The Woman of Colour, an Anonymous novel


miniature from portrait of dido belle png

Image used for the cover of the Broadview edition of 'The Woman of Colour': a detail from oil portrait of heiress Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay and Elizabeth Murray (not shown). Painting attr. to David Martin (c.1765-1778). Original held at Scone Palace, Perthshire, Scotland, copy at Kenwood House, Hampstead, CC via wikimedia commons.

Dido Belle (1761-1804) was a mixed-race British woman, born to a British naval officer and an enslaved Black woman, Maria Belle. After his promotion to the status of an admiral, her father took Dido Belle with him to England. These circumstances mirror Olivia’s in The Woman of Colour and make the choice of this portrait on the cover an interesting one. The real-life Dido Belle and the fictional Olivia share another similarity. While children of enslaver-enslaved unions were considered illegitimate, Dido Belle and Olivia are instead endowed with British upper-class inheritance and travel to England.  

The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808) is an anonymous epistolary novel about the life of Olivia Fairfield, the daughter of a British plantation owner and a Black enslaved woman, who travels from her Jamaican home to marry her paternal cousin in England following the wishes of her late father. The novel remained largely forgotten for nearly two centuries until a 2008 edition by Lyndon Dominique, with Broadview Press, revived scholarly interest. Situated firmly within the period of the Abolition debate in England, The Woman of Colour is at the intersections of historical, literary and cultural change.  

The authorship of the novel remains unknown. Dominique argues that speculation about the novel’s authorship should not overshadow the historical and literary significance of its subject. The novel inverts contemporary male-authored transatlantic travel writings that evoked a ‘dark’ and ‘barbaric’ 'Orient'. In The Woman of Colour, it is a protagonist of African heritage who is displaced from her homeland and marks the strangeness of a new country, England. Olivia’s identity as a mixed-race protagonist of the novel is also rare in this period. While women-authored novels with women protagonists became more common mid-eighteenth century onwards, these were primarily about white women. Minor mixed-race characters do appear intermittently in fiction in the long eighteenth century such as Imoinda in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) and Savanna in Amelia Opie’s novel Adeline Mowbray (1804). But these women of colour appear as dependent on the sympathy of the protagonists and with limited voice of their own. Olivia Fairfield as a protagonist and narrator marks a significant shift. Even her name carries connotations of this conscious effort towards centring the experiences of women of colour – Olivia alludes to her ‘olive’ or ‘mixed’ complexion and Fairfield evokes her moral character, kindness and intellect. The novel is almost exclusively composed of Olivia’s letters, with occasional insertion of other letters for exposition by its female “editor”. Her letters are addressed to her white governess, Mrs. Milbanke. She writes of her everyday disappointments, the hostility of new relatives like her contemptuous sister-in-law, Mrs Merton, and the cold, distant Augustus, who will soon become her husband. 

This shocking and moving scene takes place shortly after Olivia’s arrival in England to the company of the Mertons. All are seated for breakfast where Mrs Merton serves Olivia rice instead of bread, remarking that she assumed that this must be the food of ‘her people’. Her intention is to humiliate Olivia. Soon after, Mrs Merton’s child, George, comes in and declares that he finds Dido, Olivia’s Black maid, ‘so very dirty’. How Olivia defuses the two tense situations, responding to Mrs Merton with calm resolution and then taking care to alter the young boy’s perceptions, forms the foundation of the novel. Olivia takes the opportunity to dismantle these dehumanising stereotypes and argue for kindness and kinship, using words like ‘my brothers and sisters’ and ‘brethren’ to speak about enslaved people. Her declaration of love for Dido is not an act of charitable benevolence but rather a call for founding equitable sisterhood, although Olivia sits at the breakfast table, and Dido does not.  

Mrs Merton’s questions draw attention to the contemporary political moment. The abolition movement had gained immense momentum in England in the latter half of the century. The Woman of Colour was published only a year after Britain outlawed transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807. However, whilst the act made the trade in people illegal in the British empire, it would take nearly three decades for slavery itself to be abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. The autobiographical The History of Mary Prince (Season 1) captures the life of an enslaved woman in Antigua and England in this intermediate period in the history of slavery.  

—Aditi Upmanyu


The Woman of Colour




In an elegant morning dishabille, Mrs. Merton reclined on an ottoman: she just made the morning salutation as I entered, and then relapsed again into the intent and important study (as it appeared) of “Bell’s Belle Assembly, or Gallery of Fashion:” a modern periodical publication, where the ladies have coloured specimens of the costume and habits in which they are to array themselves every month. Mr. Merton was reading the newspapers, but he laid them down on seeing me; advanced—took my hand—made particular inquiries after my health—drew a chair for me—and placed himself next me. The urn steamed before her, but the fashionable fair did not notice it, till gently reminded by Mr. Merton with,—“Shall I assist you in putting some water in the tea-pot, Mrs. Merton?” 

“Oh, by all means,” said she, yawning, “and make the tea also; for it is a terrible bore!” 

“I see you are engaged in an interesting study,” said Mr. Merton; “you ladies employ every opportunity in rendering yourselves, if possible, more irresistible than you were formed by nature!” And the old gentleman very accommodatingly took the tea-chest in his hand.  

“You must suffer me to do this, sir,” said I; “I like the office; it is one which I have been accustomed to; and you see I am perfectly disengaged.” 

“I yield it with pleasure into abler hands,” said Mr. Merton, bowing gallantly as he resigned it to me.  

Augustus now came in, and paid his compliments in a cheerful, unconstrained manner. “So soon put in employ, Miss Fairfield?” said he. 

“Oh yes, the lady is of an active turn I find,” said Mrs. Merton, still meditating on the coloured print which she held in her hand. 

A servant now entered with a large plate of boiled rice. Mrs. Merton half raised her head, saying—“Set it there,” pointing towards the part of the table where I sat. 

“What is this?” asked Mr. Merton. 

“Oh, I thought that Miss Fairfield—I understood that people of your—I thought that you almost lived upon rice,” said Mrs. Merton, “and so I ordered some to be got,—for my own part, I never tasted it in my life, I believe!” 

Mrs. Milbanke, this was evidently meant to mortify your Olivia; it was blending her with the poor negro slaves of the West Indies! It was meant to show her, that, in Mrs. Merton’s idea, there was no distinction between us—you will believe that I could not be wounded at being classed with my brethren! 

Augustus coloured, and looked indignantly towards Mrs. Merton: his father tried to palliate, by saying, if I would give him leave, he would help himself to a little of it; while I, perfectly unabashed, and mistress of myself, pretended to take the mischievous officiousness, or impertinence (which you will), of Mrs. Merton in a literal sense; and, turning towards her, said,—“I thank you for studying my palate, but I assure you there is no occasion; I eat just as you do, I believe: and though, in Jamaica, our poor slaves (my brothers and sisters, smiling) are kept upon rice as their chief food, yet they would be glad to exchange it for a little of your nice wheaten bread here;” taking a piece of baked bread in my hand. 

The lady looked rather awkward, I thought, but she was doubly diligent in the study of the fashions; while Augustus offered me the butter, and my father’s smile played round his mouth. 

I am confident, that at this moment his countenance expressed approbation of your Olivia. Presently, little George came running into the room, and, without noticing the opened arms of his grandfather, he ran to his mother— “Oh. Mamma! mamma! Look at poor George’s face—that nasty black woman has been kissing me, and dirtying my face all over!” 

“Hush, hush!” said Mrs. Merton, pretending to silence the child on my account, while the pleased expression of her countenance could not be misconstrued. 

“No, I don’t mean her,” said George pointing at me, “but one much, much dirtier—so very dirty, you can’t think, mamma! Nasty woman, to dirty my face!” 

“You must go to your room, George, if you do not hold your tongue directly!” 

“Pray do not check him, Mrs. Merton,” said I; “there is something bewitchingly charming in infantine simplicity.—How artless is this little fellow! his lips utter the sentiments of his heart—and those alone!—My love, you will soon lose that beautiful character of your mind, ingenuousness; for it is a sad and melancholy truth, that as we grow older, we grow acquainted with dissimulation.” 

“It is too true, indeed!” said Mr. Merton. 

Augustus sighed deeply. 

“Come hither, my little fellow,” said I, “and I promise I will not kiss you!” 

“Why, I should not so much mind if you were to kiss me,” said he; “for your lips are red, and besides, your face is not so very, very dirty.” 

“Go to Miss Fairfield, George,” said Augustus. 

“With all my heart, uncle!” said he. 

I took him on my lap, and holding his hand in mine, I said,—“You see the difference in our hands?” 

“Yes, I do, indeed,” said he, shaking his head. “Mine looks clean and yours looks not so very dirty.” 

“I am glad it does not look so very dirty,” said I; “but you will be surprised when I tell you that mine is quite as clean as your own, and that the black woman’s below, is as clean as either of them.” 

“Oh now, what nonsense you are telling me!” said he, lifting up both his hands in astonishment. 

“No,” returned I, “it is very good sense: do you know who made you?” 

“My grand-papa said God,” answered he. 

“Oh, if you mean that, he is very backward in his catechism,” said Mrs. Merton: “I am sure I could not pretend to teach it to him.” 

“So I should imagine, if you think Miss Fairfield put the first question of it to him,” said Augustus, rather sarcastically. 

“The same God that made you made me,” continued I—“the poor black woman —the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of this world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine. God chose it should be so, and we cannot make our skins white, any more than you can make yours black.” 

“Oh! But I can make mine black if I choose it,” said he, “by rubbing myself with coals.” 

“And so can I make mine white by rubbing myself with chalk,” said I; “but both the coal and the chalk would be soon rubbed off again.” 

“And won’t yours and hers rub off?” said he. 

“Try,” said I, giving him the corner of my handkerchief; and to work the little fellow went with all his might. 

“George, you are very rude and troublesome to Miss Fairfield,” said Mr. Merton. 

“Not in the least,” said I; “it is right that he should prove the truth of what I have been telling him, he will then believe me another time.” 

“Yes, that I shall,” said he, sighing and resigning his employment, as if it had wearied him. 

“What do you sigh for, George?” asked Augustus. 

“I could wish,” said he, looking at me, “that God had made you white, ma’am, because you are so very good-natured; but I will kiss you, if you like.”

“Thank you for the wish, my dear child, and for the favour conferred upon me,” said I, pressing his cherub lips to mine. “I am not a little proud of this as I consider it a conquest over prejudice!” 

Your arguments are irresistible, you find, Miss Fairfield,” said my uncle, smiling. 

“Prejudices imbibed in the nursery are frequently attached to the being of ripened years,” said Augustus; “and to eradicate them as they appear, is a labour well worth the endeavour of the judicious preceptor.” 

“Suppose I proceed a little further,” said I, “for at present I have gained but half a victory.—So you still dislike my poor Dido, George?” 

“She is very dirty,” said he, again shaking his head; but colouring, he said, “I mean very black.” 

“She is a poor negro, you know,” said Mrs. Merton, in a most sneering and contemptuous tone. 

“But she is the most faithful of creatures, George,” said I, not deigning to answer his mother, “and I love her dearly!” 

“Do you love her dearly?” said he, looking up in my face, with a very scrutinizing expression. “Only think grand-papa, only think uncle, Miss Fairfield says she loves the blackamoor dearly!” 

“I dare say she has reason to estimate her,” said Mr. Merton. 

“Indeed I have, sir, as your grandson shall hear:—She was born upon my papa’s estate,” said I, addressing my attentive little hearer; “her father and her mother were slaves, or, as you would call them, servants to him.” 

“But these black slaves are no better than horses over there,” said George, interrupting me; “for I heard the coachman telling one of the grooms so, in the servants’ hall, last night.” 

“You should not go into the servants’ hall, George,” said his grandfather. 

“I only went to ask about your black mare, sir,” said the little fellow “you know you told me yourself that she was lame!” 

There was no resisting this sweet and simple apology. 

“Well, do not interrupt Miss Fairfield, when she is so good as to talk to you,” said Mr. Merton, smiling significantly at Augustus; for Mrs. Merton now appeared to think the conversation as great a bore as making tea, and, walking to the further part of the room, she was patting her pug dog, and humming a tune at the same time. 

“Those black slaves are, by some cruel masters, obliged to work like horses,” said I; “but God Almighty created them men, equal with their masters, if they had the same advantages, and the same blessings of education.” 

“But what right have their naughty masters got to make them slave like horses? for I’m sure they can’t like it— I shouldn’t like to work like mamma’s coach-horses, and stand shivering for hours in the wet and cold, as they do.” 

“There will be no end of this conversation, if we come to the right and the wrong,” said I. 

“It is beginning to wear an interesting form, I think,” said Mr. Merton. “George, we shall have your sentiments on the abolition presently.” 

“Miss Fairfield’s rather!” said Mrs. Merton. 

“Mine will, I hope, be immediately understood; the feelings of humanity, the principles of my religion, would lead me, as a Christian, I trust, to pray for the extermination of this disgraceful traffic, while kindred claims (for such I must term them) would likewise impel me to be anxious for the emancipation of my more immediate brethren!” 

“Born, as you were, in the West Indies, your father a planter, I should have imagined that you would have entertained quite the contrary side of the question,” said Mrs. Merton, who now thought she had found a subject on which to attack me. 

I slightly answered, “You did not know my father, madam!” 

But I could not pursue my story with George; something swelled at my throat and I was obliged to leave the room, though little George took my promised vindication of Dido upon trust, and running after me said—“Miss Fairfield, if you are going to Dido, let me go with you.” 

I fear I shall tire you, my friend, by this prolix narration, but I was willing to give you a complete surfeit of Mrs. Merton, even though I may frequently be under the necessity of repeating the dose. 


Some themes and questions to consider 

  • Responding to racism: What tools of mediation does Olivia use to resist racism in this scene and to defend Dido? What type of success does she have? How might Olivia’s interaction with Mrs Merton and her son speak to modern race-based discrimination and prejudice? 

  • The epistolary novel: How does the novel’s narration through letters change the way we read this scene?

  • The male characters: Comparing their responses in this scene to Olivia’s, what can you say about the two men in the novel, Olivia’s uncle and her cousin (and husband-to-be), Augustus?

The full text of The Woman of Colour is available at Internet Archive and in PDF format at Literature in Context (PDF link).


The Marriage of Olivia and Augustus

Olivia’s marriage to Augustus, a cousin, is a precondition to ensure that her father’s estate is not inherited by Augustus’s elder brother and Mrs Merton. Thus, Olivia’s financial stability depends on the sacrifice of her mental, moral, and bodily autonomy. Furthermore, her father’s desire to marry Olivia to a white man stems from fears of racial ‘impurity’ and miscegenation. He imagines that Augustus, an Englishman, must be an ‘image of himself’ even though the two had never met. The will also mandates that Augustus take the name Fairfield after marriage, further affirming a desire to reclaim the whiteness he 'lost' due to his union with Olivia’s mother. Olivia understands that her father’s motives to marry her in England imply sexual and racial enslavement to a white master-husband and her letters reveal her honest feelings about the oppressive nature of a marriage contracted under such terms. So, Olivia is constantly under distress, trying to understand people, customs and behaviours she has never seen before. She feels like an outsider in big social gatherings where upper-class British families and friends treat her with thinly veiled contempt or see her as an object of curiosity. But Olivia is an ‘outsider’ not only due to racial difference but also because she is a woman with progressive ideas of reform and abolition. 

The Mertons

The selected excerpt reveals the nature of the Merton family to the readers. The two seemingly benevolent white men, Olivia’s uncle, and Augustus, stand in passive perplexity as Olivia and then Dido are dehumanized. This scene pre-dates several modern commentaries on race relations. Writers such as Franz Fanon have used similar examples to reveal racist bias that associates ‘impurity’ with ‘blackness’ and the psychological impact of this assumption on people of colour. Wendy Lennon has interrogated these patterns in the earlier poem, William Blake’s The Little Black Boy (Season 3). Olivia persuasively resists the racist and colonist rhetoric that correlates one’s race with traits such as ‘ugliness’, ‘impurity’ and ‘evilness’. She teaches George through patient and generous conversation and the scene concludes with the boy learning a first step in how to shake off biases he had been given by his upbringing. 

Mrs Merton is the novel’s antagonist. An upper-class British woman and the wife to Augustus’s elder brother, she creates an inhospitable environment for Olivia to thwart her marriage to Augustus as this will lead to her husband inheriting Olivia’s wealth. Her characteristics are the opposite of Olivia’s. She dislikes books, is cruel towards the disenfranchised classes and slaves, and attends parties to flaunt her wealth. Ultimately, it is her deceitful ruse that leads to the discovery of Augustus’s first marriage and wife whom he had presumed to be dead. It is further revealed that Mrs Merton was responsible for the separation of Augustus from this wife in the first place by spreading the rumour of her death. In a novel that aims to challenge the representation of a Black woman as commodified, passive, or uneducated, Mrs Merton’s character becomes a doubly powerful reminder that race does not define internal values. In the excerpt the readers get a glimpse of her antagonistic behaviour towards Olivia before it has fully unfolded later in the novel. 




Political Blackness in ‘The Woman of Colour’ with Professor Lyndon Dominique

A video lecture organized by Jane Austen and Co with presenter, Professor Lyndon Dominique for the talk on the Race and the Regency series. 

Bridget Fielder, The Woman of Colour and The Black Atlantic Movement

This academic chapter gives a reading of Olivia through her friendships with both her white governess Mrs Milbanke and her maid Dido. Fielder also considers the novel through the double portrait of Dido Belle and Elizabeth. Published open access in Balkun, M.M., Imbarrato, S.C. (eds) Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire (2016).

How Did Slave Trade End in Britain 

A brief timeline of the events of the eighteenth century that culminated in abolition of the transatlantic slave trade 

The Woman of Colour: Content Pages

An extensive list of extra readings from the Broadview edition, compiled by Lyndon Dominique. It features novels with characters of colour and minor racial heiresses, political tracts on Abolition, the first reviews of the novel etc. 

Women Writers and Their Persuasive Pens: Female Literary Discourse against Slavery 1788-1834 

An overview of women writers of the period who contributed to the Abolition debate 

Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Slavery and Race in the Atlantic World 

A context-based overview of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (1688). Oroonoko is one of the most important works featuring a hero and a heroine of colour in the period. However, compared to Olivia Fairfield’s self-assertion in The Woman of Colour, Behn’s Imoinda is a passive tragic heroine in the novel. 

Celebrating women's writing: the pen in their hands | Great Writers Inspire

Ros Ballaster writes about anonymous publishing, women's writing, and considers the formerly enslaved Black African poet Phyllis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Identifying with literature – Writers Make Worlds

This Writers Make Worlds resource considers perspectives on how we read now, and different ways of identifying with the experiences of characters in novels. Bringing together audio and video discussion of postcolonial literature, this resource offers a framework for how we might read this novel, though its authorship is unknown. 

About the Contributor

Aditi Upmanyu is a second-year doctoral candidate in English at Brasenose College, University of Oxford, and is pursuing her research on British women novelists in the late eighteenth century. Her dissertation examines the constructions of maternity and maternal authority in women’s novels written during the French Revolution and its aftermath, tracing the interrelations between domestic and political authority. She presented a paper titled “Textual Recovery and Olivia’s Homecoming in The Woman of Colour (1808)” at the Annual BSECS Conference held at St Hugh’s College, Oxford in January 2023.