Monday 9 October 2017

Sapphira and the Slave Girl

I've been reading Willa Cather's last novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940. Like her early tales of prairie life, it's a novel of bittersweet nostalgic retrospect – but this time the nostalgia is for Cather's childhood years in West Virginia, before her father moved the family to Nebraska. In fact the nostalgia is for a period before she was even born, before the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves. Though slave ownership was the exception rather than the rule in West Virginia, Cather's central character, the Sapphira of the title, owns slaves, family slaves whom she brought with her when she followed her husband to West Virginia.
 Sapphira, who at the time we meet her is a dropsical invalid, is a domineering, deeply flawed character who yet has a compelling charm and something truly lovable about her – rather like Myra Henshawe in My Mortal Enemy. Her treatment of her slaves is for the most part benignly maternalistic – until she begins to form dark suspicions about one of them, Nancy, the 'slave girl' of the title. It is those suspicions that drive the narrative of the novel – though 'drive' is too strong a word (as is 'narrative' almost). This is a novel whose interest lies chiefly in its richly layered characterisation – always Cather's strongest point – and its strong sense of place and community. The action proceeds, rather fitfully, in a series of episodes or tableaux, the narrative divided not into chapters but 'Parts', though each part is no longer than a normal chapter.
 The story is told by what seems to be an omniscient narrator, with a particular insight into the characters and events. It is not until the Epilogue and a sudden switch into first person that we discover who the narrator is – a discovery that throws new light onto what has gone before.
 Sapphira and the Slave Girl is so liberally sprinkled  with such now taboo words as 'nigger' and 'darkie' that it is unlikely to turn up on any present-day curriculum. Indeed Cather's attitude to the Peculiar Institution is at least partly indulgent – but in this, as in other areas, she skirts sentimentality with her usual finesse. This is not one of her best novels, but her particular magic – the mysterious power that lies behind the plain surface of her words – is still present. That magic makes even a second-rank Cather a more rewarding read than the first-rank productions of many other novelists of her time. 

1 comment:

  1. I seem to have missed the strain of Sapphic Primitivism in this novel -
    How remiss of me.