“Slavery is terrible for men: but it is far more terrible for women.
Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs,
and suffering, and mortifications peculiarly to their own.”
Two Slave Mothers: Linda Brent and Eliza
Through the narrator Linda Brent, a character created by Harriet Ann Jacobs in Incidents of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, Jacobs tells her autobiographical story as a slave, as the mother of two children, and eventually as a free woman. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin traces the lives of two slaves, Eliza, a mother who escapes to the North and Uncle Tom, a father who is sold to the South. The character Eliza is comparable to that of Linda Brent. Eliza is a slave mother with a young son who escapes to the North in order to save her son from being sold to a slave trader. Although Linda Brent and Eliza are both slave mothers during the antebellum period in the South, their similarities end there. Linda Brent’s relationship to her master, marital status, and circumstances differs from those of Eliza’s. As a result, the narratives of these two slave mothers are profoundly different. Another major difference between these two characters is that while Linda Brent becomes the heroine at the end of Incidents for her bravery and courage in escaping to the North, the hero of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is George Shelby, the son of Eliza’s master—Master Shelby, for emancipating all of his slaves at the end of the novel.
While Eliza’s relationship with her master, Master Shelby, is depicted as a relationship that is “grounded in love,” as explained by Jean Yellin in her Introduction in the 1998 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Linda Brent suffers from her master’s incessant sexual harassment. This eventually causes Brent to have a sexual relationship with a neighbor, a young single white lawyer, bearing two children with him out of wedlock in order to circumvent her master’s sexual advances. While Eliza is married to a loving husband who is also a slave at a neighboring plantation, Brent remains a single mother of two children. Eliza’s mistress, Mrs. Shelby, is sympathetic of Eliza’s plight as a slave and is understanding and easily forgiving. However, Brent’s mistress, Mrs. Flint, is jealous of Brent and the attention she receives from her husband, Dr. Flint. Mrs. Flint is spiteful, harsh, and unyielding to Brent.
Although Harriet Jacobs does not disclose much detail about her sexual encounters or the sexual abuse of slave women and “treats her sexual experiences obliquely” through the character Linda Brent, Jacobs is still an unconventional writer of the nineteenth century, creating a narrator who addresses her personal and painful sexual history in the public sphere. In this way, Jacobs politicizes the topic of the sexual abuse of slave women and introduces it into public discourse. Through her creation of Linda Brent, Jacobs tells the story of her struggle to define and affirm her womanhood, and in doing so, establishes a new kind of female heroine. The subject of the sexual abuse of slave women is something that is not addressed in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s primary focus is the “dilemma that slavery presents to white Americans.” The dilemma is a moral conflict which white Americans encounter in having to decide whether to aid fugitives and break the law or not. There is also a deeply religious theme that overshadows the novel, i.e. the emphasis on the importance of spiritual salvation and observance for the “higher law” of God.
While writing her book, Jacobs refused to ask Nathaniel Parker Willis, her employer in New York, for his help although he was a magazine writer and editor because she believed that he was in favor of slavery unlike both of his wives. Furthermore, although Jacobs openly discussed her efforts in completing her book with her friends, the Posts, in Rochester, she wrote secretly and only during the evening living with the Willises. Jacobs also distrusted the best-selling author Harriet Beecher Stowe, “not because of Stowe’s attitudes toward slavery but because of her ideas about race.” When Jacobs first agreed to Amy Post’s urging that she publish her story, she did not intend to write it herself, but planned to seek Stowe’s help in completing a narrative. Consequently, Jacobs asked Post to approach Stowe with her story. However, when Jacobs heard that Stowe was planning a trip to England, she asked Mrs. Willis to write to Stowe suggesting that Jacobs’ daughter accompany Stowe on her trip to England. Stowe responded by writing to Mrs. Willis that she would not take Jacobs’ daughter because “the British would spoil the girl with attention; that she was forwarding Amy Post’s sketch of Jacobs’ sensational life to Mrs. Willis for verification; and that, if Jacobs’ story was true, she herself would use it in her forthcoming Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” This devastated Jacobs. In addition to the fact that Jacobs had never divulged her sexual history to Mrs. Willis, she felt betrayed by Stowe as a woman, insulted as a mother, “and threatened as a writer.”
Jacobs decided to write the story herself and sought the aid of Amy Post for editorial work. Although Jacobs was apprehensive about her writing, she was determined to tell her story herself but feared of being discovered. Meanwhile as she continued to write her story, she was under other pressures as her workload increased at the Willises. The Willises built a country estate at Cornwall on the Hudson and also had two more children. Jacobs arranged for her daughter, a teacher, to copy the manuscript and correct any spelling and punctuation mistakes. However, there is no evidence that suggests that Louisa Matilda had any impact on the content of the manuscript.
By asserting herself as the author in the subtitle, Jacobs uses the first person to discuss the oppressive institution of slavery and the struggle for freedom directly from the person who has been enslaved. The title is unusual and “revolutionary” because the title announces that its author is a female and that her narrative is not of a life but rather of incidents in a life. In the preface of Incidents, Jacobs explains that although her tale is based on truth and facts, she writes under an alias and has changed the identities of people and places. By later asserting that “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women,” she specifies that her story addresses “a woman’s struggle against her oppression in slavery as a sexual object and as a mother.”
Whereas Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin traces the lives of two slaves, a father who is sold and separated from his family but who remains in the South and a mother who runs away to the North to free her young son and herself, Jacobs’s Incidents traces one woman’s struggle for freedom, and ends with the achievement of her goal in the final pages of the book. Ironically, the hero of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a southern slaveholder, Master George Shelby, who frees all of his slaves at the end of the book; by contrast, a free slave mother—Linda Brent—the heroine of Incidents.