This, Willa Cather’s last novel, published in 1940, is unique in that the action takes place in Virginia, the place of her birth and where she lived until ten years old, rather than in Nebraska which she regarded as her home.
Sapphira, a middle-aged white woman, has inherited black slaves from her father and sees nothing wrong in keeping them as domestic servants and as workers in the mill run by her husband, Henry Colbert. This is despite Henry being uncomfortable about this arrangement and the intense opposition of her youngest daughter, Rachel. Having suffered from dropsy for a number of years and now confined to a wheelchair, Sapphira has become increasingly bitter and has taken against Nancy, the young mulatto girl, working as a maid in her house. Henry and Rachel are well aware of Sapphira’s tendency to be rude and sarcastic to those she doesn’t like, but Rachel is shocked when her mother invites a relative who is a known rake into their house, tells Nancy to see to his room and virtually invites him to rape her. Nancy is distraught and the only person she can appeal to is Rachel.
If you enjoyed Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, you will enjoy ‘Sapphira and the Slave Girl’. Even though the action in Mockingbird takes place some eighty years later and was written over a century later, the same sorts of characters appear and the same sorts of issues, because, as we are all familiar, the Civil War and freedom for slaves only resolved a few of the issues for black people in the South. Preserving the southern ‘way of life’ (think ‘Gone with the Wind’) is mentioned repeatedly, even though, in the introduction to the book, we are told that Willa Cather found these sorts of attitudes sentimental.
Sapphira’s slaves are domestic servants, rather than cotton pickers driven into the ground, and, the way the book is written, their lot appears no worse than that of other domestic servants. Till (the housekeeper and Nancy’s mother) is devoted to Sapphira, and views her relationship with her mistress as more important than her daughter. Henry offers Samuel, his senior millhand manumission and a possible position in a Quaker mill in Pennsylvania (not a slave state), but Samuel refuses, implying that Henry is betraying and forsaking him. The slaves love Sapphira because she is grand, and how they expect a mistress to be, whereas for liberal Rachel they have less respect. Willa wrote from her own memories of Virginia in her childhood, of her family and of neighbours, and, in the last chapter, when Nancy returns, she interposes herself, as a sick child in bed. It is difficult to work out how true a picture she is conjuring up, whether it has mellowed over the years or whether Willa, as a child, only saw one side. I doubt if it is a white apology, because, in all her other books, Willa tells it as it is. However, she frequently refers to the slaves as ‘darkies’; we in the twenty-first century would regard this as shockingly politically incorrect, but we have to accept that things were different in the 1930s when Willa was writing.
The uncluttered storyline moves gently, with frequent flashbacks, to Sapphira’s youth, to Till being in Winchester with her mentor, Mrs Meacham, to Jezebel being captured in Africa and taken on board a slave ship, and to Rachel’s brief sojourn in Washington.
This is great stuff. Do read it.
Saffira and the Slave Girl can be obtained from various sources online, including antiquarian booksellers, The Brick Row Bookshop.