Rebecca J. Fraser, Gender, Race and Family in Nineteenth Century America: From Northern Woman to Plantation Mistress (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)
Rebecca J. Fraser’s Gender, Race and Family in Nineteenth Century America: From Northern Woman to Plantation Mistress is a fine example of careful research and eloquent story-telling. Understood in its simplest form, it is the biography of Sarah Hicks, a northern woman from a family of abolitionists who marries a southern slave-holder. The crux of the biographical narrative is Sarah’s migration from her home in New Hartford, New York State, to Greene County in North Carolina following her marriage to Benjamin Williams in 1853. In her move from New York to North Carolina, Sarah transversed countless social, political and personal limits; she swapped a great metropolis for a small rural community, northern culture for that of the south, single life for that of a married woman and mother, and familial allegiances with abolitionism for a slave-holding husband. The crossing of these limits, in their varying forms and differing implications in north and south, is one focus of Fraser’s study. By deftly weaving historical information specific to antebellum America with her research into the life of one woman, Fraser demonstrates how the country’s politics came to affect the lives, loves and losses of its people.
Fraser’s book follows a clear chronological structure. In order to adequately relate the differences between the Hicks and Williams families, Fraser provides information about both families before and after their union by way of Sarah and Benjamin. Sarah was born in 1827 to a Protestant, middle-class family in New Hartford. Her mother’s faith was grounded in strict adherence to Protestant piety. In keeping with regional fashions, her father championed the moral reform movements of the era and, like many professional men, devoted considerable money and energy to meticulously decorating the family home in such a way so as to demonstrate the family’s wealth and status within New Hartford’s elite. Perhaps the most significant marker of the Hicks family’s embrace of nineteenth-century evangelicalism and moral reform is in Sarah’s sister’s decision to marry a committed antislavery campaigner. When, nine years later, Sarah chose to become the wife of a slaveholder the Hicks family was torn in two. Although, as Fraser points out, Sarah’s decision to move south with her husband was consistent with the thousands of other Americans who were spurred on by rapidly developing transport and communication systems, Sarah spent the remainder of her life trying to convince her family and their friends in New Hartford that she had, in fact, made a respectful union.
Sarah and Benjamin met while studying at Albany Academy in New York in 1845. After honeymooning in the finest hotels that the cities of Montreal, Boston, New York and Philadelphia had to offer, the couple took up permanent residence at the Williams family’s plantation. Accordingly, at the age of 26, Sarah Hicks became Sarah Hicks Williams, mistress of a plantation on which at least thirty-seven people were enslaved. Using the letters that Sarah wrote to her family following her move south, Fraser offers examples of the many ways in which she found herself out of place in the pinelands of Greene County. In addition to the alien landscape, Sarah found disconcerting the apparent lack of religious unity among the County’s population (her new husband, for one, was not a practising Christian) and expressed concerns with the few markers of wealth and status within the community. In a letter to her parents, she bemoaned her wardrobe ‘too extravagant’ for life on the plantation (p. 25). Of her parents, Sarah claimed that they would ‘have no idea how entirely different’ life on the plantation was to life in New Hartford: ‘If you call Long Island behind the times’, she appeals to her family, ‘I don’t know what you would call North Carolina. It has been rightly termed Rip Van Winkle [State]’ (p. 25). The use of personal correspondence contributes to one of the study’s main strengths: while Fraser admits that she was required to fill the gaps between letters, their use allows for Sarah’s voice to be heard. Sarah’s voice comes, clear and true, through the raucousness and discord of American history.
Perhaps the most significant revelation of Gender, Race and Family in Nineteenth Century America is the fluidity of Sarah’s ideology. A quotation from cultural historian Julie Roy Jeffrey is well placed in Fraser’s introduction: ‘Ideology never tells all’ (p. 3). Fraser makes a convincing argument for the relevance of Jeffrey’s claim in relation her study. Although life in New Hartford was ‘grounded in particular cultural ideas and expectations pertaining to […] gender and class’, the changing states of Sarah’s ideas about race, gender and class do not allow room for ‘a strict adherence to the ideology of separate spheres and true womanhood’ (p. 3). Fraser evidences her claim by charting the relative ease with which Sarah moved from a position of discomfort about enslavement to the acceptance of southern ideas about race, duty and slavery. As the distance between Sarah and her family grew larger, her allegiance with the slave regime was consolidated. In 1857, she and Benjamin moved with their children to Charlton County, Georgia, near-doubling the distance between Sarah and her family in New Hartford. It was in Charlton County, 1770 kilometres away from her family, that Sarah experienced the effects of Civil War and the subsequent Reconstruction.
Like other white women in Charlton County, and in the south more generally, Sarah lamented the demise of the slave regime. Yet Fraser’s account is surprising in that it allows room for an alternative explanation for why Sarah came to accept an ideological framework which situated enslaved men and women as inferior beings whose main purpose was to bring about the financial profit of their owners. Fraser invites us to believe that Sarah did not simply and passively align her ideals with those of her husband. Instead, Sarah’s acceptance of her role on the plantation and her involvement in its daily running resulted in her becoming ‘intricately connected to the [family’s] means of production and the public world’ (p. 3). As well as a home to its owners and their slaves, the southern plantation was also a site of production. Sarah’s role as the wife of a wealthy slaveholder asked that she adopt distinct ideals and practices in relation to her gendered identity. While Barbara Welter assigned the term ‘true womanhood’ to the collective ‘prescriptive ideals […] of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity’, Sarah’s devotion to the upkeep of home, children and slaves (and the morality of all three) was essential to ensure the profitability of the plantation (p. 41). By caring for her husband’s slaves, therefore, Sarah was able to perform her gendered role in the ‘quasi-public world’ of the plantation without leaving her separate ‘domestic sphere’ (p. 4).
The story of Sarah Hicks’ life is, at once, meticulously researched and beautifully recounted by Fraser. The deftness with which Fraser weaves real-life accounts with American and regional history invites alternative explanations for the country’s growing sectional tensions. As a result, the study makes an important contribution to our understanding of women’s roles in antebellum America and thereafter, as well as the perceived cultural differences between northern and southern, urban and rural life. By carefully and resourcefully filling the gaps left by her subjects in their correspondence, personal writings and records, Fraser also makes a pertinent point in relation to the genre of biography: the diligent use of ‘historical imagination’ (to borrow Fraser’s words) can play an important role in successfully relating past lives to a modern audience.
Jennifer Nicol is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University. Her doctoral research is on the fantasies of isolation in female-authored, nineteenth century literature, with a particular interest in New Woman fiction and the work of Sarah Grand, George Egerton and Amy Levy.