Thursday, 5 April 2012

A Tale of Two Harriets

Once upon a time there were two authors called Harriet. Superficially they had much in common. Both American, they were born and died within a couple of years of each other. Both were dedicated to ending slavery. However, there the similarities end.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe grew up in a family prominent in education and theology. Her contacts made her an international force in the abolitionist movement. In 1853 she was invited to Scotland by the Glasgow Ladies’ New Anti-Slavery Society. She appeared to a packed audience in the City Hall, after which she embarked on a tour of the UK. She corresponded with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry Longfellow and the Duke of Argyll. She visited the Duchess of Sutherland (and wrote in support of the policy of the Clearances). She befriended Byron’s widow and attracted hate mail by a “vindication” of her friend exposing Byron’s relationship with his sister.

Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicting the lives of American slaves was the second best-selling book of the 19th century, surpassed only by the Bible. President Lincoln is said to have acknowledged the novel’s pivotal role in abolishing slavery.

In later years the novel’s stereotypical characterisation appeared racist. Amongst 20th century Civil Rights activists Uncle Tom became a byword for the unquestioning acceptance of one’s station.

The novel is a page-turner, full of melodrama (could a woman leap across the ice-floes in a fast-flowing river while carrying a 4-year old child?) with the eponymous hero repeatedly brought within hours of freedom only to be dragged down and sold to a worse master. Beecher Stowe also highlighted specifically female aspects: sexual enslavement and the separation of mothers and babies. In recent years a revisionist view has emerged of Uncle Tom as a Christ-like figure, so perhaps the novel is due a revival.

Harriet Ann Jacobs
The life of Harriet Ann Jacobs ran a different course. Orphaned and sold at six, at age eight she became aware of her status as a slave.

Jacobs was luckier than many. She was never flogged or put to physical torture. She suffered relentless sexual harassment but (if we accept her account) her master’s aim was to break her spirit and he never raped her.

Her first mistress, in defiance of the law, taught her to read and write. Literacy enabled her to provide a rare first-hand account of slavery and eventually to become a spokesperson for black people.

After getting a letter published in a newspaper Jacobs determined to write and publish her own tale. At the time her situation was uncertain; she had escaped to the North but maintained a low profile for fear of being arrested and returned to her owners.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Told by Herself  lacks the high drama of   Uncle Tom’s Cabin but has the advantage of authenticity. It is also a page-turner, vividly yet subtly written, demonstrating the psychological debasement of everyone connected with slavery. There is even understanding of the resentment shown by plantation owners’ wives towards the slaves whom their husbands molested.

The most horrific episode is chronic rather than acute. For seven years Jacobs hid in an attic, in a space too cramped to stand up. During this time her children (fathered but not owned by a prominent white politician) grew from infancy to adolescence. She never dared make contact and observed them only through a peephole in the loft.

As a woman Jacobs hoped to liberate not only herself but her children. She never internalised her enslavement and worked towards attaining freedom on her own terms, without endorsing slavery. She was furious when a well-meaning white friend bought her freedom for her.

On the advice of friends Jacobs showed her book to Beecher Stowe, who wanted to incorporate it into her own work. However Jacobs refused, hoping to publish the book on her own account.

She struggled. The few publishers who showed interest demanded she censor all sexual references. Yet Jacobs knew that by focusing on the effect of slavery on female chastity she would gain the support of influential organisations of Christian women.

One company offered to publish if Beecher Stowe contributed a foreword. However Beecher Stowe – possibly still hoping to gain ownership of the story – refused her endorsement and the publisher then rejected the book.

Jacobs’ work was at first serialised in journals. In 1861 it appeared as a book under the pseudonym Linda Brent, first as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Told by Herself and then (in a version omitting all sexual reference) entitled A True Tale of Slavery.

The Civil War started the same year. Jacobs’ brother John (who since escaping from slavery in 1838 had become a major figure in the abolitionist movement) spent the year promoting her books in London, where they understandably found more favour than in the States. Harriet herself devoted her energies during and after the war to improving the conditions of black people, setting up schools and campaigning to end segregation.

A tale of two Harriets.  One well-connected in her time and a household name to this day.  The other overcoming unimaginable obstacles to publicise and improve the circumstances of her people, yet today sunk in obscurity. An uplifting story in many ways but also evidence of the fact that fame has always depended more on who you are than on what you do.

Mary McCabe

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