For a historical novelist, the freedom a fiction writer has to create plausible and coherent characters is disciplined by the need for historical characters to conform to the historical record. Chase-Riboud follows Brodie’s biography in interpreting the relationship between Hemings and Jefferson as a story of mutual love that began in Paris in 1788 when she was fifteen and he forty-five and that lasted thirty-eight years, until Jefferson’s death.
Sally Hemings is characterized as an intelligent and beautiful woman whom slavery has taught “never to hope, never to anticipate, and never to resist.” Hemings accepts her role of slave “wife,” which gives her paradoxically combined feelings of passivity and power. Slavery only reinforces her culture’s training in submission as the proper role of women. Dependent on a loving, powerful man, she abandons herself to “that particular joy of not being responsible for oneself.” At the same time, she takes pride in her power—power to invoke Jefferson’s intensely passionate love, power to exert occasional influence over his political decisions, and power to exercise real if unacknowledged authority as mistress of Monticello. At times, the cruel realities of slavery force her into agonized reappraisal of her situation—when she reviews her mother’s life, when Jefferson refuses to acknowledge her sons as his, when the murder of slave friends by their masters goes unpunished, and when she attends Nat Turner’s trial. Although she continues to affirm that her love for Jefferson has been the meaning of her life, in repudiating Nathan Langdon she asserts her right to control and interpret that life for herself.
(The entire section is 691 words.)