The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Written by Lois Leveen
Review by Peter Prince

Mary Bowser is born into slavery, freed by her mistress and sent to be educated in Philadelphia. Ten years later, on the brink the Civil War, she returns to her native Virginia to spy for the North.

Lois Leveen tells us that Mary is based on an historical character. She must have had considerable courage and judgment, but whether her efforts had such far-reaching effects of those of her fictional counterpart is more doubtful. It would be extraordinary if – as in the novel – she had deliberately withheld information that might have brought too facile a victory to the North because she feared that a nation re-united so quickly would not abolish slavery.

Leveen is on surer ground with Mary’s family and friends, though there is an air of wishful-thinking. Mama is all motherly and wifely virtues; Papa is her male counter-part until the hardships of slavery wear him down. Mary’s husband, Wilson, is brave, handsome and doting, man enough to recognise when his wife is in the right – which is almost always.

Mary’s most interesting relationship is with Miss Bet, the white Southern woman who freed her and paid for her education and maintains a not always welcome interest in her protégé. This is not a straightforward friendship. Mary recognises the sincerity of her abolitionist views while resenting her assumption of control over her former slave. She also finds Bet’s occasional insensitivity towards the realities of black life exasperating. Husband Wilson sees her as a complete nuisance.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser will appeal to many readers with its clear narrative, uncomplicated characters and unambiguous sense of right and wrong – though more demanding readers might find the book less engaging. Nevertheless it recreates a woman from a time when, as Leveen points out: ‘little effort was made to record the daily lives of most slaves, free blacks, or women of any race.’