The Stockwell Letters, by Jacqueline Friedland, is a thoroughly researched historical novel about a major moment in American history. Set in the 1850s, The Stockwell Letters follows Anthony Burns’s escape from slavery in Virginia, and his later arrest while living as a free man in Boston. Friedland describes the protests and political action carried out by Boston abolitionists in response to Burns’s arrest and trial. The events described in this novel ultimately led to repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Friedland brings this piece of history alive by interweaving passages written from the perspectives of two White women and one Black man. One third of the book follows Burns in close third person, while another third is narrated by Colette, a fictional wealthy woman living under her husband and keeper in the Antebellum south. The final third is written in the voice of Ann Phillips, the ailing wife of famous abolitionist, Wendell Phillips. Friedland positions intimate portraits of Ann and Colette’s marriages alongside the book’s primary narrative, showing how Ann’s illness and Colette’s failure to produce children function in the context of those unions and the time period. These secondary storylines allow Friedland to consider freedom and bondage in relation to gender and motherhood as well as race. Profiles editor Brianna Avenia-Tapper spoke with Friedland over Zoom about historical research, the problem with playing Lego all day, and “the position of baby making machine.” This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Brianna Avenia-Tapper: In your author’s note, you wrote that Colette’s character stood for the White women in the Antebellum south who were “relegated to the position of baby making machine and deprived of the opportunity to participate in other endeavors.” Certainly opportunities for American women have changed since the 1800s, but sometimes it feels as though our narratives around motherhood have not. I still stumble over vestiges of the idea that mothers should devote themselves entirely to motherhood. How does your experience compare to Colette’s? To what degree have you personally, as a 21st century American mother, felt “relegated to the position of baby making machine”?
Jacqueline Friedland: It’s funny, as you started asking the question, I was thinking, “no, I definitely never felt deprived of opportunities.” I grew up with a mother who worked and valued education and opportunity and pushed me to achieve great things. I made it to law school, and I was an attorney. I never for one second felt that being female was holding me back. But once you mentioned the baby making machine, my perspective shifted. I definitely remember times when I would be at home with my oldest, and my husband would drive off for work. I would watch through the window, thinking, “Wait! I want to go! I want to go!” That was when I was working part-time as a lawyer.
When I got pregnant with my fourth child (four children in six years!), my sister said, “You’re not going to be able to be a full-time lawyer with four kids under six.” [She was right.] But I didn’t love law, so it didn’t pain me that I couldn’t go be a lawyer.
BAT: Your husband worked a full-time job outside the home away from his children, just as Colette’s husband would have over a century ago. But unlike Colette, your husband could have left his paid employment and taken care of your kids at home. Why did you do it instead of him? Was your decision to drive your kids to nursery school, or to eventually leave law, primarily about fear for your kids’ safety/well-being, about a desire to be with them, or about embodying a vision of ’ideal’ motherhood? In other words, did you leave work because you wanted to or because you thought you should?
JF: In my husband’s defense, I will say he loves business and that’s what he does. I never dreamed of being an attorney. I was an English major; I loved writing. My parents suggested law school, so I went. Law school makes it very easy for you to follow a standard path of going to a big firm. But from the day I walked into that office, I felt like I was playing dress up. I felt like I had to be at my desk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When do you go to the dentist? When do you get your hair cut? Maybe if I had loved the work, I would’ve put more effort into creating a life around those constraints. But given my dislike, there was actually a moment where I thought, “If I get pregnant, I can figure something else out.” On some level I used the pregnancy to escape.
When I got my maternity leave, I had a grand master plan that I was going to write a book in those three months. I was completely delusional. My son was one of those babies that you could not put down or else he would howl in misery. I couldn’t take a shower, much less write a novel! I might have written two sentences in three months. But I had still been bitten by the [writing] bug. So when my maternity leave ended and I went back to work, I decided I was still going to write. After my second child was born, I quit work completely . . . which lasted for five minutes before I felt terrible about the fact that I was home with my kids.
BAT: Why did quitting and being at home with your kids make you feel terrible?
JF: I have always been a student. It’s part of my identity to achieve intellectually. I don’t have so many other skills, but sitting at a desk and working is where I feel I am living up to my potential. Whenever I sit down and do work, I am like a cartoon character reinflating! I get stronger. When that was taken away from me and I was playing Lego all day, an essential part of me felt like it was missing.
BAT: Why did you decide to write historical fiction specifically?
JF: History is a little bit like a crutch because there are so many interesting stories out there, and research is my favorite part of writing. I loved going down these research rabbit holes. I was in one of those rabbit holes when I stumbled on this story about Anthony Burns and Ann Phillips. I thought to myself, how had I never learned about this? I took lots of history classes, especially focusing on US history during the 1800s, and I had never heard the name Anthony Burns. I had never heard the name Ann Phillips. I thought, this is a story I want to tell.
BAT: But you didn’t just read books about the time period, and then spit out this story, right? Can you talk about your process of going from research to story?
JF: I can’t draft the story until I have an entire picture in my mind of everything that happened. So I started with the autobiography of Anthony Burns. (He co-wrote it with somebody, and there’s debate about how much he wrote versus the other guy.) I read letters written between Ann Phillips and her husband over decades. I used the Library of Congress, where you can access old newspapers online. I read [court] transcripts from start to finish.
BAT: How did you make that mass of information into a novel?
JF: Tons of notes. I took notes by topic and by character. Then I would rejigger my organization system, so maybe it was chronological or geographical—here’s what was going on in the south, and here’s what was going on in the north.
When I was writing my first historical novel, I was getting lost in the weeds of [historical details]. I was researching things like ’how do you step onto the wagon when it’s a horse and carriage?’ In my writing program, one of my professors said to me, “If you were writing a contemporary novel and you had a character go to the gas station, you wouldn’t say, ’And then I removed the nozzle, and then I took off the gas cap, and then I put it in.’” I added certain details though. For example, when Anthony is working in a pharmacy, I personally found it interesting to know what kind of products they might be selling and how medicines would be counted out and weighed [at that time].
BAT: If you started drafting this book at the beginning of the pandemic, where were you in the process when George Floyd was murdered?
JF: I was probably about halfway through. It was depressing, writing this book [in the weeks following George Floyd’s murder] because we, as a society, keep making the same mistakes over and over. I was writing this story about protesting inhumane treatment of Black people in the 1800s, while in 2020 we were again protesting the inhumane treatment of Black people. Also we were then—and are still—living through this time where the political parties are so diametrically opposed and unable to work with each other. Then there was the Dobbs decision [which overturned Roe vs. Wade and ruled that the constitution does not protect Americans’ right to abortion] and all of these questions around abortion while I was writing a book about the Fugitive Slave Law. That was the law which said northern states were obligated under federal law to return free Black men and women to their alleged slave owners in the south. So now, just like then, there’s a question of whether rights should transfer across states. We’re just doing different iterations of the same thing as a society. It’s sad.
BAT: At the end of the book, you write, “History is a finicky friend choosing favorites as she sees fit.” It reminded me of how historical fiction can be a way to fill holes in our representation of history.
JF: Yeah, Ann’s husband, Wendell, was a good-looking, charismatic fellow who had been born into a very wealthy family and he was famous for being an excellent public speaker. People were always asking, “What’s that crazy Wendell Phillips up to now?” Everybody remembers him. There’s a statue of him in Boston. He had a wife who was stuck at home. She was the one who taught him about abolition, and its importance, but then he was the one who spoke publicly about the atrocities of slavery and received all the glory. In his defense, from everything I’ve read, he cared about helping people. But, I wonder why he got all the glory while Ann was at home writing his speeches? Just because history chooses to remember you doesn’t mean you were the only one doing the valuable work.
BAT: There’s a Picasso exhibit in Brooklyn right now that’s focused on work by female artists who were contemporaries of Picasso and who made comparable work. The idea is to make you think about how those female artists didn’t receive the same kind of recognition as Picasso, how they’re not remembered in the same way.
JF: It’s interesting you brought up Picasso because one of the books I had contemplated writing was about the painter Braque. Nobody knows Braque, but if you look him up, he was painting at the same time as Picasso, and their paintings are indistinguishable. For some reason, Picasso became famous and Braque did not. History is a finicky friend. I think about it even with September 11. Every anniversary of the attack on the towers, there are new stories printed that make me ask, “How did we not hear about this?” You can see this from all moments in history, but for whatever reason, I’m focused on that pre–Civil War period.
BAT: Were you interested in that time period as a child?
JF: I was. I can’t exactly pinpoint when my fascination started. It struck me that there was a system of slavery, and at the same time there were southern belles with gorgeous hoop skirts. You had opulent parties juxtaposed with the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. It’s very difficult for me to wrap my head around. I’ve just always been interested in how humans could have accepted and perpetuated such a horrific societal structure.
I also love hearing stories about people who tried to help in situations where they were not obligated to do so. It reminds me of the line from Mr. Rogers, “Look for the helpers.” It’s that activism and heroism from everyday people that draws me to these stories.
BAT: The helpers give me hope for my children. You have four children and four books. What do you think is similar about making books and making children?
JF: The most similar thing is that even when the book is finished, it’s not finished. You could always go back and make it better. I would say the exact same thing about parenting. You can always give your kids another piece of wisdom, or at least you feel like you can. It’s a long, slow process. You have to be patient, and take little incremental steps forward knowing that at some point you’re going to have a whole person or a whole book. Then you’ve got to put it out in the world and let it be free.