Born unfree

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“Dear reader, the book I here present to you is humble, insignificant, and will certainly meet with the cold indifference of some and the mocking scorn of others.” Although the opening of Maria Firmina dos Reis’s abolitionist novel Ursula (1859) might now be interpreted as a rhetorical strategy, for a long time it was taken literally.

The daughter of a freedwoman, Reis was born in 1822 and spent her life in the northern Brazilian state of Maranhão. She died almost a century later, in 1917, leaving behind a diverse body of work. Yet, as Cristina Ferreira Pinto-Bailey notes in her introduction to this volume, “despite her literary and cultural production … at the time of her death [Reis] was all but forgotten”. It is, she argues, thanks to modern, revisionist scholarship that Reis now stands as “a pioneer among Black writers of the Americas”.

From the opening, in which “cool dewdrops hang from tiny trembling leaves” while an enslaved man saves a white man’s life, Ursula entwines motifs of Romanticism (Reis refers directly to Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Mauritius-set Paul et Virginie, 1788) with a message of racial equality and fraternity rooted in Christianity. The narrative follows Ursula, the white daughter of a plantation owner, as she falls in love with (and is ultimately separated from) Tancredo, the traveller who is saved at the beginning of the book, and whose romantic history is inauspicious. Fernando, Tancredo’s love rival, who enters midway through, is revealed to be Ursula’s estranged and violent relative: he proves to be the pair’s undoing.

Alongside this main plot runs another, principally concerning Susana and Tulio, who are enslaved. Reis portrays both sympathetically, Susana maternally taking Tulio under her wing. One of the strengths of the novel lies in its depiction of the bonds forged by those who were trafficked from Africa or born unfree in Brazil. However, while the two plots intersect powerfully at points, the suggestion in the book’s blurb that they are of equal prominence is overplayed.

Pinto-Bailey’s introduction is detailed and accessible, and her translation solid, notwithstanding the odd infelicity. What adds greatly to the value of this edition is the inclusion of “The Slave Woman”, a short story by Reis from 1887. Here, the author can be found in full flow, leaving no doubt as to what readers should make of “the cancerous corruption that is destroying [society]”.

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