- Pringle’s Pruning of PrinceThe History of Mary Prince and the Question of Repetition
Narrated by Mary Prince, transcribed by Susanna Strickland, and edited by Thomas Pringle, The History of Mary Prince (1831) offers a rich space for exploring the complexity of authorship in the formation of a text. Pringle, Scottish secretary of the British Anti-Slavery Society, claims that Prince, a formerly enslaved Bermudan, first approached him with the idea of publishing her narrative to inform the English people of “what a slave had felt and suffered” (Pringle 3). Pringle asked his friend and fellow Methodist Strickland to produce a transcription of the narrative, which he then “pruned” before its publication as an anti-slavery pamphlet (Pringle 3). Pringle and Strickland’s influences, which some critics refer to as collaboration and others as interference, make it difficult to approach the History as the product of a single author. Sandra Pouchet Paquet, for one, believes Prince entered into a beneficial collaborative effort “in a spirit of friendship” (135), while Nicole N. Aljoe explains that the text’s “inherent multiplicity” indicates its complex hybridity rather than corruption (par. 15).
De-emphasizing the power disparity among those involved, however, risks depoliticizing the text’s formation and thus misrepresenting it. Early-nineteenth-century racial, colonial, economic, and gender contexts inevitably affected Prince and Pringle’s relationship in ways that good intentions—and even the shared goal of abolishing slavery—simply could not overcome. Critics such as Kremena Todorova and Barbara Baumgartner discuss how the power dynamics involved in the text’s formation led to Prince’s voice being both present and absent in the text (Todorova 287, Baumgartner 269). Their work has shifted the conversation towards a necessary investigation into the implications of Pringle’s editorial decisions. I would like to further explore these implications to challenge assumptions that Pringle’s editing did not alter the “essence” of Prince’s narrative or that his reasons for doing so were in the best interest of the anti-slavery movement.
Critical discourse regarding Prince’s authorial voice and Pringle’s editing revolves primarily around censorship of the narrative’s content. Although Pringle claims in his preface to the History that Prince’s narrative was transcribed in full, at the 1833 trial in which Pringle sued Thomas Cadell for libel, Prince revealed on the witness stand that Strickland did not write down everything she narrated (Ferguson 28).1 Surprisingly, however, critics rarely engage Prince’s use of Caribbean Creole and Pringle’s editorial treatment of it. Two notable exceptions are Paquet and Aljoe, who point to the Creole in the narrative to demonstrate the presence of Prince’s voice: Paquet insists that Prince’s voice is actually privileged in the narrative, preserved by Pringle’s editorial decisions (131, 137), while Aljoe claims that her Creole emerges despite Pringle’s editing (par. 10). Yet neither interrogates Pringle’s changes [End Page 509] to her language and delivery. Even though he claims in his preface that his alterations to the narrative were insignificant, he also admits to “exclud[ing] redundancies and gross grammatical errors” (Pringle 3). Considering the pervasiveness of British dismissal and ignorance of Caribbean creole languages, the “redundancies” and “grammatical errors” most likely refer to the repetition and syntax characteristic of the Creole that informed Prince’s speech and narrative habits.2 Repetition specifically, according to James Snead, has long been embraced in black cultural forms and suppressed in European ones (146). Henry Louis Gates has also expounded on the importance of repetition in black vernacular and African American literary traditions in his often-quoted description of Signifyin(g) as “repetition with a signal difference” or “a motivated repetition” (xxiv, 66). This context suggests Pringle’s supposedly insignificant omissions might be, in fact, quite significant, because they reflect the larger cultural responses Snead and Gates speak of.
A tension, then, emerges in Pringle’s editorial decisions: although in his preface he attempts to emphasize Prince’s humanity to promote anti-slavery sentiments, his dismissal and removal of her repetition violate her subjectivity by overlooking her authorial decisions. Thus, he fails to fully acknowledge the humanity that he hopes the pamphlet will...