This was my second reading of Cather’s last novel and I’m still stunned by Sapphira’s viciousness. I’m no stranger to stories of American slavery, but this one about a white woman slave owner planning over months to have her nephew rape the pretty young slave that she suspects is sleeping with her husband is one of the most twisted stories that I’ve read (outside of horror or crime novels, anyway).
Under pinning all relationships, be they controlled by slavery, marriage, or genes, is Cather’s theme that people thrive or at least find some sense of comfort when they have others in their life who share a common sensibility. Henry has more connection with Nancy and Sapphira with Till than either has with their biological daughter, Rachel. Indeed, Rachel doesn’t seem to belong in the family or the neighborhood. She “escaped” her family for a while, but after her husband dies she’s brought back to the fold.
Nancy, on the other hand, escapes for good and comes back on her own accord. Reflecting on Casper’s situation, Rachel reflects, “A man’s got to be stronger’n a bull to get out of the place he was born in” (130). Ironically, it’s Nancy who ends up being that strong but only through the plan laid out and executed by Rachel.
|Cather’s childhood home, 3rd story bedroom in the novel.|
Nancy is shown to be more of the “true” daughter to Henry than is Rachel. In the beginning of the book Henry’s speech pattern, formed among English settlers and influenced by a grandfather who came over from Flanders, is said to be a “not friendly” manner of speech in Back Creek (5). The same is said of Nancy’s speech upon her visit from Canada: “Nancy put into many words syllables I had never heard sounded in them before That repelled me. It didn’t seem a friendly way to talk” (284). She doesn’t say “hist’ry,” but “his-to-ry.” Rachel, on the other hand, pronounces it “hist’ry.”
And there’s Till, the “daughter” who is more temperamentally in sync with Sapphira because she has to be under the system of slavery. She rejects her own daughter for her mistress, yet as the biological mother of Nancy she ends up becoming the holder of family keepsakes such as the brooch that holds a lock of Henry and Sapphira’s hair from their wedding day. Henry gave it to her presumably after Sapphira’s death and perhaps in the hope it would one day end up in Nancy’s possession. This is something the “true” daughter would have.
Rachel may be Henry and Sapphira’s biological daughter, but is not their daughter in feeling or sentiment. Rachel long had a feeling that something was wrong and then one day while eavesdropping on Mrs. Bywaters and Mr. Cartmell,
A feeling long smothered had blazed up in her—had become a conviction. She had never heard the thing said before, never put it into words. It was the owning that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable it might be for master or servant. She had always know it was wrong. It was the thing that made her her unhappy at home, and came between her and her mother (137).
Slavery is what eventually poisons Sapphira’s relationship with Henry as well. It’s made clear that their marriage was never one of passion, but one that started as more of a business arrangement and then grew into a type of love.
At the opening of the novel, Sapphira never questioned her husband’s whereabouts. But as the story unfolds we see this formerly active woman who no longer has the full use of her legs and nothing but time on her hands start to believe the gossip that maybe Nancy is making Mr. Henry’s bedroom chamber comfortable in ways beyond cleanliness and good order. It’s the old story of a woman made bitter and paranoid by aging and infirmity.
Sapphira becomes suspicious and very much focused on her husband and Nancy’s whereabouts. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is when Sapphira is looking down on the mill and wondering if her husband is there with Nancy when, in actuality, he’s alone, reading passages in his Bible that he’s marked that are concerned with slavery. He’s frustrated that he can find no clear condemnation of slavery in this book that is his guide for living. Earlier that day Nancy had unburdened herself to Mr. Henry and we can assume he was turning to his Bible for comfort or to make the case to his wife to set Nancy free. Rather than openly interfering with her “property,” he provides the funds for his daughter Rachel’s plan to get Nancy to Canada.
I should stop there, but also want to say that I appreciate the smaller ironic moments of the story such as when Sapphira is supported on either side by her slaves Jefferson and Washington. Slaves were often named after or took the names of presidents, but to have a scene where America’s two great founding fathers are upholding the slave master is a rather cutting moment. And, of course, there’s the twist of the slave owner being a woman.
Things I’ve Been Pondering
In the introductory post for this book I had shared Edith Lewis’s opinion that, as time goes by this novel, “will take a higher and higher place in any estimate of Willa Cather’s work.” I had this on my mind as I read the novel. Now that we’ve read or re-read all of Cather’s novels in the space of twelve months, what do you think about Lewis’s opinion of this novel?
Cather certainly creates a complex and realistic villain with Sapphira. This is historical fiction at its finest as she doesn’t sugar coat the language and attitudes of the time period that she’s portraying. But in an age where teachers are shying away from teaching such long established classics like Huckleberry Finn or using editions of it that strip its original language and therefore change its meaning, do you think there’s much hope of Sapphira and the Slave Girl ever making it onto high school or college English reading lists, or into the hands of adult readers who are not already Cather fans?
Share Your Thoughts!
What do you think of Sapphira and the Slave Girl? Whether this was your first reading or your fifth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the book, even if it’s just a sentence. Please leave your comments below, however long or short (or leave a link to your blog post, Goodreads review, etc.). This is an open forum, so please feel free to reply to one another.
Stay tuned later this month for wrap-up post on the Willa Cather Novel Writing Challenge.
Categories: Willa Cather