Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo - By Leonora Sansay - 1808

Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo - By Leonora Sansay - 1808

Full title upon first publication —Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, in a Series of Letters Written by a Lady at Cape Francois to Col. Burr, late Vice-President of the United States, Principally During the Command of General Rochambeau.

Leonora Sansay 

Born December 11, 1773 - Philadephia, USA .Birth name Leonora Hassel

1795 - meets Aaron Burr - he would would become her mentor and protector.  Some commentators say they may have been romantically involved but this is speculative. Burr encouraged her to marry a New York newly returned from his plantation in Santa Domingo (now Haiti) in 1802,Louis Sansay.

The dates being a bit vague, Haiti is now Under going a slave Revolution.  Leonora is persuaded partially by Burr to go to her husband’s property there (say late 1802) Without really knowing how dangerous it would be for her.

The book is a series of letters written to Aaron Burr about what happens to her when she get there.  She is totally in favour of slavery and very prejudiced against people of African heritage.  It is shocking to read her views expressed so elegantly in her letters.  She was used to having slave women rub her feet and was outraged by social trends ending this.  She writes extensively about what she calls “The Murderous, treacherous, and ungrateful negroes”.  She says “mulatto” women are very beautiful and are often taken as mistresses by White men.  Most of the White people in Haiti are French and she speaks very harshly of their morals, suggesting the married women are little more than strumpetts and the Catholic priests are often greedy sexual predators.

Much of the personal drama in the letters centers around her attempts to avoid her abusive unfaithful husband.  She joins him in Cuba where he has retreated from Haiti.  In one letter she says slaves there are very well behaved. Louis threatened her when she spoke of leaving him,saying he would throw acid in her Face if she tried to leave.  

The narrator does seem courageous but her views, though no doubt average for time, on race are very disturbing.  She is completely horrified when a General of The Revolution suggests he Will spare the Life of a friend if she will marry him.  Clearly this is seen as a fate worse than death by white plantation women.  In one letter she writes about a white woman who had the head of her husband’s mistress, a slave woman, cut off and baked it offering it as his dinner.

There is a lot of interesting Observations on island life, from the view point of a snobbish elite woman.

I found this an interesting work.  It could be read or taught as an epistolary novel of the period but I am classifying it as narrative non-fiction.  The argument for fiction is in the personal details in the letters that do not mirror her own life precisely.  

From the publisher 

Based on Leonora Sansay’s eyewitness accounts of the final days of French rule in Saint Domingue (Haiti),

Secret History is a vivid account of race warfare and domestic violence. Sansay’s writing provocatively draws comparisons between Saint Domingue during the Haitian Revolution and the postrevolutionary United States, while fluidly combining qualities of the eighteenth-century epistolary novel, colonial travel writing, and political analysis. Laura, Sansay’s second novel, features as its protagonist a beautiful impoverished orphan who throws herself headlong into a secret marriage with a young medical student. When her husband dies in a duel in an effort to protect his wife’s reputation, Laura finds herself once more alone in the world. “.



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