Representation of sugar in George Eliot's "Brother Jacob" and Matthew Lewis' "Journal of a West India Proprietor"
Elaboration 2018 13 Pages
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“There is something about sugarcane, he isn’t what he seem---”1. At first sight the sweet pleasure of sugar as we know it today and as we use it in our every-day life, might seem nothing but that, an innocent pleasure. But in times of the British colonies, where the history of sugar begins, it was so much more than that. The background of sugar is marked by oppression and violence. George Eliot’s Brother Jacob and Matthew Lewis’ Journal of a West India Proprietor are just two examples of literature which tell us about the representation of sugar and which make it clear that sugar isn’t what it might seem. Both books have been released in the 19th century, with one difference though. Brother Jacob was written after the Emancipation Act took place whereas Lewis’ Journal was written years before. The two stories show different representations of sugar under the light of slavery and colonialism. Since the 17th century sugar plantations in the West Indies were the main source of work and profit. As the West Indies were British colonies, many British business men became plantation owners. Their slaves worked under different conditions for their masters, most of them suffering a lot. But when the sugar was imported into Great Britain nothing reminded about the brutal way in which it was produced anymore. “On July 28, 1833, the Emancipation Act was passed in England, to take effect on August 1, 1834, but it emancipated only children under six, and “apprenticed” domestic and non-field workers to their former masters for a period of four year and plantation workers for six years”2. This was a huge step against slavery. But still the slaves had to stay on the sugar plantations and some of them still worked under bad conditions. Brother Jacob shows an example of the representation of sugar in a small town in Britain itself, whereas The Journal of a West Indian Proprietor rather represents the sugar production and life on the plantations in the colonies. This essay will look at different representations of sugar in the two works and will compare them to each other.
In Brother Jacob sugar plays an important role, as the novel’s main character David Faux is specialized in the art of confection. “While sugar is central to ‘Brother Jacob’ itself, it is not, for some considerable time to come, a subject with which subsequent texts in Eliot’s literary tradition are inclined to engage to any great degree”3. The novella was written in 1860 and first published in 1864 but the story is set in the early 1820s where the Emancipation Act has not taken place yet and where sugar played an immense role, as for the first time, sugar confections were easily accessible for all of society”4. This made sugar a desirable product. To the young David Faux the confectioner business seems like paradise. While he walks by the windows of a confectioner’s shop at the beginning of the story, and he sees all the varieties of sweet confections, “a confectioner seems to him a very prince”5. But in reality, the job of a confectioner is not that great, as David has to learn over time. He is too young to see that the business isn’t as perfect as he thinks. “Among the many fatalities attending the bloom of young desire, that of blindly taking to the confectionary line has not, perhaps, been sufficiently considered”6. He is seduced into the art of confection by the sweet pleasure sugar represents to him. The way Eliot describes the windows of the confectioner’s shop and the variety of sweets makes sugar seem like art rather than just something to eat. David’s view of sugar is innocent and the brutal background of the production does not come to his mind. Even though “sugar – in the middle decades of the nineteenth century in England, was the focus of intense moral and economic debate over slavery, emancipation, free trade, and social definition”7. But as the story is set in the 1820s it might not have been such a present thought yet. Nevertheless, Eliot keeps the truth of the West Indies constantly in the background of the story. The confectioner’s business is not seen as a high confession in society and there is no option to move up. This is why David decides to settle upon the West Indies which he sees “as the alternative guarantor of personal prosperity and status”8. “The story artfully integrates the theme of England’s trade in West Indian sugar with a critique of fantastic and ignorant assumptions about ‘the Indies’”9. It appears that it would make sense to move to the place where the source of sugar lies, since David is already dependent on the sugar for his business. But to move there he needs money which he is willing to steal from his own mother. He justifies his wrong behaviour by the words: “If his mother would have given him her twenty guineas as a reward of this noble disposition, he really would not have stolen them from her”10. This desperate decision and justification show how little the sugar business gains him. Sugar is represented as something special and precious but at the same time it is unable to earn David Faux enough money. Nevertheless, he wants to migrate to the West Indies to expand his confectionery business, as the West Indies are the place where all the sugar is produced. The West Indies appear to him like the land of opportunities11.
But while stealing the guineas (old British coins) from his mother, he almost gets caught by his younger brother Jacob. The yellow lozenges which he has in his pocket play an important role here. Faux describes Jacob as an idiot and normally he wouldn’t see him worth as giving his precious sweets to12. But to get away he offers Jacob the lozenges. “The pastilles produce a sensational effect upon their recipient, initiating Jacob into a utopian world of tastes”13, because he has never tasted anything similar before and is used to simple food. The sweet confections save David Faux in that situation because Jacob is so fascinated by the unknown pleasure of the yellow lozenges that he forgets about what he has seen.
“David schemes to escape the social barriers of his confectioner’s profession and remake himself in the West Indies”14. But the truth is, that he does not find the success he was expecting to find in the new country. The reader does not know much about Faux’s time in Jamaica. There is nothing said about slavery or the sugar production in particular, nevertheless we know that he returns and goes back to his old business, in a new town, as he can’t go back to his family after he has stolen from his mother.
He starts a new life in Grimworth. Only that he has been to the West Indies puts him in a better position in the eyes of his future father-in-law and the rest of the society. Confectionery still is not seen as a high profession but the fact that he has been to a strange country earns him some reputation. “Confectionery functions as a trope for the very yoking of domestic gratification and colonial oppression, white pleasure and black pain which it brings about”15. In this sense Eliot is being ironic because what Faux sees as paradise is hell for the sugar plantation slaves. When he is back from the West Indies he returns as a different person, even with a new name: Edward Freely. “The confectioner’s art becomes a means to power, used against others as it had once been used against him”16. He is charming them because he can tell stories from a different world. Especially as his main costumers are middle-class housewives. For them sugar represents the tropical and exotic17 which makes Edward Freely an interesting new inhabitant of Grimworth. “The desire for David’s confections is demonstrably created by conventional imperial desires”18. The housewives like Mrs. Steene even prefer Freely’s confections over their own as do their husbands19.
“Eliot also treats sugar as a commodity capable of disguising labor: the labor of the slaves who produce it for the free market, the labor of the housewives it displaces, and the labor of David himself”20. That seems true as the housewives stop cooking and baking their own goods and instead buy them at Freely’s. Eliot doesn’t say anything in particular about the work of the slaves. But there is no other source of sugar and David’s connection to the West Indies also origins in the production of sugar there.
David himself just forms the sugar into a variety of confections. He lives in Grimworth for a while and is quite succesful. “But Jacob, who has come to identify David with the rare pleasures of candy, tracks him down in Grimworth”21. So his confectionery business ultimately is the reason why his brother finds him and exposes his fake identity to the town and therefore destroys David’s future with his future wife Penny. Sugar has made David Faux successful for a while and saved him out of a risky situation once but in the end, it is the reason why all his lies are being exposed.
Matthew Lewis’ Journal of a West India Proprietor represents quite a different face of sugar. The Journal was written by Lewis between 1816 and 1818 and first released in 1834, years after it was written. By then the Emancipation Act had just taken place. Lewis works as a plantation owner in the West Indies. He has two Jamaican sugar plantations which he inherited from his father22. His journal shows insights into the plantation life and the making of sugar and it represents sugar in the light of slave’s labour. “Lewis (…) figures the Caribbean sugar estate as a kind of utopia, purified of all that made slavery so anathema to its opponents”23. He describes the plantation as a beautiful place and even the slaves as happy. “…all these human beings were my slaves; - to be sure, I never saw people look more happy in my life; and I believe their condition to be much more comfortable than that of the labourers in Great Britain; and, after all, slavery, in their case is but another name for servitude, now that no more negroes can be forcibly carried way from Africa”24. Despite of the bad image that sugar plantations normally evoke, where slaves are being controlled by the overseers and punished by whips, Lewis offers a view on sugar plantations which stands in complete contrast to those horrible scenes. He shows an utopian image of slavery wherefore “Lewis is able both to legitimate his involvement in the system and to defuse any emancipationist criticisms he might incur”25. Especially as the Journal appeared around the time of the Emancipation Act where slaves had to be treated under better conditions. He doesn’t use violence on his slaves, “in contrast to the normative practice of other Jamaican sugar estates”26. On the other hand, he just keeps quiet about the negative aspects of the sugar plantations such as oppression and sexual and racial violence27 even though there are still some incidents of violence which appear in the Journal, not just between overseers and slaves, but between the blacks themselves. Especially on his visit on his second plantation Hordley Matthew Lewis is confronted with oppression and violence. This reminds the reader again that sugar is not as innocent as it seems even though that is how Lewis tries to represent it in some of his passages. But not even on an utopian plantation like Lewis’s, sugar stands completely without any connection to violence and blood. “Another tactic Lewis uses to deflect attention away from the physical realities of slavery, thus mitigating the depiction of its harsh reality, is his focus on his slaves’ feelings”28. He talks to his slaves and gives them the medical care they need. “Lewis’s emphasis on the judicial and benevolent aspects of his role at the expense of his interests as a sugar producer shows his embrace of family tradition”29.
1 Grace Nichols, “Sugar Cane” In I is a Long Memoried Woman, London: Karnak, 2012: 36
2 Elizabeth Abbott, Sugar: A Bittersweet History, London: Duckworth Overlook, 2008: 254-255
3 Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar, Liverpool: Liverpool University, 2009: 96
4 Susan de Sola Rodstein, “Sweetness and Dark: George Eliot’s ‘Brother Jacob’” Modern Language Quarterly 52.3, 1991: 299
5 George Eliot, The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob, New York: Oxford University, 2009: 49
6 Eliot 2009: 49
7 Susan de Sola Rodstein, “Sweetness and Dark: George Eliot’s ‘Brother Jacob’” Modern Language Quarterly 52.3, 1991: 295
8 Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar, Liverpool: Liverpool University, 2009: 79
9 Nancy Henry, George Eliot and the British Empire, New York: Cambridge, 2003: 86
10 George Eliot, The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob, New York: Oxford University, 2009: 52
11 Henry 2003: 21
12 Eliot 2009: 53
13 Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar, Liverpool: Liverpool University, 2009: 83
14 Susan de Sola Rodstein, “Sweetness and Dark: George Eliot’s ‘Brother Jacob’” Modern Language Quarterly 52.3, 1991: 296
15 Plasa 2009: 79
16 Plasa 2009: 86
17 Susan de Sola Rodstein, “Sweetness and Dark: George Eliot’s ‘Brother Jacob’” Modern Language Quarterly 52.3, 1991: 302
18 De Sola Rodstein 1991: 297
19 George Eliot, The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob, New York: Oxford University, 2009 : 65
20 De Sola Rodstein 1991: 302
21 De Sola Rodstein 1991: 297
22 Elizabeth A. Bohls, “The Planter Picturesque: Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor” European Romantic Review 13.1, 2002
23 Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar, Liverpool: Liverpool University, 2009: 4
24 Matthew G. Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor, New York: Cosimo, 2008: 62
25 Carl Plasa, Slaves to Sweetness: British and Caribbean Literatures of Sugar, Liverpool: Liverpool University, 2009: 54
26 Plasa 2009: 61
27 Plasa 2009: 56
28 Lisa Ann Robertson, “’Sensible’ Slavery” Prose Studies 29.2, 2007: 227
29 Maureen Harkin, “Matthew Lewis’s Journal of a West India Proprietor: Surveillance and Space on the Plantation” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 24.2, 2002: 142