The Great Mrs. Elias: A Novel Based on a True Story

Written by Barbara Chase-Riboud
Review by Ilysa Magnus

This is Chase-Riboud’s fifth installment in her “invisible” women of color series which began with Sally Hemings. The author stumbled upon the story of Hannah Elias by sheer inadvertence, in a long-forgotten cache of microfilm in the New York Public Library. That foundational discovery has shaped this fictional biography into a pièce de résistance of Gilded Age storytelling.

Bessie Davis is born into the Philadelphia slums, one of 11 children and the daughter of a mixed-race marriage. After a series of losses, including her father’s suicide, her rape and her incarceration, Bessie takes control of her life and moves to New York. How does a beautiful young woman of uncertain descent make her way, other than to sell her wares and remake herself into a Cuban of Spanish origin? Bessie transforms into Hannah—becoming well-versed in how to grow her riches, in investments, in real estate ownership. She will never be poor again.

By the turn of the 20th century, Hannah, who has easily passed as white for decades, is one of the wealthiest women in the city. But she is challenged to her core again when a former tenant, Cornelius Williams, assassinates Andrew Green, considered the father of NYC progress, believing he has also killed her. Hannah’s life begins to unravel, and she becomes the target of a number of lawsuits that can easily result in her complete destruction.

Chase-Riboud’s greatest strength is in her ability to become one with Hannah, to listen to how Hannah will think and act, and to share that person with us. Even though the novel is replete with historical figures and events, it all comes back to Hannah, a remarkable, resilient, crafty woman who controls much of that history. That regular folks flock to her defense and women envision her as their North Star is not surprising.