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The View from Belmont

Written by Vladimir Barac and Susan Wanlass for The Caribbean Writer on no date provided

Kevyn Alan Arthur’s The View from Belmont is an epistolary novel, but unlike other epistolary novels, such as those of Samuel Richardson and Tobias Smollett, where the perspective is varied by the accounts of essentially the same events by several writers, The View from Belmont is distinguished by a single epistolary point of view. The letters themselves, however, are commented on by a ‘chorus’ of late twentieth-century Trinidadians, whose principal spokesman, having found these letters in an old apothecary jar, invites a number of his friends to read them and to argue about them as the story unfolds.

Since there is but one letter-writer, Clara Bayley, and her letters are undelivered and undetected for more than a century, the absence of two-way communication and contemporary feedback to her letters may have encouraged Clara’s tendency to think primarily of herself and to act apart from and regardless of any established societal norms. Thus, as early as in her first letter to her ‘dearest friend’ back home, dated December 9, 1822, ‘nearly four months since my dear Henry’s demise,’ the protagonist - the thirty-one year-old widow of the recently deceased planter - revels in her new-found freedom in the New World. Instead of having to follow the subservient roles allotted to females in her native Dorchester, England, the young widow finds herself ‘Ipso facto mistress of the house… also of the Estate, with complete sway over those operations which devolve to my knowledge and authority’ (2).

With this new sense of her own authority, the widow Bayley discovers her freedom to prioritize her own interests and to take charge of her own accounts. It is obvious from her overall predicament that her first concerns are economic. Thus, in her letter of December 10th, 1822 she confesses her need to obtain extension of credit. Moreover, she seeks the assistance of her own financially solvent slave, Bellah, ‘for the purpose of borrowing ready money from her’ (21) It is perhaps her recognition of the financial success and self-reliance of her own slave that prompts Clara to make some general observations - and rationalizations - on the merits of slavery versus the iniquities of the free labor market. She maintains that, while the plantation system ‘works to the mutual advantage of both slave and master’ by providing the latter with ‘a fount of permanent labor’ and assuring the former ‘total care and maintenance... to live without a thought either to their present or future needs,’ a free laborer must ‘report to work sick, or must starve, and must still provide for his own food and clothing and shelter, and for his own medical attention’ (28). Considering the priority of prudent economic policy over any other issues in her position as plantation owner, Clara is prompted to single out Bellah’s accomplishments and her successful mastery of her own affairs as no less than exemplary:

'Bellah is a fine instance of the freedom with which a West Indian slave can conduct his or her own affairs. Each slave is given his or her own provision grounds which they cultivate as they choose and from which they may... sell the produce in the Sunday market in Port of Spain... Bellah regularly purchases ribbons and laces, silk stockings and timbles and thread and other commodities, from trading vessels in the port... and... has established a little huckstery in her quarters in the negro yard. (23-24)'

Ironically, Clara is so impressed by the professional acumen of her slave that Bellah actually becomes her own role model. Thus as Clara herself exclaims, ‘But for the difference in colour,’ one might be hard-pressed to tell ‘who might be here the mistress, and who the slave’(24). In due time, as she surveys the qualities of other members of her plantation, Clara discovers in Kano, another of her nominal slaves, a genuine master of arts. His first and foremost mastery is in culinary arts. So accomplished is Kano as a chef that Clara no longer enjoys ‘good English fare’ (50), and she writes that although ‘he fancies himself something of the village ram - he is a most excellent cook and gardener - coveted by my neighbours’ (24) and by anyone else fortunate enough to have tasted his cooking.

Kano’s second mastery appears to be in the visual arts. Having sensed Clara’s distress over the demise of her lord and master, he displays for her benefit a likeness of the departed, ‘a small carved head, in wood, about the size of a man’s fist, bearing a striking resemblance my late Henry.’ Clara is particularly impressed by the artist’s sensitivity to ‘Henry’s doucer,’ revealed ‘underneath Henry’s dour and often distant manner’ (32). In short, so surprised is she ‘to find such talent and industry, coupled with sensibility to art’ in one of her slaves that he concludes that ‘were he white, and in England, he would be assured of work as a master carver’ (33). But it is finally her obsessive recollection of his rhythmic art of love-making - displayed on the kitchen floor with a female slave -that induces her to consider all her prerogatives as plantation mistress. These prerogatives even include her right to claim her droit de la Madame (106), her own female modification of the traditional droit du Seigneur (105). In doing this, despite her recognition of admirable qualities in her slave, she also appropriates for herself ‘an unexpected benefit of slavery,’ according to which, despite Kano’s accomplishments ‘as a fine specimen - physically - and in terms of artistic sensibilities and his intelligence’ she sees him as ‘in fact, my chattel, my property - to do with as I will!’ (105).

Thus in pursuit of her erotic goal, Kano’s nominal mistress succeeds in becoming his actual mistress. Having devised as subterfuge a project requiring her to measure him for his ‘new trousers,’ she requires him to undergo several fittings, during the course of which she takes matters literally into her ‘own hands’ by having ‘pointedly shifted his pizzle that [she] might better fit him in the inseam’ (119). In the final episode of these fittings, she disrobes, only to find Kano an initially shy and timid slave not quite able to rise to the occasion. However, with extended practice, his performance gradually improves from satisfactory to superb. So impressed is the mistress with her slave that she informs him that she will henceforth require ‘his attendance once or twice a week, but restricted to those periods immediately before and after my catamenia’ (130).

Although in her defiance of societal norms and her ability to pursue sexual fulfillment without any formal changes in her chosen life-style and identity, Clara succeeds in having her cake and eating it, she still has to face one basic biological caveat: her fear of pregnancy. If a widow’s conception of an unwanted white child constituted a major transgression of the standards of social propriety, how much more severe would the transgression be if the child were partly colored? To forestall any such possibility (and also because she now has new amatory interests), Clara decides to ship Kano off to England as a companion to her recently-widowed friend and neighbor. Subsequently, however, in contemplating the unforeseeable consequences of serious romantic relations with a socially attractive wealthy French mulatto planter, André Des Vignes, she fully realizes the stigma associated with mixed-race childbearing in a racially-prejudiced society. Thus, if she were to bear a child to a gentleman as cultured and as caring as André - such a child, although born of an English mother, would, as a quadroon, certainly be considered black, or coloured, and as such would be subject, here in Trinidad, to all the ignominies of the Orders-in-Council that restrict and regulate the activities of the free population in the Colony! (167) Her conclusion could not be more ominous:

My own English child might, as a black, be subject to arrest and whipping at the whim of an intemperate common alguacil! (167-68)

As you can see, though the widow Bayley is egregiously self-serving, especially in her sexploitation of her slave, in the end she is quite insightful in grasping the distorted sense of propriety in nineteenth-century Trinidadian colonial society. As a member of the motley crew of twentieth-century Trinidadians, privileged enough to be the first to read and comment on her undelivered letters, sums up the ultimate meaning of Clara’s story: ‘Well, she is a product of her time, what can I tell you’ (195).

Although The View from Belmont is in essence Clara’s story, written in the genteel style of nineteenth-century English novels, comic relief is provided by the spontaneous responses of contemporary Trinidadians in their light-hearted vernacular joking, and this makes for very enjoyable reading. What is most remarkable about Arthur’s novel, however, is that, as a male writer, he has chosen to present the island’s history from distinctly female perspective. This refreshingly new feminist perspective alone makes the novel well worth reading. And though his work sometimes wanders off into rather salacious eroticism, Arthur definitely does keep the reader’s attention.

This is a review of The View from Belmont

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