First published in 1861 under the pen name “Linda Brent,” Harriet wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to appeal to a northern audience for the abolitionist cause. It follows her escape from slavery in 1842 to her legal emancipation in 1852. Jacobs was born to relatively well-off slaves and had a relatively happy childhood with them and then her grandmother, a slave with a somewhat independent income through her baking who wields a strong sense of moral power throughout the text. Once her parents die, she is sold to the evil Dr. Flint, who pursues and threatens her sexually. Jacobs calls upon the values of nineteenth century True Womanhood as she appeals to her audience of northern women, calling their attention to her inability to uphold these shared values, instilled in her by her grandmother, as a slave.
Dr. Flint is a frightening threat: her “master, whose restless, craving, vicious nature roved about day and night, seeking whom to devour” who informs Jacobs that she “was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing” (459). In addition to her surprising frankness about the sexual dangers which Dr. Flint threatened, Jacobs is equally frank about the sexual relationship she has with Mr. Sands, a white man with whom she has two children. In a candid aside to the reader, Jacobs admits that she chooses a sexual relationship with him, explaining that, “It seems less degrading to give one’s self, that to submit to compulsion” (501). She asks for forgiveness, explaining that slaves should be judged differently, as slavery is an inherently corrupting system, which made her “prematurely knowing, concerning the evil ways of the world” (500).
When Dr. Flint becomes too dangerous, Jacobs goes into hiding, staying in a secret compartment in a porch roof which was 9’x3’x7’ (at its highest part). She stayed seven years in hiding, during which time Mr. Sands is able to take their daughter Ellen to Brooklyn. Jacobs eventually is able to escape to Philadelphia by boat. However, even after her escape north, she lives in fear of the Fugitive Slave Act and Dr. Flint’s relentless pursuit of her. She works for Mrs. Bruce, even spending a year in London, caring for Mrs. Bruce’s daughter, where she experiences a more general freedom from racism than she has ever had. Eventually, Jacobs’ freedom is bought by her new mistress Mrs. Bruce, despite Jacobs’ complete unwillingness to being purchased. The text ends with her unfulfilled desires to have her children with her in their own home, and two more truth claims from white authors.
The narrative follows the typical pattern of the nineteenth century slave narrative: (1) loss of innocence (narrator realizes that she’s a slave); (2) realization of alternatives and formulation of resolve to be free; (3) escape (depending on when the narrative was written, will tell more or fewer details about the escape. Pre-emancipation, fewer details were given); and (4) freedom. It is prefaced by a truth claim by Lydia Maria Child, a well-respected white author of domestic guides. Between 1760 and 1947, more than 200 book-length narratives were written; in total, more than 6,000 total exist. While they were popular tools of propaganda, Jacobs was one of the first to focus on the dangers of slavery which were unique to female slaves, particularly their vulnerability to sexual abuse and rape. Jacobs uses tropes of the sentimental novel—moralistic asides to her “Dear Reader,” and evocations of her desire to have her children at her own hearth.