Miss Ophelia, as you now behold her, stands before you, in a very shining brown linen travelling-dress, tall, square-formed, and angular. Her face was thin, and rather sharp in its outlines; the lips compressed, like those of a person who is in the habit of making up her mind definitely on all subjects; while the keen, dark eyes had a peculiarly searching, advised movement, and travelled over everything, as if they were looking for something to take care of.
The narrator describes Ophelia St. Clare, a middle-aged spinster from Vermont, when she makes her first appearance in the story on board a steamboat that has just docked in New Orleans. Miss Ophelia joins her cousin Augustine St. Clare, Uncle Tom’s new owner. Miss Ophelia, like many of Stowe’s readers, has abolitionist principles but deep-seated prejudices against black people as well as against slave owners.
As the carriage drove in, Eva seemed like a bird ready to burst from a cage, with the wild eagerness of her delight. “O, isn’t it beautiful, lovely! my own dear, darling home!” she said to Miss Ophelia. “Isn’t it beautiful?” “’T is a pretty place,” said Miss Ophelia, as she alighted; “though it looks rather old and heathenish to me.” Tom got down from the carriage, and looked about with an air of calm, still enjoyment.
Miss Ophelia and Uncle Tom get their first sight of the St. Clare mansion, a luxurious and romantic palace in the Moorish style. Tom shares little Eva St. Clare’s enjoyment of the house’s beauty. Miss Ophelia possesses a different view. The portrayal of Ophelia St. Clare appears gently satirical. The comparison between Miss Ophelia’s rigid New England values and easygoing Southern attitudes is often a source of humor.
“That’s you Christians, all over!—you’ll get up a society, and get some poor missionary to spend all his days among just such heathen. But let me see one of you that would take one into your house with you, and take the labor of their conversion on yourselves! No; when it comes to that, they are dirty and disagreeable, and it’s too much care, and so on.” “Augustine, you know I didn’t think of it in that light,” said Miss Ophelia, evidently softening. “Well, it might be a real missionary work,” said she, looking rather more favorably on the child.
Miss Ophelia’s cousin Augustine St. Clare has just presented her with a filthy, half-wild young slave whom he bought. He teases Ophelia by throwing her missionary ideas back at her and challenging her to put her theories into action. The relationship between Miss Ophelia and the untamable child, Topsy, evolves in response to the events, making the two characters some of the most realistic portrayals in the novel.
“You mustn’t answer me in that way, child; I’m not playing with you. Tell me where you were born, and who your father and mother were.” “Never was born,” reiterated the creature, more emphatically; “never had no father nor mother, nor nothin’. I was raised by a speculator, with lots of others. Old Aunt Sue used to take car on us.” The child was evidently sincere, and Jane, breaking into a short laugh, said, “Laws, Missis, there’s heaps of ’em. Speculators buys ’em up cheap, when they’s little, and gets ’em raised for market.”
Miss Ophelia confronts slavery head on in a conversation with Topsy. Miss Ophelia demands that Topsy identify her parents, which Topsy cannot do. Jane, another slave, has to explain to the Vermont spinster, Miss Ophelia, the business of raising infants for the slave market. Miss Ophelia’s abstract abolitionist ideas are now being challenged by brutal reality.
Miss Ophelia was old, and skilled in the tactics of nursing. She was from New England, and knew well the first guileful footsteps of that soft, insidious disease, which sweeps away so many of the fairest and loveliest, and, before one fibre of life seems broken, seals them irrevocably for death. She had noted the slight, dry cough, the daily brightening cheek; nor could the lustre of the eye, and the airy buoyancy born of fever, deceive her.
As the most responsible adult in the St. Clare household, Miss Ophelia first notices that Eva, Augustine and Marie’s little girl, is dying of consumption, or tuberculosis. The illness and death of little Eva, besides wrenching tears from the readers, also allows the novel multiple opportunities for Christian and abolitionist messages. Miss Ophelia and Uncle Tom, as the dying angel’s main caregivers, shine as the heroes of the tragic interlude.
Miss Ophelia raised her gently, but firmly, and took her from the room; but, as she did so, some tears fell from her eyes. “Topsy, you poor child,” she said, as she led her into her room, “don’t give up! I can love you, though I am not like that dear little child. I hope I’ve learnt something of the love of Christ from her. I can love you; I do, and I’ll try to help you to grow up a good Christian girl.” Miss Ophelia’s voice was more than her words, and more than that were the honest tears that fell down her face. From that hour, she acquired an influence over the mind of the destitute child that she never lost.
Miss Ophelia comforts Topsy after the death of little Eva. As she lay dying, Eva had assured Topsy that she loved her. Now Eva’s pure Christian love makes Miss Ophelia realize that she has been unable to reform Topsy because of her own racial prejudice. Readers might infer that Miss Ophelia’s conversion to loving Topsy sets an example for all to address the ways in which they might need to change their hearts.
“I don’t want you to joke, but to reason,” said Miss Ophelia. “There is no use in my trying to make this child a Christian child, unless I save her from all the chances and reverses of slavery; and, if you really are willing I should have her, I want you to give me a deed of gift, or some legal paper.”
Miss Ophelia convinces her cousin Augustine to make over the legal ownership of Topsy to her. Augustine seems amused at Ophelia’s willingness to own a slave, but he indulges her wish. Ophelia’s request shows that she has begun to understand slavery’s realities. Soon after Miss Ophelia becomes Topsy’s owner, St. Clare dies unexpectedly, making Topsy the only St. Clare slave not sent to the slave market.