“It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could. Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea.”
~ Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Harriet Jacobs was born two hundred years ago as of 2013. As she flowered from an infant to an older child she realised something was off about her existence. Then she was informed by the people and happenings around her that she was a slave. Suffering under her master Dr. Norcom (pseudonymised as “Dr. Flint” in her written account), Jacobs escaped and spent years in hiding, cooped up in her grandmother’s attic, unable to stand straight, unable to move by day, her only relief being a hole in the roofing that enabled Harriet to watch her (tenuously free) children grow.
Jacobs finally gained her freedom and spent the remainder of her life helping other freedmen adjust to post-Civil War America. A life of darkness and servitude was behind her but, as she notes in the final passage of her book, she could not help but see those early desperate years being illuminated by the memory of her grandmother. That a figure like Lady Sarashina, who lived amidst the wealth and pomp of Heian-era Japan, could look back on her life and claim that: “Many years have passed, but when I think about that sad, dreamlike time my heart is thrown into turmoil and my eyes darken,” I feel that her life, despite its absence of hardship, was ultimately a waste, especially when viewed in the light of Harriet Jacobs and her luminous grandmother.
That’s not to say that I value one over the other, for Sarashina’s life, or at least her account of it, carries a very potent message about withdrawal and idleness, and, though I never knew these fascinating women beyond the page, I do strangely miss them both.