Leonora Sansay Biography
Tracing the History of "Leonora"
Leonora Sansay (1773-?) was an American novelist and eye-witness to the Haitian Revolution in 1802. She authored Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo (Philadelphia, 1808), Laura (Philadelphia, 1809), and possibly three other novels: Zelica: The Creole (London, 1820); The Scarlet Handkerchief (London, 1823); and The Stranger in Mexico (either published under a different name or non-extant). One of the challenges that face Leonora Sansay scholars is keeping track of her numerous names. The historical record identifies Leonora Sansay under several different names. She is referred to variously as: Honora Davern, Elonora/Leonora Hassal, Mary Hassal, Madame D’Auvergne, Nora Haskel, and Clara. Each name provides a glimpse into a chapter of Sansay’s life, and presents a rich opportunity for further study. The woman we now call “Leonora Sansay” was born on December 11th, 1773 to Rosa and William Davern, and given the name Honora Davern. William Davern died when Sansay was a young girl, and in 1779 Rosa Davern remarried; this time to William Hassal. After Rosa and William’s marriage, Honora Davern’s name was changed to Eleonora/Leonora Hassal. Leonora’s legal name changed yet again after she married Louis Sansay, a French planter and acquaintance of Aaron Burr. In addition to her legal name, historical records also show that Sansay made use of a variety of pseudonyms throughout her life, including Madame D'Auvergne, Nora Haskel, and Clara. These names may have been literary devices or possibly the result of Sansay's discretion during Burr’s years of political scandal.
At least one of the names associated with Leonora Sansay can be traced to a copy of Secret History; or Horrors of St. Domingo that the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired in 1832. The original owner, James Cox, a Philadelphia artist and book collector, mistakenly credited Secret History; or Horrors of St. Domingo to Leonora Sansay’s half-sister, Mary Hassal. Because of this, it is still common to see Secret History attributed to Mary Hassal in library catalogues.
Despite the challenge presented by these multiple names, researchers Philip Lapsansky and Jennifer von Bergen have been able to piece together parts of Sansay's biography using state, municipal, and church archives along with several letters that were preserved in collections of Aaron Burr’s journals and memoirs. Van Bergen took an autobiographical approach to Sansay’s novel, Laura, in an attempt to address the early years of Sansay’s life not covered in these letters. While some aspects of this approach are tenuous, many of the legal documents acquired by Van Bergen confirm that Laura is at least partly autobiographical, as Leonora Sansay and her family are featured in public records in approximately the same places and dates noted in Laura.
From what we know of Leonora Sansay’s childhood, it seems that her mother passed away while she was young, and that she spent most of her childhood and adolescence under the care of her step-father, William Hassal. Hassal had several careers, including the owner of a well-known tavern in Philadelphia, which was located across the street from the State House at 185 Chestnut Street and named Hassal's Tavern. At other times, he was an overseer of property, and in his later years served in the military. Politicians frequented Hassal's Tavern, and this may be where Leonora Sansay met her mentor, friend, and possible lover, Aaron Burr. William Hassal died of yellow fever in 1793, and according to his estate papers he did not leave an inheritance for his children. Sansay moved to Philadelphia after her stepfather's death, and by 1796 she was listed at the address of 207 Race Street under the name “Hassal, Elenora.” Further research is needed in order to detail Sansay’s life from when she lived at 207 Race Street in 1796 through when she married Louis Sansay in 1800.
Adult Life & Writing Career
It is likely that Louis Sansay and Leonora Hassal met through Aaron Burr. Shortly after they were married in 1800, Louis and Leonora Sansay moved to the Caribbean in an effort to reclaim Louis Sansay’s land after the Haitian slave uprising. From 1802-1804 they traveled between Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica. From Sansay's late adolescence to her tour through the Caribbean, Sansay experienced much of what she would write about in her first two novels. After her time in the Caribbean, Sansay returned to the United States and published Secret History; or, Horrors of St. Domingo (1808) and Laura (1809). The details of Sansay’s life are again uncertain during surrounding the publication of these two books, although it seems that it was necessary for Sansay to find additional employment beyond writing. A letter from Sansay to Burr in 1812 reveals that for at least three years she had been trying to earn a living as the owner of an artificial flower factory. Sansay maintained the business for several years with the help of about ten employees, and even achieved “some celebrity.” Despite Sansay’s apparent popularity, the business does not seem to have been particularly profitable. Sansay remarks that the factory only remained open because a friend  loaned her $1,000. In the same letter she also writes that “the sums produced by the literary labours of ――” helped keep the business afloat. Sansay's life beyond this point is currently uncertain; however, the circumstances of her publications and her endeavors at the flower factory present interesting avenues for further research.
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 Alternately spelled Hassell/Hassall as well
 Sansay may have chosen the name “Madame D’Auvergne” in order to add French flare to “Davern”. Alternatively, it is possible that the name “Davern” was anglicized from “D'Auvergne” after William Davern and Rosa Davern moved to the United States. Sansay was at least partially fluent in French, and she often incorporated French phrases into her letters and writing. In her May 6th, 1803 letter to Aaron Burr she writes “I live retir’d, applying, with unceasing attention, to learn french, & as proof of my progress, I send you a page written in that language.” "Cape Francois, Hayti, May 6th, 1813." LS to AB. May 6, 1813. Margaret Moncrieffe; the First Love of Aaron Burr.A Romance of the Revolution. Charles Burdett New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860. Pg.# 436
Van Bergen, Jennifer. "Reconstructing Leonora Sansay."Sansay's Birth and Early Years.Blog post. Another World Is Possible, 1 Mar. 2010. Web.
Van Bergen, “Sansay's Birth and Early Years”
Lapsansky, Phil. "Rediscovering Leonora- A Preliminary Report." 1992. MS. Library Company of Philadelphia, Philadelphia. Pg. #2-3
Lapsansky, Phil."Rediscovering Leonora- A Preliminary Report." Pg# 2.
Ibid.Lapsansky speculates that Cox got the name “Mary Hassall” directly from the plot of Secret History. But according to Jennifer van Bergen’s research, Mary Hassal was more than a fictional character; she was also Lenora Sansay’s half-sister via her mother’s second marriage to William Hassal. Van Bergen cites baptism records as her source for identifying Mary Hassal.
 Van Bergen, “Sansay's Birth and Early Years”
 Ibid, “William Hassal: Step-Father”
Lapsansky "Rediscovering Leonora- A Preliminary Report."Pg# 2
Van Bergen, “William Hassal: Step-Father”
Lapsansky"Rediscovering Leonora- A Preliminary Report."Pg# 2.
 Van Bergen, “William Hassal: Step-Father”
 Ibid. “Lover and Fiancé”
In Sansay’s letter to Aaron Burr where she describes the plot of Secret History,she tells how the protagonist’s husband St. Louis is “ this husband she owes to you.”
"Cape Francois, Hayti, May 6th, 1813." Leonora Sansay to Aaron Burr. May 6, 1813. Margaret Moncrieffe; the First Love of Aaron Burr.A Romance of the Revolution. Charles Burdett New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860. Pg.#432
Lapsansky "Rediscovering Leonora- A Preliminary Report."Pg# 2-3
Sansay, Leonora. Secret History, Or, The Horrors of St. Domingo; And, Laura. Ed. Michael J. Drexler.Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2007. #30
"From Mrs. *******."Leonora Sansay to Aaron Burr.July 29, 1812 Philadelphia.In The Private Journal of Aaron Burr, During His Residence of Four Years in Europe with Selections from His Correspondence. Matthew Davis. Vol. 2. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1838. Pg. # 440-46.
Ibid. pg. #441
 Only identified as “a gentleman”
 Ibid. pg. #442
 Ibid. pg. #442