Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather (1940)

Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) by Willa Cather - cover

Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) was Willa Cather’s last novel. It was the only book the Virginia-born author set in her home state.

An actual incident from her own family history provided the seed of the story, which concerns the troubled marriage of Henry and Sapphira Colbert, who own and operate a small farm and mill near Winchester, Virginia, before the years of the Civil War.

Sapphira, an unhappy and ill middle-aged woman, suspects that her husband is intimately involved with Nancy, a pretty young mixed-race slave of the household.

Though her suspicions are wrong, she seeks revenge by manipulating those around her. Nancy, is in an intimate relationship with her husband, and manipulates those around her to exact revenge. Here is a review from 1941, shortly after the book was published.


Fashioned from vague recollections

From the review in The Bakersfield Californian, January 1941:  When Willa Cather’s publishers announced a new book, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by this eminent author, its appearance was eagerly awaited.

Miss Cather’s past performance had given us hope of another work such as Death Comes for the Archbishop or that earlier triumph, My Antonia.

But it is apparent that Sapphira and the Slave Girl, though done with all the Cather skill of nuance and subtlety, is not the book to add luster to the Cather name and reputation.

With all the will in the world to enjoy a bit of fine writing, one cannot stifle a sense of disappointment in this story, which the writer seems to have remembered from her earlier Virginia days, but which she has recalled as a child does, vaguely and a bit formlessly.

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Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa CAther

Sapphira and the Slave Girl on Amazon*
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A twisted character

Set agains the background of the rural South in the period just prior to the Civil War, the book deals with a domestic situation involving Sapphira, aristocratic, domineering, aging: her husband, four years her junior, and socially her inferior; and the slave girl, Nancy.

Sapphira is a twisted, ingrown character, courageous under the inroads of an incurable malady, whose relation to her miller husband is mysterious and involved. She becomes jealous of the pretty slave and persecutes her until her own abolitionist daughter spirits the girl away by the Underground Railroad.

So much for the plot. There is little action, but there is, as always with Willa Cather immense impact of character and aside from the action, real and temperamental, the book, without comment, presents a picture of conditions under the slave system, the patriarchal system which could be kind, which could be cruel and ruthless, and which was often both in turn, as a whim might dictate.

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Lucy Gayheart  (1935)
O Pioneers!  (1913)
The Song of the Lark  (1915)
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A period piece

Willa Cather has recreated a period of American life, as one might weave a tapestry. There is beauty, there is form and design, but there is a flat surface without life, and in so much as the characters do not live and breathe, in so much has the author failed her public.

So, if Sapphira and the Slave Girl seems a disappointment, the fault may not lie entirely with the writer but somewhat with the reader whose tastes may have changed with the changing times.

If her work seems a bit thin and unimportant, if we do not savor the style and the beauty as we might, as once we did, we must take some of the onus upon ourselves. For if the salt shall lose its savor, and the reader his or her literary taste, both cooks and authors create in vain.

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Death comes for the archbishop

You might also like: Death Comes for the Archbishop  (1927)

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More about Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

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