Sunday, March 20, 2016

"A Family Scandal in the 'NORTH AND SOUTH' Trilogy"




"A FAMILY SCANDAL IN THE 'NORTH AND SOUTH' TRILOGY"

I love John Jakes' "NORTH AND SOUTH" Trilogy. Honestly, I do. I love it so much that I have copies of the novels published between 1982 and 1987 that make up the trilogy. I love it so much that I have also copies of the television adaptations (1985-1986; 1994) of the novels, produced by Wolper Productions. Unfortunately, the trilogy has a few narrative problems. And I feel that one of its biggest problems centered around a particular painting. 

I am referring to a certain painting that hung inside an expensive New Orleans. This particular painting depicted a beautiful young woman, who also happened to be one of the prostitutes that worked there. This particular prostitute was favored by the bordello's owner. More importantly, she left the bordello and her profession in order to marry one of her customers. Despite her European ancestry, this woman was the granddaughter of an African-born slave. She also happened to be the mother of one of the "NORTH AND SOUTH" Trilogy's main characters - Madeline Fabray. And she eventually became the mother-in-law of three other main characters. 

Before I continued, I want to say a few words about the painting of Madeline Fabray's mother that was created for the first two miniseries, 1985's "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" and 1986's "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II". I did not find it impressive. Look at that dress worn by the painting's subject. It looks cheap and tacky. Not even a high-priced prostitute like Madeline's mother would wear such a dress. Even worse, the dress and hairstyle worn by the subject failed to reflect the right decade. Madeline Fabray had been born in the mid-1820s. This meant that her mother must have been a prostitute between the late 1810s and early 1820s. The hairstyle and dress worn by Madeline's mother seemed to reflect that the painting had been created between in the mid-1840s and early 1850s - at least two to three decades after Mrs. Fabray's death. Wolper Productions really made a mistake in allowing this painting to serve as an image of the late Mrs. Fabray. But the story that surrounded both the character and the painting struck me as a lot more problematic. And the trouble began in John Jakes' 1982 novel, "North and South".

In 1846, two years after her marriage to South Carolina rice planter Justin LaMotte, Madeline Fabray LaMotte had traveled back to her hometown of New Orleans to care for her dying father. Before he finally passed away, Nicholas Fabray informed his daughter that both she and her mother were of mixed blood. One of Madeline's ancestresses was an African-born slave, which meant the late Mrs. Fabray was one-fourth black and Madeline, one-eighth. Shocked by this revelation, Madeline kept this secret to herself for years, until she finally confessed it to her lover and husband's neighbor Orry Main - one of the novel's two main characters - after she left her brutish husband in the late winter of 1861. Despite his initial shock, Orry took the news rather well and eventually married Madeline, following Justin's death during the early months of the Civil War.

Unbeknownst to Madeline and Orry, an Army officer named Elkhannah Bent had already learned about her mother's background . . . former profession. Bent first met Orry during their years at West Point. Orry, along with his best friend, Pennsylvania-born George Hazard, became Bent's enemies. When they nearly caused his expulsion from West Point, he vowed to get his revenge. He nearly got Orry killed at the Battle of Churubusco, during the Mexican-American War. Neither the Hazards nor the Mains heard about Bent, until they learned he was the immediate commanding officer of Charles Main, Orry's younger cousin, in Texas during the late 1850s. Either in 1858 or 1859, Bent visited Charles' quarters for a talk and spotted a photograph taken at a picnic held at the Main family's estate, Mont Royal. Among the subjects in the photograph were Madeline and Justin LaMotte. Bent seemed taken by Madeline's looks. In January 1861, Bent was recalled back to the War Department in Washington D.C. During his journey from Texas to the East Coast, Ben visited an expensive bordello in New Orleans - the same one where Mrs. Fabray had worked some decades ago. There, he spotted the infamous painting inside the office of Madam Conti, the bordello's owner. Bent learned from Madam Conti that the painting's subject was not only of mixed blood, but also a former prostitute who had married well. Noticing the physical similarities between Madeline LaMotte and the painting's subject, Bent ascertained that the two women were related. For reasons that still amaze me, he decided that this bit of knowledge could serve as a weapon against Orry Main. 

In the 1984 novel, "Love and War", Bent returned to New Orleans about a year-and-a-half later, during the second year of the Civil War, and stole the painting, jeopardizing his Army career. Realizing that he no longer had a military career, Bent deserted from the Union Army and journeyed toward Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederacy. Nearly two years later, he managed to find and acquaint himself with one of Orry’s younger sisters, Ashton Main Huntoon. Bent had chosen well. Orry’s vain and unpleasant sister had estranged herself from the Main family, following her attempt to arrange the murder of her brother-in-law, Billy Hazard, for rejecting her years earlier for younger sister Brett. Once Bent had revealed the infamous painting, along with Madeline’s family history, to Ashton; the latter revealed everything to guests at a private reception that included Confederate Senator Judah Benjaminof Louisiana and Christopher Memminger, a South Carolinian resident who was serving as a Secretary of the Treasury for the Confederate States. Orry’s superior, General John H. Winder had "requested" that he send Madeline away from Richmond. Orry sent Madeline to the Hazards’ home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania and resigned his position at the War Department before assuming a field command toward the end of the Overland Campaign in June 1864.

The adaptations of the 1982 and 1984 novels - 1985's "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" and 1986's "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" - took a different spin on the tale. One, Madeline did not learn the truth about her mother from her father until 1854, ten years following her marriage to Justin LaMotte. She told Orry about her secret some three months later, leading him to insist that she leave Justin and accompany him to the North. However, events involving Madeline and a secret abortion for a pregnant and still single Ashton Main led to the end of Orry's plans. Madeline more or less became a prisoner of her husband for nearly six-and-a-half years. Justin LaMotte died during the summer of 1861 and a few months later, Madeline and Orry became husband and wife.

As for Elkhannah Bent, his discovery of the painting also unfolded differently. In the television version, Bent (who was an amalgamation of the literary Bent and a character named Lamar Powell), was visiting New Orleans in 1856 or 1857, when he met Ashton's new husband, James Huntoon. He was in New Orleans to give a pro-secession speech. The pair, along with two other men, proceeded to Madam Conti's bordello. When James removed his wallet from his jacket, a photograph of his and Ashton's wedding reception fell from his wallet. The photograph contained the bridal pair, the Main family and a few guests that included Justin and Madeline La Motte. Apparently, this was not Bent's first visit to the bordello. While waiting for one of the madam's prostitutes to finish with a customer, Bent and Madam Conti had refreshments in her private office that contained the painting of Mrs. Fabray. While the madam told Bent about the painting's subject, he quickly surmised that Mrs. Fabray and the Mains' neighbor were blood related. Some four years later - between the end of "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I" and "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" - Bent managed to acquire the painting. Only neither miniseries revealed how he did it. I can only make the assumption that he had purchased it from Madam Conti. In Episode 2, Bent revealed the painting to Ashton, who had become his lover. Instead of revealing Madeline's secret to Richmond society, Ashton used her knowledge of the painting and Mrs. Fabray's past to blackmail Madeline into leaving Orry and Mont Royal for good. Two years later, days after the war ended, Madeline and Orry reconciled in Charleston.

Superficially, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the narrative regarding Madeline's mother and the painting in both Jakes' novels and the television miniseries. Superficially. However, both the novels and the miniseries revealed a major blooper. Why on earth did Elkhannah Bent went out of his way to get his hands on that painting? Why? In both the 1982 novel and the 1985 miniseries, Madeline was revealed to Bent as the wife of a neighboring planter. Neither Charles Main in the novel or James Huntoon in the miniseries knew about Madeline's romantic connection to Orry. Which meant that Bent was not aware of this relationship, as well. In both the novels and the miniseries, Bent did not find out about Madeline and Orry's relationship until after he got his hands on the painting. so, Why would Bent risk his professional career in "Love and War" to steal the painting featuring Madeline's mother, if he was unaware of Orry's emotional connection to her daughter? Or pay good money to purchase the painting (which is my theory, by the way) in the television adaptations?

I wish I could say that matters got better in the third act of Jakes' trilogy. But it did not. Another mystery regarding the painting manifested. In both the third novel, 1987's "Heaven and Hell" and the third miniseries, 1994's "HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III", the locals who lived in the same neighborhood as the Mains seemed aware of Madeline's African ancestry and the profession of her mother. My question is . . . how? How did locals like her first husband's cousin, Gettys La Motte discover her family secret in the first place? Who had spilled the beans?

In "Love and War", Jakes had made a point of both Judah Benjamin and Christopher Memminger attending the reception where Ashton had revealed Madeline's secret. However, Benjamin moved to Great Britain after the war and Memminger ended up in North Carolina, following his resignation as Secretary of the Treasurer in July 1864. Ashton, her husband James, and her lover Lamar Powell were forced to flee Richmond for the New Mexico Territory after Orry exposed their plot to assassinate the Confederacy's president, Jefferson Davis. Lamar Powell killed James Huntoon before being killed by an Apache warrior upon their arrival in the Southwest. Ashton arrived in Santa Fe a few days later, stranded and without any funds. It took her at least four years to return to South Carolina. So none of the above could have revealed Madeline's secret to the Mains' neighbors. More importantly, Jakes never bothered to reveal how the news reached the South Caroline low country.

"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" told a slightly different tale. A year after Bent had exposed Madeline's secret to Ashton, she used the knowledge to blackmail her sister-in-law into leaving Mont Royal for good. However, neither Ashton or Bent ever told another soul. The only other people who knew about Madeline's mother were her former maid, Maum Sally, who was killed by Justin LaMotte back in 1856, during the debacle regarding Ashton's unwanted pregnancy; Orry; and his mother, Clarissa Main. And none of these people told a soul. Not even Ashton or Bent, which I find surprising. Like Jakes, the screenwriters for the second and third miniseries never made the effort to set up, let alone reveal how the Mains' neighbors learned about Madeline's secret.

It is a pity that the storyline regarding Madeline and her mother was marred by sloppy writing. It had the potential to be one of the most interesting arcs in the entire saga, especially since it focused upon attitudes regarding miscegenation in the United States . . . attitudes that lasted for another century following the saga's setting and still linger to this day. Oh well. There is nothing I can do about it. I suppose I can only regard it as a blooper and move on.

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