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Title: The antebellum white mistress : culpability and complexity in American women's retrospective fiction
Authors: Robertson, Colleen
Issue Date: 2011
Publisher: Newcastle University
Abstract: This thesis examines the character of the white mistress in retrospective fiction- post hoc works that revisit the slave-narrative tradition to revise the story told about antebellum slavery in the Southern states of America. The figure of the white mistress has been at worst ignored and at best marginalised in much fictional and critical output. I redress the balance by focusing on three novels which foreground the role of the white mistress. Through an exploration of the white mistress in Willa Cather‘s Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940), Sherely Anne Williams‘s Dessa Rose (1987) and Valerie Martin‘s Property (2003), I consider ways in which white female guilt in relation to slavery is represented. By responding to the work of Minrose Gwin, Toni Morrison and Ashraf Rushdy, among others, I extend the critical consideration given to the character of the plantation mistress. In Chapter One I explore how the female slave acts as a counterpoint for the white mistress, beginning by considering three stereotypes commonly associated with nineteenth-century southern women: the belle, the jezebel and the mammy. I argue that these stereotypes not only influence the relationship between the mistress and her slaves, but that the stereotypes themselves are troubled in retrospective fiction. In Chapter Two I explore familial responsibilities for the white mistress in relation to her husband and father and to her children. I argue that these novels expose how family ties are damaged not only for the slave but for the mistress in these novels, complicating any easy interpretation about the mistress‘s guilt. In Chapter Three I address the importance of the plantation setting in fiction about slavery. Specifically, I posit the plantation as a Gothic space for both the white mistress and her female slave, characterised by das unheimliche, claustrophobia and voyeurism. Although the white mistress is the principal focus of only a minority of retrospective novels about slavery, my thesis is driven by the increasing compulsion to confront this character‘s complicity in the South‘s peculiar institution.
Description: Ph.D. Thesis
Appears in Collections:School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics

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