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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [Paperback]

Harriet A. Jacobs

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Book Description

26 Aug 2013

Many books have been written about the age of slavery in the South, but so few have been written by the people who lived it.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was written by an escaped slave, detailing her life on the plantation, the pain of seeing her family beaten and sold, and her daring escape. These words come straight from a courageous woman who lived in chains and fought to free herself from them.


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Product details

  • Paperback: 198 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (26 Aug 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 1492247790
  • ISBN-13: 978-1492247791
  • Product Dimensions: 24.4 x 18.8 x 1.8 cm

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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  555 reviews
298 of 306 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Woman's Life in Slavery 16 Nov 2002
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Harriet Jacobs' (1813-1897) "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" is one of the few accounts of Southern slavery written by a woman. The book was published in 1861 through the efforts of Maria Child, an abolitionist who edited the book and wrote an introduction to it. The book had its origin in a series of letters Jacobs wrote between 1853 and 1861 to her friends in the abolitionist movement, notably a woman named Amy Post. Historically, there was some doubt about the authorship of the book and about the authenticity of the incidents it records. These doubts have largely been put to rest by the discovery of the letters.
The book indeed has elements of a disguise and of a novel. Jacobs never uses her real name but calls herself instead "Linda Brent." The other characters in the book are also given pseudonyms. Jacobs tells us in the Preface to the book (signed "Linda Brent") that she changed names in order to protect the privacy of indiduals but that the incidents recounted in the narrative are "no fiction".
Jacobs was born in slave rural North Carolina. As a young girl, she learned to read and write, which was highly rare among slaves. At about the age of 11 she was sent to live as a slave to a doctor who also owned a plantation, called "Dr. Flint" in the book.
Jacobs book describes well the cruelties of the "Peculiar Institution -- in terms of its beatings, floggings, and burnings, overwork, starvation, and dehumanization. It focuses as well upon the selling and wrenching apart of families that resulted from the commodification of people in the slave system. But Jacobs' book is unique in that it describes first-hand the sexual indignities to which women were subjected in slavery. (Other accounts, such as those of Frederick Douglass, were written by men.) The book is also unusual in that Jacobs does not portray herself entirely as a hero but describes the nature of the steps she took to avoid becoming the sexual slave of Flint. Thus, when Flint subjected her to repeated sexual advances from the time Jacobs reached the age of 16, she tried to avoid him by beginning an affair with a white, single attorney with whom she had two children. When Flint's advances persisted, Jacobs formed the determination to try to secure her freedom.
The bulk of the book describes how Jacobs hid precariously in a cramped attic for seven years waiting for the opporunity to secure her freedom. There are also accounts of her prior attempts to leave slavery, including a particularly harrowing account of several days in a place aptly named "Snaky Swamp."
Jacobs describes her relationship with her grandmother, a free black woman who was probably the major inspiration of her life. She also describes well her love and concern for her children, conceived through the liasion with the white attorney.
This book offers a rare perspective on American slavery as it affected women. It is also a testament, I think, to the value of literacy and knowledge as an instrument for winning and preserving free human life. Although this story is not pretty, it is a testament to human persistence in the face of adversity and to the precious character of human freedom.
129 of 130 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Poignant 1 April 2002
By MarvelousMarla - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
This autobiographical condemnation of the south's Peculiar Institution puts a face on the suffering of the enslaved. American history is full of accounts of slavery which tend to broad overviews of the institution, whereas this book is written by an escaped slave who does not flinch at sharing every detail of her miserable life. Unlike other narratives which distorted the slave's voice through the perspective of the interviewers/authors who were notorious for exaggerating the uneducated slaves' broken english, this book is largely Ms. Jacobs' own words. She was taught to read and write as a child by a kind mistress, so she was able to put her thoughts on paper with clarity that surprised many. Ms. Jacobs had an editor, but this book seems to be her unfiltered view of the world.
It is one thing to hear about how slaveholders took liberties with female slaves, it is quite another to read in stark detail about women being commanded to lay down in fields, young girls being seduced and impregnated and their offspring sold to rid the slaveholder of the evidence of his licentiousness. The author talks about jealous white women, enraged by their husbands' behavior, taking it out on the hapless slaves. The white women were seen as ladies, delicate creatures prone to fainting spells and hissy fits whereas the Black women were beasts of burden, objects of lust and contempt simultaneously. Some slave women resisted these lustful swine and were beaten badly because of it. It was quite a conundrum. To be sure, white women suffered under this disgusting system too, though not to the same degree as the female slaves who had no one to protect them and their virtue. Even the notion of a slave having virtue is mocked. The author rejected the slaveholder's advances and dared to hope that she would be allowed to marry a free black man who loved and respected her. Not only was she not allowed to marry him, she was forbidden to see him or speak to him again.
The author shows us the depth of a mother's love as she suffers mightily to see that her children are not also brought under the yoke of slavery. Though she was able to elude her odious master, she does take up with some other white man in hopes that he would be able to buy her freedom. Her "owner" refuses to sell her and tells her that she and her children are the property of his minor daughter. Her lover seems kind enough as he claims his children and offers to give them his name, and he did eventually buy them, though he failed to emancipate them to spare them from a life of forced servitude. Ms. Jacobs noted that slavery taught her not to trust the promises of white men. Having lived in town most of her life, Ms. Jacobs is sent to the plantation of her master's cruel son to broken in after she continues to refuses his sexual advances. She is resigned to this fate until she learns that her children -- who were never treated like slaves -- were to be brought to the plantation also. It is then that she takes flight.
After enduring 7-years of confinement in cramped quarters under the roof of her grandmother's house, the author escapes to the North which is not quite the haven she imagined. Still, it is better than the south, and she makes friends who buy her freedom leaving her both relieved and bitter that she is still seen as property to be bought and sold like livestock. In New York Ms. Jacobs is reunited with her children and a beloved brother who'd escaped a few years ago while accompanying his master -- her former lover -- to the free states.
There is no fairytale ending to this story because the author endures plenty of abuse and uncertainty even after she makes it to the North. She is hunted down by the relentless slaveowners who were aided by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and "The bloodhounds of the North." This is a wrenching account of this shameful period of American history, and should be required reading for all.
70 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Read 2 May 2009
By Orchid Goddess - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I wish everyone could read this book. Jacobs writes a story about herself as a Black American slave. Her tale brings the light the terror of people who can take power and abuse, as well, as the compassion of a people who take care of each other. In her writings she not only explains her experiences but also weaves her true tale of other experiences of slavery. She explains the differences between a black male slave and a black female slave experience. Both horrid but very different with the same outcome trauma. Anyone interested in understanding slavery should take the time to read her story. Her story is avaliable for free or a few dollars- and believe me it will be worth your time in doing so.

Before I stop writing, her writing is very visual and very well-written. She even explains how she learned to write so well.

Read it!
55 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars slavery: the reality 19 Feb 2002
By Robert J. Crawford - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
This is the book that brought home a dimension of slavery to me that I had never understood: the psychological repercussions of someone presuming that they can own someone else. Perhaps it had to be written by a woman, who was regarded as the sexual property of a horrible man.
The story of how she escapes and frustrates her "owner" is indeed enthralling, a triumph of human will in the worst adversity. She hid under the slanted roof of her mothers house for years, permanently injuring her back and watching he children grow up from afar. It is such a moving story that I imagined turning it into a play, with the narrator reminising of her life while hidden in that cramped space.
As this is a memoire, the characters in it are very very real, all too human and without the black-and-white quality of too many novels on this bizarre twist of American history. While the writing style is so superb that it had to have been edited by an expert writer, the story and voice are so vivid that it must be real.
I have given this book to literally dozens of friends, and almost to a one they have marvelled at the depth of the story. This is the best and most complete account of an aberration in American history of which we all must bear some sense of responsibilty.
Get this: it cannot disappoint.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful book 14 Dec 2002
By Ravin Singh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Mass Market Paperback
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Linda Brent is a deeply touching narrative of a slave woman's journey through the heinous institution of slavery to her eventual emancipation. Through her description of bonded labor, the reader very poignantly realizes what it was like for millions of African Americans to be brutalized and ravaged by slavery. Written in 1861 to educate the Northerners, especially the women, about the evils of slavery, the autobiography is a harrowing account of a woman's life, what the author ironically calls her `adventures'. The abuse that the palpably intelligent and veracious author had to undergo has the power to humble every one of us even today.
Linda Brent was born as a slave in the household of a miraculously benevolent mistress. She lost her mother at the age of six, but her mistress, who was her mother's half-sister, took good care of her and endowed on her ward the gift of literacy. The degradative reality of slavery was hidden from the author till she entered her early teens, when within a year both her mistress and her father passed away, and she was acquired by the household of Dr. Flint. At his plantation, the author had to bear the full force of slavery. From this time to the author's eventual freedom, the reader gets a glimpse of the persecution that a slave had to face.
As mentioned above, the book was written to illustrate the depravity of slavery to people living in the North. It is striking to see how humbly, or even apologetically, the author has used her life to explain the circumstances of slavery. She has used fictitious names and concealed the names of places so as not to offend any person, black or white. As one reads the book, the author can definitely be identified as a pious and truthful person, and becomes easy to see why the author places so much emphasis on her secrecy. The book is not written to garner sympathy from readers, but to shock readers into the realities of slavery. It was an appeal to the people who the author thought had the power to defeat slavery to act on it.
The author's main argument is that slavery is not just about perpetual bondage, but it involves the absolute debasement of a people. She painfully acknowledges that the `black man is inferior', but vociferously argues that it is a result of slavery, which stymies the intellectual capacity of her race. She believes that `white men compel' the black race to be ignorant. Although she was wronged by many Southern white men, she does not blame the white race for her ills. She believes that the institution of slavery has ample negative impact on the household and psyche of a white family as well, and that white males are coerced into being brutal. She rebukes `the Free States' in her own pacific way for condoning slavery in the South. Her stand is that a life of manumit destitution is radically more acceptable than bondage, and that is the general idea that the author wants the readers to remember.
The book is sequenced more or less in a chronological order. The author's astoundingly comfortable childhood is shattered by the nefarious demands of being a pubescent female slave. She explains how even the body of a slave is not her own, and is considered to be a property of the slaveholder, that can violated or abused according to his wishes. Her analogy to being traded or shot like pigs demonstrates the extent of shame that a slave had to bear with. Her infatuation and blind faith in the goodness of a white man make her the mother of two children, and her determination to keep them away from the evils of slavery becomes her primary goal. In her attempts to flee from slavery, she has to hide in a den above her grandmother's house for seven years. The anguish of a mother who can see her children but not be able to communicate with them is heart wrenching. The story of her escape to the North is also incredible. Even after reaching the north, she had to resist prejudice and fear for a long time before she and her children eventually became free.
By reading the book, the reader can definitely get to experience the life of a slave. Perhaps the shocking brutality of the truth is shielded in the book by the author's conscious effort to not be a cause of affront. She wrote this book because she had a message to give to the readers, but was held back in a way by her goodness. On the other hand, reading a book written in a simple way, as though the author was narrating her story in front of the reader, goes on to validate her tragedy. It is explained in a more personal way than a historian would explain it, and the harsh emotions experienced by the author break through, even though she tries to suppress her sadness. The author's argument that slavery is humiliating is proved by the fact that the author does not explain exactly how she was mentally and physically abused. She only points out that she had to bear physical and mental decadence, but does elaborate on the techniques of the likes of Dr. Flint.
It has to be remembered that this book was not written to be a historical text. It is about a woman's personal fight with slavery. It cannot be argued that her emotions were wrong or that her views about slavery can be challenged in any way. Readers who have not experienced slavery are not in a position to do so. This book definitely manages to do what it was intended to do, and that is to make the reader aware that slavery was a harrowing experience for the African Americans. As a book of past injustices and future hopes, it is a must read.
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