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 remarks:
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.