Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson who was also his sister-in-law and probably the mother of four of his children, is a fascinating historical character. She fascinates me because she is a woman about whom very little is known, who lived out her life in close proximity and almost certainly in a sexual relationship with a man about whom we know a great deal — and that relationship colours and changes everything we know, or think we know, about Jefferson. Jefferson’s stance on slavery –he was theoretically opposed to it, yet owned hundreds of slaves and freed almost none of them within his lifetime (almost all those he did free were members of the Hemings family, including Sally’s children) — already makes him a complicated historical figure. The personal aspect of his relationship with Sally (who is sometimes referred to as his “slave mistress,” a problematic term as it suggests a relationship that is at once both consensual and non-consensual) only makes for more fertile ground for a novelist who can go in imagination where historians are not able to tread.
I read Barbara Chase-Riboud’s 1979 novel Sally Hemings many years ago, and of course was intrigued by Stephen O’Connor’s recent re-imagining of the story when it appeared last year. O’Connor’s novel is weighty, ingenious, beautifully written and, like the historical relationship it depicts, problematic and controversial. I loved it, but I’m also well aware of its limitations.
The structure of the novel itself is interesting. The bulk of it is made up of very short chapters depicting scenes from Jefferson’s and Hemings’ lives told in a fairly straightforward historical-fiction style, in the third person omniscient voice. In between these scenes are excerpts from an imagined first-person narrative by Hemings in which she tells her own version of the story and relates her feelings in her own words. There are also short segments from actual historical narratives of the time, including a memoir by one of the Hemings’ (and likely Jefferson’s) sons, Madison Hemings, short expository pieces in the author’s voice giving additional historical background, and weirder, more postmodern vignettes in which the author imagines various afterlives for Jefferson and Hemings. In one, Thomas Jefferson glimpses Sally Hemings on a subway; in another, he’s being tortured in a particularly grim version of Hell by a sadistic prison guard; in yet another, Jefferson (who died a century before the earliest modern feature films) watches a movie about his own life; in yet another, Jefferson and Hemings together visit a museum exhibit that explores their relationship. Some of these vignettes are more successful than others; there were places where I found myself wondering what they added to the overall story, but some are insightful and beautifully crafted. I can see why the author wanted to include them.
The core historical narrative — the story that unfolds through the third-person narrator interspersed with the imagined first-person voice of Hemings herself — presents two complex individuals in a complicated relationship. In this portrayal, Hemings does develop some tender feelings towards Jefferson over the years of their sexual relationship, but her feelings are never free of resentment and always overshadowed by the overwhelming fact of her (and her family’s) enslavement. It’s clear from the beginning of the relationship, when Hemings is sixteen and Jefferson is her forty-six-year-old owner, that there is nothing remotely consensual about this relationship. But it is also not straightforwardly depicted as rape. O’Connor’s Jefferson has romantic feelings about Hemings and almost courts her, while at the same time never imagining her as his equal in any real way. Sally Hemings, meanwhile, is both repelled and attracted by Jefferson. She believes she “could have said no,” yet questions that belief from various angles over the years as their relationship continues, and leads the reader to question it too.