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  • The Complexion of Desire: Racial Ideology and Mid-Eighteenth-Century British Novels
  • Roxann Wheeler (bio)

[A] man ennobles the woman he takes, be she who she will; and adopts her into his own rank, be it what it will: but a woman, though ever so nobly born, debases herself by a mean marriage, and descends from her own rank, to that of him she stoops to marry.

—Samuel Richardson, Pamela (1740)

The lower class of women in England, are remarkably fond of the the course of a few generations more, the English blood will become so contaminated with this mixture,...this alloy may spread so extensively, as even to reach the middle, and then the higher orders of the people, till the whole nation resembles the Portuguese and Moriscos in complexion of skin and baseness of mind.

—Edward Long, Candid Reflections (1772) 1

The eminent Jamaican historian and English patriot Edward Long is possibly the most often-cited racist of the eighteenth century, but his assumptions about the link between complexion and moral probity and the undesirable effects of racial mixture represented an emerging minority position in Britain rather than an established concern. This essay situates Long’s diatribe in its historical context by examining a significant way that Britons construed human differences during the transition [End Page 309] to a modern notion of race. Race was an imprecise term, particularly in the first half of the eighteenth century: savagery, civility, and Christianity were the major concepts that embodied racialized understanding. Nevertheless, race was not always the primary way that Britons expressed differences in appearance, language, or culture when they came in contact with other people; the high rank of individuals could and did override the importance of any other difference throughout the eighteenth century. All of these factors suggest that some narratives, including the intermarriage novels that I discuss, resisted a deterministic conception of race such as the one Long insinuates. By analyzing fictional representations of interracial desire, I show that imaginative visions of human difference correspond only obliquely to colonial practices or scientific inquiry. Because midcentury intermarriage novels bear traces of an older conception of racialized ideology based chiefly on religious difference and on a newer concern with skin color, they capture ideology in transition by juxtaposing two distinct ideas about race. The larger issue at stake is how to theorize race in a manner that accounts for its emergent character and especially for its uneven importance in various cultural, political, and economic realms.


Although race and postcolonial theories have resulted in major critical rethinking of seventeenth-century drama and the nineteenth-century novel, eighteenth-century literary historians have not generally perceived race to be central to their research. By and large, critics have analyzed novels in terms of the emergence of Britain as a national power in Europe, of the rise of the middle classes, of the intensification of agrarian and market capitalism, as well as of a technology of gender. 2 To counter the omission of race, Laura Brown made a case in Ends of Empire (1993) for analyzing eighteenth-century literature in the context of English imperialism, especially the economic exploitation of racial difference. 3 Brown, along with Markman Ellis, Moira Ferguson, and Felicity Nussbaum have recently initiated the study of connections between race and literature, especially in regard to the colonial and imperial aspects of domestic British cultural production. 4

Several problems have characterized most analyses of race and literature in eighteenth-century studies: a failure to treat race as a variable concept and as something that mattered in regard to populations other than Africans. 5 In fact, most discussions of race have been confined to issues of slavery or abolition. 6 Understandably, some critics have thought it useful for political reasons to analyze social formations and literature in black-and-white terms, and this emphasis has raised important issues about the connection between English aesthetic and economic realms. Nevertheless, this line of inquiry has also resulted in an impasse in our understanding of racialized ideology. This exclusive focus has failed to foster a thorough analysis of skin color and other expressions of human difference as they are represented in narratives...

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pp. 309-332
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