Recently, I wrote about Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Love of Landry (1900), a novel that focuses on white characters and the frontier. Along those same lines, I want to briefly discuss another novel from the late nineteenth century by an African American author that focuses on non-racialized characters. Amelia Johnson’s Clarence and Corinne; or, God’s Way (1890) originally appeared as a religious tract published by the American Baptist Publication Society. While the novel does not specify the race of the characters, it does focus on class distinctions within its pages; in this way, I see the novel as following texts like Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s A New England Tale and more notably Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick. Johnson’s narrative comes across as a conglomeration of religious text and American Dream tropes, concluding with the ascendancy of Clarence and Corinne from lower to middle or upper middle class society.
This mixture is worth studying more, but today I want to examine the ways that Johnson uses descriptions of houses to convey the personalities of the characters who reside within them and to bolster her religious arguments. The most obvious example of this symbolic work occurs when the narrator describes Miss Rachel Penrose’s residence and her inner personality. Miss Penrose agrees to take in Corinne after her mother dies and her father leaves the siblings alone. Miss Penrose foresees the addition of Corinne to her household as a way to get free labor around the house. This, of course, goes againt the religious teachings that Miss Penrose espouses, and she even hinders Corinne’s spiritual growth throughout the novel by having Corinne read from the Old Testamanet while eschewing the promises of the New Testament. Along with this, Miss Penrose refuses to let Corinne accompany her to church, relegating Corinne to household chores on Sunday mornings.
Miss Penrose owned the cottage that the siblings lived in, and once their parents died and left, she told the orphans that they must move out. Clarence went with Dr. Barrett, and Clorinne went to live with Miss Penrose. Working as a seamstress, and landlord, Miss Penrose lived comfortably, even having the necessary funds to employ a maid. When the maid took sick, Miss Penrose convinced “herself into the belief that she was very benevolent and charitable to take a motherless child [Corinne] and provide her with home and food, which she would pay for by the help she would render in her home” (45). Miss Penrose’s actions, though, do not contain benevolence. Her miserly nature cause her to treat Corinne as nothing more than a free slave, leaving the girl to become weak and emaciated.
Throughout, the narrator refers to Miss Penrose as a Pharisee, a group of religious leaders in the Bible who act as hypocrites, saying one think by doing another. Look at Matthew 23 for more. Upon our first introduction to Miss Penrose, the narrator says that she acted “much after the manner of the Pharisees: her deeds were done to be seen by men” (22). Later, when discussing the lack of religious education that Miss Penrose provides for Corinne, the narrator intones, “Miss Rachel was pharisaical in her make-up, and always made a great show of piety” (57). Miss Penrose believes that she is fulfilling her duty as a benevolent Christian by looking after Corienne; however, she only treats the orphan girl as a slave, refusing to provide her with any religious instruction. During her time with Miss Penrose, Corinne continually scrubs the house from the inside, mirroring the clutter and filth that rests within Miss Penrose’s actions. However, she does not fully clean the house.
Eventually, Corinne moves away from Miss Penrose to a more amiable existence in the country with the Stones. Upon first seeing the house, Corinne sees a “clean, cool-looking house, with the bright green of the yard about it” and “the benevolent-looking, friendly woman who stood there to welcome her” (129). unlike Miss Penrose, the Stone’s benevolence is truthful, not feigned. Upon entering the house, Corinne sees a table set for tea, a fire crackling, and sunlight streaming through the windows. Corinne does not clean inside the house, but rather she works the farm. The Stones take her to church, introduce her to other children her age, and let her be a child. In this way, they provide the counter to Miss Penrose who only sees labor in the form of Corinne.
The novel contains more than this, as I have said. Specifically, the question of the American Dream in regards to religious instruction appears within the pages of Clarence and Corinne because Clarence’s go a, which he achieves, is to buy a house for him and his sister to inhabit. Thinking about the American Dream, what does this aspect of the novel do for the overall nature of the text? What does it say when we consider an African American woman wrote the novel in the latter part of the nineteenth century? These are questions that need to be considered when looking at Johnson’s novel. I do not have the space to do that here, but moving forward they are thoughts I would like to explore further. As usual, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
Johnson, Amelia E. Clarence and Corinne; or, God’s Way. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.