One of the most troubling characters ERB created in Tarzan of the Apes is Esmeralda, Jane Porter’s nanny and maid. Although Jane is a young adult at the time she appears in the story (therefore no longer having any need of a nanny) and ERB tells his readers that Esmeralda serves no function on the expedition, she is present when Professor Porter and his group are stranded on the coast of Africa. ERB has his defenders, but to me, Esmeralda is pure racism in the vein of Amos and Andy or Topsy in Gone with the Wind; her only apparent purpose is slapstick comedy. What else could be intended for a fat, ignorant character given to gross malapropism who does little but try to jam her whole person into a tiny cupboard before fainting? Granted, there are real people who fit that description, but that alone is not sufficient justification for including them in a story. Robin Maxwell in her novel avoids the entire issue by completely leaving out the character and giving no names or individual characterization to any of the servant characters.
In my novel The Diary of Miss Jane Porter (available at erblist.com/fanfiction), I attempted not only to salvage the character of Jane, but also that of Esmeralda. I have long been aware that it is the secretaries (and similarly ranked and under-valued persons) who actually run the world. In this reinterpretation of the story, it is Esmeralda who keeps the party alive while they are stranded on the west coast of Africa, just as she has been the one who kept things going for Professor Porter and his daughter when they were at home in Baltimore. She is the one who has the practical knowledge and skills to maintain daily life and functions. In this telling, she is also Jane’s confidante and chaperone. Because I set out to tell a tale that would fit with ERB’s tale, Esmeralda is the one who comes up with a fantastical lie to cover Jane’s absence when rescuers arrive. One aspect of this character that troubled me deeply as I was working on it was her language; to the best of my ability, I gave her the speech patterns of an ignorant daughter of plantation slaves, ignorant but intelligent. One of the early readers of this version was a dear friend and colleague of mine who happens to be African American; she was initially troubled by the words coming out of Esmeralda’s mouth, but then she realized that Esmeralda sounded just like her (my friend’s) daughter talking with her own friends. My hope is that any readers of this novel will realize that ability to read and/or to speak Standard English is not the same as intelligence, ability, and basic human worth.
By the time Diana’s Diary (for sale for Kindle at www.amazon.com and for a wide variety of e-readers at www.smashwords.com) was in the works, I had furthered my interest in the academic study of linguistics and had become aware that all of us use various registers and styles of language. This insight helped tremendously in my recharacterization of the Esmeralda, now named Euphrasie Majors. Euphrasie speaks not only the English dialect of plantation slaves from the American South, but also Standard American English along with French, which she reads as well. As a servant in the household of a professor, she would likely first be able to imitate the speech patterns of her employer and later – if she did not come to the job with the ability – to use those patterns to express her own thoughts. Euphrasie is aware that her use of language carries social messages, so she chooses among the styles she commands for the one most appropriate to her purposes. She retains some of the attitudes and beliefs of my characterization of Esmeralda in The Diary of Miss Jane Porter (such as that a proper young woman should keep her feet firmly on the ground and even more that a proper young woman should most definitely not scamper about naked), but she also exhibits fierce loyalty to the professor and his daughter, independence of mind, and creativity of thought and action. If she is to be seen as the one who has been a major influence on Jane/Diana throughout her life and if Jane/Diana is to be a strong character, then Esmeralda/Euphrasie must be a strong character as well.
Few people, if any at all, who read a Tarzan novel or a retelling with Jane as the focal character will choose to do so because of an important though secondary character like Esmeralda/ Euphrasie. However, secondary characters do contribute to the overall impression left by a novel. This character is tremendously important to my conception of this novel, and I hope that my readers will find her a satisfactory and believable character in her own right.