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Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940)

by Willa Cather

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This was Willa Cather’s last published novel, and not her best. In it, she returned to her Virginia roots and attempted to write a novel about slavery. Sort of. Set in 1856, the eponymous Sapphira is the wife of a mill owner, and rationalizes her black “servants” by not actually buying or selling them. Just, you know, enslaving and demeaning them over generations. Oh, okay. No problem.

Sapphira’s husband, Henry, is a spineless character who has essentially moved his residence to the mill he operates. He seems vaguely opposed to slavery but relies on the family’s “servants” to care for his needs. Sapphira’s widowed daughter Rachel is opposed to slavery and keeps her distance, living several miles away with her two daughters. The “servants” are all stereotypically happy in their work, taking pride in making the silver shine and all that. When Henry’s nephew comes to visit and begins to prey upon Nancy, a mixed-race slave of questionable parentage, it seems the only solution is to whisk her away to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Meh. This novel plods along from one event to another, with no dramatic tension whatsoever. Conflicts and relationship issues are hinted at but left unresolved. Anti-slavery sentiment is expressed, but only half-heartedly, and the narrative is littered with pejoratives that come across as part of Cather’s vocabulary rather than “just” the voice of her characters. Why did I persist to the end? Who knows. ( )
  lauralkeet | Jan 25, 2019 |
This could have been a much better novel if Cather had written it in a first-person voice, although doing so would have forced her to focus more on a selected story line and just a few characters. The book actually works quite well in the Epilogue, when it shifts momentarily to the first-person voice of the then-five-year-old child who witnesses the return of Nancy; but when writing in a third-person omniscient, Cather tends too much to "telling" and not "showing" even to the extent of occasionally sounding on the point of breaking the fourth wall. ( )
  CurrerBell | Jun 7, 2017 |
Sapphira, the wife of a mill owner, has brought to the marriage several slaves. When Sapphira unjustly suspects that her husband may improperly favor Nancy, a young slave girl, she begins a campaign to ruin Nancy. Her efforts include forcing the attentions of her husband's immoral nephew on Nancy, resulting in several instances in which Nancy barely escapes rape. Sapphira's daughter's aid to Nancy brings about an irreparable rift between mother and daughter.

Cather writes clearly and poignantly of the hopeless predicament of slaves, even those whose owners are supposedly kind and generous. Believing herself a righteous and good woman, Sapphira unthinkingly and almost playfully seeks to destroy Nancy's life, such as it is. Her husband is fully aware of what his wife is doing, and believes himself to be a progressive anti-slaver, yet he does nothing to contervene his wife's actions.

This book is one of Cather's lesser known works. I heard about it on LT, and I recommend it. ( )
1 vote arubabookwoman | May 16, 2017 |
This was a strange read about a Virginia family - the slave owning wife, her unobjecting husband, the family slaves, and their daughter who has become an abolitionist. I’ve loved the other Cather’s I’ve read, and this one flew by spending several late nights reading ‘just one more chapter’. But there was something that felt a little simplified about the characters and their reactions. I recommend it, but feel like I’d need a second reading to really fully grasp everything that was going on. ( )
1 vote janemarieprice | Dec 13, 2015 |
Sapphira and the Slave girl was my classic club spin book result. I am currently on something of a Cather kick, this is the second Willa Cather novel I have read this month, and I now have four other Cather novels tbr. Willa Cather is perhaps best known for her novels which portray the Nebraskan frontier life that she knew growing up. However the first eight years of Willa Cather’s life were spent in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, and it is to this community that she pays homage in her final novel. Sapphira and the Slave girl, has elements of family autobiography about it – Willa Cather herself making a somewhat surprise appearance in the epilogue of the novel, as a five year old child who witnesses the return of a runaway slave. Willa Cather’s maternal grandmother had assisted in the woman’s escape, just as Cather’s character Rachel Blake does in the novel. The Virginian community that Willa Cather was born into – like that of the community in this novel, was not a traditionally slave owning one. Willa Cather’s own family represented both sides of this bitter divide. So on to the novel itself, it is 1856 and Sapphira Colbert is one of the few Virginians who own slaves. She is an ageing woman, disabled by dropsy, her mill owner husband has little to do with the slaves and would much rather free them, but views them as Sapphira’s property which she brought with her into their marriage. Sapphira presides over her property absolutely with the help of her maid Till, who has been with Sapphira’s family many years. Henry, Sapphira’s husband has taken to spending more and more time at the mill, often sleeping there, and young slave Nancy often goes down to the mill to clean up Henry’s room. Henry comes to enjoy her gentle, quiet presence, appreciating the wild flowers Nancy places in a jar on his window sill.

“The miller, in his bed, heard her come and go. He lay still and prayed earnestly, for his daughter and for Nancy. Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without thy knowledge. He would never again hear that light footstep outside his door. She would go up out of Egypt to a better land. Maybe she would be like the morning star, this child; the last star of night…She was to go out from the dark lethargy of the cared for and irresponsible; to make her own way in this world where nobody is altogether free and the best that can happen to you is to walk your own way and be responsible to God only.”

Overhearing a conversation between two of the other women slaves in her household Sapphira begins to have concerns about the relationship between her husband and Nancy, Till’s beautiful daughter. Sapphira demonstrates the power she unjustly holds over these people, and Willa Cather brilliantly depicts the awful contradictions of slave owners who actually seem to believe they care for the slaves they own, and have earned their loyalty. Sapphira of course holds sway over these human beings – their fate is completely in her hands, and yet we see Sapphira tolerating the absences and laziness of one slave, and deeply saddened over the death of the elderly Jezebel whose dreadful story of capture from Africa is told in flashback. However there is also a definite feeling of wistful nostalgia in the novel, nostalgia for a time already in the distant past for Cather herself. Cather was certainly against the practice of slavery – already abolished by the time she was born, however I think maybe, that when one has grown up hearing the stories of a time long before that of our own, there is a tendency to see it with a slight rosy glow, and it is this taint of nostalgia that leaves an impression. Sapphira’s daughter, Rachel Blake, is a young widow, recently returned to Back Creek from Washington, with her two young daughters, she lives nearby. Rachel and her mother don’t really see eye to eye, Rachel has been influenced by her politician husband, and the abolitionist postmistress and a sympathetic preacher she has been befriended by. When Sapphira invites her husband’s nephew Martin to stay, a man known for his rakish behaviour, Rachel becomes convinced it is with the deliberate intention of ruining Nancy. It is to Rachel that Nancy runs for help, as she finds it increasingly hard to keep out of Martin Colbert’s way. Rachel’s decision to help Nancy will set her against her mother, but change Nancy’s life forever. I am not going to go on about the fact that there is language used in this novel that we would find deeply offensive and inappropriate now – that surely is a given. The novel is set in the 1850’s and was first published in 1940 – but I think Cather’s intention is clear enough. She was not writing an angry treatise on slavery – her novel is a retrospective of a society and a time thankfully long over but which concerned the generation of her grandparents, and about which she was brought up hearing stories of. Cather’s depiction of the Old South, and the relationship between an old, white woman and her black slaves who are her legal property – is beautifully poignant, the sense of time and place so absolutely spot on, that the Back Creek Valley of Cather’s grandparents’ day envelops the reader completely. I loved this novel, it may not be perfect – but it was a definite five star read for me, and my Cather kick, continues, threatening to turn into a definite obsession. ( )
2 vote Heaven-Ali | Mar 26, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Willa Catherprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lee, HermioneIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Henry Colbert, the miller, always breakfasted with his wife—beyond that he appeared irregularly at the family table.
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Book description
From back cover: "Left alone, the Mistress could not go to sleep...Her usual fortitude seemed to break up altogether. She reached for it, but it was not there. Strange alarms and suspicions began to race through her mind."

Originally published in 1940, this is Willa Cather's last novel, a stirring and beautifully executed novel describing a society and conditions which have vanished forever - a retrospective portrait of the Old South, with its stain of slavery, seen through the relationship of Sapphira Colbert to her Black maid, Nancy. Sapphira presides over her Back Creek Valley property with disciplined resolution; her husband, Henry, runs the Mill and sleeps there too, their marriage a formality. By 1856 Sapphira is one of the few Virginians who owns slaves, a policy which Henry finds increasingly difficult to countenance. Sapphira's life is an arid one and, confined to a wheelchair, she has ample opportunity for speculation. When she overhears a conversation linking her husband's name with Nancy, that speculation festers and the horrific potential of Sapphira's power is unleashed...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0394714342, Paperback)

Sapphira Dodderidge, a Virginia lady of the 19th century, marries beneath her and becomes irrationally jealous of Nancy, a beautiful slave. One of Cather's later works.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:23 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Sapphira Colbert proceeds to persecute a once happy slave girl, Nancy, when Sapphira suspects her husband admires Nancy.

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