Clara as Sansay’s Transgressive Self and Mary as Sansay’s Moral Conscience

Michael Drexler, the editor of the critical edition of Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or The Horrors of St. Domingo we read, informs us that the letters in the novella are based on actual letters written from Leonora Sansay to Aaron Burr. A few epistles of their correspondence were reproduced in the appendix of the critical edition and a brief comparison yields some interesting insights.

Drexler writes that “Clara” of Secret History was at least in part an invention to allow Sansay to write about herself” (223)

I argue that Clara is not only a fictional character meant to take the place of Sansay to save face or for any other artistic purpose because Clara appears already in the letters Sansay writes to Burr- she writes, “and here commences the adventures of Clara—do you recollect her? that Clara you once lov’d—She came to St domingo about the time I did…” Clara is a persona Sansay creates in her letters to Burr for one of a few possible reasons:

1. Clara is a nickname Burr used for Sansay during their affair.

2. Sansay uses the name “Clara” to save her reputation in the event that her letters are seen by the public (which they are today).

3. And this is the one that I’ll be using for my analysis-  that Sansay created Clara as a persona for her transgressive self.

To begin with, Sansay says to Burr “that Clara you once lov’d”- she uses the transgressive persona to discuss her relationship with Burr because it continued on after Sansay was already married- hence it was an adulterous transgression.

With regards to the experiences of St. Domingo, Sansay writes “[the captain general] came, and here commences the adventures of Clara” (225) That is, once the general arrives, once Sansay becomes involved with him, it is necessary to invent Clara. It is Clara, not Sansay who “was almost naked” (226) and who answers the general’s letters (228) (though according to Mary in Sansay’s epistolary novella, Clara does not answer these letters- interesting change I won’t dwell on here).

Mary, however, does not appear in Sansay’s letters. In Sansay’s letters it is Leonora Sansay who describes “Clara’s” exploits and defends her or passes judgment. However, she creates a new persona, Mary, to serve this purpose in her novella. Mary takes on a different character- more extreme in her criticism and defense; she becomes the embodiment of Sansay’s conscience.

Against the supposed criticism of Burr that Mary shares only stories relating to Clara, Mary writes, “I have no adventures” (89)- implying that those who adhere to morality do not have any fun.

Most interesting in this analysis is the exchange at the end between Mary and Clara- between Sansay’s moral conscience and her transgressive persona. In leaving her husband, a major transgression, Clara abandons Mary, the “conscience” who is now stuck with her husband. Clara and her conscience are separated because Clara has done something incredibly transgressive. The letters between the two are the reconciliation of the conscience to the transgressive character, the struggling between the transgression and the conscience- and the attempt to reunify them, to restore the balance.

Works Cited

Sansay, Leonora, and Michael J. Drexler. Secret History, Or, The Horrors of St. Domingo; And, Laura. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2008. Print.

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Published in: on October 17, 2011 at 1:29 am Comments (0)


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