Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Summary

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself, is the autobiography of fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs, first published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent. Jacobs’s account of her sexual abuse at the hands of her former master shocked contemporary readers and shed light for the first time in American history on some of the specific horrors suffered by female slaves.

The book opens with a preface written by its editor, Lydia Maria Child, which covers much the same ground as Jacobs’s own subsequent opening. Child and Jacobs both point out that the story is painful and humiliating for the author to tell: Jacobs’s motive in publishing it is to further the abolitionist cause.

“Linda Brent”—Jacobs’s pseudonym—is born into slavery. The first years of her life are relatively comfortable. Her parents are high-ranking slaves in the establishment of a lenient mistress. When Linda’s mother dies, Linda is sent to live with the mistress, who treats her kindly, teaching her to read and to sew.

When her mistress dies, Linda is bequeathed in her will to a new mistress, five-year-old Emily Flint. For Linda, who is twelve, serving the whims of a tyrannical five-year-old is difficult—but her situation at the Flints’ rapidly worsens. Emily’s father, Dr. Flint, begins pressuring Linda to have sex with him.

For several years, Linda resists, as Dr. Flint steadily increases the pressure. When he begins to threaten her, Linda decides to begin an affair with the Flints’ neighbor, Mr. Sands. Linda is ashamed of this relationship, but at least it is consensual, and furthermore, she hopes that when Dr. Flint discovers it, he might sell her in disgust. With Mr. Sands, she conceives two children, Benny and Ellen. Addressing a readership of white women, who might be expected to frown on Linda’s extra-marital pregnancies, Linda argues that a powerless slave cannot be held to the standards that apply to free women.

Dr. Flint learns about Linda’s affair, but he does not sell her. Instead, he offers her a choice: unless she has sex with him, he will send her and her children to his plantation to receive the brutal treatment meted out to field hands.

Linda chooses the plantation, but she has a plan. Almost as soon as she arrives at the plantation, Linda runs away and hides in the attic crawl space—which she calls the “garret”—of her grandmother’s house. She hopes that Dr. Flint will assume she has escaped to the North, and that he will sell her children rather than risk their disappearing after her.

Dr. Flint searches high and low for Linda, and eventually, he does sell Benny and Ellen, to a slave trader who, unbeknownst to Dr. Flint, is working for Mr. Sands. Mr. Sands promises to free the children—one day—and send them to live with Linda’s grandmother.

In the meantime, Linda remains in the garret. It is not big enough for her to sit or stand. All she can do is watch her children through a peephole she makes in the wood. She cannot let them know that she is there. She remains there for seven years, gradually becoming weak and debilitated by the cramped conditions.

Mr. Sands is elected to Congress. He takes Ellen to Washington, D.C., to be a nanny to his newborn daughter. Linda begins to suspect that he does not intend to free her children. However, Dr. Flint continues to search for her, and she has no way of rescuing her children herself.

With the help of abolitionists, Linda escapes to the North by boat. Benny is sent to live with Linda’s grandmother, while Ellen is already in New York, still effectively a slave in the employ of Mr. Sands’s cousin Mrs. Hobbs.

Linda finds a job as a nursemaid in New York City. Her employers, the Bruce family, treat her kindly, but Dr. Flint comes looking for her and she is forced to flee to Boston, where she finds Benny.

Dr. Flint, discovering that he was tricked into selling Benny and Ellen, claims that the sale should be considered illegitimate. Linda fears her family will be re-enslaved.

When Mrs. Bruce dies, Linda accompanies Mr. Bruce to England, where for the first time she is free from racial prejudice and terror. Upon her return to Boston, Ellen is sent to boarding school, while Benny accompanies Linda’s brother William to California.

Dr. Flint dies, but his daughter Emily claims ownership of Linda. Emily’s claim is backed by the newly passed Fugitive Slave Act.

One day, Emily and her husband, Mr. Dodge, arrive in New York, hunting Linda. Mrs. Bruce offers to buy Linda’s freedom, but Linda refuses, not wishing to be treated like property even to her own advantage. She is planning to escape to California when Mrs. Bruce decides to buy her anyway. Linda is furious. However, she is also grateful to Mrs. Bruce—who, she notes, is still her employer at the time of writing. She regrets that she has still not been able to make a home of her own for herself and her children.

The book closes with two testimonials confirming its accuracy by the abolitionists Amy Post and George W. Lowther.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl blends the techniques of the sentimental novel with those of the “slave narrative” to create a compelling emotional arc. After the Civil War, Jacobs’s autobiography was widely believed to be a novel, written by the (white) abolitionist who edited Jacobs’s manuscript, Lydia Maria Child. American academic Jean Fagan Yellin conclusively established the book’s true authorship in the 1980s. Since then Incidents has been regarded as a seminal contribution to the “slave narrative” genre.