Closing The Book On A Mystery The Library Company Has Solved A Who-penned-it. It Turns Out The Anonymous Author Of 'Zelica, The Creole' Was A Philadelphia Innkeeper's Daughter.

Posted: May 11, 1992

Zelica, the Creole, a copy of which is on display at the Library Company, is a steamy story of sex and violence. It's told against the background of the final two years of the slave revolt that drove the French from the island of Haiti, then known as Saint Domingue, that they had occupied since 1697.

While the atrocities and brutality on both sides during the period examined -1802-1804 - are described in considerable detail, the sex is more understood than overt. But then the novel came out in 1821 - in an era when novelists generally thought it more discreet to let it all be hinted at than to let it all hang out.

In that era, many novelists also thought it discreet not to sign their names, especially if they were women, novel-writing not being considered the sort of thing well-bred ladies did. Zelica, the Creole, its title page declares, was written "by an American." That, too, did not necessarily commend itself to English readers; whoever heard of a really cultured American? So the novel did not make much of a splash, and before long it sank with barely a trace. Until recently, the Library of Congress owned the only known complete copy of Zelica - in three volumes, under the imprint of a London publisher.

Then, in February, an American book dealer put on the market another complete copy, probably obtained from a private owner and in very good condition. The Library Company of Philadelphia - the nation's oldest cultural institution and one of its most prestigious research libraries, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin - bought it after an examination that yielded some surprises.

Who was the anonymous American author?

*

Beginning to read Zelica, research librarian Phil Lapsansky thought it sounded familiar. Reading further, he knew what he had - a revised and expanded version of another novel that the library had had on its shelves for about 160 years.

That other novel, published in 1808 by the Philadelphia firm of Bradford and Inskeep, was titled Secret History: Or, the Horrors of St. Domingo, In a Series of Letters, Written by a Lady at Cape Francois, to Colonel Burr. It was one of two, and only two, known to have been written by a Philadelphia woman known as Leonora Sansay - the second, Laura, was published in 1809, also by Bradford and Inskeep.

The discovery that Sansay had written a third novel was not the only surprise. A flyleaf referring to two forthcoming works "By The Same Author" indicated a fourth, and possibly a fifth - The Scarlet Handkerchief and The Stranger in Mexico. Lapsansky found an 1821 London catalogue listing The Scarlet Handkerchief as having been published, although no copy is known to exist. He could find no evidence that The Stranger in Mexico was ever published, at least under that name.

The daughter of a Philadelphia innkeeper, Sansay - nee Hassall, a.k.a. Eleanora, Mary, Clara, Nora and Madame D'Auvergne - was "well-known under the name of 'Leonora.' " That's how Aaron Burr described her, in a letter he wrote the night before he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Burr, vice-president in Thomas Jefferson's first term (1801-05), knew her well: She was his mistress before her marriage - and Burr seems to have arranged that. They apparently carried on now and then afterwards for several years, with the acquiescence if not necessarily the blessing of her husband, a French merchant named Louis Sansay.

She accompanied her husband to Saint Domingue, and The Secret History and Zelica are based on her own experiences - indeed, the character Clara, as she wrote to Burr, probably in 1803, is herself, "that Clara you once lov'd."

She was, says Lapsansky, a fascinating woman - vivacious and brainy, the kind that appealed to Burr, who had an eye for the ladies. She probably knew about and may have been involved in the military expedition to the Southwest for which Burr was tried and acquitted of charges of treason. She was very much her own woman. Bored by her husband, she apparently left him not long after they returned to Philadelphia from Haiti. She seems to have lived mostly in or near Philadelphia, but where and when she died is not known.

There's no known portrait of Leonora, but Lapsansky has a suspect. It's a painting of an unknown woman, dressed in a low-cut gown, done by John Vanderlyn, an artist and close friend of Burr. Lapsansky says he'd like to believe it's her, although he emphasizes that "it's total speculation."

Zelica is now on display at the Library Company along with an exhibit of works by another 19th-century Philadelphia woman writer, Anne Hampton Brewster.

The two women shared one trait, their independence. Otherwise, one could hardly find two women who differed more.

A friend once called Brewster "a social outlaw," which pleased her enormously. She never married. Born in 1818 in Philadelphia and raised in an affluent, proper Protestant family, she converted to Catholicism at the age of 30. She sued her brother - an eminent Philadelphia lawyer who would become President Chester A. Arthur's attorney general - over their father's inheritance. And while she had a small income from her father's estate, she supported herself most of her adult life with her writing.

Until her death in 1892, she was one of the United States' better known female writers, and certainly one of the most prolific - author of three novels, dozens of stories, poems and essays in such periodicals as Graham's American Monthly Magazine, Peterson's National Ladies' Magazine, Godey's Lady's Book and The Knickerbocker.

She was also one of the first female American foreign correspondents, living in Italy for the last 24 years of her life and sending back dispatches - more news letters than daily news - to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, the Boston Daily Advertiser, the Newark Courier and other newspapers.

Brewster too wrote under a pseudonym, Enna Duval - Enna being Anne spelled backward, Duval a Brewster family name - but in 1859, at the age of 41, she began using her real name.

Her stories, told mostly in the first person, usually involved women who upheld the standards of Victorian morality and received their just reward - marriage, or, if spurned or spurning, financial independence.

In the relationships between the sexes, she put the onus on men and probably would have disapproved of Aaron Burr, said Denise M. Larrabee, who curated the Brewster exhibit: "I think she would have seen Leonora as a woman who was led astray by a man."

She bequeathed her books and all of her papers to the Library Company, which, on the centennial of her death, is displaying the Brewsteriana for the first time.

IF YOU GO

* The exhibit on Leonora Sansay and Anne Hampton Brewster at the Library Company, 1314 Locust St, runs through Aug. 31. There is no admission charge. On May 20 at noon, Larrabee will deliver a free lecture on Brewster's career; bring your own lunch. Phone: 215-546-3181.

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