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  • Romantic Revolutions:Love and Violence in Leonora Sansay's Secret History, or The Horrors of St. Domingo
  • Melissa Adams-Campbell (bio)

In Leonora Sansay's Secret History, or The Horrors of St. Domingo (1808) the primary narrator, Mary, observes in a letter to Aaron Burr: "The mulatto women are the hated but successful rivals of the Creole ladies. Many of them are extremely beautiful; and, being destined from their birth to a life of pleasure, they are taught to heighten the power of their charms by all the aids of art. . . . To the destiny of the women of colour no infamy is attached."2 In this brief description, Mary reveals a wealth of contemporary assumptions about the differences between two classes of women in revolutionary-era Saint-Domingue: mixed race mulatto women and their rivals, white Creole women born in the Caribbean.3 Although neither of these groups of women are slaves, neither group is truly free. Both compete for white men's affections as well as the prestige, wealth, and consumer goods that such relationships bring. What Mary describes here and throughout her letters is that even as mulatto and white Creole women compete with one another, the romantic relationships they form with white men are quite distinct. Where white Creole women marry for long-term legal and economic security, Mary notes that mulatto women pursue a different "destiny." In this essay I argue that Sansay's comparative interest in women's romantic relations makes visible the constructed nature of nineteenth-century heterosexual romantic ideologies. Furthermore, these comparisons enable Sansay to question the myriad limitations women face as they adhere to these romantic scripts. Finally, as an author, Sansay revolutionizes our expectations about the shapes of women's stories and how those stories, in turn, shape women's lives. [End Page 125]

The 2005 reprinting of Leonora Sansay's Secret History testifies to an increasing critical interest in early American prose fiction's generic complexities; it also marks a wider scope for the study of early American literature. Welcoming Sansay into the canon means extending our discussions of difference beyond the geographical borders of the US and contextualizing her work within a larger revolutionary Atlantic world. While recent criticism has debated the appropriate generic label for Sansay's extraordinarily slippery text as well as its place within the archive of materials on the Haitian Revolution, there has been relatively little work contextualizing Sansay's comparative assessments of various classes of women in Saint-Domingue.4 Based on her firsthand experience of what will come to be known as the Haitian Revolution, Sansay's epistolary fiction catalogues the numerous types of inhabitants living in what was the most profitable New World colony precisely as it was falling to pieces.5 In the midst of this contentious geopolitical crisis, Sansay's two US protagonists, sisters Mary and Clara, rather unaccountably document the flirtations, petty jealousies, and sexual relationships experienced by a wide swath of women in Saint-Domingue. While this attention to romance may strike some readers as a distraction from the real business of describing "the horrors" of economic, political, and racial turmoil in early nineteenth-century Saint-Domingue, Mary and Clara's focus on women's sexual lives is, I would argue, precisely what makes this text worth studying. Focusing on Mary's representations of mulatto and white Creole women, I juxtapose her observations on local Caribbean women alongside similar contemporary commentary by male historians and travel writers such as Hilliard d'Auberteuil and Moreau de Saint-Méry to make visible the revolutionary potential of Sansay's interpretations of competing local heterosexual romantic ideologies. Compared to French metropolitan male observers who, by and large, demonize mulatto women, Mary marvels at mixed race women's wider range of social, sexual, and economic freedoms. Moreover, as Mary and Clara query the differences between Caribbean and US women's romantic lives, they grasp the arbitrary nature of gender power and gender performance. To put it simply, they discover the profound truth that there is more than one way to be a woman. This fact, now so obvious, is deeply disturbing and revelatory for Mary and Clara. Sansay's seemingly out of...


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pp. 125-146
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