By Vanessa Riley
Vanessa Riley was intrigued when she encountered the figure of Miss Lambe in Jane Austen’s unfinished final novel, “Sanditon.” Given the dearth of people of color in 18th- and 19th-century British literature, she wanted to know where the wealthy colored debutante had come from. Was she a product of a progressive authorial imagination? Or had real-life Miss Lambes merely been excised from popular culture and public memory?
The quest to “find Miss Lambe” turned into a long and meaningful one for the author — a 10-year journey, which revealed that Austen’s aims may have been progressive but they weren’t born of fantasy. As Riley wrote, “Finding Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, the women of the Entertainment Society, and so many other Black women who had agency and access to all levels of power has restored my soul.”
Riley’s commitment to restoring these unsung women to their rightful place in the popular imagination was a driving force behind her riveting and transformative new novel. Yet her chosen subject bears little resemblance to a pampered heiress like Miss Lambe; the contours of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas’s life have a much harsher bent. Called “Doll” or “Dolly” when she was young, Dorothy was born to an Irish planter and an enslaved woman in 1756 on the island of Montserrat. In her 90 years, she endured bondage, assault and abuse, secured her own freedom against incredible odds, accumulated great wealth and considerable influence, and became the founding matriarch of a prosperous Caribbean clan.
It’s a powerful story, and Riley tells it well. The author’s most important creative decision is to put this remarkable yet very human woman not just at the center of the story, but in full control of it.
The novel is framed like a diary Dorothy is writing for her family. This device is Riley’s invention, but the story she tells draws heavily from historical records — and the journal format turns out to be the perfect fit for this outsize yet vulnerable subject. There’s a beautiful intimacy in Dorothy’s first-person narration, both in substance and expression: the candid ebb and flow of her complex long-term relationships with men, mutually beneficial yet unsatisfying arrangements; how she fought to find love in the wreckage of slavery; the children she births and nurtures; the business she builds; the relentless search for stability and security in a world that offers neither to women like her. By turns vibrant and bold, defiant and wise, Riley’s tone and words are well suited to her subject.
Though the story is epic in sweep, its genius lies in its revelation of Dolly’s heroism and her flaws within that subjective voice. Because she’s both ambitious and human, the stories Riley’s protagonist shares don’t always match her pronouncements. Take, for example, her claim when she was fighting a tax targeting women like her: “Being silent on matters of justice — that’s something I’ve never done.” Thomas accomplished tremendous things. But she was a businesswoman, not a freedom fighter. She denounced slavery in principle, but not practice; her lovers owned slaves and her own eventual participation in the institution, though ambivalent, was extensive. That Thomas profited from enslaved people is undisputed, and even she (in her fictional guise at least) acknowledges this as an irreconcilable stain — that “the soul I sold had beaten the men of Demerara,” but had also made her become “what I hated.”
While Riley is clearly sympathetic to her protagonist, she makes no excuses for her behavior. Instead, “Island Queen” underscores how Dorothy’s choices (like so many others’) grew from her drive to survive. In her existence between family and property, she made the most of her meager privileges.
Though Dorothy’s life is extraordinary, the reason her triumphs and stumbles hit so hard is that Riley does a brilliant job of connecting those events to something bigger. “Island Queen” provides an incisive interior view of some of the thorniest aspects of West Indian colonial culture: the roots of color and class privilege, the implications of concubinage and common-law marriages, and the participation of some free people of African ancestry in slavery. Evocative and immersive, Riley’s narrative bears that weight with grace; discovering Dorothy’s story is a singular pleasure.