restricted access “My Poor Mistress”: Marital Cruelty in The History of Mary Prince
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“My Poor Mistress”:
Marital Cruelty in The History of Mary Prince

In 1828 the west indian slave Mary Prince traveled to England with her fourth master, John Wood, where she was legally free for the first time in her life. Yet her plans to return to Antigua to live with her husband were complicated by the fact that, although the slave trade had been abolished in England since 1807, former slaves who willingly returned to colonies could still be reclaimed by their masters. Thomas Pringle, Secretary of England’s Anti-Slavery Society, took up Prince’s cause, took her in as a domestic servant, and gave her the opportunity to record her story. Sponsored, edited, and supplemented by Pringle and transcribed by Susanna Strickland, The History of Mary Prince offers a harrowing account of one woman’s physical and emotional torment as she struggled for autonomy.

Like any autobiography, particularly the slave narrative, History has been and continues to be plagued by questions concerning its authenticity. During the time of its publication, pro-slavery advocates maligned Prince’s character and accused her of exaggerating the abuse she suffered.1 Contemporary [End Page 41] critics tend not to focus on the integrity of the narrator but are instead concerned with the degree to which her voice was manipulated by Strickland and Pringle.2 Many are accordingly interested in the conspicuous gaps in Prince’s otherwise detailed narrative of suffering. Jenny Sharpe and Moira Ferguson, for example, argue that silences surrounding Prince’s sexuality in particular indicate her inability to fully disclose her circumstances in the face of the moral imperatives of the Christian abolitionists who supported and legitimized her story (Sharpe 121; Ferguson, Subject to Others 281). Such narrative gaps are likewise the focus of this essay, although I am less interested in the authenticity of the narrative than in the interconnectedness of the narrative with contemporaneous feminist discourse. Rather than address absences that signal what remained difficult to narrate regarding the intimate experiences of the slave, then, I want to consider History’s patent reluctance to represent the marital cruelty3 that it suggests exists among slave-owning families.

History represents the violent treatment of slaves in a highly graphic manner, clearly. Cruelty toward slaves’ mistresses, on the other hand, is implied, I will show, but never similarly explicit. Attending to this disparity allows us to more clearly grasp how Prince’s story engages with particular configurations of the relationship between marriage and slavery. That is, although the narrative at points suggests that married women and slaves have similar relationships to their shared “masters,” the conspicuously inconsistent level of representation afforded to the abuse of slaves and the misfortunes of their mistresses reveals the inadequacy of an increasingly common “married woman as slave” analogy that emerged in eighteenth-century feminist writing. The narrative underscores, I argue, not only the dissimilarities between married women and slaves but also that the root of the suffering that incited writers to compare marriage to slavery—the [End Page 42] hierarchies of middle-class domestic life—actually fostered the conditions for publicly and legally sanctioned brutality.

There are, of course, serious ethical issues involved in the sort of reading I am undertaking. To begin, it risks occluding History’s primary concern—slavery—with the domestic abuse of white women and in turn reinscribing a hierarchy of suffering entrenched in racial prejudice. The tendency to focus on white women’s historical relationships to slavery has been justifiably decried by a number of feminist and postcolonial critics. Jane Haggis, for example, criticizes the “colonizing and Eurocentric discourses of mainstream colonial and imperial histories in their narration of white women’s stories” (45), while Anthony Neal admonishes the bias of historians whose “preoccupations with humanizing the slave-holders” (15) take precedence over studies of the brutality of slavery. In the interest of learning more about the social conditions that produced and sustained slavery, that is, too many critical histories have privileged the experiences of white subjects.

Such methodologies are especially difficult insofar as they replicate the white supremacist elements of the early Romantic and Victorian women’s movements. As several critics have noted, many...