In The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd tells a story inspired by the real life of Sarah Grimke. At first, Kidd planned to write a historically accurate version of Sarah. she spent four years researching and writing, but in the course of writing she realized that she was going to have to more loose in her depiction of Sarah if she wanted Sarah’s voice to come through:
I revered Sarah’s history to the point I initially became boxed-in by it. In the beginning, I had a hard time letting her venture outside factual borders. The longer she was cooped up by the facts, the quieter she got. I’d read the Grimke sisters’ diaries and essays, and while they gave me an extraordinary glimpse into their lives, their writing was rendered in nineteenth century language, wrapped in rhetoric, piety and stilted phrases. I wanted Sarah’s voice in my novel to feel authentic and carry some of the vernacular of the time, but I knew I had to bring some modern sensibility to it. I rewrote her first chapters over and over, before I felt like I’d found her voice. Finding it was all about loosening it. I realized I had to tap into Sarah’s inner life and set her free to speak from that timeless lace, as well as from the time in which she lived. I needed to let her veer off script. I had to find Sarah in my imagination, as well as in history. Doing so brought her alive for me.
The real Sarah Grimke lived from 1792 to 1873. She was born in South Carolina and resented the superior education and greater range of opportunities her brothers had. She had a personal slave and got in trouble for teaching her slave and the family slaves to read. She stopped when she realized that while she would be punished, the slaves would be punished far more severely.
Sarah accompanied her dying father to Philadelphia, where she became a Quaker. She brought her sister, Angelina, with her and the two became abolitionist activists. Sarah discovered that one of her brothers had three children with his slave. Sarah and Angelina worked to provide them with an education, funds, and a sense of family.
Sarah and Angelina spoke and wrote against slavery but received criticism for also speaking about women’s rights. Angelina withdrew from public speaking sometime after marrying abolitionist Theodore Weld, who opposed the women speaking about women’s rights as he felt it was a distraction from abolition. Sarah stopped speaking publicly following a critical letter from Weld, but she continued to write.
Although Sarah is not known to have been close friends with Lucretia Mott, they did attend the same Quaker meeting. She also knew Sarah Mapps Douglass, but never stayed with her. Instead of striving for historical factual accuracy, Kidd strove for an emotional accuracy.
My greatest hope, however, is for readers to take away a felt experience of the story, of what slavery might have been like for someone or what it was like back then for a woman without rights. I want the reader to feel as if he or she has participated in the interior lives of the characters and felt something of their yearnings, sufferings, joys, and braveries. Empathy—taking another’s experience and making it one’s own—is one of the most mysterious and noble transactions a human can have. It’s the real power of fiction. While in college, I studied Ralph Waldo Emerson’s concept of “the common heart,” a place inside of us where we share an intrinsic unity with all humanity. The idea has remained with me all these years. As a writer, I believe in it. The hope that this story would help us find a portal into that place is the most I could hope.
If you would like to read one of Sarah Grimke’s met influential writings, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, you can find it free online at national humanities.org.