Despite her black skin, Sarah E. Farro lived an affluent lifestyle in the Victorian era, from all accounts. She was born in Illinois in 1859 to parents who migrated to Chicago from the south. Farro made her mark in the literary world by writing a novel published in 1891 entitled “True Love – A Story of English Domestic Life.”
The Daily Telegraph erroneously dubbed her “the first negro novelist.” Although she was not the first black person to write and publish a novel, she was nonetheless remarkable for having written one herself in her time. How could someone like Farro living in her era write a novel, and then just disappear?
Early newspapers document her race. Yet, without access to those early records, many were unaware she was black. Her novel, “True Love,” did manage to receive some acclaim. It was an exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, and was announced by newspapers both in the United States, as well as in Europe. It appears to be the first and only novel she had ever written.
Farro’s achievement as an author, though briefly acknowledged in her time, would later go unrecognized by literary scholars. That is, until author, historian, and biographer, Gretchen Gerzina re-discovered this “lost” novel and Farro herself, as Gerzina was researching for her own projects about black Victorians. She found Farro, and just had to know more.
Gerzina suspects that one of the reasons Farro’s novel disappeared from literary circles is because of its content. “True Love” is not a novel about the atrocities of slavery, or the struggles blacks endured in her time. It is instead about a white family — a woman and her two daughters, and a prominent and wealthy man. Farro did not write about slavery because it was not a life she knew.
She wrote about people who lived the prominent lifestyle of her upbringing. The women in her novel were women she could relate to in her own way. The novel is about Mrs. Brewster and her two daughters, Mary Ann, and Janey. Janey was betrothed to a wealthy man, and they were very much in love. Janey is sweet and gentle, and endures harsh treatment from her unkind and selfish mother and sister.
When her sister contracts the dreaded fever the town is fearful of, it is Janey who cares for her so patiently and lovingly. Later, Janey herself succumbs to the deadly fever and unfortunately does not survive. Does she and the man she loves ever get to live even one day as man and wife? You would have to read the story to find out.
Farro states her objective in the novel’s preface. She wanted it known that she “tried to create a set of characters most of whom are like real people with whose thoughts and passions we are able to sympathize and whose language and conduct may be appreciable or reprehensible according to circumstances.” The novel was digitized and is now available online to read.
Farro lived her life without the wide acclaim her novel might have received. When she turned 78, however, she was recognized by The Chicago Defender for her achievement. Still, it is an honor to recognize Farro here and now.
What do you think can be done to better recognize the works of those who have gone before? Comment below, or send me a tweet @lcarterwriter.