So now that A SPEAR OF SUMMER GRASS is finally out we can start talking about what went into it! Today it’s Delilah’s backstory–specifically, her American backstory. Initially, she was English and I didn’t give it much thought. But then I started digging into the research. I read masses of memoirs, letters, journals, biographies–all dealing with the colonial experience in British East Africa. Elspeth Huxley’s memoirs were particularly helpful, and she detailed how her mother was expected to care for the native Africans who turned up in their yard looking for medical treatment. (One of my pet subjects to study is early female explorers and it was extremely common for indigenous people to appeal to a white female for medical care. Of course it happened with white male explorers too, but I read far more about the women and the frequency of these incidents in their memoirs is intriguing.)
Reading Huxley I started to think about Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, the brilliant writer who went as a teenaged bride to her husband’s sugar plantation in a remote corner of Venezuela. She ended up ministering to the locals, dispensing antibiotics, and treating all manner of ailments. (Her account of this time in THE HACIENDA is one of the most unforgettable books I have ever read. Like Isak Dinesen, she’s an arch fantasist, but in contrast to Dinesen, she’s sympathetic.) It occurred to me that the expectations placed upon Huxley’s mother–and the other white colonial women–and de Teran were almost precisely the same as those of the women whose families owned plantations under the antebellum system in the American South. [Plantation culture is complex, and I feel obligated to note a disclaimer: slavery is abhorrent. Seeking to understand precisely how the system worked does not endorse this system, nor does it minimize the atrocity of it. It is simply our obligation to understand history as fully as possible, and that means acknowledging all aspects of it.]
Under the plantation system, some 70% of slaves interviewed for slave narratives discussed being cared for by the mistress of the plantation. It was part of her expected duties to concern herself with the health and well-being of everyone who lived on the plantation, black or white. I’ve visited several plantations in Virginia and Louisiana, and the role of mistress as caregiver is a fascinating one–and one I realized had interesting implications for Delilah. My goal was to take a woman who does not seem like a nurturer and thrust her in a position of having to care for others, even grudgingly. Whereas a woman from another type of background might rebel at being asked to administer medical care to native tribes, a woman from the plantation culture in the post-War south was the least likely to refuse because she had been reared with the expectation and example of such care.
It also occurred to me that giving her a southern background would also give her a much greater immediate comfort level with Africans. Many travelers to the south were astonished by the level of intimacy in the relationships between blacks and whites–and sometimes these relationships had been of very long duration. The nature of slavery meant that there were sometimes long histories between the family of the owner and the slave families. (They were also sometimes intimately connected by blood thanks to the interference of white men with their slave women.) Following the war, many emancipated slaves chose to remain at the plantation where they had been born. At Laura plantation, the number was 76%–not surprising when you consider the limited resources for first generation freed slaves and the attractions of familiarity. (For an account of an Englishwoman observing the dynamics of white families with their former slaves, Lady Astor’s maid Rose wrote a memoir that discusses their trip to Virginia to visit Lady A’s family, the Langhornes of Virginia. Rose was puzzled and a little put off to find that there was familiarity and even affection between the races in addition to a disturbingly paternalistic attitude on the part of the whites.) While I didn’t have much room to discuss the specifics of Delilah’s upbringing on the plantation, the mentions of the scenes with Granny and her former slaves engaging in some magical practices together gives an idea of the sort of relationship the women of the family had with the freed slaves who elected to remain at Reveille.
So, the first piece of the puzzle was the expectation that a colonial woman in Africa would provide medical care. The second was that as a product of post-War plantation culture, Delilah would be completely familiar with this practice and much more comfortable doing it than the average settler. The third piece was Delilah’s own medical training. Many women in wartime Britain undertook nursing training to help cope with the relentless tide of casualties. Steady nerves and a strong stomach were assets, and Delilah has those–once she gets through her first amputation. Like the men coming home suffering from shell-shock, the women who saw unimaginable horrors in the triage areas and operating theatres were changed by those experiences. To be truly good in a crisis, Delilah has had to learn how to put her feelings aside and assess a situation, then do what needs to be done. Combined with her upbringing on a southern plantation, Delilah is uniquely qualified to fulfill her expected role in Africa.
Laura Plantation: if you’re in the NOLA area, a visit is highly recommended. It is an early Creole plantation, very different from Oak Alley, which is just down the road. Not only does Laura have original slave quarters still standing and available to visit, there are fascinating books in the gift shop detailing the origin of the character of Br’er Rabbit, the animal trickster scholars believe was developed out of West African folklore to celebrate the slaves’ ability to outwit his master. (There are also Cherokee versions of the Br’er Rabbit stories and scholars still debate if the tales might have had a Native American start and passed into slave culture via contact with native tribes.) There is also an excellent memoir for sale there that details the history of the plantation–of particular interest to those who enjoy reading about women in plantation culture. The estate often passed through the hands of females, and it was a woman who created and managed the extremely profitable sugar enterprise.
If you’re interested in the lives of female settlers in British East Africa/Kenya try these:
*Anything by Elspeth Huxley. Children tend to have a tremendous eye for detail, and Huxley spent her formative years in British East Africa.
*Anything by Errol Trzebinski. Most people don’t realize that her book, SILENCE WILL SPEAK–a bio of Denys Finch Hatton–was just as much the inspiration for the film “Out of Africa” as Dinesen’s book. Her bio of Beryl Markham, aviator and lover of Denys Finch Hatton, is particularly good.
*ISAK DINESEN by Judith Thurman. A MUCH more accurate picture of Karen Blixen that you’ll find in OUT OF AFRICA. Her own account of her life is highly embroidered, and Thurman’s scholarship is painstaking.
*THE BOLTER by Frances Osborne. The bio of Frances’ grandmother, Idina Sackville, the original bolter who left her marriage and children and ended up in Kenya, married to the notorious Joss Hay, Earl of Erroll, whose murder in 1941 remains unsolved to this day.
*THE TEMPTRESS by Paul Spicer. Bio of Alice de Janze, the Earl of Erroll’s mistress and the woman who “claimed” him in death by marking his face with her vaginal secretions as his body lay in the mortuary. She was notorious for her drug use and for shooting a lover in the middle of a Paris train station before turning her gun on herself. She survived and was acquitted.
The most interesting aspect of reading these books is discovering the relationships of these women to each other. Because of their intertwined love affairs, there was a fair bit of sexual jealousy amongst them. Their on-again, off-again friendships, passionate quarrels, and stormy scenes were the stuff of legend amongst the Happy Valley set. (I haven’t even mentioned the garden variety adulterous wives and alcoholics. There are too many of those to count.) Sackville and de Janze were squarely at the heart of the set while Markham and Blixen drifted along the fringes, but they knew all the same people and shared the same gossip–usually about each other. Their letters are full of scandalous stories, and in reading about these women it becomes apparent how alike they were.
None was particularly likeable–thank heavens. A completely likeable character can very easily become a dull character. For interest, a character needs an edge, and these women were SHARP. They were smart, creative, accomplished, and fearless. They flew airplanes and designed houses and grew coffee and hunted lions–and even hand-reared them in the bedroom. They took lovers and left husbands and had children they occasionally forgot about. They also wore beautiful jewels and lined their eyes and colored their hair. In short, they did exactly as they pleased. They took what they loved about being women and elevated it to an art and simply discarded the rest. And that made them perfect role models for Delilah Drummond. Happy reading!