The Bondwoman's Narrative
|The Bondwoman's Narrative|
|Editor||Henry Louis Gates, Jr.|
|Cover artist||Giorgetta B. McRee|
|Media type||Print (Paperback& Hardback)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-446-69029-5 (Paperback) ISBN 0-446-53008-5 (Hardback)|
The Bondwoman's Narrative is a 2002 bestselling novel set in the mid-19th century by Hannah Crafts, a self-proclaimed runaway slave from North Carolina, whose actual name was long a mystery. The published novel has a preface by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a literature professor at Harvard University, describing the history of its acquisition, verification and publication. Scholars have speculated that the novel, possibly the first written by an African-American woman, was created between 1853 and 1861. It may precede the novel Our Nig, published in 1859.
Crafts's novel focuses on the experience of Hannah, a house slave, beginning with her explanation of being taught to read and write as a child by a kind old couple, who were subsequently discovered and reprimanded. Years later, Hannah's master hosts a large wedding. During the party, Hannah notices an unattractive old man subtly following her new mistress. Hannah concludes that “each one was conscious of some great and important secret on the part of the other.” Indeed, in the coming weeks, after observing her new mistress lock herself away most of the day, Hannah comes to learn that the old man is Mr. Trappe, a crooked lawyer who has discovered that the mistress is a fair-skinned mulatto who is passing for white.
Hannah and the mistress flee the plantation in the middle of the night, become lost, and stay the night in a gloomy shack in the forest. The shack was recently the scene of a murder, and strewn with bloodstained weapons and clothes. Under these conditions, Hannah's mistress starts to go insane. Months later, the women are found by a group of hunters who escort them to prison. One of them, Horace, informs Hannah that her master slit his throat after their escape. The women are taken to prison, where they meet Mrs. Wright, a senile woman imprisoned for trying to help a slave girl escape. The mistress’ insanity worsens. After several months, the women are moved to a house, where conditions are much better, but they are unable to leave or know the identity of their captor. After a lengthy imprisonment, it is revealed that their captor is Mr. Trappe. The mistress, upon learning this, suffers a brain aneurysm and dies.
Hannah is sold to a slave trader. As she is being transported, the cart horse bolts and runs the cart off a ledge. The slave trader is killed instantly. Hannah wakes up in the home of Mrs. Henry, a kindly woman who treats her well. As Hannah recuperates, Mrs. Henry is told that Hannah’s previous owner wishes to claim her. Despite Hannah’s pleas, the young woman is returned to the status of house slave, this time for Mrs. Wheeler, a vain, self-centered woman. When sent to town for facial powder, Hannah hears news of Mr. Trappe’s death. After she returns with the powder, Mrs. Wheeler discovers that it reacts with her perfume, causing a blackening effect on her skin. Mrs. Wheeler has temporary blackface, causing her much discomfort. After the family moves to North Carolina and another house slave replaces Hannah, Mrs. Wheeler suspects her of telling others about the blackface incident. As punishment, Hannah is ordered to the fields to be raped. Before being forced to join the field slaves, she flees again.
Hannah comes under the care of Mrs. Hetty, the kind woman who originally taught her to read and write. Mrs. Hetty facilitates Hannah’s escape to the North, where the young woman rejoins her mother.
- Hannah—The narrator of the story. She is a young slave woman who twice runs away. The character is believed to be analogous to Hannah Crafts, the author of the book, although the name was most likely a pseudonym.
- The Mistress— The Mistress (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) is a fair-skinned mulatto who was switched with another baby at birth and raised as a wealthy aristocrat. After her secret is discovered by Mr. Trappe, she is manipulated until she finally succumbs to the pressure and dies.
- Aunt Hetty— the kindly old woman who originally teaches Hannah to read and write. After running away a second time, Hannah is aided by Hetty in her escape to the North. It is not known if this character is based on someone in the author's life.
- Mr. Trappe— The main antagonist of the story. A crooked lawyer, Mr. Trappe discovers and exploits the secrets of rich families. The character is modeled after Mr. Tulkinghorn from Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House. 
- Mrs. Wheeler-- A vain woman who buys Hannah after her accident. She has little respect for Hannah. After being humiliated in a blackface incident, she orders Hannah to be raped by a black slave overseer. Hannah flees before this can occur.
Hannah Crafts was clearly influenced by the popular literary trends of the day. Scholar Hollis Robbins demonstrated that Crafts must have read prominent works of fiction such as Bleak House. Robbins also argues that Crafts may have read a serialized version of Dickens's novel in Frederick Douglass's newspaper, which had a high circulation among runaway slaves. Scholar Catherine Keyser has argued for influences from Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in Craft's writing.
Major literary styles include:
Acquisition of the novel
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. first acquired the manuscript in an annual auction by Swann Galleries. The catalogue described the novel as an “Unpublished Original Manuscript; a fictionalized biography, written in an effusive style, purporting to be the story, of the early life and escape of one Hannah Crafts.” Its history could be traced to the 1940s, when it was owned by African-American scholar Dorothy Porter.
Because of little interest, Gates bought the manuscript at a low price. He proceeded to verify the text as an historical artifact, and drew on expertise by a variety of scholars. Wyatt Houston Day, a bookseller and authenticator, wrote, “ I can say unequivocally that the manuscript was written before 1861, because had it been written afterward, it would have most certainly contained some mention of the war or at least secession.” Kenneth W. Rendell identified the original ink as iron gall ink, most widely used up until 1860. Joe Nickell, Ph.D., the author of numerous books on literary assessment, used a variety of techniques to evaluate the manuscript, studying the paper, ink, provenance, writing style, etc. As a result of his own review, Gates agreed with others who concluded that Crafts was most likely black because of the way she referred to black characters; the intricate, insider knowledge of specifics regarding slave escape routes; and her numerous conventional mistakes in language.
After verification and editing, Gates arranged for publication of the novel by Time-Warner in 2002. Due to the intense interest in such an early work, the only known one by a fugitive enslaved person and the first by an African-American woman, its publication was followed closely. The book rapidly became a bestseller.
The original manuscript version of The Bondwoman's Narrative is in the collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
(For more information about Gates's work republishing a little-known novel by an African-American woman (but not about The Bondwoman's Narrative), see Our Nig)
- Bosman, Julie (18 September 2013). "Professor Says He Has Solved a Mystery Over a Slave’s Novel". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 September 2013.
-  , New York Times Book Review essay
-  In Search of Hannah Crafts (2003)
-  In Search of Hannah Crafts (2003)
- Post-Gazette article on Census Research
- Hannah Crafts, The Bondwoman's Narrative, original manuscript, Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University
- In Search of Hannah Crafts Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Hollis Robbins. Basic/Civitas, 2004. ISBN 0-465-02708-3