Another post in a series about writing and researching my upcoming young adult historical fiction novel, Ella Wood.
I had created the character of Emily Preston as a slavery-questioning Charlestonian long before I heard of the Grimke sisters. I knew there had to be dissention in the South; not everyone could be a rabid, card-carrying Secessionist. But because of the heavy-handed tactics employed by those who advocated slavery, it was difficult to find real life individuals who spoke up in the face of intense persecution. Angelina and Sarah Grimke did just that.
Sarah was born in 1792 and Angelina in 1805, to a well-to-do, slave-holding family. Their father, John Faucheraud Grimké, was a Revolutionary War hero, judge, and politician. They were 2 of 14 siblings, not all of whom lived. Angelina was the baby.
At a young age, Sarah began to hate the abuses she saw heaped upon the slaves in her own household and spoke out against them. She took a primary role in the raising of her younger sister, actually talking her parents into letting her become Angelina’s godmother. It is no surprise that Angelina adopted Sarah’s views on slavery. Both of the girls’ diaries are filled with their emotional responses as well as their pleas with friends and family to eradicate slavery.
Their admonitions had little effect on Charleston society or even within their own family. In 1821, Sarah moved North to insulate herself from the institution that so disturbed her, eventually embracing the Quaker faith. Angelina followed in 1829 and also became a Quaker. Eventually, amidst a great deal of persecution even in the North, both joined the Abolitionist society and became outspoken proponents of emancipation as well as forerunners for women’s rights.
Sarah and Angelina feature only peripherally in Ella Wood. I don’t even model Emily after them, as her personality and motivations were already fully formed. But the Grimke sisters serve as verification that my story is plausible. Perhaps the biggest contribution they make to the figure of Emily Preston is in their frustration with the limits of a girl’s education and the resulting lack of marketable skills as an adult. Both Grimke girls were well-educated by standards of the day, but Sarah in particular longed to expand her mind beyond that which was acceptable. She tried studying Latin and law, but was ridiculed by both her father and her closest brother and gave it up. Later in life, she futilely sought employment but had to content herself with living as a dependent in the household of friends. Again, Emily’s passion for further education as well as her frustration at societal restrictions were already in place, but I’ve drawn inspiration and verification from the historical figure of Sarah Grimke.