In an attempt to persuade Anthony to become a library page, Miss Eells assures him that she is no Simon Legree [The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn; 18].
Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly is an anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe that went on to become one of the best-selling novels of the 19th Century. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. One popular anecdote of its enduring impact was said to have occurred when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War. The president supposedly declared, "So this is the little lady who started this great war."
Simon Legree is a cruel slave owner and the main antagonist. His goal is to demoralize Tom and break him of his religious faith; he eventually orders Tom whipped to death out of frustration for his slave's unbreakable belief in God. Tom withstands his doubts and dies the death of a Christian martyr. Legree has been remembered as one of the most despicable characters in all of classic literature and gone on to influence many later stereotypes of villainy. His name, in the context used by Miss Eells, has gone on to be synonymous with cruel, greedy employers who demand excess work.
Incidentally, the story – never the subject of any American production – was released in 1965 in Europe with Legree portrayed by Herbert Lom (we’re noting this only because Bellairs would have surely enjoyed this actor outside his well-known roles in The Ladykillers and various Pink Panther outings opposite Peter Sellers).