A Sitting in St. James is a mesmerizing, confounding and vividly rendered portrait of the thoroughly putrid institution of slavery in antebellum Louisiana. Though author Rita Williams-Garcia’s writing is exquisite, the history she so skillfully captures is ugly and therefore sometimes difficult to read.
Filtered through the story of the Guilberts, a plantation-owning white Creole family who experiences both economic decline and moral decay, A Sitting in St. James does many things well. First and foremost, it attaches human faces, flesh and blood, to seemingly distant history and to abstract ideas such as white supremacy. It also forces readers to confront the routinely brutal, dehumanizing realities of family separation and sexual exploitation and abuse that were intrinsic to the plantation system, as Williams-Garcia brings these heartbreaking acts to life on the page.
Prideful and aristocratic Sylvie Bernardin de Maret Dacier Guilbert is the product of another corrupt system, the French royal court. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Sylvie was offered a choice: “convent, guillotine, or plantation lord’s wife.” She chose the latter under some duress and never fully acclimated to her fate. This layer of privilege only makes Sylvie more demanding, more entitled and more aggrieved. It’s why, many decades later, even as the plantation fails, Sylvie insists on having herself memorialized by a famed French painter like the aristocrat she was born to be. Her demand sets the novel in motion.
That sense of privilege is also why Sylvie plucked her personal servant, Thisbe, from her family’s quarters like a puppy from a pound and named her after Marie Antoinette’s prized pet dog. Like a pet, Thisbe is constantly forced to shadow Sylvie, even sleeping by her feet. “You are a body,” Sylvie tells Thisbe at one point, “not a whole person.” It’s a stunning encapsulation of the novel’s white characters’ emotional attachment to notions of Black inferiority and inhumanity. The belief that Black people are less than human was fundamental to slavery, and the Guilberts will go to any length to uphold it.
The racism of Sylvie’s loutish, dissolute and disappointing American-born son, Lucien, manifests with more complexity and more horror than his mother’s. He can be charming and has complicated relationships with his biracial daughter and half brother. Lucien spends most of the novel trying to find a way to save the plantation from its crushing debt. But he has also raped an unspecified number of the women over whom he has dominion, ordered forced breeding for profit, separated children from their families as a matter of course and generally handles and refers to Black people in dehumanizing terms.
Lucien’s actions are bound up in his roles as the steward of the plantation and the Guilbert patriarch. The historical record shows that his actions are representative of the abuses enacted in this system by men in his position. Even at Lucien’s violent worst, his justification for doing deliberate harm is clear: “His was the act of a master pruning the vine that would kill the harvest. He did what a farmer must: rid the virulent worm that would contaminate the vineyard and cause it to bear no fruit.”
Though this is a multilayered and expansive ensemble story with a significant queer romance, Williams-Garcia places villains Sylvie and Lucien firmly at its center. In an author’s note, Williams-Garcia reveals that her goal was to make them answerable for their crimes and their system of belief, because they’re the ones who deserve scrutiny. In this, A Sitting in St. James succeeds spectacularly. Williams-Garcia presents the ideals of Southern gentility and femininity as inextricable from the atrocities and unearned privilege that propped them up, thus deconstructing cultural myths about their virtue. In light of the Guilberts’ crimes against humanity, both mother and son could be fairly labeled monsters, but Williams-Garcia instead makes them appear ordinary—greedy, grasping and brutal, but human.
Indeed, readers will find Sylvie’s psychology in particular to be maddening. Having lost “too much” over a lifetime, she clings to her autonomy and authority over others, desperately upholding the system that affords her a position of privilege. Other characters’ motivations remain more opaque, the result of a narrative style that holds readers at arm’s length as it focuses more on dialogue and actions rather than on personal thoughts. However, this makes rare glimpses into the characters’ minds all the more impactful.
A Sitting in St. James is a multigenerational saga that brilliantly depicts Southern plantation life and systemic rot. It thoroughly exposes how oppressive hierarchical systems, including patriarchy, heteronormativity and racism, corrupt the individuals who benefit from them even as those same individuals victimize others. There’s obviously no single bad apple on the Guilbert plantation; the whole orchard and everyone who eats its fruit are poisoned.