Saturday, March 10, 2018

finally out of obscurity: True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life, by Sarah E. Farro

Forgotten Books, 2017
originally published 1891
121 pp


I don't even remember what I was looking up when I came across an article in The Independent (1 June, 2016) about the author of this book, an African-American woman named Sarah E. Farro.  Once again, it was the title that caught my eye:

"Sarah E Farro: Why was one of only four African-Americans to publish a novel in the 19th century forgotten?"

Having never heard of her before, I was beyond intrigued.  As Professor Gretchen Gerzina notes in the Independent article, Farro wrote only this one novel, which seems to have
"disappeared from the historical record."
She also tells us that Farro was born in 1859, had two sisters, and that her parents had moved to Illinois from the South, information she gained from census reports from 1880.  We also learn that True Love was among 58 books by women writers from Illinois to be on exhibit at the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893 and that it was "heralded" in contemporary newspapers, both here and in the UK.  And finally, we know that in 1937
"Farro was feted at a celebration of Chicago's 'outstanding race pioneers."
 I can only imagine Professor Gerzina's excitement on rediscovering Sarah Farro and her book; heck, I was excited to learn that it existed myself!   And now, thanks to her discovery, Farro's True Love has not only been digitized, but it also appears in Penguin's  The Portable Nineteenth Century African American Writers (2017), bringing this woman and her work out of obscurity for modern readers.

my photo -- title page

The story begins with the Brewster family, consisting of a mom and her two daughters.  While the outside world thought highly of Janey, "with her sweet countenance and her merry heart," Mrs. Brewster is much more attached to Mary Ann, a "pale, sickly, fretful girl, giving trouble to everybody about her."  Janey is engaged to Charles Taylor, "a quiet refined gentleman, the son of a wealthy capitalist," which doesn't sit well with her mother.  Mom believes that "If Charles Taylor had not been blind his choice would have fallen upon Mary Ann."  As the novel opens, the "fever" is making its way through the area, and Mary Ann has had the bad fortune to have succumbed.  Charles wants to take Janey away, to get her "far from the fever," but that is not to be. Aside from worries about what people will say, Mrs. Brewster needs Janey there to help her out while Mary Ann is ill.  As it turns out, Charles is away when he gets word that death has come to the Brewster home, but as he learns to his horror, it's not Mary Ann who is dead.  The novel follows Charles and various members of the Taylor family after this tragedy which has clearly taken its toll on the poor man.

You'll note that I haven't said a thing about slavery or about race;  this book, as Farro notes in her preface, is written
"to give to the public a sketch of her ideas on the effect of 'true love.' " 
She wants us to "sympathize" with her characters, whose "language and conduct may be appreciable or reprehensible according to circumstances." And certainly, as the novel unfolds, we come to realize that with the Taylor family and their set of friends and acquaintances, we're looking into the lives of a very well-to-do group of people who, in many ways, are bound by the confines of social convention in true Victorian fashion.    Race has no place here, and as Professor Gerzina states in the article cited above, Farro''s novel of "domestic romance that tends toward melodrama," doesn't "fit the mold" of other  "revived and 'rediscovered' " works of other African-American women who have been "noticed and celebrated not just because of their race, but because they all "wrote about race."  I'll turn once again to Professor Gerzina to relate why Sarah E. Farro and her work are significant:
"Today we assume that early African-American writers inevitably wrote about race, that 19th-century writers necessarily referred to experiences of slavery and struggle and that their access to literacy -- let alone the Victorian literary canon -- must have been limited.  Finding Farro's novel changes that. Because we didn't realize that authors like Farro existed, we had limited perspective on their work."
I'll quite frankly admit that the book isn't as polished as it could be, and frankly, neither the story nor the writing is all that good, but that's not why I chose to read it: I was absolutely delighted with the prospect of reading the work of a previously-unknown African-American female author who wrote during the 19th century.  I mean, a lot of books I read are from obscure authors, but I rarely get the opportunity to discover one which itself has only recently been discovered.  It was well worth every second of my time and even though I wasn't fond of the story, I feel great just having the ability to read Sarah Farro's work.  I feel privileged, actually.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.