Our sixth novel for the Emotions Book Club is The Bondwoman’s Narrative, A Fugitive Slave Recently Escaped from North Carolina, which deals with life under slavery in mid-nineteenth century America. It has been described as the ‘most important discovery in African American literary studies since that of Harriet Wilson and Our Nig.’ It was written by Hannah Crafts, a young black woman who managed to escape from slavery. The Bondwoman’s Narrative is the only known novel written by a female African American slave, and is also possibly the first novel written by a black woman, predating even Our Nig which was published in 1859.
However, unlike Our Nig, and indeed unlike the other novels we have read to date in the book club, the novel was not published when it was written. In fact the manuscript lay undiscovered for around a century until it was bought from a book dealer at auction by archivist and librarian Dorothy Porter Wesley and subsequently at a later auction by Henry Lewis Gates Jr., historian of African American history.
Both Porter Wesley and Gates Jr. believed the manuscript to be an exciting discovery, an authentic manuscript by an African American woman from mid nineteenth century America. Porter attests:
‘The most important thing about this fictionalized narrative is that, from internal evidence, it appears to be the work of a Negro and the time of composition was before the Civil War in the late forties and fifties.’
Porter describes in a letter how the author wrote about black characters in the novel in a way which was totally at odds with how they were represented by white writers in fiction at this time. Her black characters were ‘people first of all. Only as the story unfolds, in most instances, does it become apparent that they are Negroes.’ After Gates bought the manuscript he built on Porter’s findings and worked with other scholars who concurred that the novel had been written by an African American woman in mid-nineteenth century America.
Following this, and after a further decade of research, in 2013, literary scholar Gregg Hecimovich was able to identify the author of The Bondwoman’s Narrative as Hannah Bond, a former slave. He identified a large number of crossover points between the novel and Hannah Bond’s own life. Bond had been a slave on a plantation in South Carolina, owned by John Hill Wheeler. It transpired that Bond, like some other slaves at this time, had been encouraged to be partly literate by their masters so that they were able to help with administrative work. As Gates Jr. shows, while working in the household Bond read a number of novels of the time, which went on to influence her own. In 1857, Bond escaped from the plantation, cross-dressed as a white man. She was helped by abolitionists and free persons of colour. After escaping, she headed north and eventually settled in New Jersey in a community of freed and escaped slaves. She went on to marry and became a school teacher.
Bond finished her novel in 1858, although it is likely that she begun it while she still a slave in the Wheeler household. The novel details the day to day life of an enslaved woman, and her subsequent escape. It gives first hand insight into the violence and abuses inflicted upon slaves, at a time when the abolitionist movement was gaining considerable ground in America, and shortly before the American Civil War. Dorothy Porter shows how the novel draws upon wider literary models of the time and echoes the ‘sentimental and effusive style’ adopted by sentimental fiction of mid-century. The novel also draws heavily on contemporary fiction including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-3).
The novel was very well received after its original publication in 2002, and became a bestseller. We hope you enjoy it and look forward to hearing and reading your thoughts.
Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative (Grand Central Publishing: New York and Boston, 2012).
Harriet Wilson, Our Nig, or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In a Two-Story White House, North (Penguin Random House, 2009).
In Search of Hannah Crafts: Critical Essays on the Bondwoman’s Narrative, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins (Basic/Civitas, 2004).
 Henry Louis Gates Jr., in ‘Introduction’, Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, (Grand Central Publishing: New York and Boston, 2012), xv.
 Letter by Dorothy Porter quoted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., in ‘Introduction’, li-lii.
 Letter by Dorothy Porter quoted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., in ‘Introduction’, li.
 Henry Louis Gates Jr., in ‘Introduction’, xvii.