Publication Date: December 1, 1940
Project: a century of women, classics club round 2
In her final novel, Willa Cather departed from her usual Great Plains settings to plumb the turbulent relationships between slaves and their owners in the antebellum South.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl is set in Virginia just before the Civil War. Sapphira is a slave owner who feels she has come down in the world and channels her resentments into jealousy of her beautiful mulatto slave, Nancy. Sapphira’s daughter Rachel, an abolitionist, opposes her mother’s increasingly shocking attempts to persecute Nancy. The struggles of these three strong-willed women provide rich material for Cather’s narrative art and psychological insight.
I think that this only leaves me with 2 more novels, and the collected short stories, to read in Cather’s oevre. It’s going to be a bittersweet ending – she is one of my favorite authors of all time.
Happily, though, she’s one of those authors that I can read again and again and get something out of the experience each time.
Plot summary notwithstanding, Sapphira and the Slave Girl isn’t considered as one of her best books. I have to admit that it is really uncomfortable to read a book that includes slavery as an element. She doesn’t glorify it, and Cather’s sentiments are very obviously abolitionist in nature, but there are many times that the “n” word is used by the characters, and this is extremely uncomfortable to read, so, even though I liked the book, “enjoyed” doesn’t seem to be the right word to use to describe the experience of reading it.
It had a really intriguing ending, though, that included a final chapter self-insert by the author as a small child. The novel itself is apparently based on an incident in which a young woman is assisted in escaping from slavery by the daughter of the slaveholder (who is a woman, by the way, which is pretty interesting). The young woman – her name in the book is Nancy – escapes to Canada, where she becomes the maid of a very wealthy family and gains a measure of affluence and independence that, at the end of the day, almost outstrips that of the slaveholder she left behind. This is apparently based on a real event in Cather’s history, when she was a child, and the freed slave returns to the county she ran from after the Civil War so she can visit her very elderly mother.
It’s a very uncomfortable read, and I would have a hard time recommending it because the subject matter is so difficult. The fact that it was written by a white woman in 1940 makes it even more uncomfortable to read. It’s not apologia for slavery – there are several characters who are openly abolitionist and, as I said above, Cather is not defending slavery, but it is told primarily from the perspective of the white characters, some of whom believed that slaveholding wasn’t wrong.
And, when Cather uses the voices of the slaves as narrators, I was left to wonder how accurate she could possibly be – how can a free white woman, almost 100 years later, create realistic slave characters given that she has no experience from which to draw in understanding the life and thoughts of an enslaved person pre-Civil War? And isn’t it presumptuous of her to even try? And, of course, isn’t it presumptuous for me to even ask the question of myself? I also have no real understanding of this part of history from the perspective of the enslaved. Just writing this has made me uncomfortable.
Anyway, I think that I need to read 12 Years a Slave: A Slave Narrative and some additional slave narratives in order to put history into a more accurate perspective.