Creole Gothic: Freida Cassin’s “With Silent Tread”

James Ferguson on Freida Cassin’s With Silent Tread, a bizarre gothic noir novel revealing fears of racial impurity in late 19th-century Antigua

  • Illustration by Christopher Cozier

Frieda who? No, hardly a household name in the annals of Caribbean
literature, but With Silent Tread, first published in Antigua around
1890 and now resurrected as part of a Caribbean Classics series by Macmillan,
is full of interest, and not a little scary. We don’t know a lot about the
author herself, but she seems to have been a member of the white creole (i.e.
Caribbean-born) élite, and something of a local literary figure.

This last fact is interesting in itself, as it’s often thought that there
was next to no literature produced in the Caribbean until the mid-20th century.
It makes Frieda Cassin one of the region’s first recorded woman writers, and
it makes her novel the first such book to be published in Antigua.

But much more interesting than these historical details is the novel itself,
a distinctly dark and disturbing look at West Indian society. This, we must
remember, is a society in which the legacy of slavery, abolished less than
50 years before, was very much an everyday reality. The class of locally born
whites to which Cassin herself belonged was for the most part descended from
slaveowners. They lived among a large majority of black people, whose forebears
they had exploited and abused. Their feelings about colour, race, and the
troubled history of their homeland must have been, to say the least, ambiguous.

This ambiguity, and the unhealed wounds of slavery, are the real subject
of Cassin’s novel. She dramatises the complexes and neuroses of the creole
class, in particular the lurking fear that appears to have run through this
minority that their racial “purity” might be open to question. Did not every
white family dread that one day some indiscretion with a non-white might come
back to haunt their lineage with a coloured child? Such a guilty secret seems
to have been every creole household’s worst nightmare, if the letters and
memoirs of contemporary travellers are to be believed.

The other anxiety that gnawed away at the Caribbean’s white minority was
their inferiority complex vis-à-vis their British-born counterparts.
The idle, ill-educated, but fabulously wealthy creole had long been a stereotypical
figure of fun in English literature, but there was also a common belief that
West Indian whites were enfeebled by the tropical climate and by proximity
to (and, by implication, promiscuity with) their former slaves. Take Mrs Rochester,
for example, the mad wife in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Caribbean-born
whites were viewed as exotic, but also as intrinsically weird.

So it is that Cassin’s novel is divided between an unnamed
Caribbean island (Antigua, we suppose) and rural England. In the first part,
the wholesome and sensible Marion Aird arrives on the island to visit her
relatives. The English girl is taken with the place’s beauty and strangeness,
but equally shocked by the stupidity and laziness of her creole counterparts,
who do little other than gossip and take siestas. The exception is Marion’s
cousin, Morea, a beautiful and intelligent girl, mischievous and alluring.
But something is amiss. Morea’s mother seems inexplicably sad and austere,
nursing a secret grief. We will find out in due course that Morea’s elder
sister committed the ultimate social suicide by marrying a “coloured” man.
Little matter that he was better educated than all the idlers of the island’s
white élite; the family was disgraced, and the sister cast out. Other
events are troubling: talk of black cooks poisoning their white masters, strange
diseases and trangressions.

But Morea, it seems, is destined for a happier future, for in the second
part of the novel she returns to England with Marion, where she meets Marion’s
cousin Selwyn, the educated scion of a well-off family (and a self-satisfied
pain in the neck). Now, though, the dark side of the family past comes to
cast its shadow over this relationship. As Selwyn’s sister Elizabeth presciently

And yet what can come of it but unhappiness for both of them! If there
are two people in the world utterly unsuited to each other in every single
respect, they are certainly Selwyn and Morea.

As Evelyn O’Callaghan points out in her excellent introduction, here we
are hearing an implicit, unvoiced apprehension about Morea’s background.
In fact, what renders her unsuitable is precisely her creoleness (which of
course is what appeals to Selwyn) and, by implication, a sort of impurity.
If her sister disgraced the family, what is Morea capable of? And, brought
up by black servants, what influences has she absorbed?

It is at this point, as the marriage approaches, that Cassin resolves this
essentially racial dilemma in truly Gothic style. Morea begins to look bloated
and unwell; a doctor is called in; he summons a specialist. Then we learn
the terrible truth: the beautiful creole girl has leprosy.

By this melodramatic device, Cassin tells us that the downside of exoticism
is disease, that the tropics are a source of contagion as well as a place
of idle pleasure. And now the opening scene makes sense, for before the action
proper began, Cassin had painted a brief vignette. An old slave, mistreated
by his former mistress, takes his revenge by picking up her small child and
kissing her. The child, of course, is Morea. He is a leper, but more than
this he is the embodiment of the terrible disgust and guilt surrounding the
slave-haunted society of the 1890s.

Now, on one level this is sheer nonsense. Leprosy cannot be spread in the
way Cassin describes, and the story is based on the most implausible of scientific
theories. But that would be to miss the point, and to overlook what is really
rather intriguing about this Caribbean example of gothic noir. Pete, the leprous
slave, is a sort of dreadful nemesis for the white élite who for centuries
mistreated him and his like. His is literally the kiss of death, the ironic
counterpart to the sweet — and chaste — kisses exchanged between Morea and
her English beau.

Morea goes off to die a lonely death, Marion marries a chastened Selwyn,
and Morea’s mother decides to seek redemption in caring for Morea’s older
sister, herself now widowed by leprosy. In such an arrangement, we are reassured
that the sensible solid foundations of the English family are not to be undermined
by a creole girl, both mysterious and ultimately deadly.

There is much that is bad about this book. The dialogue is at times excruciating,
and the familiar clichés of Caribbean life rather trying. But, as an
insight into some of the phobias surrounding small-island society a century
or so ago, it is fascinating. And what makes it all the more bizarre is that
this dark indictment of a racist and neurotic world was written by a respectable
lady who was probably a pillar of that very society.