Barbara Chase-Riboud Essay - Critical Essays


Barbara Chase-Riboud’s historical novels offer a strongly diversified exploration of power relationships as they are shaped by race, gender, and social and political needs. Slavery figures prominently in each novel, not only in its aberrations and its violence but also in the complex configurations of relationships it produces. The hairsplitting legal separation of the races is rendered incongruous by the intertwined blood ties exemplified in the extended interracial Jefferson family. More controversially, the notions of slave and master lose their sharp distinction in the face of multiple forms of attraction and manipulation. It is the theme of profoundly mixed heritage and history, embodied in miscegenation, that ultimately dominates. The “outing” of hidden or mysterious women, such as Sally Hemings or Valide, bespeaks a desire to shake taboos and renew our understanding of world history.

Chase-Riboud’s intellectual inquisitiveness, her multilingual and multicultural experience, and her artistic sensibility successfully collaborate in these re-creations of large portions of world history, the visual power of which the author attains through precise and often poetic descriptions of places, events, clothes, and physiognomies. Especially engaging are the nuanced renderings of the characters’ psychological and emotional turmoil, whether Catherine the Great or the African Joseph Cinque. These are historical novels in the pure Scottian tradition, depicting a welter of official historical events while bringing them to life with invented but eminently plausible depictions of the private lives that lie in the gaps. The sense of wide-ranging tableau is enhanced by a narrative technique that often jumps among the perspectives of numerous characters in successions of relatively short chapters. One can even hear echoes from one novel to another, as Sally Hemings is discussed by John Quincy Adams in Echo of Lions or Thomas Jefferson figures in Valide’s Tripoli episode; The President’s Daughter even reproduces scenes from Sally Hemings.

Sally Hemings

Chase-Riboud’s first novel is a fictional biography of Sally Hemings, President Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress (in November, 1998, Nature magazine reported that, thanks to deoxyribonucleic acid [DNA] evidence, it is certain that Jefferson fathered at least Hemings’s last child). Inspired primarily by Fawn M. Brodie’s 1974 biography Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History and by the Hemings family’s oral testimony, Chase-Riboud re-creates known historical events and characters, filling them out with nuanced and convincing psychological and emotional texture. The official facts are as follows: Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter Maria to Paris in June of 1787 to join him there and they all came back to the United States in October of 1789; a scandal broke out during Jefferson’s first term as president when he was accused of having a son with his slave Sally, an allegation Jefferson never publicly denied; all seven of Sally’s children were conceived at times when Jefferson was present at Monticello, his estate in Virginia; all of her children were either allowed to run away or freed by Jefferson’s will. According to Sally’s son Madison Hemings, whose memoirs appeared in the Pike County (Ohio) Republican in 1873, his mother was pregnant with Jefferson’s child when they came back from Paris, and Jefferson had promised her that he would free their children when they turned twenty-one.

The novel, which is told mostly from Sally’s point of view, explores with great subtlety the emotional torture involved in a love story between a slave mistress and her master. Her alternate references to him as “my master” and “my lover” reflect her changing evaluation of herself as someone who gave up her freedom for love. A reminder of her surrender is provided by her brother James, who exhorts her to stay in France, where they are legally free, who keeps reproaching her for choosing a golden prison, and who ultimately dies in mysterious circumstances. The relationship with Jefferson is presented realistically, as Sally occupies the underside of his public life, which echoes back into her life though remains frustratingly out of reach. Her rare excursions into public spaces lead to unpleasant confrontations with future vice president Aaron Burr and future first lady Dolley Madison, reminding her of the limits imposed on her identity by the outside world. The recurring silences between her and her lover, which become a motif in the book, symbolize the extent of her invisibility and powerlessness. As a consequence, Sally starts wielding power indirectly and subversively, as she takes over the keys of the house from her mother and decides that she will methodically obtain freedom for each of her children. Ultimately, however, it is love that defines her more than her slavehood.

Sally’s story is told in flashback after the census taker Nathan Langdon visits her in her cabin in 1830 and decides to mark her and her two sons down as white, thereby replaying the white world’s many attempts to...

(The entire section is 2118 words.)