Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave was a bestseller when it appeared in 1853. In the same year another former slave and abolitionist campaigner by the name of William Wells Brown published his own narrative exposing the realities of the practice he abhorred. Like Northrup, Wells Brown showed the degradation and suffering caused and questioned the morality of the slave-master relationship. But in Clothel: or The Presidents Daughter, he went much further in showing the hypocrisy of a nation that exalted freedom yet legitimised slavery; a hypocrisy he indicated went right to the door of the White House itself.
Clothel is predicated on a rumour in wide circulation at the time that former President Thomas Jefferson had an intimate relationship with a slave called Sally Hemings and fathered several children with her. Wells Brown follows the story of two of his alleged daughters, Althesa and Clotel, and their mother Currer, who, as the book opens, are sold into slavery and separated upon Jefferson’s death.
It’s rather an episodic book which weaves fiction in the form of episodes from the lives of these women (including an attempted escape north) with fact in the form of newspaper stories and advertisements. Wells Brown is at great pains to emphasise however that his narrative is founded in truth:
I have personally participated in many of these scenes. Some of the narratives I have derived from other sources; many from the lips of those who, like myself, have run away from the land of bondage…. who made me the depository of their sufferings and wrongs.
Equally clear is his purpose for writing the novel: to evidence the immorality at the heart of the practice of slavery. The narrator thus opens with a commentary on the moral consequences of forceful separation of slave husbands and wives and the lack of control on inter-racial relations because mixed race slaves commandeered higher prices at auction. By the end there is an exhortation to the British people and especially to British Christians to take action and remove the stain of slavery from America.
It makes for a highly polemic style and a highly moral message, the most interesting aspect of which for me was the consciousness of racial differences and feelings of superiority based on colour even among the slaves themselves.
“…I don’t like the see dis malgemation of blacks and mulattoes. If I had my rights I would be a mulatto too, for my mother was light coloured.” says a black house slave at one point. Later another slave comments:
” Dees white niggers always tink dey sef good as white folks. I don’t like dees mularter niggers, no how: dey always want to set day sef p for something big.”
Wells Brown can’t restrain himself from commenting on these types of interactions however, so instead of simply showing the problem, we have to be told about it and have the message underlined by his own interpretation. Ultimately the polemic engulfs the narrative of the three women’s lives and they’re seldom allowed the space in which to develop as individuals with whom we can engage.
As a novel this didn’t work well for me. As a plea for humanity it’s a piece of work that deserves to be read.