A vivid evocation of the two women, one black, one white, who loved—and lost—abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in a tale that for all its good feminist intentions is more descriptive than insightful.
Lavish with details of dress and place, the story tells about freewoman Anna Murray, whom Douglass once referred to as the “old black log” he was married to, and Ottilie Assing, a German-born artist who fell in love with Douglass. When Anna, working for a Baltimore household, saw Douglass in the harbor in 1835, she fell in love. Older than he, stocky in build, illiterate, and dark-skinned, she had two things that Douglass desperately needed: belief in him—and money. They became lovers, and she helped him flee Baltimore, disguised as a free sailor bound for New York, where she later joined him, pregnant with their first child. They married, but the result was never to be the home-centered relationship Anna had envisaged; Douglass traveled widely, and then, fleeing his would-be captors, went to England with the beautiful and idealistic Ottilie, who became his personal assistant and lover, “the wife of his spirit.” As Douglass became famous, Anna, aware of the affair with Ottilie, was often alone as she bore more children, moved frequently, and survived a fire set by pro-slavers. Home and family were a consolation to her, but the lonely Ottilie didn’t have even that. Still, when she died, in 1882, Anna was comforted only by memories of a daughter who died in childhood, and the equally neglected Ottilie, having failed to persuade Douglass to join her in Paris, and hurt by his marriage to a young white woman, saw little point in living either.
Rhodes (Voodoo Dreams, 1993, etc.) eloquently describes the women’s shabby treatment, and yet the effect overall fails as a persuasive indictment of a man who never gets to make his own case.