A Romance of the Republic

March 7, 2008

I recently finished a book by Lydia Maria Child called A Romance of the Republic. Child was a well-known children’s author before the Civil War, but she made herself unpopular by openly espousing abolitionist views. She wrote this novel after the war, but according to the professor who recommended that I read it, it didn’t go over very well.

I wrote a summary of it, but it’s ridiculously long, so I’m going to talk about it a little here and provide a link to the longer summary at the end.

This book is about octoroons. An octoroon was the technical term for the child of a white person and a quadroon. A quadroon was the offspring of a white person and a mulatto. And so on. In other words, the two protagonists are one eighth black, but the word ‘octoroon’ is far more fun. Say it out loud. Doesn’t it kind of sound like ‘nectarine’?

I think octoroons must’ve been used to criticize slavery often. One of the characters, a Mr. Bright, says that he was converted to abolitionism by seeing an advertisement about an escaped slave who was described as having sandy hair, blue eyes, and a ruddy complexion. You get the idea.

The two octoroons of this novel are young women, not sandy-hired and blue-eyed, but Italian-looking, and very beautiful. Their names are Rosabella and Floracita, and they’ve been brought up not knowing that their mother was a slave. Their father’s death, and the plans of his creditors to sell the girls in order to pay his debts, sends them off on a series of adventures, which end up separating them for over twenty years.

It’s a typical, melodramatic sentimental novel: there’s a false marriage with a man named Gerald Fitzgerald, babies switched at birth, hints of incest, estranged relatives, narrow escapes, and lots of instances where the two sisters just miss being reunited — pretty much everything one could possibly want. Rosa even has a short but successful career as an opera singer. And there end up being three Gerald Fitzgeralds.

So. Which is more fun to say? ‘Octoroon’ or ‘Gerald Fitzgerald’?

Full summary and family tree here.

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