Author of the John Chase/Penelope Wolfe Regency Mysteries
Readers of Georgette Heyer's Regency novels are familiar with her references to skin care products such as Denmark Lotion or Olympian Dew. A young lady's fair and blooming complexion could be just as critical to her success as her dowry and social position. Then, as now, those with unsightly spots sought to avoid embarrassment. But the ideal of complexion went much deeper than that. It was, in fact, tied to anxieties about Britain's Empire, notions of proper Englishness, and the desire to maintain boundaries of class and race.
In my novel On a Desert Shore, Marina Garrod receives every advantage of the privileged young lady. Rumored to be the heiress to vast wealth, she debuts in Society with the hope of making an eligible alliance. But to bigoted eyes, there's a problem. All her father's money cannot make her into a genuine “English Rose” (pink cheeks and red lips with pale skin)—for Marina is the daughter of a Jamaican planter and his slave-housekeeper. My novel is about Marina's plight in the England of 1813, a time when attitudes toward race were hardening, in part because of growing fears of cultural and racial contamination.
Her experience as a mixed-race heiress in Georgian England was not unique. In his dissertation entitled Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed Race Migration from the West Indies to Britain, 1750-1820, Dan Livesay estimates that, by the end of the 18th century, as many as a quarter of rich Jamaicans with children of color sent them home to England to live in a free society. On the whole these children were the lucky ones who had escaped the astoundingly brutal and oppressive sugar island. Still, families sometimes challenged the inheritances of their mixed-race kin, and the position of these young people would have been equivocal. It's difficult to imagine how they might have felt. While Britain had halted its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery itself endured for several more decades in the colonies. Apologists for the institution, like Marina's father, failed to justify a practice that was increasingly seen, according to the poet S.T. Coleridge, as “blotched all over with one leprosy of evil.” Here Coleridge refers to the arguments of West India merchants and slave owners, calling them “cosmetics” designed to conceal a horrible reality.
Deirdre Coleman asserts that the British public of the day had a “fascination with complexion.” And my research revealed that this was especially true of white Creole women (Creole is an ambiguous term that sometimes meant the Blacks of Jamaica and sometimes a person of any race who had spent a lot of time there). I encountered stories of the white Creole women's attempts to preserve their complexions so that when they returned to England they could seem like legitimate English roses. They wore elaborate sunshades and even flayed their skin with the caustic oil of the cashew nut! Often they created what even some contemporaries called an artificial and unhealthy pallor.
Why? This was a society in which all-powerful white men exploited black women at their own whim and will, a society in which wives were often confronted with the humiliating results of open infidelity—their husbands' slave children. It was important to the Creole ladies, whose skin could become tanned or weathered in the tropical climate, to maintain strict boundaries through their complexions. In other words, “whiteness” as a marker of status and breeding. But, ironically in this racially mixed society, it might not be possible to determine someone's precise background just by looking. There might have been little visible difference between a Creole lady and her husband's mulatta or quadroon concubine.
When a woman named Janet Schaw traveled to North America and the West Indies between 1774-76, she wrote in her diary about putting on and off her delicacy “like any piece of dress.” To me, this points to the performative aspect of femininity. A woman can don a mask of beauty and gentility to further her ends or play her role in society. This is precisely what Marina cannot do to her tormenters' satisfaction. And yet she is not afraid to express her fellow feeling with African slaves or her contempt for slavery. You will have to read the book to find out what happens after her failed London season. In essence, she is shipwrecked “on a desert shore” in an alien land, even though she is half English and has been mostly reared in England. She is no true English rose.
There's an unforgettable scene in another novel, an anonymous abolitionist work of 1808 called The Woman of Colour, which introduces Olivia Fairfield, the natural daughter of a West Indian planter and a slave. Like Marina Garrod, Olivia travels to England. In the scene a curious little boy at a tea party compares his hand to Olivia's, interrogating her about her skin color. Her response: “The same God that made you made me…[as well as my servant Dido, a] poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of this world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido's, and as yellow as mine…”
Which leaves us with one of my favorite Shakespearean sonnets, a satiric poem making the point that, after all, what we deem beauty has nothing to do with outward show. After criticizing his beloved for her varied imperfections, including the lack of “roses” in her cheeks, the speaker says: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.”
An English Rose
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The famous portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Belle was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer. After Lindsay brought his daughter to England, she lived with the Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, at Kenwood House in Hampstead.
Much speculation has arisen in regard to this portrait, whose artist is uncertain. Why does Belle point at her own cheek in a curiously awkward gesture? Perhaps she calls attention to her contrasting complexion in order to suggest that any difference is only “skin deep.”