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  • “Fascinate, Intoxicate, Transport”:Uncovering Women’s Erotic Dominance in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History
  • Helen Hunt

Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo recounts the interwoven horrors of revolutionary war in St. Domingo and domestic violence. At the novel’s opening, the central characters, sisters Mary and Clara, live together in St. Domingo with Clara’s French husband, St. Louis, during the Haitian Revolution. As combat threatens to overtake the town and St. Louis’s treatment of his wife becomes increasingly abusive, the sisters flee separately. They become refugees, traveling across the Caribbean to escape both the public bloodshed of war and the private brutality of domestic violence. Circulating among a diverse, international network of Creole women, they ultimately reunite and participate in empowering and impassioned—even erotic—relationships with these women and each other. At the novel’s close, Mary and Clara look forward to their imminent return to Philadelphia and to Aaron Burr, Mary’s intimate friend. Sansay based this epistolary novel on her own life in St. Domingo during the Haitian Revolution, and to create the novel she drew on letters she wrote to Aaron Burr during her time there.1 Although the novel is inspired by true events, Mary and Clara are creative inventions. Mary serves as the primary narrator, writing home to Aaron Burr in Philadelphia, although later in the novel Clara writes to Mary as well. Perhaps because of Sansay’s interesting biography, Mary has been read as a screen character who allows Sansay to create distance from her lived experience and therefore comment more easily on the horrors represented in the text.2 As a result, Mary may seem like a flat character, a “too-stylized representative of ‘the cult of true womanhood’” who is far less interesting than her dynamic (and strongly autobiographical) [End Page 31] sister Clara (Goudie 212). Thus Mary—and her erotic experiences—can be overlooked in favor of her dashing sister, especially because the novel foregrounds Clara’s dramatic sexual encounters.

Secret History illuminates how systemic violence—enacted through colonialism, racism, and revolution—perpetuates, and in fact depends upon, the private violence of domestic terror. Because the novel represents private and public violence as overlapping problems, its female characters have been read as emblems for the impersonal, political matters of capitalism, colonialism, and nationalism. Exemplifying this type of reading, Michelle Burnham has argued that in Secret History women’s bodies function as “transistors between economic and sexual circuits” or as instruments moved by systemic dynamics more than sites of personal pleasure or individual opportunity (182).3 Tamara Harvey notes this tendency to read female characters as political symbols in the introduction to the issue of Legacy in which Burnham’s article appears. Harvey observes that the collected articles are marked by a “consistent questioning of mapping efforts that hinge on notions of women as markers of cultural purity and impurity, as emblems of imperialism and commodification, and as ideologically limited by domestic ideals that are as much about an emerging national imaginary as they are about women’s daily roles” (161). In short, a tendency in criticism on Secret History favors a symbolic argument that emphasizes the nationalist implications of the novel’s portrayal of female sexuality over arguments that explicate the significance of female erotics in and of themselves. In this essay I shift attention away from the deep reading of political significance to the surface meanings of how women’s erotic pleasures are represented—from how the novel invokes the national imaginary toward the way Secret History imagines opportunities for erotic pleasure and agency for individual women. I follow a more recent methodological trend to recover the importance of “surface” readings of the particular and hold them in tension with more allegorical or “deep” readings. I do so because, as David Greven writes, “matters of sexuality are no less urgent to our understanding of these texts than the racist history they agonizingly critique” (“Towering” 119).4 In Secret History, the particularities of women’s erotics change the conclusions that can be drawn about the nature of women’s relationships, the distinctions between heterosexual and homoerotic relations, and the attempt to consolidate a...


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pp. 31-54
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