- The Interracial Marriage Plot:Suicide and the Politics of Blood in Romantic-era Women's Fiction
The term "Romantic suicide" tends to evoke sentimental modes of personal expression associated with well-known white men like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Werther, John Keats, and Thomas Chatterton. Yet as a number of scholars—including many contributors to this volume—have recently demonstrated, the idea of suicide was just as commonly used to explore a range of complex sociopolitical questions. We are only now beginning to appreciate the full scope of what suicide signified in Romantic-era culture: for example, how these writers used the notion of an individual's right to their own body to interrogate liberal notions of gendered subjectivity; how legal challenges to the criminality of suicide defied long-accepted ideas about the individual's relationship to the state and called forth new debates about national identity; and how the use of suicide in anti-slavery discourses highlighted contradictory ideas about the meaning of freedom and thus helped to reveal liberalism's inability to escape or deny its complicity with racialized exclusion.1
Like suicide, incest is ubiquitous in Romantic literary culture. Its highly evocative symbolic capacity enables equally potent social critiques. This essay considers the complementary functions of incest and suicide in three early nineteenth-century women's texts. Maria Edgeworth's Belinda, an anonymous short story long attributed to Edgeworth called "Love and Suicide," and Mary Shelley's Mathilda mine the political signification of incest and suicide in order to explore interlocking structures of inequality that underwrite liberal modernity. Belinda and "Love and Suicide" register anxieties about ongoing changes to European social hierarchies along the axes of race and class, while Mathilda extends these critiques to consider how racism and classism are indissoluble from patriarchy. Using notions of blood purity inherent in the idea of incest to call forward long-held assumptions of whiteness in constructs of the properly "English" family, these texts grapple with changing notions of British culture and national identity, and, in the process, they reveal liberalism's precarious relationship to the social imbalances it purports to correct. [End Page 1]
Although they would seem to be totally oppositional, taboos around incest and marital or sexual relations between people of different racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds both boil down to an obsession with blood purity. Werner Sollors's extensive body of work on this topic has demonstrated how over the course of the nineteenth century, seemingly unrelated fears about incest (the ultimate form of endogamy) and miscegenation (a form of exogamy) became conflated in legal and literary language, such that the term "intermarriage" came to mean both. Sollors draws on the work of the sociologist Robert K. Merton to explain how this phenomenon developed linguistically:
Incestuous marriages are often termed intermarriage. This would appear to be an instance of the rhetorical fallacy of catachresis, in which one term is wrongly put for another. Its source is possibly the following. In lay language, the term intermarriage commonly denotes those marriages which deviate from endogamous norms. This attribute of non-conformity and group disapproval has come to be the identifying characteristic of intermarriage. Hence, incestuous marriage—which is also commonly condemned, comes mistakenly to be assimilated to the category of intermarriage, which is interpreted as tabooed marriage.(qtd. in Sollors 315; emphasis in original)
Much more has been made of this strange conflation in American literary studies, even as the marriage plot's negotiation of endogamy and exogamy continues to draw considerable interest among scholars of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British culture. This is likely because England, unlike the United States, did not legally prohibit interracial marriage. Still, even a cursory survey of the cultural milieu in England reveals highly vexed views on the subject.
In a 1788 editorial in The Public Advertiser, Olaudah Equiano writes in favor of the "open, free, and generous love upon Nature's own wide and extensive plan . . . without distinction of the colour of a skin" (332). Equiano, who would marry a white woman, Susannah Cullen, in 1792, presents his support of sexual freedom as a strategy to assuage racial tensions in England:
The mutual commerce...