Faith Barter: Dickens and the American Passing Narrative

First pub­lished at "Bio­cul­ture Sem­i­nars", 24.02.2013

Ellen Craft dressed as a male; 
image from

N 1850, mar­ried slaves Ellen and William Craft fled their own­ers in Geor­gia. After a pe­ri­od of hid­ing in Boston, the Crafts ul­ti­mate­ly re­lo­cat­ed in Great Britain, where they be­came celebri­ties on the speak­ing cir­cuit. Why were these two fugi­tive slaves so ap­peal­ing to the British pub­lic, who al­ready read wide­ly of slav­ery and slave es­capes? In fact, the story of their es­cape was so dar­ing and so desta­bi­liz­ing for con­cep­tions of race and gen­der that crowds gath­ered just to see the Crafts in per­son. For they had es­caped be­cause Ellen Craft suc­cess­ful­ly passed as a white gen­tle­man, and William posed as her black ser­vant.

By now the story of the Crafts must be ring­ing cer­tain bells for those of us who re­cent­ly read The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. This un­fin­ished Dick­ens novel in­tro­duces us to two char­ac­ters — Neville and He­le­na Land­less — who ap­pear to be in di­a­logue with the Crafts. Rather than a mar­ried cou­ple, this fic­tion­al twin broth­er and sis­ter are or­phans from Cey­lon, a for­mer British colo­nial pos­ses­sion in mod­ern-day Sri Lanka. Clear­ly racial oth­ers in the book, the dark-skinned Land­less sib­lings are “both very dark, and very rich in colour; she of al­most the gipsy type; some­thing un­tamed about them both . . . yet with­al a cer­tain air of being the ob­jects of the chase.” Here the ref­er­ence to the twins as “ob­jects of the chase” re­calls the fig­ure of the Crafts and other flee­ing slaves. Like the Crafts, the Land­less­es are in what is, for them, ap­par­ent­ly for­eign land, and it seems that by their ar­rival in Clois­ter­ham, at least, the chase is over.

With­out ever re­sort­ing to a clas­si­fi­ca­tion of the twins as na­tive Cey­lonese, Dick­ens’s de­scrip­tions make clear that the Land­less­es are not white. Apart from the skin color, Neville is de­scribed as hav­ing “some­thing of the tiger in his dark blood.” By bring­ing in the ref­er­ence to the “tiger,” Neville’s racial sta­tus ex­plic­it­ly in­vokes the East­ern in a pos­si­ble nod to his ori­gins in Cey­lon. More­over, Edwin Drood taunts Neville by say­ing to him, “You may know a black com­mon fel­low, or a black com­mon boast­er, when you see him (and no doubt you have a large ac­quain­tance that way); but you are no judge of white men.” Through­out this pas­sage, it is ev­i­dent that Drood re­gards Neville as not only non-white but also as un­qual­i­fied to pass judg­ment on a white man.

De­spite all of these de­scrip­tions of the Land­less­es as racial oth­ers, nowhere is the com­par­i­son to the Crafts clear­er than in their his­to­ry of es­cape at­tempts. When Neville de­scribes their past to Mr. Crisparkle, he notes He­le­na’s role in plan­ning their flight: “Each time she dressed as a boy, and showed the dar­ing of a man . . . I re­mem­ber, when I lost the pock­et-knife with which she was to have cut her hair short, how des­per­ate­ly she tried to tear it out, or bite it off.” Like Ellen Craft, who passed for a white man, He­le­na Land­less sim­i­lar­ly tried to ef­fect a gen­der trans­for­ma­tion to aid in her own es­cape from the mis­treat­ment that she and her broth­er faced as or­phans. Since the Land­less­es’ racial sta­tus is also in ques­tion, it seems pos­si­ble that they were also pass­ing for white as they made the tran­si­tion to Clois­ter­ham.

So what of the British in­ter­est in pass­ing nar­ra­tives (and slave nar­ra­tives more gen­er­al­ly), and why would this con­nec­tion ap­pear in this par­tic­u­lar work? For one thing, the issue of pass­ing fre­quent­ly in­vokes the lan­guage of blood­lines — the same blood­lines that pre­oc­cu­py so much Vic­to­ri­an fic­tion, in which title to prop­er­ty de­pends ut­ter­ly on blood rights to in­her­i­tance and there­fore es­tates. In­deed, even the name of He­le­na and Neville — Land­less — evokes in Dick­en­sian fash­ion their sta­tus as with­out land. This dou­ble en­ten­dre might refer to the fact that Eng­land is not “theirs” (they are from Cey­lon) but also may be re­fer­ring to their sta­tus as or­phans. The in­abil­i­ty to in­her­it would have left them land­less, of course, and though slav­ery had been abol­ished in the Unit­ed King­dom in 1833, rights to own land rest­ed in­stead large­ly on class.

These fraught blood­lines be­come par­tic­u­lar­ly vex­ing for the Vic­to­ri­an imag­i­na­tion when phe­no­type mys­ti­fies ei­ther race or fam­i­ly re­sem­blance in a way that one in­di­vid­u­al can “pass” for an­oth­er. In this way, fam­i­ly lines, blood­lines, can be in­ter­rupt­ed or cut off or, in an­oth­er kind of mys­ti­fi­ca­tion, phe­no­type and pass­ing can re­veal il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren who re­sem­ble one par­ent but pre­sent as a racial other. Whether or not the Land­less­es are ac­tu­al­ly re-an­i­mat­ed ver­sions of the Crafts is less im­por­tant here. How­ev­er, their ap­pear­ance in the novel seems to be speak­ing to the same Vic­to­ri­an fas­ci­na­tion and anx­i­ety sur­round­ing the in­sta­bil­i­ty of both race and gen­der.