Okay, I take it back. …

Okay, I take it back. You know how I said I couldn't tell Cooper's heroines apart? Well, that became less true about a hundred pages in -- Cora, the elder one, was stalwart and resolute, while Alice, the younger one, was fragile and fainting. They started reminding me of Scott's Rebecca (the courageous Jewess) and Rowena (the beautiful Saxon girl), respectively. And it's just been revealed that in fact, Cora is one-quarter Jamaican! She looks white (though with dark hair and eyes, as contrasted with Alice's blond blue-eyed beauty), but is actually mulatto. And so, of course, our young hero, Heyward, is unwilling to marry her; he feels repulsed, just as young Ivanhoe could not bring himself to admit any attraction to Rebecca.

It's a little startling, how similar these romantic plots are. Cooper (1826) was writing only a few years after Scott (1819), but in America, not Europe. Still, these must have been among the prevailing ideas of the time. Shelley wrote "The Indian Girl's Song" in 1822, in which (I believe) a white man sings the praises of an Indian (South Asian, I think) lover. Coleridge wrote "Kubla Khan" in 1816. A fascination with the forbidden dark beauty, utterly taboo, but oh, so appealing. And the contrast with the insipid fair beauty, no doubt depicted thus to make the dark even more attractive.

How much of this was conscious, I wonder? Did these authors think about this at all, or were they just picking up what was in the air? In an author's note at the end of Ivanhoe, Scott claims that he didn't hook up Rebecca and Ivanhoe because it wouldn't have been fair to Rebecca to do so -- if she'd been rewarded for her integrity and courage, for all her virtues, with mere mortal happiness, indulging her ill-conceived passion for Ivanhoe, that wouldn't have done her justice. Scott claimed it would bring her more true happiness in the end, to live a life of purity and service to God and man. It's an internally consistent argument, but I'd find it more convincing if Cooper (and the others) weren't telling the same story. The brown-skinned girl never seems to get her man...

To be fair to Scott, at least he didn't kill off Rebecca. Haggard, fifty years later, in 1886, positively seems to delight in beautiful brown women who sacrifice their lives to save their white male lovers. Yuck.

4 thoughts on “Okay, I take it back. …”

  1. If you want to pursue the Blonde/Brunette issue in literature, check out Herman Melville’s MARDI some day. It is pretty much the ultimate story about the contrasting attractions of the two female types. What a pity it is almost unreadable, even as it is irresistable. If he hadn’t written PIERRE, it would be the toughest slog in American literature (not counting Henry James).

  2. Heh. I’ll put it on my ‘someday’ list — until the end of April, nothing that’s not on the exam list gets even thought about, and after that, I suspect I’m going to drown in the fluffiest fiction I can find for a while…or possibly not read at all — shocking! 🙂 But thanks for the recommendation…

    You’re not the same GAK we used as an illustrator at SH, right? It’s a C instead of a K, but I figured it might be similar enough… In any case, welcome. 🙂

  3. No, I have read you for years but have not interacted with you, though, I have trod your academic trail myself. (I have a UC degree, too.) I often repress answers or good advice, but this comment feature may tempt me beyond my own restraint. I have found you to be an admirable and interesting and attractive personality. And a good writer, though you have an inexplicable interest in SF and fantasy and post-modern criticism. Each to his own, I guess.

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