Sapphira and the Slave Girl is Willa Cather’s last novel, published in 1940. It takes place in 1856 in Back Creek, Virginia. Cather was born in Back Creek in 1873 and lived there for nine years, before moving with her family to Nebraska (the setting of some of her more famous books, such as My Antonia). Sapphira and the Slave Girl was inspired by stories that Cather heard in her childhood.
When Sapphira Colbert married and moved from Winchester to a rural, mountainous part of Virginia, she brought several slaves with her. She treats them relatively well but sees nothing wrong with owning another human being. Shortly before the story begins, she has become suspicious that her husband is having an affair with Nancy, a young woman slave. This is not true, but Sapphira, who is an invalid, cannot let go of this suspicion that Nancy, a beautiful, able-bodied woman, is taking her place in her husband’s bed.
The plot of the novel involves Sapphira’s attempts to get rid of or discredit Nancy, but this plot takes a back seat during many chapters which detail the setting and the other people who inhabit this part of Virginia. We learn about the slaves: the capture of Jezebel in Africa, and her attempts to retain her dignity and humanity; Till (Nancy’s mother), who can read, and who takes pride in her management of the household; and Sampson, the head mill-hand of Henry Colbert’s flour mill. Another main character is Rachel Blake, Sapphira’s widowed daughter, who has been against slavery since the age of 12, which creates conflict with her mother. It was interesting to learn about the backstories and interactions of the characters, as well as the way of life of mountainous Virginia at that time. These chapters reminded me of “local color” writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett.
The plot does not gather steam until Book V of the nine books that make up the novel. Martin Colbert, the miller’s delinquent nephew, arrives for a visit and begins harassing Nancy. It is unclear whether Sapphira invited him just for this purpose. Nancy is convinced that he’s going to rape her, and she is desperate to prevent this. Rachel must decide how to help Nancy. Her plan, and its aftermath, are poignant reminders of the harsh realities of life at that time.
As much as I enjoyed this book, I was distressed by Cather’s repeated use of the “N” word and the word “darky” to describe the slaves. I’m aware that in Virginia at that time, this is probably how slaves were referred to, but Cather uses these words even when describing them objectively, and not from the point of view of a particular character. Perhaps she was striving for authenticity in terms of that time period? I’m not sure. She portrays the slaves sympathetically, and the slave-owning Sapphira is depicted as a scheming, self-centered woman, so I’m not suggesting that Cather was racist. But it’s jarring for us today to see these words being used as an acceptable way of referring to African-Americans.
The author photo above is from the Willa Cather Foundation.