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Old Dominion

Old Dominion An English novelist who served as British consul in Norfolk, Virginia, George Payne Rainsford James is presented in the front matter of this edition as a novelist invested in accurate portrayals of the past. Yet, his account of Nat Turner’s rebellion is full of imaginative embellishments. Published in three volumes in London and in a single New York volume, The Old Dominion; or, The Southampton Massacre is one of the fifty-eight historical novels James wrote. The novel’s wrappers, pictured here, advertise James’s work as “agreeable sources of information,” as he partakes of “the school of fiction so signally illustrated by Sir Walter Scott.” James includes a sort of disclaimer for his representation of the people of Norfolk County, writing in his dedication, “I am to be held in no degree responsible for the opinions of any of the characters in the book….There are many things in this world we could wish removed without seeing the possibility of removing them.”

James depicts the Turner rebellion through letters written by his British protagonist Richard Conway, who comes to Southampton County to scope out a tract of land he’s inherited and to observe slavery in the United States. Conway first encounters Turner preaching—“I never was more astonished in my life than by this man’s discourse”—and Conway observes that “all the negroes look up to him as a sort of prophet.” Conway himself observes a duality in Turner, who had “a good number of African traits, and seems to have as it were, two characters—one full of power and capability, and the other feeble, and not to be cultivated.” Turner remains somewhat inexplicable throughout the novel, as Conway’s love interest Bessy Davenport observes, “There is something curious about Nat Turner—something mysterious, supernatural….” The duality of Turner is depicted throughout: he is a rational military leader and an inspired religious leader, but he is also demonized for misreading religious signs and inspiring bloodshed.

Once the rebellion gets under way, James depicts the scenes described in the contemporaneous accounts, but he also adds a number of implausible plot twists. Most notably, a phrenologist partakes in the quelling of the rebellion and while observing the head of Will, the rebel reported to have done the majority of the killing, the doctor remarks,

He could not help it. That organ of destructiveness did it all. That man should never have been suffered to go loose. Henceforth, if crimes are committed, it is the fault of society. We can always detect the propensity to mischief by the certain laws of phrenology, and our business is to guard against it.

In a similarly unlikely twist, Turner spares Conway his life because of his Britishness: “You are not one of our oppressors; you have never held a slave. Your countrymen, I hear, have set my countrymen free, wherever they were in bondage; and we have no quarrel with you.” By the novel’s end, Turner is the hero of the romance as he is responsible for uniting Conway with Bessy Davenport. 

Images of the front and back matter from this novel are available here.

The entire text of the second London edition is available through Project Gutenberg.

G. P. R. James, The Old Dominion; or, The Southampton Massacre. From the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.