The Hidden Hand *
ONE of the most interesting developments in nineteenth-century American literature college courses recently has been the introduction of old popular novels by women to the syllabus. Among works of this kind, E. D. E. N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand is the book students enjoy the most. Their appreciation echoes the fact that when the novel began its serial run in the New York Ledger on 5 February 1859, Southworth was by far the nation's most-read woman novelist, and probably its most-loved as well. To be sure, individual novels by other women had outsold hers--Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World in 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851, Maria Susanna Cummins's The Lamplighter in 1854. But starting with the appearance of Southworth's first novel, Retribution, in 1849, no woman (and, for that matter, no man) approached her cumulative record of best-selling productivity. Throughout her active career she usually wrote two substantial and successful novels each year.
Published on Saturday mornings in New York City between 1855 and 1898 (it survived another five years as a monthly), the New York Ledger was the most widely read weekly paper of its time, achieving a truly national circulation. Its newspaper format allowed Robert Bonner, its ambitious editor, to mail nationwide at cheap postal rates; the burgeoning railway network transported it to the far comers of the ever-expanding country. Serialization of exciting novels kept the public coming back week after week. In the mid-1850s, when the population of the United States was around 50 million, the Ledger had some 400,000 subscribers, the equivalent of 2 million today. Since each copy of a magazine reached an average of two or more readers, the actual number of Americans who knew the Ledger would have constituted a significant fraction of the country's literate population. And to know the Ledger was to know Southworth.
Recognizing her appeal as well as her ability to write quickly, steadily, and copiously, Bonner signed her in 1857 to a lucrative, exclusive contract whereby she serialized all her novels in the Ledger before publishing them in hard cover editions. The Ledger also featured regular exclusive columns by the humorist Fanny Fern (Sarah Willis Parton) and fiction by Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. (whose output is estimated at 1,000 stories and more than 300 novellas), but Southworth's long novels were the paper's main attraction, each instalment running on the first page with woodcut illustration. Each serialization ran for approximately six months; The Hidden Hand for example had twenty-three instalments, winding up its run on 9 July 1859. Virtually as soon as one novel concluded, another began, so that for perhaps thirty years the American public seldom lacked for a Southworth work in progress. Several novels--although not The Hidden Hand--were also serialized in the London Journal.
The Hidden Hand seems to have been the most successful novel Southworth had written to that date, and was probably the most popular she ever wrote although she continued active until the late 1880s. The precise number of novels she wrote has not been determined with certainty; her novels were often published under more than one title, or issued in two separately titled parts. More cautious scholars propose that Southworth published at least forty novels in book form, while others insist that she published as many as sixty. Whatever the exact total, Southworth produced a very large number of extremely popular books; at least one historian of the book (John Tebbel, in A History of Book Publishing in the United States [New York, 1975]) has suggested that her overall sales surpassed those of all other nineteenth-century women writers. It is also possible though unlikely that some of her serialized novels never appeared as books.
The Hidden Hand in fact was serialized twice more in--1868-9 and 1883--before coming out as a book in 1888, almost thirty years after it was written. It seems extraordinary that there would be sufficient demand for this antebellum work to justify two additional serializations, at least forty dramatic versions including three produced in London, and regular reissues of the novel for yet another thirty years after its 1888 publication, but such is the case. In fact, editions of most of Southworth’s novels including those published in the 1850s also reappeared in the 1880s, 1890s, and the first two decades of the twentieth century. Life in the United States had changed immeasurably between the end of the Civil War and the end of World War I, but the public's appetite for Southworth seems to have remained constant.
A popular writer with such durability must have been minutely aware of the public taste while also exerting substantial cultural influence on readers and writers. As a result, much critical discussion of Southworth's melodramatic fiction in later decades has tried to explain away the Southworth phenomenon by belittling both her and her audience. As the novel form became increasingly culturally respectable, and literary realism became the preferred novelistic mode, sensationalists like Southworth were made to signify what was wrong with popular taste as well as how popular writers were failing in their obligation to lift the public to higher cultural level.
Louisa May Alcott, for example, whose work clearly registers Southworth’s influence, depicts the literary career of Jo March in Little Women (1869) as getting off to a bad start on account of Southworth. Eager to publish, Jo begins a career by writing stories in imitation of the extremely popular Mrs. S. L. A. N. G. Northbury (an allusion so obvious that nobody at the time could have missed it). In chapter 27, "Literary Lessons", Jo first encounters what Alcott calls Mrs. Northbury’s "trash" at a typically high-brow Boston lecture on the Egyptian pyramids, where she is sitting next to a "studious-looking" youth reading an illustrated paper called The Weekly Volcano. Glancing at the illustration, Jo wonders "what an unfortuitous concatenation of circumstances needed the melodramatic illustration of an Indian in full war costume, tumbling over a precipice with a wolf at his throat, while two infuriated young gentlemen, with unnaturally small feet and big eyes, were stabbing each other close by, and a disheveled female was flying away in the background, with her mouth wide open." The story turns out to be one of "that class of light literature in which the passions have a holiday, and when the author's invention fails, a grand catastrophe clears the stage of one-half the dramatis personae, leaving the other half to exult over their downfall".
Hearing from her studious-looking neighbor that the story is first-rate and that its author makes excellent money, Jo takes Mrs. Northbury as her "model" (ch. 34) and submits her own sensational efforts to The Weekly Volcano. "Eager to find material", the inexperienced author reads up on incidents of "folly, sin, and misery", thereby unconsciously "beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character", feeding "heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food", and "fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us." Fortunately for Jo, at least in the narrator’s view, she is rescued from the nefarious influence of Mrs. Northbury by the exhortations of the middle-aged German intellectual who will become her husband, Professor Bhaer, who advises her "to study simple, true, and lovely characters, wherever she found them".
Since Alcott herself had begun her career by publishing numerous pot-boiling melodramas under an assumed name (melodramas whose authorship remained unknown for many decades), she was obviously both alluding to and disavowing her own past through this critique. But unless one has read The Hidden Hand, one cannot realize that Jo March herself, arguably the nation's most famous tomboy heroine--Jo characterizes herself at the novel's outset by bitterly complaining over not being a boy--derives directly from Capitola, heroine of The Hidden Hand. This heroine, who enters the novel in boy's clothing and romps through it disrupting numerous expectations for womanly behavior, is not only the first of a long line of tomboy heroines in American fiction, but one of only a few in the nineteenth century who never relinquishes nor apologizes for her tomboy character. She is also the progenitor of the many female action heroines, especially female detectives, who populate fiction today. These are the women characters whose energy, curiosity, sass, street savvy, and above all compelling sense of justice lead to adventures where they uncover secrets, right wrongs, and defend true morality over social custom. The basic message of these popular novels now, like the message of The Hidden Hand then, is that the essence of true womanhood lies within and can never be compromised by merely unconventional behavior.
The Hidden Hand takes place mostly in rural Virginia, after the urban street waif Capitola, who was mysteriously brought to New York City from Virginia as an infant by a domestic trying to save her life, returns there as ward of Ira Warfield, "Old Hurricane". Not content with life as the plantation belle Old Hurricane wants her to be, Capitola ranges around the countryside on horseback looking for adventures, a self-styled female version of Don Quixote. Even as she battles with the notorious bandit Black Donald and his gang, fights a mock duel, and rescues an imprisoned maiden, she is herself the target of much covert villainy, because although she does not know it she is heiress to a vast fortune misappropriated by the villainous Le Noirs, father and son, who live on the adjoining plantation. Like most of Southworth's novels, The Hidden Hand contains numerous initially unconnected plots and a large cast of apparently unrelated characters, all of which mesh in the denouement. Undoubtedly some of the fun in reading a Southworth serialization involved waiting to see how the author would weave all these seemingly loose strands into a single pattern.
Unlike the far more genteel Jo March, whose womanly character is apparently besmirched merely by reading about crime and passion, Capitola has genuine "premature acquaintance" with the darker side of life. We meet her as a street child trying to survive in New York City by masquerading as a boy. Also unlike Jo, Capitola's experiences and behavior never even remotely begin to "desecrate" her womanly character. Her reason for cross-dressing is, precisely, to preserve that character. "While all the ragged boys I knew could get little jobs to earn bread, I, because I was a girl, was not allowed to carry a gentleman's parcel, or black his boots, or shovel the snow off a shopkeeper's pavement, or put in coal, or do anything that I could do just as well as they. And so, because I was a girl, there seemed to be nothing but starvation or beggary before me," she explains. "I felt bitter," she goes on, "against fate for not making me a boy!" Then, "all of a sudden, a bright thought struck me: and I made up my mind to be a boy!" Disguised as a boy, Capitola can support herself by doing anything an "honest lad" can do--the phrase making clear that no honest work was available to a "lass". "The only thing that made me feel sorry, was to see what a fool I had been, not to turn to a boy before" (pp. 40, 41).
Since Capitola's masquerade would admittedly be difficult if not impossible to maintain as she matured, and since Southworth does not want to cut her story's ties to reality entirely, she rescues her heroine from life as a boy at the start of the novel. Except for her tendency to express herself in slang, and her continuing relation with her best friend, a young sailor named Herbert Greyson, Capitola loses touch with her street associations. But the issues of womanliness and gender introduced by this opening segment of the novel continue to frame the fiction. "Come, come, my little man!--my good little woman, I mean" (p. 39), says Hurricane to Capitola as she explains why she chose to put on boy's clothing; and late in the novel he is still calling her a New York newsboy, complaining that she'll never be a woman, and addressing her alternately as sirrah and Miss (p. 358).
Certainly The Hidden Hand could not have been the wildly popular work it was if it had been merely serious and sober; at its core, this is an action comedy with a female lead. Yet readers in the United States before the Civil War expected a good moral as part of the package, and Southworth has several good morals to offer concerning women, men, and society. Throughout the novel Capitola continues to reject most rules of female decorum as humbug at best, perniciously hypocritical at worst. The author regularly attributes Capitola's attractiveness as a character, as well as her success within the plot where other female characters fail, to her recognition of the dangers of false ideologies of true womanhood.
Although Southworth thereby attacks what seem to her destructively influential ideologies of the feminine, she also powerfully affirms her belief in an undeniable, real womanliness, and this is crucial to Capitola's appeal. From the start we realize that Capitola has put on boy's clothes to preserve her virginity; the point is made that conventional stereotypes, far from preserving female virtue, are inimical to it. Southworth's criticism of female stereotypes assumes that they injure women not only as human beings in general but as women in particular; hence, whatever women have to offer as women is lost not only to them but to society as well.
But as the sympathetic treatment of characters in the novel like Marah Rocke and Clara Day makes clear, Southworth does not blame the victims of female acculturation for their plight. It is the particular task of Capitola, the novel's knight-errant of a heroine, to rescue such women, whose long-suffering self-sacrifices and graceful passivity inevitably deliver them into the clutches of scheming men. As Capitola's unconventionality, resourcefulness, and energy succeed in freeing these women from bondage, the didacticism of The Hidden Hand works rather to praise Capitola than demean those she rescues. Moreover, by making Capitola attractive to readers and to all the other characters in the book, male characters included, Southworth indicates that attraction grounded in admiration and esteem is far more satisfying to both sexes than attraction based on pity. The message for women is to be more like Capitola; for men, it is to appreciate Capitola-like women.
In this way, the novel contributes to the slow process of cultural change in gender norms and relations that had already manifested itself in the first woman's rights convention in the United States, held at Seneca Falls in upstate New York in 1848. It means to offer new models of male as well as female character; as Capitola is more "manly" in many ways than a stereotypical woman, so the most approved of men in the novel like Herbert Greyson are more "feminine" than the stereotyped male, less flamboyant, less violent, more content to let women take charge and to accept them as equals.
In Southworth's novels stereotyped males--unlike stereotyped females--are very dangerous creatures, because they are aggressive, passionate, foolhardy, and selfish. Moreover, they do not respect women and, far from using their physical strength and cultural power to protect the weaker sex, they use their advantages for purposes of exploitation and domination. Therefore, Capitola's manliness does not amount to an endorsement of stereotypical male qualities by any means. "Cap, my little man," she tells herself at a particularly suspenseful moment in the plot, "be a woman! don't you stick at trifles!" Alluding to noble murderesses in the Old Testament, she urges herself to "Think of Jael and Sisera! Think of Judith and Holofernes!" (pp. 344-5).
By the end of the novel, all supposedly innate gender differences have been thoroughly dismantled as false ideology. All, that is, except one: women really are physically weaker than men. To compensate for this difference, Southworth shows, women need to develop more strategic wit than men; since they cannot expect ultimately to triumph over hostile men by brute strength, they need to carry the day by cleverness. To the extent that women become accomplished strategists like Capitola, sexual boundaries are again destabilized; if men are stronger than women, they assuredly are not smarter. At one point Capitola is described as a "Napoleon in petticoats" (p. 274), and, in a segment late in the novel about the Mexican War, the author refers fondly to "our little domestic heroine, our brave little Cap, who, when women have their rights, shall be a lieutenant-colonel herself" (pp. 311-12).
In sum, showing how women disable themselves by conforming to cultural stereotypes of female passivity and self-abnegation is only part of The Hidden Hand's cultural agenda. It also proposes new ideas of masculinity. It rejects the myth that self-sacrificing women exert moral influence over men, a myth often invoked by adherents of "True Womanhood" to justify women's self-sacrifice and counter all attempts to improve their status under law. In fact, even more important than the novel's attack on cultural norms is its accompanying attack on discriminatory laws, its attack finally on law as itself an institution of discrimination. The plot is punctuated by courtroom scenes in which the legal rights of men over women as guardians, parents, or husbands consign women to literal bondage; in which men are judges and lawyers and women chattel, property to be disposed of according to men's wishes. Unless women have equal status under the law, Southworth proposes, law is fundamentally inequitable.
Moreover, since law is constantly available to men wishing to police women's lives, the novel in effect represents the private realm of male-female relations as a construction of public policies. There is no point in urging women to change themselves if the law will not support their rights as citizens. Capitola is haled into court at the beginning of the novel because New York City law makes cross-dressing a crime; that is, the law installs discriminatory gender difference (since women are far more disadvantaged by their dress than men are) as the right. The juvenile reformatory looms as a destiny that is avoided only by Old Hurricane's timely offer to become her guardian. When this offer is accepted by the judge, and bystanders murmur that Hurricane must be the girl's natural father to have made it in the first place, Southworth's plotting insinuates that law is the law of the father.
The patriarchal Old Hurricane, for all his gusty sentimentality, represents and enforces the legalistic male chauvinism that controls events in The Hidden Hand. The narrator calls him arrogant, domineering, and violent (p. 6). When he gives his slaves a week off for carnival, insisting that one week a year is not too much to take care of himself, he is in fact taken care of by Capitola and his housekeeper Mrs. Condiment. "Small thanks to Old Hurricane for his self-denial! He did nothing for himself or others," the narrator says (p. 341). Years before the action opens he had repudiated his long-suffering wife--whom he had unethically enticed into a secret marriage--because he believed a false accusation about her infidelity. This cast-off woman, the epitome of sentimental femininity, has no legal redress, no claim on her (unacknowledged yet juridical) husband for support for either herself or her child, no reputation on which to build a new life for herself, and virtually no marketable skills. Still legally married, she cannot marry again; as the repudiated party, she cannot get a divorce (which, anyway, being a devoted wife, she does not want). A credulous or stupid man (and in this episode Old Hurricane shows himself to be both) has been easily manipulated by designing, evil men (of whom there are plenty in Southworth's fiction) into mistreating and misjudging an innocent female.
As Hurricane explains to Cap at the denouement, "A diabolical villain made me believe that my poor little wife wasn't good!" And as Cap thinks to herself, "There! I knew you'd lay it on somebody else. Men always do that!" (p. 424). A legal system that institutionalizes sexual injustice gives calumniated or abused women no recourse. Southworth's avowedly melodramatic excesses of plotting and rhetoric may not correspond to reality--at least not to the reality of suburban middle--class life-but they correspond to the felt sufferings and frustrations of the unprotected.
This point is not merely sentimental, it is also political and national. The superiority of rule by law, according to American founding political theory, by which the republic was supposedly distinguished from aristocracies or despotisms, was that all were subject to law, therefore that the weak were legally protected from the strong. But The Hidden Hand shows how the rule of law, being among other things the rule of men-as-such, is merely a cover for tyranny, institutionalizing the power of the strong over the weak. The "hidden hand" of the novel's title ostensibly refers to the familiar melodramatic device of the secret birthmark (in this novel in the shape of a hand) by which a character's identity may be discovered at an opportune moment. But law in The Hidden Hand, which regulates the entire lives of all the characters--birth, marriage, death, incarceration in jails and insane asylums, inheritance, court-martials--is the truly significant hidden or invisible hand, productive of far more melodramatic misery than the birthmark, which barely makes an appearance in the novel anyway.
Given Southworth's mass popularity, along with The Hidden Hand's tell-tale blend of melodrama and institutional critique, it is tempting to analyze it as a radical novel. Alcott's denigration of Southworth for combined bad plotting, bad grammar, and bad morality would seem to express a genteel bourgeois realist's disapproval of a subculturally disruptive document. But the novel's critique is overt, not coded, and a cultural divide between classes does not seem to be part of its political unconscious. If Southworth's novels sold among working-class people, as certainly must have been the case at least in their serialized form, they also sold to middle-class readers. Moreover, readers from the working class may well have shared values with the middle class into which many of them hoped to rise. Jo March encounters the work of Mrs. Northbury at a lecture on the pyramids in genteel Boston. The studious-looking lad with The Weekly Volcano might be a bourgeois giving his passions a holiday (as Alcott puts it) or, equally, a working-class youth adding ancient Egypt to his cultural repertory in preparation for upward mobility.
The New York Ledger carried work by such genteel American authors as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as well as Southworth. Each chapter of The Hidden Hand begins with an epigraph from a respected literary source, most from 'standard' English authors. There are numerous quotations from Shakespeare along with lines from Alexander Pope, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, John Greenleaf Whittier, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Robert Burns, Thomas Hood, Thomas Moore, and Mary Howitt. The first chapter of The Hidden Hand likens Ira Warfield to the Scottish patriot-hero Douglas and also calls him a Sybarite, alludes to a congressional pension for military service, describes the night as "cold as Lapland, dark as Erebus" (p. 9), names George Washington.
Such allusions are not especially recondite, but they do take for granted a level of cultural literacy embracing politics, geography, and US, European, and classical history. Throughout, the novel cites passages from the Old and New Testaments. Southworth's vocabulary is extensive; her sentences tend to grammatical complexity and length: "Meanwhile, Old Hurricane pursued his journey--a lumbering, old-fashioned stage-coach ride--across the mountains, creeping a snail's crawl up one side of the precipice and clattering thunderously down the other at a headlong speed that pitched the back-seat passengers into the bosoms of the front ones, and threatened even to cast the coach over the heads of the horses" (p. 27).
And the novel is long--perhaps approaching a quarter of a million words. Thus, though this female adventure story could hardly have been directed at a cultural élite, it assumes a level of education that better fits middle-class attainments, or at least aspirations, than those of the working class. Southworth's colorful rhetoric invites readers to savor the act of reading and the medium of print, thereby instructing them in the pleasures of print culture, whose hegemony was vital to forging a national consciousness in a widely dispersed population.
The novel might even have been deployed by readers in a program of self-education. Many critics believe that nineteenth-century readers turned regularly to novels for etiquette, social instruction, and information about human nature. In studying the readership of contemporary romance novels, Janice Radway found many women who claimed to use historical romances to learn history. (See her Reading the Romance [Chapel Hill, NC, 1984].) Many Americans today get most of their historical 'knowledge' from film and television. Southworth's use of the Mexican War in The Hidden Hand as an occasion to bring most of the male characters together no doubt served her plot purposes. It also helped keep a narrative of the war's great battles circulating a decade after the war was over.
Among the information that this and other Southworth novels might implicitly convey, material about the South would have been especially important. As the Civil War approached, southerners were increasingly defining their region, internally and to the rest of the nation, as a separate country. Slavery, once a peripheral and dying institution, had become a bedrock of the region's economy and ideology. As a woman with a southern family background, Southworth took on herself the responsibility of telling people about the South, where she set most of her stories. Although she has been criticized by some contemporary critics for racist stereotypes (it has been suggested, for example, that Warfield's servant Wool and Capitola's servant Pitapat--who calls her mistress 'Miss Caterpillar' throughout--are patronizing depictions), her first novel appeared in an anti-slavery weekly, the Washington D.C. National Era. This would have identified her with anti-slavery sentiments at the start of her literary career. When Harriet Beecher Stowe went to Washington to arrange for publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the same journal, she was Southworth's house-guest, and the two became good friends.
Granted that to a present-day reader The Hidden Hand does not read like an anti-slavery work, it is nevertheless highly critical of southern ideology and implicitly favorable to northern values. Ira Warfield, for example, is an 'Old Hurricane' only in part because of his inherent temperament; even more importantly, he is selfish, undisciplined, and given to violence because, as a slaveholder, he has total control over human beings and no control over himself. Southworth's attack on entrenched aristocracies, on power systems oblivious to merit, and her corresponding approval of open societies where success is supposedly available to the hard-working, honest sons and daughters of the people, is an obvious endorsement of the entrepreneurial capitalist ideology of the North. Over and over she portrays the South as mired in a moribund agrarianism that idealizes tempestuous, tyrannical "cavaliers" as opposed to reliable Yankee democrats.
The depiction of southern terrain with which The Hidden Hand opens, moreover, shows the region as wild, unsettled, indeed uncivilized--badly in need of discipline, domestication, and development. And this is Virginia, the self-styled apotheosis of southern civilization! We may be sure that these political and economic implications of the novel are not inventions of a hyperanalytic criticism: the heroine is named Capitola, after all, and when she comes into the fortune that is rightfully hers at the end of the novel, the chapter (60), titled "Capitola a Capitalist", combines politics, economics, and the heroine in a distinctly non-southern package.
There is no doubt that the slave system is part and parcel of the South's medieval and antidemocratic culture in Southworth's eyes, and that its treatment of women is similar to its treatment of slaves. Indeed, The Hidden Hand makes a fascinating plot-gesture by having Capitola's life saved in infancy by a free mulatto woman, Nancy (Granny) Grewell, a midwife who escapes with her to the North and rears her as her own child. Summoned to the bedside of a masked (therefore unidentifiable), apparently dying woman, Granny delivers her two children, and (to simplify somewhat) at the mother's request claims that the surviving baby girl was already with her when she entered the bedchamber. Gabriel Le Noir--the all-purpose villain behind every evil twist in the plot--believes Granny's story but, to get rid of all evidence of the scene, kidnaps her and sells her (with the baby) to a sea-captain. In other words, he sells a free black and a white baby as though they were slaves, exposing slavery itself as nothing more than the ultimate in power relations: whoever those in power declare to be slaves are slaves.
When the ship is wrecked, only the four who had been left behind on deck to perish--Granny, the baby, a young sailor, and the black cook--actually survive. The sailor (Herbert Greyson, our hero) directs Granny to lodgings where she can work and raise the baby; he and the cook ship out together on another voyage. Capitola finds herself on the streets alone when Granny, returning south to expose the villainy, falls sick instead. Happily for the plot, Granny gets to tell her story to Hurricane before she dies; he, with his own reasons for hating Le Noir, sets out for New York City to find Capitola.
All this plotting is blithely melodramatic and recklessly unrealistic. Nevertheless, it is the product of authorial choice; Southworth could have produced an equally improbable sequence wherein Capitola's foster mother was not a mulatto, Herbert was not partner with a black cook, and the free mulatto and white child were not sold together as slaves, presumably as mother (Granny is referred to as a "very light mulatto", p.21) and child.
What Southworth has done here is startling to say the least, and it is even more startling that nobody in the novel seems to think anything of it. Does this mean that the "handsome boy" whose "thick, clustering curls of jet black hair fell in tangled disorder" is not only a girl currently passing as a boy but also a white person who has previously passed as a black one? If gender boundaries are confused and disrupted by the one act, so (although much more tentatively and marginally) color boundaries are confused and disrupted by the other. Many years later Mark Twain was to write his mordant satire, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), in which "black" and "white" babies, switched at birth, are socialized into different and determining patterns of race behavior. Strikingly, in The Hidden Hand, there seem to be no such patterns; the color line is constructed and dismantled, crossed and crossed out, with remarkable ease.
The Hidden Hand, which began its run ten years after Retribution, was Southworth's sixteenth novel. By this time she had fully developed her particular novelistic abilities--ornate yet fast-paced description, rapid-fire and slang-laced dialogue (concerning which critics were especially censorious), superabundance of plot lines and characters, effective mingling of melodramatic suspense with satire--and was certain of her audience. The result in The Hidden Hand is a constant overlay of what might be called metafictional discourse, in which the novelist directly addresses her readers and refers to her characters and plotting as constructs. "I am the hero of a fairy tale," says one character when his luck turns (p. 386); "My story is almost as melodramatic as a modern romance," says another as she launches into her hair-raising autobiography (p. 404). "How glad I am to get back to my little Cap," Southworth says in her own voice; "for I know very well, reader, just as well as if you had told me, that you have been grumbling for two weeks for the want of Cap. But I could not help it, for, to tell the truth, I was pining after her myself, which was the reason I could not do half justice to the scenes of the Mexican War. Well, now let us see what Cap has been doing--what oppressors she has punished what victims she has delivered, in a word, what new heroic adventures she has achieved" (p. 418).
Even now it is hard to resist this high-spirited cheer. Southworth's readers saw no reason even to try. The author was doing what rhetoricians from classical times onward had urged as the work of literature: instructing and delighting. Southworth would certainly be pleased to know that almost a century and a half after she wrote The Hidden Hand, the novel retains its capacity to give pleasure.
* Page references are to the Oxford Popular Fiction Series edition of The Hidden Hand (1997), to which this essay serves as an introduction.