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A Guilty Emancipation: Victorian Fiction and the Legacies of Compensation

  • Lee, Yangjung
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2023
eScholarship - University of California
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This dissertation problematizes the triumphant narrative of Emancipation in the British Empire as a success for abolitionist politics by reading the absence of compensation in Victorian fiction. Despite being a subject of intense public and political debate in the years leading up to Emancipation, the �20 million compensation for enslavers appears strangely removed from nineteenth-century fictional narratives depicting post-Emancipation societies of the British West Indies. “A Guilty Emancipation” examines how a trio of writers—Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins—treated compensation as a structuring absence in their fictional depictions of mid-nineteenth-century Caribbean societies to grapple with changes in race and labor relations precipitated by Emancipation. I argue for a mode of reading that recognizes this erasure as a way of extricating the racist logic that eliminated the very people abused under systems such as slavery, settler colonialism, and imperialism and instead rewarded the perpetrators of systemic injustice. In chapter one, I examine Anthony Trollope’s travelogue The West Indies and the Spanish Main (1859) in relation to his short story “Miss Sarah Jack, of Spanish Town, Jamaica” (1860) to argue that the travelogue lays out the problems of these societies (from the British perspective) such as the absence of a viable workforce, difficult race relations, and the economic troubles of the planter class. The short story, in turn, proposes a fictional resolution to these issues, namely the problematic reinstatement of the enslaved-enslaver relationship by displacing it onto the domestic one between wife and husband. Chapter two demonstrates how Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins’s 1857 Christmas story “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners,” set in the Mosquito Coast of Central America, locates the struggle for racial dominance in labor relations beyond the Caribbean. I argue that the hidden network of global commodity exchange in “The Perils” facilitates a colonial structure that displaces and erases Indigenous peoples in a settler colonial setting. Chapter three turns to Collins’s novel, Armadale (1864-66) to examine his revision of the pro-imperialist stance of “The Perils” and to oppose the structures of Emancipation. I contend that the novel focuses both on the global economic system of slavery and the individuals implicated in it to detail the shift from a social and moral guilt to an amoral issue of property transfers. In this process, the novel exposes how compensation erases the legal liability of enslavers, which in turn signals the obfuscation of social responsibility for slavery.

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