We take a look at romance novels which have inspired and influenced writers . This month, Piper Huguley is looking at Frances E. W. Harper's book, Iola Leroy.
Approximately every other year, I teach Iola Leroy by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. For a long time scholars believed it was the first novel published by an African American. That turned out not to be true. It wasn’t even the first novel published by Harper, who was a celebrated and experienced author-of-all-genres. She did write the first short story by an African-American “The Two Offers,” which serves as a warning to women not to rush into the wrong marriage—in 1855! She also wrote poetry, essays, and was a well-regarded orator on the speaking circuit at a time when women did not speak in public. Harper’s multiple works sought to give Black people dignity during her heyday from after the Civil War to the dawn of the 20th century.
Still, the publication of Iola Leroy in 1892 represents the pinnacle of Harper’s career. Her longest and most seminal work, Iola Leroy is full of messages; she clearly had something to say about the importance of Black love and romance. The title character is a beautiful, kind, generous mixed-race heroine who is a teacher and a nurse. Most of the book deals with Iola’s search for love. She won’t settle for just anyone. A white doctor wants to become her husband, but she says early on in their romance that something is missing. He wants her to leave “those people” behind. Iola’s main goal in life is to uplift and service the Black population. She feels that she cannot do that as a doctor’s wife in a house with a housekeeper. She wants to find a mate who will allow her to continue to work with and for the people and who will be there right beside her.
The novel also features a subplot with her brother, Harry, and his search to find his bride. Harry has a story line where he is light enough to pass, but opts instead to serve in the Colored Troops in the Civil War. Iola and Harry, as mixed-race people, are willing to give it all up to take pride in their Blackness and do it without complaint or without wishing for better opportunities or material goods. Harper’s main point is that unless they have pride in who they are, they won’t find the right life mates. Iola Leroy is a romance so, of course, they both find that HEA and the life partners they are looking for.
Some criticize Harper because of the difference in the way that her mixed-race characters speak verses the way the characters with darker skins speak. It’s a valid point of criticism. My response to that is that the darker-skinned characters are formerly enslaved, but are not victims. They are fully drawn, wise people who are an important source of knowledge and help to ground Iola and Harry in the tenuous circumstances of their lives. Harper has her formerly enslaved characters speak in what is known in linguistics as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). In writing the speech of the enslaved characters in that way, Harper does what anthropologist/novelist Zora Neale Hurston sought to do in capturing the orality of the culture. I don’t regard the speech of the characters as a badge of shame or sorrow, but an opportunity to see how the formerly enslaved spoke when the book was first published in the late nineteenth century.
Iola Leroy was one of the very first books I read as a graduate student. As such, it has informed my work as a romance writer to create African American characters who are proud of who they are, and who are not ashamed of their origins. Iola is certainly echoed in Ruby Bledsoe, my first historical heroine, who is also light enough to pass for white, but chooses not to do so because of her insistence on working for labor equality for the Black people in her small town.
I also found an example to follow in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper herself. She is featured as a character in Book #2 of my Home to Milford College series. I also write about her as the mother of another activist minded heroine of mine, Mamie Harper in my novella “The Washerwomen’s War.” I hope to write a historical fiction novel about this truly remarkable author who really should be better regarded now than she has been.
You’re welcome to read Iola Leroy along with me (and my gung-ho students—heh heh) this fall. It’s free across all platforms: Amazon
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Piper's release that features Watkins Harper, The Mayor's Mission, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.