The Shape of Absence

Hilary Mantel

The Swann Galleries’ auction of African-Americana, which takes place in New York in February each year, is a marketplace for the printed artefacts generated by over two hundred years of black history. There are film posters, books, album covers; further back, bills of sale for slaves. This year’s auction included a brochure from a Charleston estate sale of 1859, offering ‘229 Rice Field Negroes, An Uncommonly Prime and Orderly Gang’. From the 1830s came a silk handkerchief, an Abolitionist keepsake from England, with a picturesque and sentimental vignette of a black mother rocking her baby under a palm-tree; the inscription is ‘Negro woman who sitteth pining in captivity’. In a 19th-century oil on canvas, a young half-clad black man gazes pensively out of the frame, towards some distant shore of his imagination. The portrayal is described as ‘respectful’, is dated 1823 and is perhaps the work of a black artist: an unidentified person from the dusty past, still awaiting the attention of scholars who will offer him a grand entrance into history.

The 2001 auction offered jazz photographs and religious texts, and the memorabilia of black figures from Joe Louis to Malcolm X. There was an autograph letter from Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who published his autobiography in 1845 and became a leading Abolitionist. There were documents that shed light on the intimate workings of the ‘peculiar institution’ which so many defended as natural, necessary and ordained by God. In 1854 a family is selling their slave Frances, aged 17, to a dealer in Richmond. Frances is trained as a chambermaid.

She does not know that she is to be sold. I could not tell her; I own all her family, and the leave taking would be so distressing that I could not. Please say to her that that was my reason, and that I was compelled to sell her to pay for the horses that I have bought, and to build my stable . . . I am so nervous that I hardly know what I write.

The letter brought almost five thousand dollars; Henry Louis Gates paid about twice that for the unpublished manuscript of a three-hundred-page novel, undated, by an author whose name at the time meant nothing. It seems little enough for what Gates calls ‘history in waiting’; his tone is almost gloating as he describes the auction’s annual riches: ‘Dozens of potential PhD theses in African American literature are buried in this catalogue.’ Gates has helped black studies to progress from what he calls a ‘self-esteem machine’ to a serious and valued discipline and his latest achievement is to put the obscure manuscript he bought at auction into the US bestseller lists. What Gates discovered in the Swann Galleries’ list was almost certainly the first novel written by an escaped female slave, and possibly the first novel ever written by a black woman.

This is what history feels like, under the hand, under the microscope: the manuscript’s cloth binding is broken, but all its numbered pages are intact. The paper is machine made, of linen and cotton fibres, not wood pulp, and has blue guidelines to write on; the pen that touched this paper was a goose quill, and the pigment was acidic iron-gall ink, which leaves faint mirror-writing on the facing page, fluorescing traces like a ghost of the text. The handwriting is serviceable rather than elegant. The manuscript has been corrected in various ways: most simply, by wiping off the ink and writing over the error, a technique which works with smooth paper; or, if the mistake was discovered after the ink had dried, by scratching off a word with a small knife. If the correction was longer, a paragraph perhaps, the writer attached a slip of paper to cover the unwanted text. These correction slips were cut, experts suggest, with sewing scissors, and the paste wafers that made them adhere to the page have been pressed down with a thimble. Visitors to Jane Austen’s cottage at Chawton notice that Jane’s sewing box is bigger than her writing box. It may have been the same with Hannah Crafts.

Where had this manuscript been? Its early adventures are uncertain. Before 1948 it seems to have been in an attic in New Jersey. Then it was bought by the black historian and bibliographer Dorothy Porter Wesley; after her death, it came to auction and to Gates. The catalogue description said that it was ‘uncertain’ that the MS was the work of a black person, but the fact that Wesley had acquired it suggested to Gates that she had a strong belief that the author was black. Gates submitted it for examination to, among others, the expert who had exposed the ‘Jack the Ripper Diaries’ as a fraud. The issue of authentication was vital, and went beyond the nature of the artefact itself. Granted that the paper, ink and other external markers dated it to somewhere between 1855 and 1860, and given that the handwriting, the diction, the vocabulary were faithful to the period, how can we know that the writer was black and, as the title page claimed, ‘A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina’?

You may wonder why anyone would bother to fake such an identity, but who would have imagined that anyone would dare fake the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor? Yet it seems to have happened. More to the point in this instance is the embarrassing memory of Alex Haley’s Roots. In 1976 the book was marketed as ground-breaking black history. It proved to be not just fiction, but plagiarised fiction. Fakery and accusations of fakery are part of the history of black writing. The 19th century gave rise to a great many publications by African Americans – autobiographies, religious tracts and poems – but sometimes white authors pretended to be black. Mattie Griffith, the author of Autobiography of a Female Slave (1856), revealed herself to be white within weeks of publication. Even where the hand that held the pen was black, a certain blurring of the boundaries of authenticity is evident in many texts. The stories of escaped slaves were intended to serve as propaganda for Abolition, and they were often edited by white supporters of emancipation. They had to sound authentic rather than be authentic, which meant that they had to conform to a white readership’s idea of how an educated black should sound. When Frederick Douglass toured as a speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society, he was advised not to sound ‘too learned’, in case his audiences didn’t believe he had been a slave.

Henry Louis Gates is an expert on slave narratives. (It was he who rescued from obscurity the first novel published by a black woman. Our Nig, by Harriet E. Wilson, came out in 1859; Wilson was born in the North and had never been a slave.) Gates argues that the warm reception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, made the white-for-black ruse unnecessary; one could be a commercial success without indulging in the peculiar impertinence of draping oneself in a borrowed skin. In time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestseller became a byword for its patronising treatment of its black characters, and Gates suggests that other novels by whites show similar stereotyping, a set of assumptions which would have found them out even if the reviewers had not. He was able to see correspondence relating to Hannah Crafts’s manuscript from its previous owner, Dorothy Wesley Porter, who had written: ‘There is no doubt she was a Negro because her approach to other Negroes is that they are people first of all. Only as the story unfolds, in most instances, does it become apparent that they are Negroes.’

Gates made stern and so far unsuccessful efforts to track down the author, by the usual methods of historical research. ‘Hannah’ is the name she has chosen for herself as protagonist, but was perhaps not her real forename; ‘Crafts’ may be a tribute to Ellen Crafts, who with her husband, William, made a daring escape from slavery in 1848 disguised as a white male. Whoever ‘Hannah’ was, she lives now in the pages of her book, and we need to look within the text to find out who and what she was: and since it has many autobiographical elements, we can locate, if not her presence, then the shape of her absence. To Gates the manuscript has particular value because it is unpublished, unedited, unmediated. Hannah offers us the chance for a ‘pristine encounter’. That is an odd way to describe it, because the reader has his or her own expectations, produced by more or less knowledge of slavery and slave narratives; Hannah, for her part, has a sensibility that is anything but pristine. Her narration is highly self-conscious; her manner of relation, her vocabulary are drawn from the 19th-century Gothic novel and from the novel of sentiment. Her story is told through tropes and motifs that are well-worn because they are serviceable, and her expressed emotions are tutored ones. She has read the Bible closely, and begins each chapter with a well-chosen citation. She knows Dickens well enough to lift a chunk of Bleak House and change foggy London into foggy Washington. But her borrowing is intelligent, because she sees into Dickens’s metaphor. Here are two nations, two cities, suffocating in the fog of irrationality and injustice, where the law and its servants and its victims swim in a miasma of oppression. And Hannah herself, as portrayed in the novel, would make a perfect Dickens heroine. The sternest trials leave her sweet character unsoured. In the worst exigencies, she injures no one, and ends her story in ‘blest and holy quietude’, in a little white cottage, with a fond husband, a revered and aged mother, and adoring children gathered at her knee. The children are not, curiously, her own. However she tries to smooth the surface of her tale and fit it for the ear of the novel-reading public, the brutalities of its subject-matter cannot be softened for long. The Bondwoman’s Narrative is like a parcel badly wrapped in silk, and what’s inside has spines and teeth.

Though Hannah ends up as a Dickens angel, she begins like Jane Eyre, open-eyed and cautious: ‘When a child they used to scold and find fault with me . . . I was shy and reserved . . . I had none of that quickness and animation which are so much admired in children, but rather a silent unobtrusive way of observing things and events, and wishing to understand them better than I could.’ Hannah knows no father or mother. The first nurturing figure in her life is a sort of fairy godmother, an elderly white woman who teaches her to read. There is much of the dispossessed princess about Hannah. She has already realised that the ‘African blood in my veins’ excludes her from any future but that of ‘unremitted unpaid toil’, and this is hard to understand and hard to bear, because ‘my complexion was almost white.’ How does her African blood show? It ‘gave a rotundity to my person, a wave and curl to my hair, and perhaps led me to fancy pictorial illustration and flaming colours’. No white Abolitionist could have created a more effective stereotype – but then people caricature themselves very efficiently, when they have to show themselves to the outside world. People with the histrionic talent to display their sufferings will turn to stereotype to reach their audience – hence the Irish joke and the Jewish joke and the teeth-baring horror of the nigger minstrel show. But perhaps it is true that Hannah enjoyed pictorial illustration and flaming colours. Her storytelling is coarse and lurid: perfect for Hollywood. And the casting? She’d probably find Halle Berry a shade too dark.

Hannah is a house slave, and her home is Lindendale, a great house whose walls are lined with ancestral portraits, with ‘stony eyes motionless and void of expression’. The glow of the evening sun kindles a kind of annihilation in their painted features, and Hannah feels a shudder of superstitious awe; but superstition is for field slaves, and Hannah knows that the people in the portraits are dead and cannot harm her. Nevertheless, Lindendale is the focus of many blood-soaked legends; and the reader feels Hannah take a deep breath as she sits down (quill-pen, sewing scissors, thimble) to recount at length (rag paper, watermarked, smooth) the story of an old slave woman and her small dog, gibbeted alive on the linden tree and left to die, in public view, over the course of several days. If Hannah were alive now, she would be well employed in writing appeals for animal shelters and Help the Aged. When she takes her time, she can wring the human heart with great confidence and efficiency, and no matter how many novels you read this year, it is likely that the old woman and her pooch will be among your top spooks on New Year’s Eve. No wonder the linden tree creaks, and the portraits fall from the wall, when a bride comes to Lindendale!

She is a beautiful young woman, a brunette with rather full lips; she seems nervous from the outset, and soon runs mad on a regular basis. The sinister Mr Trappe, who ‘claimed to have been the guardian of my mistress previous to her marriage’ knows her secret – she has African blood – and is blackmailing her. Hannah and her new mistress run away, and undergo harrowing adventures. They live in the woods, on berries and wild fruits, but are tracked down by agents of the far-reaching Trappe, and are imprisoned in ‘Egyptian’ darkness, in a dungeon where they fear being eaten alive by rats. A pencilled correction (by whom?) has changed ‘Egyptian’ to ‘Stygian’. But the first thought was right. When God plagued Egypt, it was with ‘darkness that may be felt’; God’s people are led out of Egypt and into freedom. Hannah may not win prizes for spelling – Gates leaves her mistakes in – but her range of reference is astonishing. On the same page as her ‘Egyptian’ darkness she tells us that ‘persons have been known to sleep on the rack’; this is the ‘witches sleep’ that gives victims of torture a break from agony, a tiny physiological pause. It is a sad attested fact, though it may also be (someone will check it out and tell us) a staple of Gothic narratives. The Gothic is an apt form in which to express the feelings of the powerless. It is apt where the workings of cause and effect are veiled, as they are from the slaves; it is no use for them to reason about their situation, because they are the victims of caprice, and rationality cannot save them. Gothic convention can survive, and diversify, because of its emotional and situational truth. It is always vastly exaggerated, and at the same time, there is always some culture, some spot on the map, where it is all literally true. There are dungeons, for the body and soul. There are lime pits in which the right-thinking are plunged, till their identity is leached away. There are perjurers and liars, and no one, of any shade, who can be relied on; truth is more than skin-deep. It’s all, as Hannah says, ‘hedious’. Just stand still, and something will have the flesh off your bones.

From the dungeon (where Hannah’s sanity is saved by a vision of her mother) she is delivered back to Trappe. Here is the slave owner’s voice, raised in self-justification, counselling submission to the status quo:

We are all slaves to something or somebody. A man perfectly free would be an anomaly, and a free woman even more so. Freedom and slavery are only names attached surreptitiously and often improperly to certain conditions . . . they are mere shadows the very reverse of realities, and being so, if rightly considered, they have only a trifling effect on individual happiness.

Hannah has thought deeply about the meaning of justice and its workings, and about individual as well as collective injuries. Her literary methods may be crass, but as a politician she is intelligent, analytical and persuasive, and when she begins to strip away the layers of hypocrisy and self-deception in the society into which she was born, she is both unsparing and subtle. She knows despotism, and has seen its miserable face. Her preface tells us that she hopes to show how slavery ‘blights the happiness of the white as well as the black race’. Her slaves have souls to save, so do their masters; each is impeding the other in this endeavour. The Christian religion is a subversive force, or so the masters fear; the slaves start to believe that everyone is equal in the sight of God. It persuades them that ‘one thing is right and another thing wrong’ – whereas properly speaking, they should surrender all moral sense to their owners. For Hannah, slavery is a brutal physical reality, but it is also a demeaning spiritual state. ‘My conscience never troubles me,’ says Trappe, and when a trader comes calling, his philosophy gives way to crude bargaining: ‘Now I’ll tell you what . . . You won’t find a nicer bit of woman’s flesh to be bought for that money in old Virginia. Don’t you see what a foot she has, so dainty and delicate, and what an ankle.’ But the trader is put off, because he suspects Hannah is ‘skittish’. Women turn skittish, he remarks, when they are parted from their children, though that is not Hannah’s reason; from being skittish they turn suicidal, and run away, and have to be pursued with dogs; once the hounds have ripped them apart, their market value is decreased.

Hannah’s novel is frank about the sexual abuse of black women, which reinforces the South’s ‘domestic institution’ by breeding more slaves, and in addition poisons the marriages of the whites. She describes how white mistresses and black maids grow close to each other – the mirror, the hairbrush – and recognises the similarities in their plight; these similarities do not, of course, guarantee fellow-feeling, because the weak are cruel to those weaker than themselves. The topic is freighted with ambiguity, in history as in Hannah’s fiction. The many women involved in the Abolitionist movement were quick to make parallels between slaves and all women, but this was not necessarily a feminist argument; sometimes, grotesquely, it was its opposite. Some Abolitionists argued against slavery on the grounds that it prevented proper family life – a wife could not be properly obedient to her husband if she owed obedience to her white master. And the pro-slavers feared that if slavery were abolished, the institution of marriage would be threatened; to emancipate slaves meant giving freedom to a body of people unfit for it, and women were like blacks in their natural lack of capacity for self-determination. Both slavery and marriage were institutions of private life, with which government should not meddle; but owners were entitled to make marriages among slaves, controlling their intimate lives, making and breaking their families at will.

Hannah’s worst moment – the event that precipitates her flight to freedom – comes when she crosses her white mistress who, as punishment, decrees that Hannah should be married to a field slave. ‘With all your pretty airs and your white face, you are nothing but a slave after all and no better than the blackest wench.’ Hannah has determined never to marry while she is a slave – she refuses to give birth to a child whose innocent body will perpetuate the system. But when she is exiled to the cabin of her prospective husband, her senses as well as her principles revolt. She is to be married to a man

whose person, speech and manner could not fail to be ever regarded by me with loathing and disgust. Then to be driven in to the fields beneath the eye and lash of the brutal overseer, and those miserable huts, with their promiscuous crowds of dirty, obscene and degraded objects, for my home I could not, would not bear it.

A day picking cotton makes her fingers bleed. This is Hannah, who can not only read, but play the harp! Deeply colour-conscious, shaped by her superior education, she has no access to the minds of the field slaves, and she makes no effort to imagine herself into their skins. The degraded men and women she describes are voiceless and outside history. It is likely they will defy the most probing investigations of Gates’s PhD squad. They have lives, but no biography; they are less chronicled than a white man’s dog. Only a novelist could give them a voice, but Hannah doesn’t try; real life is taking over now.

Hannah’s vengeful mistress had a real existence. The novel’s first mentions of the family designate them ‘Wh--’ but later the writer takes courage and fills in the name: ‘Wheeler’. From this, Gates has identified John Hill Wheeler, a lawyer, functionary, plantation owner and sometime member of the state legislature of North Carolina, who became briefly famous through a 1855 court case in which he attempted to regain possession of a fugitive slave called Jane Johnson. Jane’s story, in fictionalised form, is part of Hannah’s narrative, and it seems likely that Hannah was also employed in the Wheeler household, and overheard the private conversation of the family. Gates thinks that she may have been Jane’s replacement as lady’s maid, serving the Wheeler household in 1856 and escaping the following year. John Hill Wheeler kept a diary, parts of which are intact; a theatre-goer, he records seeing John Wilkes Booth in the part of Shylock, and thinking him a very promising actor. His library, rather than his diary, is likely to have been important to Hannah: he owned the works of Walter Scott, Gulliver’s Travels, two volumes of Byron, the Brontës’ novels, The Beauties of Shakespeare Regularly Selected from Each Play, several of Dickens’s works, the letters of Burns and Gray, and a volume called Whom to Marry and How to Get Married! or, The Adventures of a Lady in Search of a Good Husband.

Hannah runs away disguised as a boy, and after many adventures – not quite as lurid and preposterous as those that have gone before – she reaches a place of safety and a new life. How? Before the Civil War, the North did not provide a sure asylum. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it was legal for the owners of runaways to reclaim them if they could, and so it was necessary for escapees to disguise their identity. They could never be sure to live unmolested, and therefore many former slaves kept going until they reached Canada – it was wise to get clear of the Land of the Free, in order to claim rights in your own person. What seems likely is that the real Hannah ‘passed for white’, both during her escape and in later life, and that this prevented her from trying to get her manuscript published. It is a cruel trade-off: self-suppression as the price of safety.

Hannah as a novelist may be a thing of shreds and patches, but so are we all. The idea of disguising her influences would probably have made no sense to her, because she was as proud of her learning as she was of her near-white complexion. Her descriptions of houses, plantations and landscape show how thoroughly she has internalised the aesthetic values of her masters; she has no eye of her own. When pathos changes to broad comedy, you feel her heart isn’t in it; somebody has told her that readers appreciate light relief, and grimly she doles it out. But she knows how to excite horror, and how to move her reader, and how to people her narrative. Her black characters are more complex than her white ones; they are victims of slavery, but not all victims are good. Some slaves are deceitful and malicious, and few measure up to Hannah’s own high Christian standards. Her white characters are products of their politics, but while all Abolitionists are saintly, among the pro-slavers she deals in degrees of hypocrisy, guilt and moral deformity. Living at the white person’s feet, less noticed than the furniture, she acts as a mirror, a tape recorder, a microphone.

The Abolitionist preference was for facts, facts, facts: not for fantasy, which can be forged. Slave writers were urged to be specific, to skewer names and dates and places, as protection against the owners’ frequent allegation that slave narratives were the product of white Northern do-gooders with too little information and too much imagination. In her preface, Hannah declares her book to be a ‘record of plain unvarnished facts’, but a glance at any page shows it to be something far more artful. So why did Hannah choose to write a novel, not an autobiography? She prefers to tell a story about herself, and perhaps that story had been necessary for her psychological survival. Long before she was free in fact, she had escaped in imagination. She had extracted herself from degrading circumstances and inserted herself into others, more flattering, as a persecuted heroine in a romance. The novel shows us that she has been able to protect her psyche, and keep its core intact; an autobiography would merely assert it. Autobiographies display the triumph of experience, but novels are acts of hope. There are, after all, degrees of freedom. Did liberation consist of the capacity to sell one’s labour in a factory, and live in a slum in the cold North? Hannah has elected a better fate for her persona: self-determination, domestic happiness, even a reunion with her lost mother. It is a most touching example of art as solace. The novel has uses in both the outer and the inner world. Do people ever write just one? There’s work for the legion of PhD students; scouring the attics and lumber-rooms of America for traces of that unique hand, ‘neither an untutored hand nor an example of elegant penmanship’, legible and without flourishes, and ‘consistent with the writing of a woman’.