This is post 1 of 3 about The Magazine Novels of Pauline Hopkins (The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, Oxford University Press).
First of all, if you’ve not come across Hopkins before, here’s a good biography of her, found on the Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins Society’s website: http://www.paulinehopkinssociety.org/biography/
Hopkins wrote well before the Harlem Renaissance (which happened around the 1920s): the 3 novels in this book were published as serial fiction between 1901 and 1903. I was interested to see how her work compares to, say, Nella Larsen’s Passing or George S. Schuyler’s Black No More (two works that, though from the same period, could hardly be more dissimilar).
Hopkins firmly believed that fiction could teach readers and contribute to their betterment, and so for her, the novels were a vehicle that could provide insight to her readership. The novels were published in one of the first Black magazines, and the target audience (seeing that there were very few college-educated African Americans at the time, and that literacy was limited among the rest of the population) was small. Hence the effort to make the content as appealing as possible. In order to reach as large an audience as possible, Hopkins clothed complex ideas about race, slavery, freedom, and equality in stories full of action (and, of course, cliffhangers).
The novels are Hagar’s Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice, Winona. A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest, and Of One Blood. Or, The hidden Self. What they share: cases of mistaken identity, characters who pass as white (though some may not know they aren’t white), love, abduction, and dramatic rescues.
Of the three, the last one, Of One Blood, is the most fast-paced and, well, pulpy. By that, I mean that at times it feels like an Indiana Jones or Noir movie.
The plot: The central character is Reuel Briggs, a poor African American genius who passes for white and has studied medicine. There is also his friend, Aubrey Livingston, who has helped him out financially and whom Reuel reveres. One rainy, desolate night, Reuel has a vision of a beautiful woman’s face. When Aubrey takes him to a concert to hear “Negro music,” Reuel is stunned to see this same woman in the choir. Her name is Dianthe Lusk and she is a Negress from the South with a stunningly beautiful voice. He feels they must be destined for each other. Still, for a while after this, nothing happens — Reuel is not exceedingly handsome (like Aubrey) or rich (like Aubrey’s fiancee’s family), so he does not attract any womanly attention, and he also makes no efforts to go after Dianthe. (This may or may not be because of her race.)
Then it’s Halloween, and while at a party, his hostess and some guests decide they should try to see the lady in white that haunts the house next door. Aubrey and Charlie (Aubrey’s fiancee’s brother) each go, alone, and return after some minutes with nothing to report. Finally, it’s Reuel’s turn, and he sees in the darkness a white figure. As the figure approaches, he recognizes her as Dianthe (in ghostly form). She appears to be in distress, so he offers to help her, but she tells him that the time is not yet and that he will help her the next day.
Sure enough, the next morning Reuel is called to the hospital to see a new patient who appears dead but has no injuries. Of course Reuel and Aubrey recognize Dianthe immediately, because the mysterious patient is none other than the beautiful singer. However, they decide not to disclose her identity — she can easily pass for white. Several other physicians have already declared her dead, and when he suggests they might be wrong and he might still be able to help her, they point out that rigor mortis has already set in.
Reuel has some tricks up his sleeve: he has been exploring the question of the world beyond, and what happens when we die. He has also been experimenting with bringing dead animals back to life, and while he had not told anyone about his work in that area, he decides this is the moment to share what he has learned. The other physicians don’t take him seriously but let him proceed, and he manages to bring Dianthe back to life, albeit without any memory of her past. Dianthe’s first words are, “Oh, it is you; I dreamed of you while I slept” (470). Reuel explains that Dainthe was not, in fact, dead, but in “suspended animation” due to a mesmeric trance. Mesmerism, it turns out, is another interest of his.
Dianthe and Reuel have a strong psychic connection, and both assume it must be love (fate?) that draws them to one another. When Reuel finally asks for her hand, she consents. He gets cold feet: being poor was tolerable when it was just him, but he cannot bear the idea of Dianthe living in poverty. He turns to his friend Aubrey for help, but instead of money, Aubrey offers him a job that will take him away for two years and pay handsomely: an expedition to Africa. The two lovers are married the same day he leaves for Britain to join the expedition. What neither of them knows is that Aubrey passionately desires Dianthe and will do anything to get her (hence sending Reuel to Africa instead of helping him out). To this end, Aubrey instructs a servant / former slave (who is going with Reuel and Charlie) to kill Reuel within the first 6 months of the journey.
There are more visions, a ghost (Mira) appears, and things get complicated.
While Reuel barely escapes being devoured by a leopard, travels through the desert and helps a scientist look for ancient treasures of an Ethiopian civilization, Dianthe’s memory returns and she realizes she is black. She confides in Aubrey, believing him to be a true friend. Aubrey convinces her that Reuel could never accept her if he knew, but that he (Aubrey) is willing to love her as she is and disregard the shame of her black blood. Dianthe is in shock. Aubrey drowns his fiancee (making it look like an accident) so he can marry Dianthe, whom he convinces that Reuel is likely dead anyway.
In the meantime, Reuel is told (thanks to Aubrey) that his beloved Dianthe has drowned with the other woman. He sees no reason to keep living if he cannot return to her, so he decides to go seek danger in the mysterious ruins they’ve been exploring. He passes out and wakes to find himself in a hidden city where the Ethiopian civilization (which predates all others) has survived. He finds out that the lotus birthmark on his chest proves him to be the prophesied new king who is to lead the Ethiopians back to glory.
Charlie (his friend) and the servant (hitman) find both the treasure of gold and gemstones AND the deadly snakes as they look for Reuel. With his last breath, the servant tells Reuel the truth about Aubrey and that Dianthe is alive. However, he also tells him that he cannot be with Dianthe because she is his sister. Reuel travels back to America to save Dianthe from Aubrey. In the meantime, Dianthe has found out that Aubrey has lied to her about Reuel being dead etc, and she meets her grandmother, an old slave woman in a hut in the forest. She finds out not only that Reuel is her brother, but Aubrey is, too! He was raised as the master’s son (which he was, albeit with the slave Mira) without the master’s knowledge.
By this time, all central characters (except Charlie, if you count him as central) have turned out to be more / different than what they appear, and Hopkins has snuck in several passages from Milton and others, as well as a brief history of the African people. The didactic moves in this novel are more overt than in the others, and maybe more heavy-handed (there’s a song / recitation — quite obviously meant as a lecture for the reader — that stretches over a number of pages and switches between prose and verse, for example). The plot is more sensational, with supernatural elements that are not found in the other two novels.
The last chapters are downright Shakespearean: Dianthe, knowing in her heart she cannot be untrue to her husband — even if he cannot be her husband because he is her brother — and that she cannot stay with her ‘new’ husband, because he is also her brother, decides to poison him. This decision is guided by another supernatural event — she hears a voice tell her the name of a poison that cannot be detected, something she learned about from Reuel.
Aubrey discovers her plot and makes her drink the poison. He cannot bear to wait around for her to die, so he leaves. Reuel and his companions arrive just in time for the loving brother and sister to embrace one last time. Aubrey, seeing a vision of Dianthe, believes she must have survived, so he returns to the estate and is captured by Reuel’s men. The Ethiopian priest then uses mesmerism to cause Aubrey to commit suicide, since under ancient Ethiopian law, a member of the King’s lineage must be his / her own executioner. Reuel returns to Africa to reign with the beautiful queen (who looks much like Dianthe) and to teach his new-found people about Christianity and the modern world. The end.
I will leave it at this for now and give each of the other two novels its own blog post, with more discussion as I go along, since this is becoming rather long… The other two novels differ from this one (and from each other!) in a number of ways, so I’ll spend some time on that in the next two posts.