- Gothic Fertility in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History
Toward the end of Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo (1808), Clara, one the novel’s protagonists, describes a terrifying and odd incident: the migration of egg-bearing land crabs toward the seashore. Startled awake in the middle of the night, she hears “a most unaccountable noise, which seem[s] to issue from all parts of the room, not unlike the clashing of swords” (145). This disturbance, she learns, is the sound of fiercely approaching fertile crabs, striking their claws and wearing paths along the way. Letting “no obstacle tur[n] them from their course,” the crabs move through Clara’s room and across her shrieking companion’s chest (145). They are massive and ubiquitous, yet intimately close. A seemingly anomalous event in the narrative, the land crabs’ migration epitomizes the novel’s overall tendency to combine horrific and reproductive imagery in a phenomenon I call “gothic fertility.” This scene, moreover, evokes a distinctly ecological horror that conceives of the environment as frighteningly close-knit, interactive, and multidimensional.
The land crab episode forms part of an extended series of representations of gothic fertility in the novel—a series that becomes ever more ecological as the narrative shifts from revolutionary Saint Domingue to nonrevolutionary Cuba, and from the voice of Mary to her sister, Clara. Ultimately, these moments of gothic fertility reveal in the text a horrifyingly uncertain, concatenated, and mutually vulnerable environment. Although few critics have directly analyzed the gothic dimension of Secret History, they tend to locate the novel’s horror in the first half of the novel, associating it with interracial violence, sexual atrocities, and the overall nightmarish portrayal of the slave rebellion.1 Yet the novel’s gothic dimension extends beyond revolutionary Saint Domingue—where the breakdown of racial hierarchies signifies the ultimate horror—to present, in Cuba, an ecological gothic, a mysterious yet disturbingly intimate world where the boundaries between races, species, the living and nonliving, entity and environment [End Page 449] are already blurred.2 In the first part of the novel, moments of gothic fertility emerge alongside interracial violence. But after the sisters travel to Cuba, they describe fertility as having environmental effects, addressing concerns such as poverty, filth, and dwindling agricultural resources. Finally, when Clara describes the land crabs’ migration, gothic fertility becomes thoroughly ecological. The novel’s environment transforms from a contested territory, a stage of brutal revolutionary conflict, into a frightening collection of interactive and heterogeneous elements in constant transformation. The crabs, moreover, seem to represent every faction of revolutionary Saint Domingue—white European colonials, black revolutionaries, and Creoles—and their meaning becomes impossible to pin down. They become strangely ungraspable; the features of what they symbolize—the characters in the revolutionary story—become hazy and unfamiliar. Indeed, Sansay’s text is gothic not simply because it portrays the horror of revolutionary Saint Domingue but because it calls into question that very representation, revealing a messier, more entangled world—one based on affiliation and interrelatedness rather than racial hierarchy and difference.
These representations of gothic fertility, culminating in the land crab episode, recast Secret History as an ecogothic text—challenging and re-framing gothic depictions of the revolutionary West Indies—and redirect the critical focus on the novel, from the plot of the female protagonists to the environment writ large. Critics have recently taken up Sansay’s work, characterizing it as a transatlantic, circum-Caribbean, and early American novel, reading the dynamics of race, gender, and colonialism through the domestic plot that occupies the foreground.3 Approaching Secret History as uniquely transnational, they have tended to situate the novel within an exclusively geopolitical framework, eliding the larger environmental context of Sansay’s world and the horror that accompanies it.4 Examining the descriptions of fertility closely, though, shows how Mary and Clara conceive of Creole and land crab fertility as having biological, social, and environmental effects, ultimately indicating the eerily ecological character of Sansay’s world. Moreover, in focusing on the female protagonists, critics have left unquestioned the status of the gothic in Secret History, overlooking how the novel evokes in its background descriptions...