Published the year before Lady Audley’s Secret, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Octoroon; or, The Lily of Louisiana (1861) opens in a crowded ballroom during the London season of 1860. Cora Leslie, an American girl born in New Orleans but educated in England, has attracted the interest of Gilbert Margrave, a British engineer celebrated for inventing machinery to replace slave labor. Pointing out Cora’s beauty to Mortimer Percy, an American planter, Gilbert asks his acquaintance if he knows who the lovely beauty is. Mortimer responds, “No. But I can do more. I can tell you what she is” (4). The southerner then explains to the naïve British gentlemen that Cora is the daughter of a slave:
Gilbert is not the only character unable to read the signs of Cora’s racial ancestry. While American Tragic Mulatta narratives traditionally pivot on the mixed-race woman’s discovery that she is not free, Braddon’s story revolves around a more shocking secret: Cora does not know she is an octoroon. Upon learning that her father has been injured in a slave revolt on his plantation, she returns to New Orleans ignorant of her racial ancestry. “The courted, the caressed, the admired beauty of a London season” (61) soon learns, however, that she is not white. Braddon’s novel follows Cora’s struggle to escape a narrative that offered only two choices to mixed-race slaves: sexual violation or death.