Prologue
There is but one only drawback, a single shadow, the path before me, and that is that it must end.
—Sarah Ann Haynsworth Gayle

Sarah Haynsworth married John Gayle when she was still a girl—by her own lights a wild one—not quite sixteen. Her journal and letters offer glimpses of what the twenty-eight-year-old man must have seen in her. At the time that he proposed, the young Miss Sarah did not even suspect his intentions. She thought he had been courting another. They were riding near her parents' farm, with her mother following closely, when suddenly he spoke to her of poetry. She cantered to his side and pushed back her sunbonnet. Immediately, "the change in his countenance struck me dumb, almost senseless—he was without a shade of color … spoke in a quick earnest and unsteady voice." Reminding her that she had known him all her life, he asked her to place her happiness in his keeping. Struck dumb once again, she felt that on pain of death she could not have spoken. He pushed back the bonnet that had fallen over her face. She did not know "what he read there" or how she replied, "but his features were quivering & beaming and said he was the happiest of men." She looked back at her mother. But when Mr. Gayle took his leave, she "gazed after him," scarcely daring to ask "is that my plighted husband?" Knowing him to be the "darling of my parents," she "never had seen a fault in him," had called him brother in childhood, friend in youth, and now whispered "in the depths of my bosom—lover."[1]

Sarah Gayle was not the most polished, cultured, or pious of slaveholding women, nor the most accomplished of diarists. But her many special qualities included an immediacy of voice, a charm of style, and a poignancy of narrative. Her self-representation differs from those of most of her peers by an extraordinary, if gentle and muted, perspective on herself. Those qualities set her apart as a personality even as the contours of her life and beliefs linked her to the other women of her class.

In 1828, when Sarah Gayle was twenty-four, she recorded in her journal—and for its especially intended readers, her daughters—her vision of herself as the child she had been and the young wife and mother she had become. She imagined herself at age twelve, sitting upon the bank of the Alabama River, catching a glimpse of a young girl, "not more than fourteen," who was gliding by in a bark. On first impression, she fancied the girl to be in danger, on second, she admired her skill in navigating and "the novelty of her appearance." For across the boat, the young girl had a fowling piece and a fishing line, and in its bottom she had scattered wild flowers.

The young voyager had dropped her bonnet upon her shoulders and a profusion of black glossy hair sometimes fell over her face obscuring a pair of dark laughing eyes… . Exercise had given a fine glow to her somewhat sun-burnt countenance, and an arch smile lurk'd around her mouth, with an expression frank, artless, and one would say bold, had her appearance not evidently told that the customs of cultivated life had not yet taught her to veil the feelings of nature.[2]

The boat of Sarah Gayle's fantasy drifted away and left her hoping that the young girl might find a life as gentle and quiet as the waters over which she floated. In the same passage, she wrote that years later she found herself in the same spot and was startled to have her recollection of the previous encounter interrupted by the reappearance of the bark. This time, "the sounds of childish glee now came upon the air, mix'd with accents I knew to be maternal." The bark now contained a woman "with a blooming girl at her feet—one still younger sleeping in the nurse's arms, and a boy … dipping his hand in the current." The woman's "cheek was pale and thin—her hair braided and simply confined around her head—her eye was dark and in the place of its joyous wildness a calm tenderness, a touching indescribable something shone out." In a moment of mutual recognition, the girl-turned-woman breathed to Sarah Gayle: "My cargo is now a treasure." And Sarah Gayle noted for her future readers: "Daughters of my heart that girl was thy parent, those precious children, thee my Sarah & Amelia." Sarah Gayle's girlhood, like her motherhood and her daughters' girlhood, weaves through her unfolding picture of herself. She embraced the threads of memory that brought her back to the places, relations, and pleasures of her youth, even if she believed that it "would not answer, to whisper to the more refined of this day, what composed my pleasures." But her daughters, her dears, may find it "amusing to know what made your mother's spring time happy, while so many aids are call'd in to render yours so."[3]

A contemporary biographer described Sarah Gayle, in the rhetoric appropriate to the day, as "very beautiful," with features of "classic regularity." Of "noble bearing" and "fascinating manners," she won "universal admiration." A "highly cultured" and "graceful writer," she had written some lovely poems and "left a Journal of charming pictures of her home life." Her picture of herself in the journal broke through the stereotypes of those formulaic phrases. She depicted her adult self with pitiless realism, even as she cherished memories of herself as "a wild and happy being, whose dreams of the world were awakened by the reading of novels and poetry." Her minimal schooling never disciplined that early, untutored reading: "I was left to select books for myself and no wonder I lost myself in delicious mazes, romances spread around me. My taste has never been reclaimed—it is impossible to apply myself now to useful reading."[4]

The adult life that Sarah Gayle depicted in her journal consisted primarily in the normal round of childbearing and childrearing, household responsibilities, supervision of slaves, worries about money, visits to friends, concerns with religion, and fears of death. As she wrote to John in July 1832, he would find in her letter:

all news of a publick nature, and as for that which belongs peculiarly to me, you know when there is the usual health, that one day is but the double of the other—a chance visit, the going to Church, shopping, an odd volume read, an odd page written—and when the long list of seams and hems and gatherings added, my life is given, at least the mode of spending it.[5]

Traces of the impetuous girl lingered in the woman who importunately concluded a letter to her husband: "oysters! oysters! oysters!" But her intermittent journal for the late 1820s and early 1830s shows her as maturing. Near her thirtieth birthday she noted that she who had married as a child now looked older than her husband. Her youthful looks had survived her marriage by only a few years: "A woman, no matter how much younger she looks, at her marriage, soon fades except in rare instances." When Sarah Gayle was only twenty-four, she had been startled to note dramatic changes in her sister-in-law, Ann. "Her complexion has quite lost its whiteness and polish—her teeth are much gone—her beautiful black hair, which used to curl over her shoulders when she threw it down, is now thin, and can no longer be call'd an ornament." The marks that time had etched on Ann offered Sarah Gayle a mirror on herself: The "gay lovely, sparkling creature whom I can almost see—she tells me I would scarcely know." The enchanting girl Sarah Gayle knew herself to have been had given way to one who is "large, roughened almost toothless, smoking and chewing!—the scolding manager of the family of four children."[6]

Her teeth especially worried her. By the time she was twenty-four, the dentist had already filled the front ones and was proposing to extract the rear ones. "This loss of my teeth has been the severest mortification to which my vanity has ever been subjected." She grieved at their loss because she shrank from "the idea of appearing to so much disadvantage in the eyes of that one for whose dear sake I would still, if possible, preserve some trace of youth." What she could so plainly recognize, her husband could not fail to see. She wrote to him that she had been "silly enough" to go to the dentist, but his efforts only revealed their decay "to an appalling extent." She predicted the impending ruin of her physical charms: "Good Heavens, what a sight I shall be in a little time! I will not write sentimentally, or I would tell you, charge you, beseech you, to let the affection, my pride and joy, and all upon earth endure even after this wreck of all that belonged to youth."[7]

During the years covered by her journals, 1827 to 1835, Sarah Gayle divided her time between Greensboro and Tuscaloosa in Alabama, and at the end of that period, she was preparing to move to Mobile with her husband. During these years John Gayle practiced law, served as a judge, and embarked on the political career that would earn him a seat in the state legislature, then the governorship, and, eventually, a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. John Gayle's career typified those of other transplanted South Carolinians who were playing such an important role in Alabama, as did his wife's.[8]

The Gayles cast their lot with Alabama when it was still a territory. Sarah Gayle was never among those who bemoaned the material aspects of westward migration and "frontier" life. Indeed, her cherished recollections included the westward journey in 1810 and a stay at Fort Stoddert, Alabama, where she lived with her parents. If she valued a new bonnet or a new carpet or books for her children as highly as any other woman, she could also recall with delight the pleasures of riding astride, camping out along the way, and being pampered by soldiers; she could even recall without undue alarm the shadowy presence of Indians, although she knew that her father "slept with arms under his head, and any stir amongst the horses at night roused all and put them on their guard." Her picture of herself on this trip conforms to the fantasy of the girl on the bark depicted for her daughters. She recollected herself as having, by turn, run "with the negroes" and perched herself on a packhorse, as having felt her greatest glee "when mounted on one to myself, allowed to follow my humor in keeping to the path (road there was none in many places) or wandering off, at short distances, amongst the undisturbed shades of trees that encroached on the trace we travelled." The soldiers, who entertained her by placing her on the wheel of a canon and encouraging her to "stand the report without shrinking," delighted her no less. She was, she recalls, "frankly lively—fearless they endeavored to make me, and partly succeeded for the time." Nor did she especially protest against living conditions on the frontier, as did Juliana Margaret Conner when describing her visit to Tennessee in 1827. But then, where the young Sarah Gayle found coffee in a tin cup and food cooked over an open fire delicious, Juliana Conner found even settled conditions in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, rather primitive by her lowcountry standards.[9]

Sarah Gayle's parents, like John Gayle's, had migrated from Sumter County in the South Carolina upcountry and, although they ranked as bona fide slaveholders, they hardly ranked among the "Chivalry," as the lowcountry elite liked to style itself. Sarah and John Gayle's lives resembled those of many other second- or indeed first-generation transplanted South Carolinians. Both came from slaveholding families and identified completely with the slaveholding class but, unlike their parents, did not live as planters in the strict sense. During the early years of their marriage, they owned perhaps twenty to thirty slaves, most inherited from Sarah Gayle's parents, but financial constraints forced them to sell some, and by the early 1830s they probably owned no more than ten or fifteen. Throughout her journal, as John's political and legal activities forced them to reside in various towns, Sarah Gayle returned time and again to her dream of buying a "farm" that would give them a sense of permanence—would permit them to settle the slaves they retained and to repurchase at least some of those they had sold.[10]

Sarah Gayle spent most of her married life in one of those ubiquitous villages with resident populations of little more than one hundred that constituted the focus of the lives of so many slaveholders, including planters. Greensboro, Alabama, in Greene County, had been founded in 1816. When, in 1826, John Gayle purchased a house there for his wife and their two small children, it was already a thriving community that boasted a hotel, a tailor's shop, five stores, and a law office and had benefited from mail service since 1818. Sarah Gayle variously attended the churches of the Methodists, the Baptists, and most frequently the Presbyterians. She also enjoyed the company of female friends and neighbors, notably her husband's sister and sister-in-law, who lived in the village and with whom she shared her life of children, errands, sewing, and churchgoing.[11]

Village life, even in a rising town like Greensboro, retained a rural cast. Indeed, for decades Greensboro retained a reputation as turbulent and disreputable. At each of the houses in which she lived there, Sarah Gayle had a garden. But if she found it less turbulent than neighboring Erie, not to mention Tuscaloosa, she nonetheless deplored its class of undesirables, with whom even her own brother-in-law, Levein, was wont to associate in periods of idleness. And she bitterly protested having to purchase food, rather than grow their own, although she also noted that they were cultivating a field of corn about two miles distant. She regretted not wanting to urge a Mrs. Matheson, who was visiting in town because of her poor health, to come to her for a protracted stay: "I find it so awkward and difficult to procure comforts for the table…. It would be vastly convenient to have a little farm, where we could obtain necessaries more readily, and cheaper than we do now."[12]

Village life gave rise to its special pettinesses. Sarah Gayle frequently complained of real or imagined slights from villagers, notably one of the storekeepers whose establishment she was loath even to enter. Just before her husband's election for his first term as governor, she complained that he had been designated the "would be Governor," she the "novel reader." Yet the fellowship of the village and county could, on occasion, evoke her deepest feelings. So long as she lived, she vowed never to forget "the first Monday in August" 1831, never to forget "the confidence, friendship and enthusiasm" with which Greene County had borne her husband's name to the ballot box.[13]

The quality of Sarah Gayle's life rested upon the labor of servants. The time she spent reading and playing with her children, or visiting with her friends, depended upon the slaves' performing all of her basic housework and helping her with childcare. When she mentioned household tasks in her journal, she referred to "having" them done or to supervising their being done. At first glance, her words frequently suggest that she was caring for the children herself, but close attention reveals that care to have been amply seconded by servants. When, during church service, the child with her cried violently and was unable to sit still, Sarah Gayle did not pick up the child herself; she followed the nurse from the church. And she wrote a friend from Tuscaloosa of her pleasure in moving from the second to the first floor so that her children, Mary and Haynsworth, could more easily go outside to play and "Rose can draw them in the fine little basket carriage their pah bought for them."[14]

In March 1833, when Sarah Gayle moved to Tuscaloosa, the state capital, to join her husband, she embarked upon the strange new life of boarding houses, which, she duly noted, offered her company and maximum relief from household responsibilities. Since the Gayles brought their own furniture to their rented rooms, boarding house life also provided some familiarity. And Sarah Gayle enjoyed many aspects of real town life: the wide selection of churches and high quality of the preaching; her friendship with Mr. and Mrs. Alva Woods; the freedom from household responsibilities; and some of the many social gatherings to which she, as the governor's wife, was invited. Together with other ladies, she also attended the sessions at the state house. On a previous visit to Tuscaloosa, she had attended the legislature to hear "what is call'd the Lady's bill discussed."[15]

She was less pleased with the potentially unsavory influences on her son, Matt, of the students at the new university, which Mr. Woods, a leading Baptist, had come to direct, and with the visibly deleterious influences of town blacks on her own servants. Whatever her complaints about Greensboro, its dangers paled beside those of Tuscaloosa. She appears to have experienced Tuscaloosa, which numbered no more than a thousand inhabitants, as the public sphere incarnate. Its muddy streets, although probably no muddier than those of Greensboro, symbolized the mire in which any of her charges might run amuck. She never dwelt obsessively on the dangers of town life, never emphasized pastoral harmony in contrast to urban corruption. She knew too well that even smaller towns harbored social dangers. Tuscaloosa may have been larger and more turbulent than Greensboro, but it was a nonstarter among the candidates for urban jungle. From Sarah Gayle's perspective, Tuscaloosa, like Greensboro, consisted primarily of a network of slaveholding families—albeit primarily political and professional, rather than planting, slaveholding families. But in Tuscaloosa, unlike Greensboro, that natural elite had to contend with more disorderly folks, black and white, who did not fall under their immediate, personal control. And Sarah Gayle took seriously the threat that such beings posed to her world.[16]

Sarah Gayle may have felt especially vulnerable to the lurking dangers of her life because she so deeply regretted her lack of immediate family and kin. An only child, she felt that her parents' death when she had already become an adult had left her an orphan. Perhaps especially because of her sense of having been cut loose in the world, she invested her deepest yearnings for love, unquestioning acceptance, and connection in her husband. It would be hard to imagine a wife who loved her husband more or, not to mince judgments, loved her husband better. She brought to her courtship, and developed in her marriage, respect, companionship, intimacy, shared values, humor, and all the elements of that deep love which stands the test of time, proximity, and separation. She also recognized the difficulties of holding a husband's interest and affection. In 1828 she noted with unaccustomed anxiety that, for the first time in their married life, "Mr. G. stayed from me 'till long past midnight." The circumstance was too novel to permit complacency, or even sleep. She did not blame him, could not be so disingenuous or such a fool "as not to know unless home is lit up by cheerfulness and good humor, it will lose its attraction to the kindest and best—that he has always been that to me my inmost heart freely acknowledges." But she could not refrain from contrasting her need of him with his engagement in a larger world. She had no one but him to talk to, and "little, unmeaning talk too, so senseless to a man whose thoughts have been accustomed to follow higher matters." How could she wonder that "he desires to relieve himself from what must be uninteresting?" How could she wonder that he had no interest in what she viewed as women's chatter. Nor was the boredom engendered by her domestic concerns all. She recognized full well "my own perplexing quarulesness—my want of command over my temper—the carelessness with which I betray whatever gives me either uneasiness or displeasure." Add to her temper that she allowed her naturally plain face to "express the utmost sourness, and whatever else is disagreeable dare I murmur that this forbidding countenance should be left for something more pleasing?"[17]

These fears invariably resurfaced as the anniversary of their wedding approached, especially when John Gayle was away from home for the day itself. In December 1827, she wrote of it to him, with a prescience that their lives would confirm:

Do not let the 12th of this month pass by, without giving a smile and a sigh to "auld lang syne." It was our wedding day, and they are talismanic words, to wake up all that is precious and hallowed in memory. Dear, dear period—if I had been asked to single out from the whole earth, a being exempt from care, and in possession of perfect happiness, I would have laid my hand on my own bounding heart, and said, "she is here." And am I not yet? There is but one only drawback, a single shadow, the path before me, and that is that it must end,—that it may be in a few years, perhaps months, the survivor will ask the question, "have I ever been happy?"[18]

Sarah Gayle's knowledge of her small world lent an edge to her nagging anxieties about her ability to hold the love and attention of her husband. Here and there throughout her diary, she noted the woes that beset other married women. Mrs. Buchanan's daughter, "the idol of her parents," seemed to have an ideal marriage. "Yet has this unfortunate wife a grief preying on her heart, from which no charm of this life can win her." In pity and benevolence, she welcomed an unfortunate woman into her home only to see her guest, with "an awful want of woman's virtue," alienate from her "the affection of the man upon whose bosom her head has rested for perhaps seventeen years." Other men of her acquaintance had proved themselves brutal as well as faithless husbands. One man drove his wife to hide in terror in a swamp. Drink caused serious problems for women, but so did profligate sexuality. Of one man, Sarah Gayle reported: "His children and his son's children are their slaves, and probably, nay I think I heard, that his child and his grand-child have one mother?" Of such men in general, she wrote with horror and disgust: "And those fathers whose beastly passions hurry to the bed of the slave do they feel no compunction when they see their blood sold, basely bartered like their horses? This sin is the leprosy of the earth nothing save the blood of the cross cleanses from it." If for no other reason, she loved the Christian man more for being free of it—if, indeed, all southern Christian men were.[19]

In marriage, as in the world, the relations between men and women remained unequal. For the woman, in "her circumscribed sphere, fewer objects present themselves, by which her feelings may be momentarily won away, from the channel in which they naturally flow. She is scarcely placed in any situation that her weakness does not require his presence as her safeguard, or her tenderness yearn for it, to complete some pleasure, that is but half enjoyed, if he be not there to participate in it."[20]

Sarah Gayle apparently transferred to her love for John her feelings for her beloved family of origin that had so nearly evaporated. The diary suggests that she especially associated her husband with her revered mother, whose loss haunted her adulthood. In times of trouble or unspeakable fear, she could always turn to her mother. "Before my marriage she was friend, sister, parent all in one." She was also model and teacher and everything that Sarah Gayle aspired to be for her own daughters: "I never think of woman's character as it should be but, my mother my dear mother, rises up in all her excellence, all her native purity. It did not need the precepts of men to make her all she should be her heart was the handy work 'of the Creator, and he planted in it the seeds of good.'" And she was quick to note similar devotion to a departed mother among her friends. Mrs. Woods's "soft black eyes filled with tears" as she ridiculed her own fondness for a particular chair in which Sarah Gayle had been blissfully ensconced, and she whispered "that the secret of her love consisted in her having so often seen her mother seated in it."[21]

In the absence of parents and siblings, she longed for some member of her family to fill the gap she "always felt to exist, caused by the absence of such as are called 'our brethren'—such as would be bound to love and cherish us, because we were of one household." She tried to keep up with her uncle, William Haynsworth, who, like her father's mother, had remained in South Carolina, and she perked up at any hint that he was thinking of moving to Alabama. She also worried and confessed to "foolish apprehensions that he may possibly not suit Mr. Gayle." She could not bear to think that her husband "should not entertain sentiments at once of esteem and affection and even admiration for my kin folks." She knew her apprehensions to be misplaced: "I do not pretend to reason with myself about anything so silly, but it is so." She cherished the family names that reminded her of her own kin nearly as much as she cherished the husband who had become the repository of so many of her memories and the custodian of her happiness. Right after the birth of their third (and second surviving) son, she noted that he had not as yet been named. She earnestly wished to call him John, "but I believe it will not be that." Her husband told her "to name him for my father, and it would be difficult for me to give a reason for hesitating, when my very heart would bestow it." More than two months later, she recorded that the babe had finally "received the name of Richard Haynsworth, the last being the one by which he is called, as it is prettiest and more peculiarly my own—my blessing on it, for I never hear it with indifference."[22]

Memories and memorials anchored Sarah Gayle's sense of herself as the member of interlocking families. In 1833 she celebrated her proposed removal to Tuscaloosa to join her husband. "My pleasure is great that we will at last be settled, be at home, for I cannot call that place home, which I anticipate leaving every year." She longed for a house in which each room was peopled with memories. Her desire for settling included the desire to collect the graves of her loved ones in one place. She had found her mother's grave leveled and she agonized, unable to bear that it "should be effaced from the earth, the plough, and the foot of the brute and the slave pressing on the bosom, once the seat of all that was good and noble, 'tho that bosom be dust." She determined to rebuild it with her own hands, if no one else would. That memory required the most substantial memorial possible. More, she sought to gather together the graves, "the sacred dust," of both parents and the two infants she had lost. Did she but know "where my final home would be," she would bring them all together in that place.[23]

Sarah Gayle was not alone among the women of her class in investing kin and the signs of family with deep emotional significance. She did, however, place more than the common explicit emphasis on the importance of kinship to her sense of her own identity, in the double sense of who she was—who we can see her to have been—and whom she perceived herself to be. Those feelings intertwined with her relations to her husband and her own children; they constituted at once the wellspring and the prolongation of her mature identity as wife and mother. Her journals and letters forcefully suggest that, as an adult, she settled into who she had been or was intended to be. Her relation to her own womanhood conveys an aura of realization—of fulfilling a destiny more than of creating one. Time and again, her progress through life brought her back to her origins. She believed that no one ever would or could know her better than those who had known her as a child. No spot, she wrote, "possesses more attractions than another, except it be the grave yard, where some I loved lie, already forgotten, except it be indeed, by me." Especially in moments of melancholy, she longed only to be reunited with those who had gone. The class of affections for a father or a mother—"in fact anyone with whom I may claim a tie of blood"—"are like isolated creeping plants—ever throwing out tendrils with nothing to cling to."[24] She also believed that John Gayle was her best friend, her greatest comfort, and the anchor not merely for her life but for her self. Somewhere between her consciousness of her own distinct origins and of her love for him lay her sense of her own considerable independence and force of character.

The dentist, perhaps especially because of the limitations of his craft, loomed large in Sarah Gayle's story. He confirmed her awareness of her rapid aging, and, in his futile attempts to arrest her tooth decay, he inflicted a pain that surpassed bearing. In July 1835, when she was thirty-one and with Mr. Gayle away from home, she braved an operation on her teeth. Had she foreseen its horror, she would never have consented. "The torment of filling the tooth is unspeakable." Yet she was glad that Mr. Gayle was "from hence,—my little courage always leaves me when he is hear, for I really feel as if his presence could lessen the pain, or do away the necessity of enduring it." His absence permitted her to muster her own courage and, with one brief lapse, she came through with stoic endurance. The lapse, as she described it, was poignant and revealing:

I only was once weak enough to shed tears, and that was, when he had filed some time, and I suddenly relaxed the state of tension in which I had held myself, and leaned back on the chair, while the perspiration stood thickly on limb and face. He laid his hand over my eyes and forehead, and pressed it there for a minute, to still the throbbing. Then that hand made me think of Mr. Gayle, and I gave way, just one moment, to the delicious weakness.

Normally, she preferred to have John Gayle at her side during her moments of pain and danger, even at the risk of giving way. She especially dreaded the unavoidable circumstances that took him from home near the time of her confinements. In 1829, toward the end of a pregnancy, she contemplated the possibility that he would be away when she delivered, as frequently happened with other women's husbands, no matter how sensitive and loving. Politicians, judges, ministers, doctors, and planters with several holdings and elaborate business connections had vast spaces, often connected by poor roads, to cover. Their wives had to understand. The Sarah Gayles did. She also understood that it was doubtless trying for a man "to witness the sufferings of his wife then, but I own I am too selfish not to covet the comfort and support of his presence during the trial." For none could tell that "it may not be the termination of all others, and I would not leave the world divided from him whom I have loved above all in it."[25]

Beyond the immediate context of family, friends figured prominently in Sarah Gayle's sense of her self in the world. She recorded her comings and goings from her friends' houses, their sharing of skills, resources, and amusements. "Friend" and "neighbor" rank as the highest accolades she could bestow on the women of her acquaintance. In her village, from which the men were frequently absent on politics or business, women relied heavily on each others' skills and companionship, even sharing their milk with a friend's child. "Dear Mrs. Draughan," for example, "was the patient nurse of me and my feeble boy, when illness had rendered me unable to nurse him myself—that delicate as she was, dampness nor indisposition (when slight) nor family cares could prevent her coming to share her milk with my helpless one." On many occasions she had reason to appreciate her friends' devotion as nurses. In 1828, John Gayle was returning from hearing a case of great importance at the supreme court in Tuscaloosa when Sarah Gayle delivered and lost an infant. An "uncontrollable yearning for the consolation my husband could have bestowed" had prevented her from seeking the help of friends. Yet they had lovingly seen her through, with Catherine Hunter at the head of the list. "Had my own mother stood by me I could not have call'd her with greater confidence." And she never felt safer than when her dying infant lay on Mrs. Hunter's knees or on Mrs. Hall's. "To the latter I am more indebted than I can ever repay, or make her understand but I believe in ministering to the sufferer she did what has no northern ice about it." And there were many others. Whenever "I opened my eyes some frank and friendly countenance met them," and her hand could not fall on the bed but that it "was rubb'd or kindly held by some silent but assiduous nurse." The full measure of what Sarah Gayle's Greensboro friends meant to her came home when John Gayle wrote to tell her of the new law that required her residence, as the governor's wife, in Tuscaloosa. She wrote of having known that as "a Community these were benevolent, friendly, industrious, very hospitable, the best of nurses in sickness, as I have fully proved," and that she gave her love to them "as soon as I knew I had been received amongst them,—stranger as I was,—in all faith and friendship." Now that she had to say farewell, her memories and her friends' worth pressed almost unbearably upon her.[26]

Girlhood friends who had moved away also remained important. Sarah Gayle dotted her journal with references to her "friend of friends," Swep. "Others I esteem, approve, may love, but there is for her deep in the bottom of my heart that to which no other may lay claim." That friendship was founded on their having been "children together," and to it she imputed "much of the happiness of my life." She saw Swep, like herself, as having been a gay, wild creature whom "the formalities of the world had never fettered." In 1827, Swep had been married for two years to a Dr. Houstis of Catawba, Alabama. By 1830, Sarah Gayle and Swep had had some kind of falling-out. Yet Sarah Gayle continued to write of Swep's possible visits, to hope for a true reconciliation, and to reassure herself that Swep's impossible behavior and persisting stubbornness accounted for the quarrel. She named at least two of her daughters, Maria and Amelia Ross, after especially valued friends. Her oldest, Sarah, had been named for her, as she had been named for her own mother, and her mother before her for hers.[27]

Memories of friends peopled Sarah Gayle's journal and her imagination. Distant and departed friends, like distant and departed kin, jostled the living in her pages and constituted the human ties through which she defined her identity. Fiction, on her own accounting, played a similar role, creating a haze of romance through which to view imperfect human relations, physical decay, and frontier conditions. Yet the journal never suggests that she turned to the characters of fiction for companionship or models. On balance, her world provided her with both. Rather, the fiction to which she was addicted seems to have offered her a rhetoric, a language from which to make sense of her world. Her wide reading ranged from Walter Scott to Wilberforce on religion, to Mrs. Hamilton on education, to Mrs. Montagu's letters, to Washington Irving's Sketchbook (which she especially liked), to what she herself considered little more than trash. Her own inability to become immersed in ponderous and uplifting treatises bothered her, but never enough to wean her from the other type of writing. At most she wanted reading that was "not so light as romance, nor very grave, or which requires too much thought."[28] Yet for all her self-deprecation, she expected literature to embody decent values. The theater appalled her, as it did the increasingly militant evangelical preachers. After seeing Adeline or Seduction, she vowed never to go again. She knew that her reasons were understood only by herself and were not shared by others, but she could not abandon them. "I wish I could see the world as other people do. They tell me I cannot reform it, which I know, and if I do not like its ways, I ought to let them pass and not think of them."[29]

The rhetoric of Sarah Gayle's journal, like many of her attitudes, derived from her extensive reading. Musing on the location of her father's grave, she bemoaned the 130-mile distance at which it lay and the roughness of the terrain that surrounded it. The spot was "so lonely, rugged and neglected, that I cannot visit, because it fills me with feelings of entire gloom—a scene to which nature gave no interest, and art never improved."[30] Her vocabulary and formulations inadvertently betrayed her tentative interest in writing for publication, even as they betrayed her immersion in a broadly disseminated Romantic discourse. Throughout her journal, she interspersed her own poems. At the end of the volume, she grouped a number of them and noted that she had made a copy of some lines and given them to Mrs. McGuire, telling her to tell her husband that "if he had a corner in his paper, for which he could find nothing better, he was welcome to them, for it." But after recording her initiative, she thought better of it and determined to send for them that very night. "It seems like arrogance in one like me to offer anything of my own, for publication."[31] It was one thing to write, quite another to claim the public and unfeminine mantle of authorship.

Yet her journal, for all its frequently rushed and breathless quality, reveals Sarah Gayle's natural talent and a concern for craft, however hesitant she was to dignify her jottings by an official title. Picking it up again after many days' neglect, she noted that it "offers itself to me now in my solitude like some unassuming quiet but amusing friend who steals the tediousness from Time, as he flies by, but who is laid aside when superseded by others better loved." Mr. Gayle, as she herself referred to him, had just left upon an eleven-week circuit. So the pages that she sometimes dignified "with the title of journal" provided a link to her absent husband and, perhaps, beyond him to her departed mother—to those whose love grounded her sense of self. And the human network embodied in those pages also extended to the next generation. For if she wrote to reaffirm her bonds to those on whom she depended for emotional sustenance, and for the pleasure and satisfaction of craft, she also wrote for the daughters from whom death would one day snatch her. Yet even during her life, her journal probably had readers, in particular John Gayle, for in December 1830 she noted:

I have laid aside my Journal, if, indeed these unconnected sheets deserve the name. Mr. Gayle pressed me to let him take them to Tuscaloosa to have them bound; but they do not deserve that honor, and, besides, I would hesitate to have them laid open to the curiosity of a book-binder, for my heart is revealed in these loose sheets.[32]

The author who sketched Sarah Gayle's life for the Encyclopedia of Alabama Biography also knew of the journal's existence. Something more than a personal confession, something less than an autobiography or novel, the pages embodied the self-representation of a woman who trusted her heart to the scrutiny of the immediate circle that constituted her identity, and whose sense of self included the ability to represent personal experience in a crafted idiom.

Preoccupation with her performance as a mother also troubled Sarah Gayle. She made much, but not too much, of her love for her children and her determination to care for them as her mother had cared for her. She also dared to hope that they might provide the support to her in her old age that she provided them in their childhood. She enjoyed them. And she was capable of stepping back and seeing them as others might see them. One evening, when her eldest son, Matt, came in from hunting, she imagined to herself how the right painter could capture the rumpled hair and ruddy cheek. She also recognized Matt's interest in hunting as the sign of his entrance into the male sphere and of the demise of her own empire. She addressed her diary to her daughters. Her feelings for her male and female children shed a special light on her sense of herself. On one terrifying occasion, a horse ran away with Matt, and she could do nothing to control it. Matt called to her as the horse dashed past,

and if he had been kill'd happiness would not have visited my heart again. I love my daughters very dearly do I love them, and all that is amiable & good, intelligent & lovely would I have them, but all I possess of ambition, pride & the hope that steps over the threshold of home all such is centered in him, and if Death had crushed them, I should have mourned as Rachel.[33]

Religion figured centrally in Sarah Gayle's sense of herself. She lived intimately with the fear of death—her own and that of those she held most dear. Sickness, epidemics, childbirth, the dentist, all evoked the "Angel of Death." Violence perpetrated by slaves against whites, or by whites against each other, reinforced the terror. The news of Nat Turner's revolt, followed by rumors of slave risings in other states, alarmed her: she dreaded the winter "without protection, or any friend to keep me company." Like most slaveholders, she rarely noticed, or at least rarely commented on, white violence against blacks. Sarah Gayle was not given to panic. The fear of death flickers through her journal, never reaching fever pitch, never paralyzing her, but always latent and ready to flare up. Religion provided the most promising antidote to those fears, the most satisfying consolation against loss. But for Sarah Gayle, the struggle for faith remained precisely a struggle. If she understood God as the guarantor of the human spirit, and if she accepted the role of the church in mediating between God and his people, she never fully committed herself to a single church or theology. Withal, her fiercest hopes concerned her future reunion with all her family in heaven: musing on the position of her father's grave between those of his son and his grandson, she wrote of her hope that "the trio have formed a band of angel spirits, gather'd into the household above." And when the present weighed heavily upon her, she allowed that it might not be "well for me to know now, that I was to have my husband, my children & my parents with me thro' an eternity of felicity" lest, "Mighty God, I should be tempted to rush into thy presence unbidden, to draw to me those who I love, and madly seek all I have lost—all to which I was idolator."[34]

Sarah Gayle proved as uncommonly intelligent and self-critical in her reflections on religion as in other matters. Musing on John Gayle's prospects of success on a trip to acquire Indian lands, she assured herself that his having been unlucky in early speculations did not prove that he would be in subsequent ones: "Fortune will smile, at last, on honest perseverance." Immediately she caught herself, asking why she had used the words "Fortune, good luck, etc., instead of Providence. I never do without reproaching myself for it afterwards. The habit is Heathenish." Normally she did not have to remind herself of God's power and mercy, but she did frequently remind herself that faith must run deep and cannot be reduced to mere lip service. As she told John Gayle when they were discussing which church to attend, she cared nothing about one denomination or another, but "I would give worlds to possess that faith which triumphed over the fear of death, and looked with hope and confidence beyond the grave." Mr. Gayle agreed that such faith was to be desired.[35]

The related themes of motherhood and death recurred frequently in Sarah Gayle's thoughts on religion. Occasionally she felt especially burdened by her own ill health and attendant melancholy, not to mention the woes of the world at large, and was tempted to view "the residue of life" as "worthless." A glance at her children restored her: "I humbly pray to be spared, that I may train them as well as I am able in the way they should go." The week before this entry she had been overcome by the spectacle of thirteen children's being Christened at once. "I felt as if I should suffocate, absolutely choke with my feelings." No ceremony was better calculated to "touch a woman's, a mother's heart." Never had her two daughters, who stood on either side of her, been dearer. "The solemn responsibilities of my station as a parent, pressed heavily on me, and I felt as if I would have given all things else for that faith which led their fathers and mothers to the sanctuary with their flocks."[36]

That faith eluded Sarah Gayle. As she watched two of her friends take the sacrament, "in its sacred awfulness," her feelings choked her and she wept freely: "I wished to see the fitness of the ceremony, to feel its propriety, and more than all, I wanted the pride and vanity, rioting at my heart to be destroyed, and humility and faith and hope to be implanted in their place." Even when most overwhelmed by the prospect of death she admitted to feeling "none of the humility, the adoration of a Christian." She wished she did, but did not: "Bewildering questions of the necessity of atonement perplex me. If I could satisfy myself at all, why man should have fallen at the first, then the atonement would have been a splendid instance of love and gracious compassion, calling for gratitude from every creature." She would not follow these ideas, for they led to "what seems little better than impiety."[37]

The ubiquitous threat of death also intensified her determination to secure the strongest possible influence over her children, to shape their characters decisively. For, if she should die, they would lack those "maternal connexions, who, in general, guard and comfort the orphan with double kindness." She never doubted that their material welfare would be attended to, but she worried about the spiritual, worried that they would be subject to "that false kindness which spares the body, but ruins the soul." They must grow up honest, upright, decent. For any of her children to become, in any way, double-dealers would be "more bitter than the pangs of dissolution." She hoped for the best, but, above all, she would "try, while I am with them, to acquire an influence over which the grave will have no power."[38]

Whatever her hesitations, Sarah Gayle viewed religion as an essential frame of reference for human affairs. When John Gayle took the oath as governor of Alabama, she regretted that he swore only on the constitution and not on the Bible. In complex ways, religion guaranteed and properly ordered for Sarah Gayle the relations in her world that most concerned her. The affairs of this world and the memories of those who had died constituted the heart and pulse of her consciousness and purpose, but she never doubted that their justification would have to be cast in reference to a religious discourse. It was a matter of legitimation.

Sarah Gayle also never doubted that firm principles governed all social relations. She had, for example, no illusions about the appropriate roles of men and women. She frequently coped with complex household activities, including the management of occasionally difficult servants, but even during John Gayle's protracted absences she never envisioned herself as the official head of the household. Writing to him of her attempts to improve the appearance of their plot of land with "presents" of shrubs and flowers, she concluded: "Oh! come home, for mercy's sake, what can a woman do without her husband?" Her other social attitudes also bore the marks of her class and region. Generous and warm, she nonetheless mercilessly dismissed those whom her social position did not oblige her to know. The more she heard of Mrs.——, the more did she congratulate herself "on having no intercourse with her, since she came amongst us. There can be no doubt of her possessing intelligence, but I think evidently without principle." And, more ruthlessly, she wrote of another newcomer to her neighborhood: "Nothing renders a personal acquaintance necessary between us."[39]

Sarah Gayle's attitudes and beliefs were firmly rooted in a southern society that provided the texture of her life. She thought, spoke, and wrote in the common vocabulary of a discourse that had its roots in Western bourgeois culture as a whole. But her profound immersion in the specific social and physical topography of her own region—her "country" as she called it—informed all her words and influenced all her beliefs. Living in Alabama in the 1820s and 1830s, Sarah Gayle took slavery for granted, for it grounded her life and pervaded her sense of herself in the world. It concretely influenced her views of excellence for her children, achievement for her husband, and order for her society. Conversely, her most—and least—admirable characteristics permeated her relations with her slaves. She experienced slavery as simultaneously a set of human relations and a social system. It brought out her best and her worst and her everyday in-between.

Sarah Gayle did not find the supervision of slaves easy, especially when John was away from home. On one occasion she, like so many other slaveholding women, gave vent to her deepest impatience with that unending responsibility. "I despise myself," she wrote, "for suffering my temper to rise at the provocations offered by the servants. I would be willing to spend the rest of my life at the north, where I never should see the face of another negro." But, she added, acknowledging her identification with her own society, "perhaps it is my cross—as such I will try to bear it as well as I can, & that is bad enough." She had her share of "lazy" slaves who seized every opportunity to shirk their tasks. Mary Ann frequently evoked a flare of temper, as had to be expected or at least endured. Blake invariably got into squabbles when he had been drinking. "Ellick is really unendurable, too lazy to live." And then there was illness, real or feigned. Hetty looked as if she would never get well, had been of no service for three or four months. "I believe my servants are going to craze me." Such were the trials of human property, which especially taxed the skill and patience of a young mistress.[40]

Sarah Gayle shouldered her own responsibilities for what she perceived as her servants' ungovernability: "Indulgence has ruined them—they are idle yet full of complaints easy to take offense at the slightest admonition which they frequently merit and then attachment has weakened in proportion as their discipline has been slackened, so that I doubt if any of them would not believe a change of owners could benefit them." Her parents, she admitted, did better than she in this respect. They were "uniform and strict in their management of the servants." Nor did they allow her "to exercise tyranny or injustice of any sort towards them and on the other side the most implicit submission was exacted towards me." Should she use improper language, the servants would go to her mother for redress. Should she command what was proper and reasonable, "they dared not hesitate." Now all was different. She no longer had confidence that her orders were being obeyed and even obedience "is accompanied by murmuring, sour looks & often surly language, that almost put me beside myself."[41]

When Sarah Gayle's sister-in-law, Ann, was having recurring trouble with "that most perplexing of servants, Sarah," Sarah Gayle thought that Ann should exchange the slave for another. She sympathized deeply with Ann's tribulations, for she herself had "long had a severe trial with old Hampton, whose insolence and contrary disposition, I have for several years borne."[42]

Hampton featured a special order of insubordination. Sarah Gayle, in desperation, threatened to sell him, but Hampton treated the threat with contempt:

I never saw such a negro in all my life before—he did not even pretend to regard a command of mine, and treated me, and what I said, with the utmost contempt. He has often laughed in my face and told me that I was the only mistress he ever failed to please, on my saying he should try another soon, he said he could not be worsted, and was willing to go.

But what, beyond Sarah Gayle's account, do we know of Hampton? Her account permits only speculation. Was he a manly man who was standing up to an imperious, insensitive, and morally illegitimate authority? Was he a punk who would have cowered before John Gayle, but was quick to take advantage of a young wife who had not learned to use the powers at her command? Would he have, as many male slaves did, resisted the master as stubbornly as he resisted his young mistress? Or one of the many human possibilities in between? Hampton did not record his side of the story, and we cannot tell enough from hers. We know only that he was married to Hetty; that like another slave, Mike, whom Sarah Gayle cherished, he had belonged to her father; and that, like Sarah Gayle herself, he longed to see the entire family settled on a farm.[43]

Mistresses, even the kindest, commonly resorted to the whip to maintain order among people who were always supposed to be on call; among people who inevitably disappointed expectations; among people whose constant presence not merely as servants but as individuals with wills and passions of their own provided constant irritation along with constant, if indifferent, service. Did Sarah Gayle go to her whip or encourage her husband to do it for her? She does not tell us, but, given her high spirits and impatience with perceived impertinence, we would do well to assume that she, like most others, had her bad moments. We can further assume that whatever authority she embodied in her class and race, her gender left her at a disadvantage. Mistresses did not necessarily take second place to masters in their violence toward slaves, but both they and the slaves knew that the master embodied the ultimate authority in the household. We shall never know exactly what transpired between Sarah Gayle and Hampton, but we have good evidence that the personal chemistry between mistress and man was bad, and some evidence that the consequent daily relations were trying.[44]

Beyond doubt, the intimacy of life with what she saw as lazy, indifferent, and above all, insubordinate slaves weighed heavily on Sarah Gayle. And yet they too were part of the household, for as David Brown, a northerner, observed, the word "household" was used in the South "in the Scripture sense, including slaves, but not hirelings." In 1831 she wrote to John that if they were to stay in Greensboro, they "must have negro houses. I think I could get along with them far better, if I were not obliged to see them every time I look out." Then she could effectively forbid offenders access to the kitchen. Sarah Gayle complained endlessly about recalcitrant servants and her problems in governing them, but she formed deep attachments to particular servants. Throughout the late twenties and early thirties, she wrote in her journal and to her husband of her longing to repurchase Mike and his family, whom the Gayles had apparently sold after Sarah Gayle's father's death. Especially during the early thirties, when their plans to relocate were particularly uncertain, she associated buying Mike and his family with her own desire for a permanent residence. Her only purpose was that of "buying back Mike and his family, and settling them with the few others we have on a farm." She had no pecuniary goal. "No ideas enter my head of cotton, or of corn, or of money—but simply the longing to say once more my father's old servants, are mine again." Never before had she pushed John Gayle in this way, nor would she now, "but that it does seem to me I cannot be happy unless it is done." Above all, she longed for Mr. Gayle to inform her that he had bought a rich piece of river land and "that on the way back he called at Mr. Hobson's and for a reasonable price, bought Mike and his family, who were with the other few to be sent to our home, there to live in comfort, and in the same time, in industry, engaged in making their own support, and assisting him to pay for them."[45]

By her account, Mike shared her desire to be reunited. She reported that he came to see her "on the old subject," and that he would have spoken to Mr. Gayle as well did he not fear offending him. Mike had heard rumors that they might be moving and begged that they not think "'of leaving me, for I should be a lost man,' and the poor fellow really was choked into silence." Only gradually did Sarah Gayle come to understand that John had opposed her in this matter not out of failure to respect her feelings, but from a lack of cash. When it finally dawned on her that he had been carrying much heavier expenses than she suspected, she was abashed. But her regrets about her own insensitivity to her husband's worries merely encouraged her to develop new strategies to meet her goal. She found no insurmountable difficulty for, as she had mentioned in an earlier letter, Mike and his family could contribute to their own upkeep and purchase: "It is strange if the negroes cannot pay for themselves, hiring at the rates they do in Mobile, and Mike a pretty good common carpenter, his wife so brisk, and three or four of his children able to bring in their share. Henry is about 12, Albert between 10 and 11, and Ellen more than 8—the size that I want for a nurse now that I have lost poor Rose."[46]

Sarah Gayle's attachment to Mike and his family sprang from her love for her own parents. Bereft of close relations, she turned to the slaves who had known her parents and had known her as a child. To repurchase them was to repossess some piece of that past she mourned, was to satisfy her own deepest psychological needs. During the years in which she did not own Mike, she knew where he was, who did own him, and the names and ages of his children as they came along. She would not likely have been better informed about distant relatives or friends. Yet it never crossed her mind that this family should be free. Her unquestioning acceptance of slavery emerged from her unquestioning assumption that even though Mike and his family could provide for their own support and even contribute to their purchase price they should remain slaves. She saw nothing contradictory between her deep affection for—and emotional dependence on—people whom she proposed to hold in perpetual slavery and her acknowledgment of their ability to take care of themselves as well as her.

Rose, the servant whose death left Sarah Gayle without a nurse, had also come from her father's family. "She was raised at my feet, and was my child's nurse, a most kind and excellent nurse, and the play fellow of all my children." Rose died in April 1834 of lockjaw, which she had contracted from a large splinter that ran up into her foot and remained a week. Sarah Gayle reproached herself for not having noticed Rose's limping sooner, but she had had no reason to expect serious effects from a wound of that sort. Suddenly Rose began to manifest spasms and other symptoms of lockjaw. She lay ill for three weeks, "during all which time, I thank God, I did not leave her day or night." Nor would Rose suffer her to leave, but called for her whenever she left the door. They "placed [her] in a neat, and every way comfortable room—nothing was spared which might add to her comfort." In her dreams, Rose always addressed Sarah's son, Haynsworth, and when awake attended to his voice. In the last motion Sarah Gayle recollected Rose's making, she stretched "out her arms to him, and when I placed my hands on them, she drew me to her, as if she had taken the child." Sarah Gayle closed Rose's eyes and "in tears and fervor prayed that God would cause us to meet in happiness in another world." At that moment, she knew "that color made no difference, but that her life would have been as precious, if I could have saved it, as if she had been white as snow." The entire family followed Rose to her grave. Thereafter, the children's countenances would sadden "when something occurs to remind them of poor Rose, and my own heart will swell as Haynsworth sings snatches of the songs his nurse taught him."[47]

Sarah Gayle's text shows how closely Rose's life was intertwined with that of her white family but offers no clue to Rose's own kin or attitudes. Possibly Rose, like her mistress, had intermingled black and white families beyond easy disentangling. If Sarah Gayle grasped the equality of souls before God, she accepted the inequality of ranks in this world. Within households, personal ties crossed class lines. Slaveholders and slaves participated in a shared imaginative universe that could shimmer with mutual affection or, as in the case of Hampton, shatter in mutual antagonism.

For her warmth, compassion, humor, intelligence, and love for her family, black and white, Sarah Gayle ranks among the most attractive women diarists of the early nineteenth century. But her finest qualities cannot be divorced from her willing complicity in a social system that permitted them to flourish through the enslavement of others—cannot be divorced from the iniquities that she accepted and perpetuated. Her experience and perceptions as a woman depended upon the social system in which she lived. Her ineffable charm cannot responsibly be severed from its social moorings.

Whatever Mike and Rose really thought of Sarah Gayle, John Gayle valued her as the treasure of his life. Responding to one of her letters, he admitted failing to put his true feelings into words. She had, he thought, some idea of the "ecstasy which apparently swells the bosom of the converted christian. I felt exactly the 'joy unspeakable and full of glory.'" Her letter brought him a happiness that drowned his concern for debts, property, and all such trash. "My wife is the great engrossing object of my affections. In comfort she is indispensable to my peace, and a consciousness of her love is essential to my existence."[48]

Sarah Gayle had been preparing for death at least since she began to bear children. During the early 1830s, when her health was poor and her spirits occasionally low, she returned to the prospect. In 1831, she actually sat down and drew up instructions for John Gayle to follow in the event of her death. He must, she insisted, do as she proposed: "No stepmother for my poor girls—she may be an Angel for you, but very different for them." In February 1835, Sarah Gayle safely gave birth to her last child, Ann Maria. Yet she had been right to concern herself with the fate of her girls should something befall her. The dentist proved her nemesis, Rose her precursor. Sarah Gayle, like Rose, contracted tetanus. Servant and mistress, equal in vulnerability before the deadly disease, were unequal only in the means of contracting it. Sarah Gayle would not have picked up a splinter in the yard; she would not have gone unshod. Rose would not have had complications from dental work; she would not have gone to the dentist—a doctor who occasionally pulled a tooth, maybe, but a town dentist, not likely.[49]

When Sarah Gayle fell ill, John Gayle was away in Indian Territory, trying to restore their fortunes through speculation in Indian lands. As she had so often feared at the time of her confinements, he did not hear of her illness in time to see her alive. That absence was hard to bear, although the absence of the man whose love and care permitted her to give way to her fears may, in the end, have helped her to face the death she had so dreaded with the courage she would have wanted. Just before dying, she mustered her strength to pen a final message: "I testify with my dying breath that since first I laid my young heart upon his manly bosom I have known only love and happiness."[50] She did not have to be the one to ask whether she had ever been happy. Her daughters did get a stepmother.

Were Sarah Ann Haynsworth Gayle's story written as a novel, the interlocking of themes would appear to defy real life. Sarah Gayle harbored a genuine literary talent. She especially developed an external perspective on her subjective experience. Her fragmented and discontinuous journal reflects narrative choices as surely as any fiction. But the choices that endow her narrative with such coherence were not entirely hers to make. The tetanus, the dentist, John Gayle's absences, lay beyond her choice. She chose, however unconsciously, to underscore her identification with her family of origin by representing her devotion to her parents' servants. She chose to identify her commitment to religion with her fear of death and her responsibilities as a mother. She chose to borrow from the prevailing romantic discourse to cast her literary aspirations. She chose all this and more. Her choices reflect the self-conscious and unconscious workings of the mind of a special woman. The conditions that governed her imaginative life and shaped her life lay beyond her choice. Those conditions also governed the lives of innumerable other slaveholding women, who would express their personalities discretely but who would, like Sarah Gayle, work with the materials that lay to hand.

Sarah Gayle cannot uncritically be presented as typical of slaveholding women. Women's lives varied according to region, generation, and the size of the slaveholdings to which they were born and into which they married. She lived as a girl, and for much of her womanhood, in what remained very close to frontier conditions. Yet her family connections and the number of slaves that her father owned and bequeathed to her established her as a member of the solid slaveholding class even if she did not live in the lap of lowcountry luxury. Her experience differed from that of other slaveholding women in innumerable particulars, but she shared with countless others, whose position entitled them to claim the status of lady, the structural constraints that governed the lives of privileged women in a slave society.

In this book, I have purposed to tell the story of black and white women of the southern plantation household—or at least some of its essentials—and, along the way, to make a modest contribution to southern and women's history. Black and white southern women differed from their northern and European sisters for a complex of reasons, first among which was the unfolding of their lives within a modern slave society. The experience of all women, those of the Old South included, varies according to class and race, in accordance with the communities and societies to which they belong and the historical periods in which they live. Hence I use the term gender, in contradistinction to sex, for gender is a social, not a biological, category and, therefore, fundamentally a historical category.

Throughout, I variously refer to gender relations, gender roles, and gender identities. By gender relations, I mean the relations between women and men within specific societies and communities. Gender relations constitute the foundation of any society and lie at the core of any individual's sense of self, for gender relations map the most fundamental relations between any individual and the other members of society. We do not experience our gender in the abstract, but in relation to others: To be a woman is to be a woman in relation to men. Just as societies have characteristic social relations, so they have characteristic gender relations. Societies have also tended to promote distinct roles for women and men. Those gender roles constitute the activities through which women and men are encouraged to contribute to the collectivity and in which they are encouraged to find their identities—their deepest sense of who they are. Under stable social conditions, gender relations, gender roles, and gender identities tend to merge into a natural continuum. Under unstable or oppressive conditions, the continuum may be shattered.

Slavery as a social system, and not merely as one institution among many, left an indelible mark on the lives—the relations, roles, and identities—of both slaveholding and slave women. Ownership of slaves relieved slaveholding women of many forms of domestic labor while it imposed upon them the responsibilities of slave management. Being owned deprived slave women of many forms of control over their own lives and especially deprived them of the protection of the law for their personal relations as daughters, wives, and mothers. This lack of control never crippled black people as a people, but it did cripple many thousands of individual men and women and did have heartrending consequences for the relations, roles, and identities of all.

I shall try to show that the distinct experiences of slave and slaveholding women, although radically different, derived directly from their membership in rural slaveholding households that contained within themselves much more basic economic production than was common in the North or in western Europe. Each of these households came under the direct authority of a single man, the master, who assumed accountability for its internal and external order.

The domination of the master weighed heavily on slaveholding and slave women alike, but with very different consequences. For slaveholding women, that domination merged with their personal relations as daughters, wives, and mothers in a way that encouraged them to see it not merely as legitimate but as natural. For slave women, it superseded their relations as daughters, wives, and mothers with the men and women of their slave community. In the end, relations with the master and life within the household over which he presided discouraged slaveholding women's opposition to the system as a system even as it spurred personal resistance to wrongs and abuses—to lapses from professed norms. Domination, especially the abuse of male prerogative, inflicted misery and frustration upon many slaveholding women but did not tempt them into feminism, much less abolitionism. They complained about their lives, but their complaints rarely amounted to opposition to the system that guaranteed their privileged position as ladies. The domination of the master and life within the household over which he presided led many slave women to counterpose their own wills directly to his. Their response, however different from that of slaveholding women, had little to do with the patterns of emerging feminism in the Northeast. For it had little to do with the slave woman's gender. It expressed a rejection of naked power.

Chapter 1 develops an interpretation of the distinctive experience of southern women, black and white, and of the nature of the southern household. I have tried to render the arguments simply and directly, with as few concessions as possible to the cumbersome apparatus and language of the social sciences. But those with no taste at all for theoretical arguments may choose to pass over it lightly and turn to chapters 2 and 3, which offer direct testimony of slaveholding and slave women about their own experiences. In chapter 4, I discuss the gender conventions that defined the roles and shaped the identities of slaveholding women, and in chapter 5, I turn directly to those identities—to their imaginative worlds. Chapter 6 presents the actions and feelings of the women who did oppose slavery: slave women themselves. In chapter 7, focusing on the celebrated Mary Boykin Chesnut, I take respectful exception to the attempt of learned friends and colleagues to find among the slaveholding women a significant measure of protofeminism and protoabolitionism.

In this prologue, I have attempted to recreate the life and the dimensions of the identity of one slaveholding woman, Sarah Gayle of Alabama. I make no claim that Sarah Gayle was "typical," whatever that might mean. Rather, I suggest that the themes of her life recurred in the lives of innumerable other slaveholding women in different decades, different regions, and different kinds of slaveholding households. In the epilogue, I attempt one possible reading of the narrative of a slave woman, Harriet Jacobs, who achieved freedom, to illustrate how the ultimate resistance of slave women stripped away the trappings of gender. No more than Sarah Gayle should Harriet Jacobs be considered typical, but the themes of her narrative, including her polemical picture of the abuses of slavery, capture dimensions of the experience of innumerable other slave women who, remaining in slavery and being unlettered, could not easily tell their own stories.

There are many badly needed studies that I do not attempt in this book but that we may expect to have done by others in the coming years. I do not provide a narrative history of black or white southern women throughout the expansion of the slaveholding South, from the seventeenth century until the Civil War. The vast portion of my evidence derives from the antebellum period proper, 1820–61. I do not provide a history of town women, black or white, or of yeoman women. I have worked largely with the private papers—especially the diaries, journals, and correspondence—of slaveholding women and with the narratives of former slaves. I do believe that slavery, institutionalized in a network of rural households, also decisively influenced the lives of town, yeoman, free black, and poor white women, but I have not here explored these experiences. Knowing of work in progress—for example, that of Stephanie McCurry and Virginia Gould—has made it easier for me to live with the limitations imposed by circumstances.

The concept of household is central to my argument and may cause some misunderstanding. I am using household, in the sense increasingly used by anthropologists, sociologists, and some historians, to mean a basic social unit in which people, whether voluntarily or under compulsion, pool their income and resources. As such, it has no necessary relation to family, although members of households may be related and many households may be coterminous with family membership. Above all, it has no necessary relation to home, which is a modern and ideologically charged term. I have chosen to use the term household precisely because it is, or should be, an emotionally and ideologically neutral term—a way of identifying a unit of analysis. During the antebellum period the U.S. census described basic social units as families, not households, but I agree with those social historians who worry that family emphasizes personal rather than social bonds. Not for nothing did southern slaveholders refer to their households as "my family white and black."

In this spirit, I am using household as the basic term for all rural units that pooled income and resources; that is, I am using it to supersede previous distinctions between and debates about the nature of farms or plantations. The use of those terms varied considerably between the seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries and has generated vigorous debate, but those debates confuse the issues that concern me here. I am, accordingly, using farm and plantation only as descriptive, not as analytic, terms and intend by their use no intervention in the larger debates. I use plantation household descriptively to evoke a slaveholding household that contained twenty or more slaves. Slaveholding household, in contrast, can refer to a household with upwards of three slaves, and farm household to a household with three or fewer slaves. Although yeoman households typically included no slaves, they could move in and out of slaveholding without altering their basic character. Scholars disagree on the precise number of slaves that transformed a yeoman household into a slaveholding household, although ownership of three or more slaves for a decade could be taken as a good indicator of a shift. Any farmer who owned nine slaves for a decade had become a small slaveholder, although he might still be described as a farmer. So much for precision. This book is primarily about the lives of the black and white women who, for better or worse, shared plantation households.

Any attempt to recreate the lives and feelings of black and white women of the plantation household depends upon the interpretation of sources that inevitably remain less full and more ambiguous than we should wish. The narratives of former slaves present serious but, I believe, not insurmountable problems, which have been exhaustively discussed by recent historians of slavery. Like the letters, diaries, and other writings of the slaveholding women, the narratives remain necessary and valuable tools, to be used with care. One way to use them carefully is to check them, so far as possible, against each other and against statistical and more traditional historical sources. Another is to read them in context—to learn as much as possible about the matters to which the texts refer and to subject the texts themselves to rigorous internal criticism. I have done my best and may as well confess that I have tried to recreate the inner world of the household in full knowledge that a large dose of subjective judgment is inescapable. But persisting problems trouble me.

When recording the words of former slaves, white interviewers ascribed to them not so much black dialect as bad English. Somehow, when whites are quoted in the sources they usually come out speaking impeccably. No one familiar with the poor spelling, shaky grammar, and other speech peculiarities of white country women and their men would credit this picture for a moment. I am prepared to believe that many black women spoke in dialect and that many, being uneducated, also spoke bad English. But when an interviewer records "'no'" for "know," you know that he or she is up to no good. Hence, the problem: Do you report the black women's speech as recorded, knowing that to some extent it is a racist fabrication, or do you censor it all out? If the latter, you lose their voices completely. Swallowing hard and filing this caveat, I have reported their words as recorded, changing spellings only in cases in which the interviewer exceeded all decency.

I, like others, have been forced back upon the narratives because of the paucity of other sources, especially first-person sources. Few slave women wrote journals, diaries, and letters. As a group, they did not enjoy even the precarious access to the world of published writings enjoyed by white women and former slave men. We cannot be sure of the extent to which they participated in the literate culture of others, although we know they heard sermons by white and black preachers and know also that they knew much more of politics and their people's history than the slaveholders would have imagined. But our reliable information about their personal responses is fragmentary at best. I have not felt it possible to write with certainty of their feelings and ideas about a variety of topics on which slaveholding women left personal responses. And I have feared it presumptuous to speculate, however great the temptation.

For me, slave women's voices emerged most clearly from their children's recollections of their work and from the records of their resistance. Slave women worked as many as eighteen hours a day. Their regular relations with the other women, the men, and the children of the slave community were grounded in that work—in the skill of performing it well, in the fellowship of performing it together, in the determination to establish and defend its limits, and, when the master's work was over, in the love of beginning all over again for the black family or members of the slave community. And slave women demonstrably resisted the worst effects of slavery, resisted them at the very core of their identities. By the end of my research, I had no doubt that they resisted slavery as members of a community, as well as in lonely defiance. Their multiple contributions to the culture and communities of their people constituted a web of resistance that sought, above all, to protect the identities and cohesiveness of members of succeeding generations. We are gradually learning to tease the evidence out of unpromising sources, and I can only hope that others will come to fill the gaps that I have left.

In attempting to understand the collective story of slaveholding women, I have read widely in their papers, especially their journals and correspondence. There can be no question of a scientific sample, but rather of a very special universe of introspective women whose papers have survived. In writing, I have had to choose between invoking the letters and diaries of as many women as possible or those of a few who seem to me representative of slaveholding women in general and of their many variations according to wealth, region, and age. I have supplemented these central stories with references to the writings of the others but have chosen to stress the few so that the reader might be able to follow the various threads of their stories. I see no particular advantage to one method over the other but do hope that the one I have chosen helps to bring at least some of these women alive.

Withal, this book has grown out of my best sense of who these women, black and white, felt themselves to be in time and place. I have tried to follow the cycles of their lives and their interests. Many topics have been treated less fully than some might wish, and others have barely been touched upon. Sexuality ranks high among the topics to which I have devoted little attention. Since I have had a number of years of psychoanalytic training, this might seem a strange omission, but I have made a conscious choice. I have read with interest and sometimes with genuine instruction the speculations of my colleagues on the sexual dimension of the women's lives. I cannot deny that at some future point I hope to be able to intervene in the discussion. But at the risk of giving unintended offense to my colleagues, I must at this point express my considered judgment that the available sources and methods do not permit responsible speculation beyond narrow limits. I have therefore tried hard to stay within those limits, however uneasy I remain about the potential significance of the long silence.

What of the relations among the women themselves? Sharing the domination of white men—of the master—did slave and slaveholding women share bonds? participate in a sisterhood? The simple and inescapable answer is no. The privileged roles and identities of slaveholding women depended upon the oppression of slave women, and the slave women knew it. Slaveholding and slave women shared a world of mutual antagonism and frayed tempers that frequently erupted in violence, cruelty, and even murder. They also shared a world of physical and emotional intimacy that is uncommon among women of antagonistic classes and different races. Slaveholding women were elitist and racist. With some pain I am compelled to express my considered opinion that, in some essential respects, they were more crudely racist than their men. Yet they could deeply mourn the death of a favorite slave, who might have nursed them or their children, or whose children they (less frequently) might have nursed. Life would be easier if we could dismiss them as oppressive tyrants or exonerate them as themselves victims of an oppressive system. We cannot. By class and race, they were highly privileged ladies who reveled in their privilege, but many were warm and attractive women and, by their own lights and the standards of their society, God-fearing, decent women. They were women who owned—whose husbands, fathers, and sons owned—slaves in a world that increasingly recognized slavery as a moral evil and a political danger. Many of them were also women who loved their families, tried to care for their slaves, attended to their own and their slaves' immortal souls, and wrote sometimes entrancing, sometimes moving diaries, journals, and letters. Slaveholding women, like all groups of women, ranged from loving to vicious, from charming to unlovable, with all the ordinary human in-between.

Slave women, who displayed the same variations in personality, lived on the opposing side of those antagonistic class and race relations and confronted the inescapable consequences of their condition. Some would like to see them as having enjoyed an autonomy that was denied to the white women of their day, but autonomy may be a misleading word. Slave women lived free of the legal constraints of marriage and lived with the necessity to work as hard as men, frequently at tasks considered inappropriate for white women. At the limits of resistance, they lived with a sense of isolation. Yet many of them loved their men and children, tried to meet their obligations to God and the other members of the slave community, and struggled to create the strongest possible legacy for the next generation. Their isolation resulted from the extreme consequences of the oppression against which they struggled. Beyond resistance itself, the goals of that struggle pointed toward the strengthening of a community in which they could be women among their own people.