Throughout my college years, I held a variety of part-time jobs to help pay for my wonderful (but expensive) education. I was a waitress, receptionist, dorm-room cleaner and, for two years, an assistant to the public relations director of the Yale University Art Gallery. My boss was Austrian, grey-haired and petite. She dressed extravagantly well and had a lovely way with curse words. The specifics of the job have faded – I’m pretty sure I licked a lot of envelopes, sent a lot of faxes (this was the pre-email age), made a lot of copies – but I vividly remember one exhibit that appeared at the gallery during my tenure. The show displayed the work of Mary Bell, an African-American artist with no formal training who drew fantastical, slightly surreal pictures of well-dressed white and light-skinned black women. Not much was known then about Mary Bell. It was believed she’d been born a slave and, after emancipation, worked as a house maid for a wealthy Boston family. Later in life, she was committed to a mental facility, where she died.
The drawings drew me in. They were odd: the women were awkwardly proportioned, with large heads and impossibly dainty feet, and dressed in fancy, voluminous gowns accessorized with glittering, heavy jewelry. They seemed overwrought, in a way, rich with opulent detail but the women’s faces were blank, their smiles all the same, their postures formal and uncomfortable. Were these the women Mary Bell saw in the home where she worked? Perhaps callers to her wealthy mistress? Did Mary disdain them? Envy them? I found it difficult to tell.
I thought about those drawings, and about Mary Bell, a lot that semester at school. I wondered when and how she created her art. Had she shown her work to anyone? Had anyone encouraged her? What did she think about the people for whom she worked? And why had she not drawn herself, or others like her? Why had she not created art from her personal experiences, places that were dear to her, people whom she loved? I wondered what perhaps those other drawings would have looked like, had Mary Bell chosen a different subject, one closer to her heart.
At the time, I was taking a writing class and I wrote an essay about Mary Bell. That piece of writing has been lost to time – and I’ve looked long and hard for it, among my old college papers and notebooks – but the image of those drawings and my curiosity about Mary Bell stayed with me. It wasn’t until I began writing a short story about a slave doctor, a man named Caleb Harper, and a slave he tries to help, a woman named Josephine, that I turned that curiosity into something real. Although it had been some 20 years since I worked at the art gallery, the figure of Mary Bell returned to me. That story eventually grew into my novel, The House Girl. The book’s heroine is the slave Josephine, an artist who paints pictures of the people and places she loves, and I gave her the surname Bell.
2004: Lina Sparrow is an ambitious young lawyer working on a historic class-action lawsuit seeking reparations for the descendants of American slaves.
1852: Josephine is a seventeen-year-old house slave who tends to the mistress of a Virginia tobacco farm—an aspiring artist named Lu Anne Bell.
It is through her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, that Lina discovers a controversy rocking the art world: art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of the slaves who worked her Virginia tobacco farm, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine.
A descendant of Josephine’s would be the per-fect face for the lawsuit—if Lina can find one. But nothing is known about Josephine’s fate following Lu Anne Bell’s death in 1852. In piecing together Josephine’s story, Lina embarks on a journey that will lead her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother’s mysterious death twenty years before.
Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing tale of art and history, love and secrets explores what it means to repair a wrong, and asks whether truth can be more important than justice.
About Ariel Lawhon
Ariel Lawhon is the co-founder of She Reads, novelist, blogger, storyteller, and life-long reader. She lives in Texas with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.