slavery of one kind or another has been a part of human arrangements since at least the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, but in the American South in the decades before the Civil War it was the shifting ground on which the whole house of cards was built. The slave codes were constantly being adjusted, and slave owners occupied themselves obsessively with precise iterations of their tyranny. The fact that the militias (or ‘slave patrols’) entrusted with the important business of arresting fugitive slaves and putting down insurrections on the plantations were entirely made up of free men of color suggests a diabolical thoroughness in the brains of the slave owners who came together to codify the system.
As is often the case in a society in which a specious moral argument is constantly advanced in the defense of the indefensible, observers and news of the outside were unwelcome. Southerners, who lived in constant fear of the large captive population they believed God had given them a right to control, were incapable of assessing the falseness of their position. ‘The laws against the press,’ Martineau observed, ‘are as peremptory as in the most despotic countries of Europe; as may be seen in the small number and size, and poor quality, of the newspapers of the south. I never saw, in the rawest villages of the youngest States, newspapers so empty and poor as those of New Orleans.’
Domestic details reveal what newspapers failed to mention. The Southern matron’s inseparability from her heavy ring of keys was remarked upon by various visitors of the period. A woman whose principle occupation is keeping her domain under lock and key passes no door without anxiety. House slaves were routinely rewarded for spying on their fellows, sometimes members of their own families, who lived in the slave quarters and toiled in the fields.
The houses the slaves built for their owners on the plantations along theMississippi River still charm visitors to the area today, who line up to be led from room to room by docents in antebellum dresses and period wigs. The lumber for the construction came from the trees chopped down on site to clear the ground for the cotton and sugar crops that would make their owners rich enough to educate their sons in France. These are grand houses built to last, with tall windows that open to wide verandas and high-ceilinged rooms filled with light and air. Every house has a history, and most have a ghost story attached. Though it may be pleasant to wander through the cool rooms and have a drink on the veranda on a steamy afternoon, one doesn’t care to linger too long. The ghost is generally the vengeful spirit of someone who committed suicide or was murdered, a woman, or a slave, or a bankrupted gentleman, someone for whom this place was suffocating, cruel and dark. Someone who hated it here.
Towards the end of the publication process of this novel, I was asked to write a description of its contents. My summary –‘a tour of hell with a guide who works for the management’ – didn’t make it into the jacket copy. I offer it here as a fitting conclusion to this introduction.Here is your ticket, dear reader. Turn this page and meet your guide.
1. Society in America, Harriet Martineau (Transaction Books, 1991)