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Desire and Dread

Property

by Valerie Martin
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 196 pp., $23.95

Deep in the dark xenophobic soul of humankind there would seem to be a special terror of miscegenation: the “mixing”—“mongrelization”—of races. Where one race imagines itself as purer, closer to divinity than others, the terror may involve extreme acts of violence, even genocide. It seems self-evident that cultural, social, religious taboos are simply traditional ways of assigning a questionable objective value to primitive drives. For most of us, taboos lie too deep for introspection, let alone exorcism. We can analyze the biological underpinnings of taboos regarding incest, for instance, but we would probably not wish to attempt to violate them.

Valerie Martin’s eighth novel, Property, begins with the cryptic and prescient remark: “It never ends.” As in a film, we cut immediately to a cinematic scene, viewed through a spyglass by a narrator whose identity and sex we don’t yet know; she will turn out to be the embittered, frustrated young wife, Manon, observing her husband acting out a crude, cruel sex game involving several young Negro boys who are his “property”—he’s a slaveholder, a sugar planter in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, 1828. It is typical of Martin’s technique in this tightly constructed, suspenseful monologue-novel to present actions visually, before explaining them; we find ourselves in Manon’s abject position, forced to observe, unable to intercede. The sex scenario is humiliating to watch:

That’s what the game is for. This boy tries to stay in the water, he hangs his head as he comes out, thinking every thought he can to make the tumescence subside. This is what proves they are brutes, [the white man, Gaudet] says, and have not the power of reason.

The scene makes of the reader a helpless voyeur of Manon’s voyeurist experience of her husband’s voyeurism, which quickly becomes violent, sadistic as he beats the Negro boys for their “raised members”:

Sometimes the offending boy cries out or runs away, but he’s no match for the grown man with his stick. The servant’s tumescence subsides as quickly as the master’s rises, and the latter will last until he gets to the [slave] quarter. If he can find the boy’s mother, and she’s pretty, she will pay dearly for rearing an unnatural child….

Often, as I look through the glass, I hear in my head an incredulous refrain: This is my husband, this is my husband.

Where there is taboo, there is continuous fascination. Where there is dread, there is desire. Property is a deftly sustained meditation upon such paradoxes, given a deeper resonance by its setting and by the unusual perspective of its narrator, a privileged white woman in the slaveholding South who is herself “property” of her husband, nearly as powerless as the slaves who serve her. Near the novel’s end, after one of these slaves has fled the household in disguise as a white man, enjoying some months of freedom before she’s caught, Manon observes that the Negro woman has tasted a freedom she and other white women will never know: “She has traveled about the country as a free white man.”

To be a white man—even an ignorant, uneducated, failing planter like Gaudet—is, of course, to be “free”: for sexual/racial taboos involve only one category of human beings, white women. Miscegenation is an unspeakable horror only if a white woman and a black man couple; that a white woman might give birth to a “mixed-race” baby is an obscenity from which not only custom but legal statutes protect us, while the reverse—white man, black woman, “mulatto” offspring—is common, indeed integral to the society. Mulatto children are everywhere; light-skinned (female) “quadroons” are especially valued as sexual partners for white men. (In a mimicry of white debutantes’ coming-out parties, “quadroons” are described as being presented by their mothers at sumptuous Blue Ribbon Balls held in New Orleans, for the benefit of well-to-do white gentlemen who keep such practices secret from their wives and mothers.) Yet the white female of good family must play her prescribed role, secretly hoping, as Manon does, that her husband will be punished: “Though his ruin entails my own, I long for it.”

It was the lie at the center of everything, the great lie we all supported, tended, and worshiped as if our lives depended upon it, as if, should one person ever speak honestly, the world would crack open and send us all tumbling into a flaming pit. My future was… dark and small…yet it was my duty to pretend I did not know it.

Manon is a vividly presented voice, poised, precociously cynical, mordantly amusing, despairing. We trust her as a truth-teller though we guess that we should not, for her fury at the bad luck of her life, masked as spiritual blankness and paralysis, distorts her vision. We would wish to think that Manon sees through the racist delusions of her society, but of course she does not; it would be a sentimental and unconvincing gesture for the author to isolate Manon in this way, despite the young woman’s intelligence. Not unlike her husband, Manon too is obsessed with race. She is obsessed with the humiliation of having to live intimately not only with her husband’s black mistress Sarah but in the same household with her husband’s and Sarah’s young deaf-mute son, Walter:

So then we had the little bastard running up and down the dining room, putting his grubby fingers in the serving plates, eating from his father’s hand like a dog. Sarah…watched, but she didn’t appear to enjoy the sight much more than I did. The child is a mad creature, like a beautiful and vicious little wildcat…. He has his father’s curly red hair and green eyes, his mother’s golden skin, her full pouting lips. He speaks a strange gibberish even Sarah doesn’t understand. His father dotes on him for a few minutes now and then, but he soon tires of this and sends him away….

At times, Gaudet seems besotted by the retarded child, or by some distended image of himself in him; at other times, Gaudet slaps and beats him, making him howl and run in terror. Walter is the “wild” symbolic offspring of white slaveholder/rapist and black slave/female.

One of the inspired motifs of Property is Manon’s obsession with Sarah. Long before Manon seems to realize it, we understand that Sarah is the only person in Manon’s life who means anything to her. Manon is bitterly jealous of Sarah, and yet Manon admires Sarah; Manon also hates Sarah, thinking she would sell her if she could—but when Manon has the opportunity to sell Sarah for a very good price, after Gaudet’s death, she refuses. From the first she has competed with her husband for Sarah’s intimate attention (“On the pretense that she is of some use to me, I had Sarah in my room all morning…”); wordless scenes between mistress and servant, tenderly and sensuously described by Manon, are surrogates for romantic, erotic experiences:

I bade Sarah brush my hair…. It relaxes me and gives her something to do…. A fly buzzed around, landing on the mirror and crawling over our reflection. “Kill it,” I said. She dropped my hair and took up a swatter. When she had smashed the thing, she wiped it away with a bit of rag. No sooner was this done than another came buzzing in at the window, skittering madly across the ceiling. “Finish my hair,” I said, “and then fill the trap.” She took up my hair, which was already damp with perspiration, and began braiding it. I looked at her reflection, her face intent upon the task, a few drops of moisture on her forehead. She’s an excellent hairdresser…. When she was done, she pinned the braid up and my neck was cool for the first time all day.

The sickly languor of “slaveholding” is subtly communicated here; in her own less assertive way, Manon is as much a despot as her despised husband. Childless, she envies Sarah’s fecundity (though younger than Manon, Sarah has two children) as she envies what she sees as Sarah’s “nerveless”—“inhuman”—state. As Sara is trapped in the claustrophobic close quarters of slavery, so Manon is trapped in the claustrophobic close quarters of marriage, a witness to her husband’s sexual exploitation of the servant girl:

The image of Sarah leaving my husband’s room filled my head…. Her hair was all undone, her eyes bright, she was wearing a loose dressing gown I’d never seen before and a dark mantle pulled over it. I had only the quickest look at her in the lamplight, but I’d seen a great deal…. My head began to hammer. The room was so hot I was suffocating. I staggered to the dresser and poured out a glass of water, drank half of it, then poured the rest down the front of my shift. It was as if someone had slapped me…. I gripped the table and hung my head forward, trembling from head to foot. A feeling of dread came over me as I realized that I was laughing.

Manon never loses an opportunity to denigrate her husband, however obliquely, in Sarah’s hearing; she hopes to establish a bond between them based on their mutual hatred of Gaudet. Manon daringly encourages Sarah to believe that Gaudet suspects her of putting poison in his food, in this way hoping to give Sarah the idea of poisoning him. But Manon is surprised to discover that, unlike her, Sarah shrinks from looking through a spyglass:

Sarah backed away as if I’d asked her to pick up a roach. “No, missus,” she said.

And why not?” I asked.

I don’t like that glass.”

Have you ever looked through it?”

She looked down, shaking her head slowly….

I’d look if I were you,” I said. “You might see something you need to know.”

For answer she took another step back.

Or do you already know everything you need to know?” I said, turning back to the glass.

Manon doesn’t quite realize that she is projecting her embittered, voyeuristic self upon Sarah, as, later in the narrative, she will come to believe that Sarah is involved in her husband’s death during a violent slave insurrection.

Though Manon is vividly individualized, we understand that her experiences as daughter, naive young bride, despoiled and disillusioned wife are representative of her social position. She marries a man she scarcely knows because her parents approve of Gaudet’s background and money; Manon is a very pretty young woman, from a good family, but not rich. As a suitor, Gaudet appealed to her because he seemed mysterious: “I mistook his aloofness for sensitivity.” A seemingly fastidious gentleman who required spotless, scented fresh linens, he impressed Manon by being unable to remain in the city because the sewer stench offended him. Yet this prissy Christian gentleman virtually rapes her on their wedding night:

My invincible stupidity was revealed…. [My husband] pushed the door closed with his boot. Mother’s entire advice had been the word “submit,” but I had no more idea of what I would be submitting to than I had of the workings of a steam engine. A likely metaphor! My husband roared over me like a locomotive. There were moments when it seemed to me his object was to pull my limbs from their joints. I glanced over his shoulder at the mantle clock, anxious to know how long the operation might take. My breasts… were so kneaded and sucked upon I feared they would be blackened by bruises. I wanted to shout to my mother, “Why did you not warn me?” …I looked into my husband’s reddened face, at his eyes, which seemed to start from their sockets, at his lips swollen by his passion. Was there to be no trace of feeling for my helplessness, no tenderness in my marital bed?

It’s a Sadean scene, and Manon’s coolly clinical detachment in speaking of it has a distinctly literary sado-masochistic tone, belying the raw visceral experience being described. Sadean, too, is the unexpected and perhaps not altogether convincing response to Gaudet’s crude copulations:

I was not unhappy. There was the novelty of being greeted by friends who clearly thought I’d done well for myself. My husband had not yet begun his long descent into bankruptcy…. The fury of my husband’s nightly assaults did not abate, but they interested me, and I soon discovered I was strong enough to withstand him. I persisted in the delusion that the intensity of his abandonment was the direct result of some power I had over him…. I went so far as to anticipate his pleasure, I encouraged him, and found some pleasure in it. I entered the fray. Later, when I understood that my sense of having some particular value to him was a delusion, this willingness on my part became a source of deep humiliation.

In time, Manon learns to dose herself with tincture of opium before going to bed so that she can be “perfectly indifferent” to her husband’s sexual rapacity: “I offered neither encouragement nor resistance; I was there and not there at the same time.”

As Manon has demonized her husband, so she has idealized her deceased father, a small-scale slaveholder she wishes to see as “strict and fair” since he used the whip “sparingly” and had his driver administer the sentence: “He said it was wrong that any master be seen raising a whip himself; it demeaned him in the eyes of those who stood by.” Manon’s loathing for her husband partly derives from her father’s self-righteous morality:

…Father deplored the practice of some of his neighbors, who paraded about the town with their mulatto children in tow. That these men were often to be seen singing in church on Sunday morning was one more reason, Father maintained, to have nothing to do with religion. Religion was for the negroes, he said; it was their solace and consolation, as they were ours.

As they were ours! A remarkable statement from a white slaveholder, seeming to suggest as it does the extreme dependency of whites upon their Negro “property.” While to Manon her father is a saint, to the reader he emerges as a priggish hypocrite-racist who has attempted to mollify his conscience by advancing notions of “virtuous” slaveholding. As Manon’s aunt explains to her,

He became obsessed with the negroes. Your mother said it was because he’d not grown up with any. He wrote treatise after treatise on the management of the negro, and he tried to have them published…. Of course he was always being disappointed when his own people ran away, or got drunk and sassed him, or pretended to be sick, or fought among themselves…. He seemed to think somehow he was going to make the negroes believe he was God and his farm was Eden, and they’d all be happy and grateful, which, you know, they never are.

After her mother’s death, Manon discovers a diary kept by her father that reveals the man’s hypocrisy: his “false cheer,” the “charade of feelings he clearly didn’t have.” There are no startling revelations in the diary, just entries of mind-numbing banality concerning cotton production, weather. What mordant poetry in the final entry, made only a few days before the man’s death: “Cold, damp, sowing oats, number wild geese, burning logs, three with pleurisy, misery in the cabins and the house, rain at dark.” The only remarkable fact of Manon’s father’s life seemed to be that he’d committed suicide and had not been murdered as his grieving widow had wished to believe. By the novel’s end, Manon is bereft of her most cherished delusion: “[Father] was an impostor.”

Drawing upon numerous slave narratives compiled by the Library of America, as well as books about the antebellum South like Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s Runaway Slaves, Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, as well as the journals of two Louisiana plantation owners, Valerie Martin allows us to see in Property the exhausting burdens of slaveholding; the excruciating weight of its machinery. It’s a world of ceaseless tension, anxiety; whites’ obsessions with their intransigent and always unpredictable Negro “property”; runaway slaves hiding in swamps like rogue beasts bent upon revenge; impromptu uprisings and premeditated insurrections—

Five hundred slaves had simply gone mad and marched down the river road toward New Orleans, banging drums and waving flags. They killed Major Andry’s son and wounded the major himself, set fire to mills and barns, raided the biggest houses. A stream of planters’ families in wagons and carts, having taken flight in whatever vehicle they could quickly find, preceded the rebels into town.

It took almost ten days to rout the negroes. The governor called out the militia and every patrol in fifty miles. It cost the state so much the treasury was bankrupted…. The heads of the leaders were strung up in the trees all along the river from New Orleans to Major Andry’s plantation, and many a planter took his negroes out to see this display.

—astonishing to realize that it’s only 1828 in this seemingly disintegrating society and there are decades to go before the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. If the obscenity of slaveholding—the making of another into “property”—is dehumanizing, it’s no less dehumanizing to the slaveholder than to the slave. Martin’s white characters, including even Manon, are locked into stultifying roles of pseudo-privilege and deluded noblesse oblige even as their lives are unraveling. On her very deathbed, only a few minutes before she dies a hideous (and graphically described) death from cholera, Manon’s self-absorbed mother berates her for not having been a good wife: how much better her home might be if it included a “proper butler.”

Like previous works of fiction by Valerie Martin,* Property might be described as a novel of ideas in the guise of a darkly erotic romance. It isn’t race or Negroes with whom Manon is obsessed, and her obsession is never theoretical like her father’s: she is unwittingly in love with her servant Sarah, and most of her actions, even when she lashes out bitterly against Sarah, are guided by this thwarted passion. Significantly, there is only one erotic scene in Property, following Manon’s mother’s death, when Manon approaches Sarah as she nurses her baby, falls to her knees before her, and without a word begins to nurse at Sarah’s breast:

…I guided the nipple to my lips and sucked gently. Nothing happened. I took it more deeply into my mouth and sucked from my cheeks. This is what [the infant] does, I thought. At once a sharp, warm jet hit my throat and I swallowed to keep from choking. How thin it was, how sweet! A sensation of utter strangeness came over me, and I struggled not to swoon…. I closed my eyes, swallowing greedily. I was aware of a sound, a sigh, but I was not sure if it came from me or from Sarah. How wonderful I felt, how entirely free. My headache disappeared, my chest seemed to expand, there was a complementary tingling in my own breasts. I opened my eyes and looked at Sarah’s profile…. Her eyes were focused intently on the arm of the settee. She’s afraid to look at me, I thought. And she’s right to be. If she looked at me, I would slap her.

It’s a climactic scene in Property, the despairing (yet still despotic) white woman taking sustenance from her Negro “property” who dares not, in even this moment of astonishing intimacy, look at her.

After Sarah runs away, Manon becomes obsessed with finding her. Her passion, like her husband’s, can only be expressed through physical possession, a self-righteous claiming of “property.” She will not allow Sarah to be sold; she thwarts the possibility of Sarah marrying a freed Negro; she must have Sarah no matter the history between them. By the novel’s end, a grotesque but utterly plausible new marriage has evolved: Manon, with her scarred face and paralyzed arm, the victim of a slave uprising; Sarah, sullen and recalcitrant; the deaf-mute Walter their child. We can see what this ménage will be, how Manon will bait Sarah, and how Sarah will respond:

Does [Walter] remind you of someone?” I said, earning one of her thinly veiled looks of contempt. She took up the urn and leaned over me to fill my cup.

He’s as much your responsibility as mine,” I said. “God knows, I didn’t ask for him, but here he is…. It’s useless to talk about responsibility to you people,” I continued. “You have no sense of it. That’s the gift we give you all. You just run away and we bring you back and you never have the slightest twinge of conscience…. It’s thanks to you I’m a cripple,” I said. “Look at the way I have to eat.”

In the claustrophobic intimacy of their new household, Sarah boasts to Manon how, in the North, she’d been warmly treated by Abolitionists who had not only opened their homes to her, but asked her to sit at their table and drink tea with them. Manon is appropriately jealous, incredulous. “It struck me as perfectly ridiculous. What on earth did they think they were doing?”

A canny question, to be turned back upon the questioner in this subtly cadenced novel of racial and sexual transgressions.

  1. *

    Martin is the author of seven previous novels and two collections of short stories, Love (1977) and The Consolation of Nature (1988). Her best-known work is Mary Reilly (1990), purportedly the diary of the naive, good-hearted young servant girl to Dr. Henry Jekyll and his demonic alter-ego Edward Hyde. More ambitious is The Great Divorce (1994), which juxtaposes contemporary and antebellum New Orleans in a narrative linking three women (one of them a nineteenth-century Creole heiress who crosses the color line in a desperate attempt to be rid of her despotic slaveholder husband). Italian Fever (1999), set in present-day Italy, blurs the lines between Gothic mystery, social cultural comedy, and that reliable sub-genre “sexual awakening, American female abroad.”

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