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Willa Cather: Sapphira and the Slave Girl

This novel is set in Virginia, shortly before the Civil War. Sapphira is Sapphira Colbert, wife of Henry, the mill owner and owner of Nancy, the slave girl of the title. Sapphira wants to sell Nancy but Henry, who is no great lover of slavery, refuses to give his permission, not wanting to send the young woman away from the area and people she knows. Sapphira, while not brutally cruel with her slaves, is frequently thoughtless and unfeeling towards them. Henry keeps away, spending most of his time at the mill, including sleeping there. Trouble starts when Henry and Sapphira’s nephew, Martin, fleeing his creditors and the husbands of his lovers, arrives to stay. Sapphira dotes on him but Henry has no time for him, seeing in him the”bad blood” of the Colberts, which came out in Henry’s three brothers. However, Virginia’s rules of hospitality means there is nothing much he can do. Martin, wanting his oats, pursues Nancy, to the latter’s chagrin and, indeed, to the chagrin to most of the people living there, black and white, except for Sapphira, who almost seems to encourage the relationship. Eventually, Rachel, Henry and Sapphira’s widowed daughter, helps Nancy to escape to freedom. Her mother realises who is responsible and breaks off all relationships with her daughter, though relationships are restored when one of the daughters dies of diphtheria.

This was Cather’s last novel and is a departure from her previous ones, being set in Virginia and in a relatively comfortable environment, instead of in the challenging West. It is, of course, totally politically incorrect by our standards, for Cather, while not extolling slavery, certainly does not consider it an unmitigated evil and several of the slaves are clearly stereotypes, including Nancy herself. Indeed, it is difficult to be objective about this novel but there is no doubt that it is not one of Cather’s best. Cather herself, of course, came from Virginia and visited there as an adult and this may well represent her attempt at coming to terms with her past.

Publishing history

First published 1940 by Alfred Knopf