Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself by Harriet Ann Jacobs


Well, I wasn’t expecting that.

Confession time – I’m not a fan of classic literature. I love many 20th century writers but anything published before that date…well, I very rarely enjoy it. So, when I chose this book (almost entirely because it was free, it fitted the brief for the Read Harder challenge and I’d already read The Colour Purple) I assumed that it would be something that I would need to slog my way through.

However – I was completely wrong. This book is exciting, emotional, educational and almost unbelievable. I LITERALLY CANNOT BELIEVE WHAT HARRIET JACOBS WENT THROUGH. It truly is eye-opening.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself is the true autobiography of Harriet Ann Jacobs, a slave to a wealthy Flint family. Following the death of her mother aged 6, Harriet begins to realise what a life in bondage will entail. As she grows up, Dr Flint becomes more and more interested in Harriet sexually, resulting in (I would assume) her repeated rape (the novel was published in 1861 so the references to sexual activity are a little opaque). She rebels, and eventually finds herself running away. I won’t give away too much, but the lengths that she goes to in order to escape and to protect her children are absolutely immense.

The book itself is really well written, emotive and terrifying in equal measure. Considering that it was created by (presumably) a fairly poorly educated slave, the way that  Jacobs details her life is remarkable. She’s clearly intelligent and this shines through not only in her writing but in the way that she tackles the situations that she finds herself in. Some of the things that happen to her are so extreme that they’re almost unbelievable but there’s something so honest and forthright about her literary style that I can’t imagine that she would lie. There’s no hint of self pity, no dramatization – just an account of a terribly sad, difficult, heartbreaking life, lived with courage and resilience. It’s amazing that the novel exists at all and it’s a testament to Harriet Jacob’s character that we’re able to read her story over 150 years after it was first published.

Apart from being a really enthralling read, the book is obviously educational. I knew very little about slavery before reading it and although this is only one person’s account, it provides an authentic, detailed depiction of everyday life. The emotive way that Jacobs writes is instantly engaging and I really empathised with her – her story will stay with me for a long time.

I struggled to get over the brutality and the inhumane way that slaves were treated. Jacobs mentions in the novel that back then there was propaganda which gave the impression that slaves were happy to be “kept” by wealthy owners. Looking back, it’s incredibly hard to believe that anyone would actually think that – I suspect it was an easy lie to assuage the owner’s guilt at the vast profits that were being made, the easy life they could lead and often the open access to vulnerable people – including children – for rape and other forms of sexual gratification. Awful. As previously mentioned, Jacobs sometimes makes veiled references to the way that she was treated but despite that it’s easy to read between the lines to understand what was going on. Because of the lack of graphic detail, I believe a slightly younger audience could use this book to learn about slavery from a first hand perspective.

At the risk of introducing a gender stereotype, Jacobs is a woman and a mother, and some of the most heart wrenching scenes involve her poignant writing about her children. It’s emotional and beautiful and strangely modern – very different to the Victorian approach from the same period. It adds a real depth to the story and is utterly heartbreaking and compelling in equal measure.

Overall, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a gut wrenching, emotive, thrilling story of a woman’s sacrifice, bravery and intelligence. A great read.

Rating: 4/5 stars.
What a fantastic story. Why this hasn’t been made into a film is beyond me.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #17 Read a classic by an author of colour.

2 thoughts on “Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself by Harriet Ann Jacobs

  1. Wow this sounds like such an emotional, important book. It really does sound like something that should be more well known! And just, the part about the propaganda is unbelievable and yet unfortunately believable- cos I don’t see how people could have convinced themselves that owning slaves was okay otherwise. Amazing review- I’m definitely planning on reading this now.


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