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Biography 26.3 (2003) 440-442

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Merry Christmas, Mary Prince

Gillian Whitlock

Like many critics and compulsive readers of biography and autobiography, I have a ghost—a figure who shadows me, and who shapes much of my thinking and writing about autobiography. Basically, it is Mary Prince who keeps me honest. She stops me taking things for granted, and she reminds me always to ask how autobiographical narratives get heard, recorded, published, and read, and to remember how passionate and fickle the attention of the reading public can be. It is no accident that it is Mary Prince who is the focus of the first chapter of my book The Intimate Empire (2000), and I can't imagine the book without her haunting presence.

Mary Prince's History is a story of enslavement and abuse in the Caribbean in the early nineteenth century. It was recorded by chance, and due to the sponsorship of the Antislavery Society at a crucial juncture in the abolitionist movement in Britain—a case of Prince being in the right place at the right time, in fact. After she played a critical role in the abolitionist debates, she disappeared from view. I discovered her by accident, chance, and sheer luck in the course of looking for something else. My ambition at the time was to write "the" new thing on the Canadian autobiographer Susanna Moodie. The occasion was to be a conference organised by Aritha van Herk at the University of Calgary early in 1992, a conference on women's texts in Australia and Canada. I had been given the topic "Outlaws of the Text," and I had no doubt that my outlaw would be Moodie. Like many contemporary feminist critics, I found Moodie's series of autobiographical sketches of pioneering in the Canadian backwoods, Roughing it in the Bush (1852), inspiring. These sketches had much to offer the feminist, postmodernist, poststructuralist sensibilities of the 1980s, and we had been alerted to this by Margaret Atwood's wonderful intertextual poemsThe Journals of Susanna Moodie. Moodie's ironic sense of things, her self-reflexive autobiographical narrator, and the new information about Moodie and her circle emerging from the biographical research of Michael Peterman and his colleagues in Ontario made this a rich source for biographical criticism. I was especially inspired by feminist critics who seemed to reinvent the Sketches in their reading. For example, Bina Freiwald noticed that Moodie almost always made reference to her babe in arms, and by reading Roughing It with a view to the mother tongue, she opened some new ways of thinking.

But as Christmas and the conference loomed closer, and the heat of the [End Page 440] Brisbane summer intensified, I could find no outlaw in the Sketches. Luckily,my colleague Helen Tiffin was also committed to a Calgary presentation, and we commiserated with each other. Helen had recently returned from London, and the catch produced by her trawling through the best London bookshops with an eye to the postcolonial was gathered in her office. Moira Ferguson's recent edition of The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave Related By Herself (1987) was there, and Helen, with an intuitive sense of how the best postcolonial criticism can come from unlikely combinations, suggested Prince might be just the narrative to put beside Moodie's settler sketches.

It didn't appeal—after all, it lacked the immediate cachet of the babe in arms. I didn't see Prince as my outlaw. It was only after another week or so of rereading the Sketches with increasing desperation as Christmas loomed that I opened Ferguson's edition. Initially it was a disconcerting text—a long introduction by Ferguson, then other marginalia which surrounded Prince's narrative. But Ferguson is adept at conveying her own fascination with Prince's story, and her research has been instrumental in bringing this slave narrative back in circulation. She sketches the scene in the house at Claremont Square, London in 1830-31, when Prince entered the household of the abolitionist Thomas Pringle, and where she narrated her story to an amanuensis. In footnotes...


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