Woman of Colour refutes Barbauld’s idea in her Epistle to William Wilberforce that the mistreated and oppressed become viceful. Barbauld writes her epistle in the eighteenth century when former and current slaves were not considered whole people. A part of her epistle describes how the tragedies inflicted upon the oppressed is a sort of, “venom” that gains the “milky innocence” of the enslaved person (55). However, Woman of Colour an epistolary novel written anonymously in the eighteenth century refutes this idea by telling the story of Olivia, the novel’s main protagonist. The novel describes Olivia as coming from the roots of slavery and is consistently prejudiced in the novel. However, she does not become viceful. Instead, Olivia becomes virtuous and exhibits no signs of contempt or hatred to the ones who hold her in contempt.
Barbauld articulates the idea oppressed people become viceful due to the nature of their enslavement. But they can also become virtuous as Woman of Colour reveals. The nature of prejudice and oppression takes away a person’s identity and criticizes it. Causing one to be deprived of happiness in such a state. It is this depravity in oppressed people that Barbauld hones in on to demonstrate its effects. Barbauld describes oppressed people in her epistle as,
“Each vive, to minds deprav’d by bondage known with sure contagion fastens on his own; in sickly languors melts his nervelessly frame, and blows to rage impetuous passion’s flame: fermenting swift, the fiery venom gains the milky innocence of infant veins; there swells the stubborn will, damps learning’s fire, the whirlwind wakes of uncontroul’d desire, sears the young heart to images of woe, and blasts the buds of virtue as they blow.” (50-56)
Barbauld, first, describes the mind of the people in oppression as being “deprav’d” by their “bondage” (50). Barbauld further describes, it is the depraved mind of enslaved people that become vulnerable to “vice” leading to the “contagion” of vice that “fastens” (53) itself to the mind. Barbauld leaves out any mention of the oppressed person fighting back and becoming virtuous despite their enslavement. Barbauld describes the effects of bondage on the oppressed, “blasts the buds of virtue” (56). Barbauld attaches no possibility of virtue as becoming a characteristic of the oppressed person. Taking away the buds of a flower prevents any further growth of the flower. Barbauld describes virtue as a “bud”, this suggests that virtue was minuscule, negligible, in the oppressed prior to being destroyed entirely. Woman of Colour focuses on the opposite.
The novel exemplifies the virtues of the oppressed and how their virtues grow, instead of being destroyed. Woman of Colour rejects the idea that the reaction to oppression is hatred. Olivia is the character in the novel that is writing the epistles that compose the novel. Olivia is met with prejudice in her interactions with the English community due to her black complexion. However, the prejudice does not deprive Olivia nor does it fill her with anger. Olivia maintains her strength as a black person who comes from the history of slavery. Olivia recounts an experience she had at a ballroom,
“…a stare of effrontery, eyed your Olivia, as if they had been admitted purposely to see the untamed savage at a shilling a piece! While Augustus, was engaged in conversation at a little distance, I heard one of these animals say to another—“Come, let’s have a stare at Gusty’s black princess!” (Kindle locations 1519).
In face of this prejudice, Barbauld would expect the oppressed to become controlled with vice and anger. Olivia being seen as an “untamed savage” is a testament to what her skin color portrays to the white elites of England in the eighteenth century. To the noblemen at the party, she is nothing but a sight to behold for a “shilling a piece” (1519). But, Olivia gives a profound reaction to what she was subjected to,
“I see a compound of folly and dissimulation— but hold! let me not be harsh or hasty in my judgement, a ball-room is not the place to meet with the persons I expected, neither must I look for them within the circle of Mrs. Merton’s friends.” (Kindle Locations 1570-1571).
The English elites are supposed to uphold Christian morality like don’t pre-judge others. However, it is Olivia that upholds that virtue. She decides not to be “harsh” in judgment after she was looked on as a savage animal. Instead of being filled with a “venom” as Barbauld would describe, Olivia becomes patient in judgment. In the face of constant prejudice, Olivia maintains and strengthens her virtuous characteristics of compassion and patience. Coming from the roots of slavery and living in the eighteenth century when slavery and torture of black slaves were still evident, viceful nature would be justified as Barbauld expects. Despite that, Olivia’s character refutes this very idea.
Olivia combats racial prejudice by being an example of a virtuous human. Barbauld explains how oppressions creates a “stubborn will” which “damps learning’s fire” (54). Meaning: when one is oppressed, the anger one feels towards the oppressor is so strong it prevents anything else from entering the oppressed one’s mind. This swell of stubbornness is far from what occurred to Olivia when she was racially prejudiced by a child. Olivia describes what occurred,
“What do you sigh for, George?” asked Augustus. “I could wish,” said he, looking at me, “that God had made you white, ma’am, because you are so very good-natured; but I will kiss you, if you like.” “Thank you for the wish, my dear child, and for the favour conferred upon me,” said I, pressing his cherub lips to mine. “I am not a little proud of this as I consider it a conquest over prejudice!” (Kindle Locations 1411)
Immediately, Olivia is presented with a problem associated with her skin color. This problem is attached to her through the faulty lenses of a child that grew up in a noble English home. This is a point of interest, because the views on Olivia’s skin are not the child’s alone. The child can only have learned these values of what “good-natured” means, and the association of “good-natured” with being “white” (1411) from his family. So, the child’s innocent misunderstanding is a representative of the malicious cycle of prejudice towards black people like Olivia during the eighteenth century. When Olivia was faced with this, she did not swell up with anger nor “stubborn will” (54). Instead, Olivia showed love and compassion for the child’s innocence, “Thank you for the wish… said I, pressing his cherub lips to mine” (1411). Barbauld’s description depicts the oppressed becoming angry and virtue becoming destroyed because of the oppressors actions, actions such as being prejudiced and considered subhuman like how Olivia is treated. The mistreatment of Oliva does not create a anger nor does it deprive Olivia’s mind and inundate it with a “contagion” (53) of vice. This idea is not emphasized in Woman of Colour and notably not in the character of Olivia , the idea is refuted by the way Olivia reacts to her mistreatment— virtuously.
Barbauld. Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the rejection of the bill for abolishing the slave trade. By Anna Letitia Barbauld. Printed for J. Johnson, 1791.
Dominique, Lyndon Janson, Editor. The woman of colour. Broadview Press, 2008, Kindle Edition.