Book note: Sapphira and the Slave Girl

SAPPHIRA AND THE SLAVE GIRL by Willa Cather (1940)

Sapphira and the Slave Girl is set in Appalachian Virginia in the 1850s and is inspired by stories Willa Cather heard about her great-grandmother.

Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert is the matriarch not only of her own household, but of the backwoods community of Back Creek in Frederick County, Va.

Yet she feels threatened by Nancy, a timid and powerless young slave woman.  The main theme of the novel is the terrible consequences that flow from that.

In Sapphira’s world, an aristocrat such as herself is entitled to deference and obedience, which she in fact receives, not just from black slaves but lower-class whites.  By the same standard, she is obligated to maintain a standard of conduct that manifests her superiority to common people.  

She is gracious, benevolent and forgiving to everyone, black or white, provided they know and accept their place in society. 

She suffers from a crippling, painful and fatal disease called then called dropsy and now called edema—an accumulation of water in the legs due to congestive heart failure.  Formerly a great horsewoman, she now can barely even walk.  Yet she makes few concessions to weakness.  She maintains her routine and exercises authority from her wheelchair.

Her husband, Henry Colbert, is not an aristocrat.  His marriage to Sapphira is based on mutual respect, not passion.

He spends most days and many nights at the flour mill that provides his family with their income.  Sapphira tells him that a real Southern aristocrat would assign a slave or hire someone to do the dirty work.  That’s why a real Southern aristocrat would go broke, Henry replies.

Part of his routine is to have 19-year-old Nancy bring him a cup of coffee at the mill a couple of hours before he goes up to the house for breakfast with his wife.  Nancy feels affection for Henry and wants to please him.  He is like the father she never had.

She takes to plucking a wildflower and bringing it with the coffee.  Henry likes this and comes to feel fatherly affection for Nancy.   Sapphira notices this and doesn’t like it

The reason for Sapphira’s feeling is not clear to me.  Nancy is chaste and naive.  Henry is a completely faithful husband.  As Cather writes, he is committed to observing the terms of his marriage contract, as he would any other contract.

Does Sapphira suspect an erotic relationship? a potential erotic relationship? the appearance of an erotic relationship?  Or was it that she thinks Nancy and Henry have forgotten their “place”?

In any case, she sets out to break up the relationship.  She has a different slave bring Henry his coffee.  Henry objects.  She proposes to sell Nancy.  Henry objects again.

Then she does something truly evil.  She invites Henry’s brother, Martin Colbert, for a long visit.  

Martin Colbert, unlike his brother, is the model of a Virginia gentleman.  He is handsome, well-mannered, charming and a good horseman.  He always pays his gambling debts and, most importantly, never backs down from a fight.  

But in his heart, Martin is as cruel and arrogant as Simon Legree.   He inwardly vows vengeance on Old Sampson, the Colberts’ trusted black foreman, for looking him in the eye without subservience.   He regards black women, and also lower-class white women, as his lawful prey.

As expected, he falls in lust with Nancy and begins to stalk her.  He would suffer no punishment if he raped her.  Terrified, Nancy turns to two trusted persons—Old Sampson and Mrs. Rachel Blake, Sapphira’s daughter.  

Rachel, an important character, is the widow of a Virginia congressman.  After her husband died broke and in debt, she and her two daughters came back home to live.  She spends her time as a kind of volunteer social worker among the mountain families.  None of her family know she is secretly an abolitionist.

A terrible chapter follows, in which Martin Colbert tries to catch the Nancy alone and Sampson and Rachel try to prevent it.  They know he is looking for an opportunity to rape Nancy, and he knows they know, but they pretend they don’t know.  “It is better than a play,” Sapphira reflects.

It is unclear to me what Sapphira wants.  Is it to punish or take revenge on Nancy?  Or does she think degrading Nancy will spoil the bond between her and her husband?  

Finally, seeing no alternative, Rachel helps Nancy flee to Canada via the Underground Railroad.  Sapphira understands what happened, and cuts Rachel off from the family—of course without ever directly referring to what happened.

Later one of Rachel’s daughters dies of diphtheria, Sapphira and Rachel are (to an extent) reconciled, and Sapphira finally dies of her disease.  Characteristically, she dies alone and upright in her chair, too proud to ring her little bell for help.

All of these events are set against a rich and affectionate portrait of a vanished way of life, but without whitewashing ignorance and bigotry (not just about slavery).  It is full of snapshots of vivid individual characters, white and black, and full of information on how they lived.

The next to last chapter is about how the people of Frederick County weathered the Civil War.  They were divided in their sympathies, but, in Cather’s account, did not hate each other.  

A Union sympathizer used his good offices to help retrieve the body of a Confederate soldier so that his father could give him honorable burial.  Neighbors, both pro-Union and pro-Confederate joined to relieve the suffering of a dying Confederate soldier.  The county’s people suffered greatly from the war, but, in Cather’s telling, were not demoralized.

In a final chapter set 25 years after the first one, Nancy returns for a visit.  She is housekeeper for a rich English couple in Montreal, and is on vacation while her master and mistress are in England.  She is married, with three children.  She is better dressed and may have a greater income than the Colberts, she carries herself with poise and dignity, but she does not put on airs.  She is still knows her place.


For understandable reasons, black American writers and critics tend to be skeptical of fictional portrayals of slavery by white writers.

For example, in the novel, all the Colbert slaves except Nancy are content to be slaves, and all of them except Nancy and Old Sampson have trouble coping with Emancipation.  Even though Cather recognizes the fundamental evil of one person having absolute power over another, she suggests slavery could involve kindness and affection on one side and gratitude and loyalty on the other.

I suppose this may have happened in some cases, but I remember how Edward L. Ayers, in his history of the Civil War in the Shenandoah Valley, wrote about how so many Virginia slaveowners thought their slaves were contented and were disillusioned to find that their slaves really didn’t like them.

Another issue is that in the novel, the Colberts all speak grammatical English and the slaves speak a kind of minstrel-how dialect.  Here I take up for Cather.

English usage is a marker of social class, and the novel is about social class, not just about slavery.  The poor whites in the novel also speak bad English, although not so bad as the black slaves.  

When Nancy comes back from Canada on a visit, her friends, both black and white, are taken aback by the fact that she speaks a more precise English than they do.  Nancy bridges the gap by her graciousness.


It was a pleasure to read Willa Cather’s prose.  She was a great wordsmith, a great storyteller, and a great descriptive writer of both people and landscape.  I enjoyed her loving description of the region’s wildflowers, and even gave Latin names for some of them.

I read this novel as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  I thank Judith Judson for suggesting it.


Willa Cather: VIrginia Girl to Literary Classic by Anne LeHew Legge for The Torch magazine.

Sapphira and the Slave Girl (1940) by Brendon Wolfe for Encyclopedia Virginia.

The Problematic Nature of Willa Cather’s Final Novel by Matthew Teutsch for Interminable Rambling.

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3 Responses to “Book note: Sapphira and the Slave Girl”

  1. Patrick Berting Says:

    I enjoyed reading your review I have a book I had never heard of until now. I’m fascinated by literature concerning slavery in the US and have read 12 years a slave, and up from slavery. I hope I get the opportunity to read this one as well.


  2. philebersole Says:

    Patrick, I never read Up From Slavery. Probably I should.

    Willa Cather’s novel is a different kettle of fish. It is about a white woman’s view two or three generations removed from slavery, and two or three generations removed from us.


  3. Bridget Watts Says:

    Very interesting, thank you Phil. I read My Antonia long, long, ago. This is a good reminder to go back and read something by Cather (but probably not this book!)


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