- Romance to Novel: A Secret History
Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or the Horrors of St. Domingo (1808) is prefaced by a timid confession. She writes: “I am fearful of having been led into an error by my friends, when taught by them to believe that I could write something which would interest and please; and it was chiefly with a view to ascertain what confidence I might place in their kind assurances on the subject, that I collected and consented, though reluctantly, to the publication of these letters. Should a less partial public give them a favourable reception, and allow them to possess some merit, it would encourage me to endeavour to obtain their further approbation by a little work already planned and in some forwardness” (60). Sansay immediately discloses a productive tension at the core of her text’s narrative structure. A private tale written by a Philadelphia-born woman and presented as “A Series of Letters” based on those she wrote to the “Late Vice-President, Colonel Burr,” Leonora Sansay’s Secret History announces its aim to provide intimate secrets for the benefit of public history. This conceit, among others, locates the text within the British literary genealogy of the secret history, a genre primarily encountered in England during the long eighteenth-century; early practitioners included Daniel Defoe, John Oldmixon, Henry Brooks, Aphra Behn, Delariviere Manley and Eliza Haywood.1 Sansay’s Secret History is generically jarring in part because of these similarities to such literary predecessors, but also because of its physical distance from a metropolitan center, and its temporal distance from the genre’s nearly comprehensive decline over half a century earlier. One cannot help but be struck by how far out—and away—the secret history has traveled.2 [End Page 255]
The story traces two sisters, Mary and Clara, from Philadelphia, to Saint-Domingue, which by 1802 is in the final stages of a revolutionary struggle marked by a chaotic series of betrayals, reversals, and casualties: Christophe joins Le Clerc’s forces in order to betray General Toussaint, resulting in his capture, deportation, and ultimate death; Bonaparte attempts to re-establish slavery on the island and reignite the slave trade; Le Clerc dies of yellow fever; Dessalines takes control and ultimately declares the first independent black nation state, renaming it Haiti, and finally orders the slaughter of all of the remaining French on the island. This necessarily reductive sketch nevertheless hints at the difficulty critics have faced in comprehending what C. L. R. James called “a people’s war” in The Black Jacobins (366). In his Preface to the First Edition (1938), James sums up beautifully the problems historians of revolution face with historical distance: “In a revolution, when the slow accumulation of centuries bursts into volcanic eruption, the meteoric flares and flights above are meaningless chaos and lend themselves to infinite caprice and romanticism unless the observers sees them always as projections of the sub-soil from which them came” (x).
In its generic structure, Secret History shows the seams of this crisis in representing revolution and history. Much of the story is told from Mary’s perspective, shifting among her accounts of Clara’s devastating marriage to St. Louis Sansay, the Creole culture of the island, and the violent clash between slaves, plantation owners, and French military operatives sent by Napoleon. Through a series of macabre and surreal anecdotes, Sansay’s tale joins the domestic terror of Clara’s marriage to St. Louis to the revolutionary horror of Saint-Domingue.3 The real, historical figures of Sansay’s husband, Aaron Burr, General Rochambeau, Le Clerc, Pauline Bonaparte, and Toussaint L’Ouverture all feature prominently and by name: Secret History is no roman à cléf. Sansay also resists both travel narrative and autobiography, by narrating through two fictional characters, Clara and Mary. The double-voiced tale functions thematically, therefore, but it also creates a historical distance necessary only a few years after Haitian independence. The text thus draws our attention to the various parts of the geopolitical whole that constitutes Secret History: France, America, and Saint-Domingue.4 The story concludes, as it begins, poised on the Atlantic, with...