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Secret History: or, The Horrors of St. Domingo and Laura

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Based on Leonora Sansay's eyewitness accounts of the final days of French rule in Saint Domingue (Haiti), Secret History is a vivid account of race warfare and domestic violence. Sansay's writing provocatively draws comparisons between Saint Domingue during the Haitian Revolution and the postrevolutionary United States, while fluidly combining qualities of the eighteenth-century epistolary novel, colonial travel writing, and political analysis. Laura, Sansay's second novel, features as its protagonist a beautiful impoverished orphan who throws herself headlong into a secret marriage with a young medical student. When her husband dies in a duel in an effort to protect his wife's reputation, Laura finds herself once more alone in the world. The republication of these works will contribute to a significant revision of thinking about early American literary history.

This Broadview edition offers a rich selection of contextual materials, including selections from periodical literature about Haiti, engravings, letters written by Sansay to her friend Aaron Burr, historical material related to the Burr trial for treason, and excerpts from literature referenced in the novels.

319 pages, Paperback

First published June 11, 2007

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5 stars
19 (7%)
4 stars
70 (27%)
3 stars
100 (39%)
2 stars
48 (18%)
1 star
18 (7%)
Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews
Profile Image for Kelly Tobin.
59 reviews1 follower
November 7, 2019
I’m not really sure how to rate this honestly. This book is so racist and speaks from a position of so much privilege that it reads like satire but i don’t think it actually is (or is it??) It’s interesting to read if looking at it as a unique interpretation of a seduction novel or for its depictions of femininity in the era but as an actual novel it’s pretty trash.
226 reviews
July 2, 2021
Good for 19thC. I couldn't keep track fo characters but that's on me.
Profile Image for Dusty.
774 reviews184 followers
February 21, 2012
I had never heard of Secret History, or Leonora Sansay, until this semester, when it appeared on not just one but two of my three graduate seminars' syllabuses. It's the short but certainly not simple story of a young American woman traveling with her sister (and her sister's choleric husband) in Saint-Domingue at the time of the Revolution. She tells her story in letters back home to Aaron Burr, of all people, and later to her sister (they become separated). For a book published in the first decade of the nineteenth century in a country (the United States) supposedly devoid of any worthwhile cultural production, Secret History holds up remarkably well -- as a travel narrative, as a progressive reflection on the unjust treatment of women in the European marriage market, and as a narrative about people caught in tumultuous personal and political relationships. Recommended.
14 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2009
The introduction by Michael Drexler is invaluable. Sansay's contrasting of marriage/gender/social norms from one text to the other is quite fascinating. At times, in Laura, Sansay seems to get carried away with her sentimental stylizing, but redeems it with a rather speedy, albeit heavy-handed, conclusion.
Profile Image for Roger Whitson.
Author 6 books42 followers
November 23, 2016
Set during the Haitian Revolution, Sansay's brief epistolary novel SECRET HISTORY; OR, THE HORRORS OF ST. DOMINGO artfully puts into relief the many ambivalences of the revolutionary bourgeoisie during the period. I've read a critic recently who said that the three major revolutions had very different goals: the American Revolution sought self-determination; the French Revolution looked to a leveling of society in terms of class and gender; and the Haitian Revolution looked to extend these ideas into the realm of race. Of course, these categories don't always hold up, but the acceptance of racism in Anglo-American Enlightenment culture of the eighteenth century, along with the massacre of whites living in Haiti by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, helps to explain why the Americans were always at best ambivalent about the revolution. American slaveholders were particularly supportive of the French planters. Sansay was a client and possible lover of the American vice-president Aaron Burr, and this only adds historical relevance to the novel.

Everywhere in THE HORRORS OF ST. DOMINGO there are powerful contrasts between the main character Mary's opulent lifestyle as an English aristocrat, and the vast majority of Haitians who live in desperate poverty. We see her and her friend Clara waltzing in one scene, while exploring starving Haitian villages in another. It's questionable whether Sansay realizes these huge differences, but they are obvious enough to even the most cursory reading as to be easily incorporated into any student conversation. Moreover Clara's struggle to escape the violence of her husband, while fending off the amorous advances of the corrupt French general underscores how sexual violence intersects with slavery and colonialism. To be sure, there are places in the novel where the drama of Clara's sometimes too-typical eighteenth-century narrative obscures the broader story of the Revolution, and that is itself problematic. But Sansay delivers enough detail and describes the plight of the Haitians with such power that it is worth studying as a limited, although worthwhile, narrative delivered from the perspective of a white, British colonizer.
Profile Image for Gail Harper.
50 reviews
September 25, 2020
The importance of this book transcends the epistolary nature. Sansay makes many social commentaries within a few pages that are still relevant today.
Profile Image for Paige Hettinger.
320 reviews75 followers
November 12, 2020
i only read secret history for class, but this was shockingly really interesting and i was very engaged. the awakening vibes in many ways
Profile Image for millie.
81 reviews5 followers
February 28, 2021
I definitely need to reread this, but it does feel very important and convoluted at the same time
Profile Image for Cheyenne.
100 reviews1 follower
November 3, 2022
Had to read for class and while I found it interesting, I think I missed a lot of what was really going on. Might need to reread.
Profile Image for Laura.
124 reviews
April 24, 2009
Secret History is the fictionalized account of Aaron Burr's mistress's travels during the early stages of the Haitian Revolution in the 1790s and early 1800s. In this epistalary novel Sansay divides her own personality and experiences between Mary, the principle letter writer and devoted, responsible sister, and Clara, Mary's sister and an irresistable coquette who suffers miserably at the hands of her husband and suitors. Focusing primarily on her sister's abusive marriage, Mary's letters to Burr are equally, if not more, fascinating for their descriptions of Haitian, creole culture and racial tensions under colonial rule, the island's early revolutionary violence, the effect of the revolution on trade and refugees to the surrounding islands, and strong female bonds.

References privateering explicitly on only one occasion in Secret History (see page 119 in this edition). However, Sansay construes the British as theives, brigands, and pirates throughout this novel, in contrast to the Americans, whom she lauds for similar behavior, especially smuggling.
Profile Image for Olivia.
268 reviews27 followers
September 9, 2016
(Review of Secret History only) HOW is it that most Americans have never even heard of the Haitian Revolution?! This was a fascinating peek inside one of the most important events in the history of the "Americas" and a hugely important influence on US History. This is an epistolary novel fictionalizing the real letters between Sansay and her "protector" (lover) Aaron Burr. A delicious gothic novel with the Haitian Revolution in the background, and interesting on multiple levels--how did Sansay see her own involvement in the revolution? How did she see the revolutionaries? (IMO, with incredibly progressive sympathy). How subversive was the content of what purported to be a behind the scenes peek into the life of a famous society "flirt" and was actually equal parts history lesson and diatribe on spousal abuse?

EVERYONE in America should know about the Haitian Revolution, and this is a lovely place to start. The notes on the Broadview edition are especially helpful and complete.
Profile Image for Andrew Forrester.
157 reviews2 followers
April 25, 2017
Not really a book you can rate with stars: at once horribly racist and carefully (or maybe accidentally?) nuanced in its comparison of slaves in the Haitian Revolution and white American, French, and Creole women, who all seek to gain autonomy through both violence and subtle social subversion. Useful (for me anyway) in the way it interweaves geopolitical movements with the micropolitics of dinner parties, balls, and other moments of apparently frivolous amusement.
Profile Image for Michelle.
18 reviews1 follower
April 4, 2016
A great imperialist English female view of the Haitian Revolution. The key is to note what the book neglects to include, such as the actual horrors of the daily lives of slaves, particularly during this period, as shown by contrast to the "horrors" experienced by the elite, especially the female elite.
Profile Image for Humphrey.
580 reviews22 followers
February 24, 2016
What a neat text, lying at the intersect of natural history, private romance, and (political) history -- and in fact attesting to their mysterious interrelation. A fun read that is interesting while (and not just after) reading.
Profile Image for Katie.
155 reviews
February 5, 2008
Good example of the American gothic. Some interesting things going on with language in the first novel.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
Author 12 books50 followers
October 20, 2015
I only read the Secret History/Horrors part, not Laura-- it was okay. It's interesting to talk about in class, but not my cup of tea.
Displaying 1 - 19 of 19 reviews

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