The Wedding Gift makes use of an interesting premise: what if two children – sisters – one the daughter of the mistress of the house, the other the daughter of the housekeeper – were raised alongside each other? What if one of those children was white and the other black? What if their father was a slave owner and the black daughter was to be raised to be the white daughter’s maid?
The black daughter’s name is Sarah Campbell. Sarah is one of our narrators, our guide to the life of a slave on the Allen Estate, Benton County, Alabama. However, Sarah is privileged. Because her mother is the housekeeper, she grows up playing in the house with Clarissa, her white sister. When she is young, she’s permitted to sit in the schoolroom while Clarissa’s mother teaches her. As the girls get older, Clarissa’s mother forbids Sarah to remain in the lessons. However, Sarah manipulates Clarissa by refusing to play with her unless she is allowed back in and Clarissa’s mother relents.
It was Clarissa’s weakness for silly pleasures, without thinking or caring about the repercussions of her conduct or how her actions affected other people, and her parents’ indulgence of her selfishness, that would result in catastrophic events when we were older.
While Sarah sits in Clarissa’s lessons, she learns to read and write – something that was illegal for a black man or woman at that time.
Our other narrator is Theodora Allen, Clarissa’s mother. Bodden uses Theodora to explore the limited life of a white woman at that time:
When I was sixteen, Mother persuaded Papa, who was a professor at the university of Georgia at Athens, to tutor me at home at the same level as his students. Papa gave me courses in advanced mathematics, science, literature, and the history of the European continent. He hired a music master and a painter and encouraged me to practice writing letters.
“When you marry, your husband will have to leave you for lengthy periods of time to travel for business. You will feel less lonely if you write him about events involving your family and home.”
Papa laughed when I told him I had aspirations of being a writer and that, when my husband was away, I would write books.
“No, no, dear. Gentlemen do not find lady novelists feminine…”
The novel goes on to chart the lives of Sarah and Clarissa seen through Sarah and Theodora’s eyes. Unsurprisingly for a novel set at this time, there are some grim themes and scenes – domestic violence, rape, adultery, abortion, the trading of women.
Sarah and Theodora are interesting narrators and I found myself warming to both of them, racing through the pages to discover their outcomes.
However, I have two issues with The Wedding Gift. The first is that some of the dialogue is stilted and unnatural. There were points where it felt as though it were being used to impart a chunk of information to the reader, rather than to convey a conversation as though the characters involved were actually taking part in it. Divided up and interspersed with short descriptions of the characters movements and gestures would have made it far more realistic.
The second is the ending. Some readers will love it; some will hate it. I found one element of it believable – the groundwork had been laid earlier in the novel (although somewhat unevenly in terms of Sarah’s husband’s behaviour) – and the other element somewhat fantastical, although not completely implausible.
In all, The Wedding Present is an interesting look at a low point in America’s history. By refusing to make her story clear-cut – most of the characters are neither good nor bad, they have moments that would fall into both categories – Bodden has created a novel that examines the behaviour of individuals and through them, the behaviour of slaves and slave owners in 1850s America as a whole. Despite it’s shortcomings, the plot’s so gripping that I read the book in one sitting.
Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy.