What is the worst thing that you have ever received as a birthday present? Some dreadful knitwear that you have been obliged to wear when visiting the person who burdened you with it? Perhaps something dull or mundane or embarrassing which showed an utter misunderstanding of you as a person? Something ugly that you have had to put out on display to avoid hurting the feelings of the giver, despite hating it? Spare a thought then for Sarah Grimké. For her eleventh birthday, she received another person as her present, complete with a gaudy bow tied around her neck.
The year is 1803 and the place Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah is a younger daughter in the wealthy and prominent Grimké plantation family, a family that owns nearly twenty domestic slaves just to keep their elaborate household running. At age eleven, Sarah is promoted from the nursery to a room of her own, and at her birthday tea is presented with Handful, a slave girl a year younger than herself to act as her own personal handmaid. Sarah politely informs her mother that she cannot accept her gift, and as a result is forced to write grovelling letters of apology for her behaviour to the guests. She later copies a manumission statement from one of her father’s law books in an attempt to free Handful, but her parents tear the document up, leaving the remains outside Sarah’s door for her to find in the morning. After promising to Handful’s mother Charlotte that she would help free her daughter in any way she could, Sarah comes to a decision. If she is unable to liberate Handful from slavery, then she will at least teach her to read. In a world where making a slave literate was a crime, this was a very dangerous activity for both girls to be engaged in. When the lessons are discovered, severe punishments follow all round.
As the two grow up, a strange friendship forms between them, marked as much by guilt and defiance as it is by love. Handful and her mother dream of freedom, while Sarah and her younger sister Angelina become increasingly vocal supporters of such scandalous causes as abolition and women’s rights. They abandon the family Episcopalian tradition to become first Presbyterians and later involved with the Quaker movement, the most noted anti-slavery religious group of the time (although despite preaching emancipation, they still had a “coloured bench” in their meeting houses). Trapped by the strict social conventions of an age where women were poorly educated and could do very little, however, the sisters are frustrated in the pursuit of their causes; as Handful puts it, she may be a slave in body, but they are slaves in mind. All the women wish for a life of their own, and it takes a good deal of courage, perseverance and personal loss over the thirty year course of the narrative for them each to try and get one.
This would be an engaging story in its own right, but what is even more remarkable is that the Grimké sisters were real people, and at one point thought of as the most infamous women in America. They were the first female abolition agents; amongst the earliest feminist thinkers in the US; Sarah was the first woman to publish a comprehensive feminist manifesto in America, and Angelina the first to speak before an American legislative body. Now largely forgotten by history, their story was rediscovered by novelist Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees), who sought to write a “thickly imagined story” inspired by Sarah’s life and works in the form of The Invention of Wings. We do know that Sarah was given a personal maid at age eleven, and we know that she was caught teaching the girl to read, although the historical slave disappears from records soon afterwards and is thought to have died at a young age. Monk Kidd takes this historical fact and use it to imagine Handful, the person that girl could have become if she had lived. Sarah and Handful alternately narrate the story, giving the reader two very different perspectives on a world that permitted, and even encouraged, slavery.
The long timespan that The Invention of Wings has to cover by historical necessity gives us a very substantial book, which is beautifully written but does sag a little in places around the middle as you wait for things to happen. It does ultimately reward the patient reader, although I do hope that in the final version (I read an uncorrected proof copy) some explanation is given about the Southern dialect used, as I often struggled with the unfamiliar terms, and had to try and find context for them in the text, not always with success. This point aside, I think this book was superior to Monk Kidd’s famous The Secret Life of Bees and gives some well-deserved publicity to two very remarkable women.
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Published by Tinder Press, January 2014
With thanks to the publishers who provided me with a review copy of this book.
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