Jefferson’s Daughters – fact and fiction

When a book club picked the 2016 Dray and Kamoie’s America’s First Daughter, a fictionalized historical drama about Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, I looked for reviews and found the authors’ discussion of their book in Five Lies We Told in America’s First Daughter and  How We Got Away With It.

Curious to know more about the historical facts,  I was redirected to a nonfiction book written in 2018 by historian Catherine Kerrison – Jefferson’s Daughters.  I decided to read the facts first before the fiction.

Although stories about Sally Hemings have resurrected and revised Jeffersonian history in recent years, my only recollection of Jefferson’s first wife Martha was the sweet singing Blythe Danner in the musical 1776, before she had children.  Kerrison reveals how a constant state of childbirth, miscarriages, and infant death took its toll on her.  The accurate depiction of Blythe as Jefferson’s wife evolved into a weary and sickly woman, often left alone to manage a household, or fleeing from the War, who eventually died prematurely at thirty-three.  Patsy, the eldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Martha, was ten years old when her mother died.

The focus of America’s First Daughter is the eldest daughter Martha (Patsy) but she is one of three sisters in Kerrison’s analysis.  Patsy had an eclectic education, first learning to read and write with her mother;  later in Paris with her father, she had five years of rigorous convent education, with forays into French society.   She later stressed the importance of educating her own eleven children, giving her daughters more than lessons in drawing and needlework, as expected from society at the time. She established a school on the grounds of her home, near Monticello, with study in “mathematics, history, literature, and languages.”

Kerrigan connects Sally Hemings to the family by identifying her as the daughter of Jefferson’s father-in-law and his mulatto slave, Elizabeth Hemings.  Martha, Jefferson’s wife, had inherited the Hemings slaves from her mother and had brought them to Monticello when her father died.   Later, Sally accompanied Maria (Polly), Patsy’s younger sister when Jefferson brought them to Paris.  As she matured into a beautiful sixteen year old, possibly pregnant with her first child by Jefferson, she considered staying in Paris with her brother, an aspiring chef.  Knowing returning to America would take away the freedom she had in France, she negotiated freedom for herself and all her children, who were by parentage seven-eighths white.  I found an interesting historical note relating to Patsy, making me wonder about that promise.

“In 1834, Patsy dictated an informal addendum to her will, instructing her children that she wished that her half-aunt Sally Hemings would be given her freedom, but that would also mean that, according to state law, the now-elderly mistress of Jefferson would be forced to leave Virginia. It became moot since Sally Hemings died a year before Patsy.”

Although Kerrison spreads her research across all three sisters, Martha, Maria, and Harriet (Sally’s daughter), I focused on Martha, since she is the heroine of the fictional tale in America’s First Daughter.  I wondered if Martha’s determination to become a cloistered nun, thwarted by her father’s spoiling her with luxurious clothes and fancy balls, would be in the fictional tale. I wondered about her marriage at seventeen to Randolph, two months after returning to Virginia from Paris.  I wondered how Martha’s relationship to her father would appear in fiction.  I wondered if Harriet would appear at all in the fictional story of America’s First Daughter.

Martha holds the focus in Kerrigan’s research.  Maria, her younger sister died young giving birth to a child and not much information is available about Harriet as a young slave in the household.

An interesting note, however, has Kerrigan trying desperately to locate Harriet’s descendants, noting in her article for the Washington Post –  “How Did We Lose a President’s Daughter?” that Harriet assumed the role of a white woman when she was finally freed from plantation life.  In her book, Kerrigan details Harriet’s education, clothing, and contacts, as well as money from Jefferson for a coach to carry her to Philadelphia and away from slavery when she was twenty-one – all helpful for making the transition into a new secret life.  Like Kerrigan, I could only find conjecture about Harriet’s life and descendents – the secret seems well kept.  But I wonder if a fictional account might be forthcoming someday about Harriet, who she became, and how she thrived in her new world. It would be a book I’d like to read.

I’ve satisfied my curiosity.  Full of Kerrigan’s research, I am ready to read the fictional tale of America’s First Daughter.  Knowing the facts,  I know I will enjoy the story more, despite the authors’ tangent into a murder mystery.  If you are about to read America’s First Daughter, you might consider Kerrison’s book as a companion read.  Kerrigan’s book is full of facts and research but she delivers the information in an easily readable format, despite its length – 450 pages.    (First Daughter has 624 pages.)

Reluctantly Returning to Reading

When I read a book a day, I never imagined not wanting to read.  Most of my life revolved around stories professionally and personally but when my own story became the drama, it’s plot was too complicated to let any other in.  Needless to say, I won’t reveal the personal – those who know me already have it – but my unexpected separation from bibliotherapy taught me to savor moments of inspiration and not take them for granted.

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription survived the purge of my bookshelves with two boxes of notable reads sent to the library annual booksale.  I uncovered its red cover under the dust jacket and it followed me until I gave in and opened to the first pages.  Many of you have already read this complicated spy novel with a twist I almost missed at the end, and Atkinson has already produced another book published last month.  But if you haven’t read Transcription, its story holds enough historical information to tease you into wondering what is indeed fact, as well as Atkinson’s trademark knack for plot twists to keep you  reading between the lines of the characters’ lives in this tale of espionage and treachery.

Juliet Armstrong flashes back to her life as a secretary secretly transcribing conversations for the British spy organization MI5.  Jonathan Dee neatly summarized the novel in his 2018 review for The New Yorker with enough detail to satisfy your curiosity if you are still deciding if you want to read the book – Kate Atkinson’s Spy Novel Makes the Genre New.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book led me to more books.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices is listed as  one of Atkinson’s references.  Firzgerald’s 1980’s novel tells “the fictionalised experiences of a group of BBC employees at Broadcasting House, London, in 1940 when the city was under nightly attack from the Luftwaffe’s high explosive, incendiary, and parachute bombs.”  I became a fan of Fitzgerald after reading The Bookshop.

Atkinson’s newest publication revives her detective series with Jackson Brodie as the star Cambridge detective.  Of course, I need to backtrack to the first book – Case Histories – and maybe proceed to the other four before my library waitlist number for her latest, Big Sky, comes up.

So I have books to anticipate, and more.  A friend sent me hardback copies of the newest Elin Hildebrand and Jennifer Weiner books; my stack is growing again.

What have you read lately?

Related Reviews:

The Reluctant Reader

When one of my book clubs chose Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist for discussion, I was reluctant to read it.  Lately, I’ve been reluctant to read much, other than bingeing on Jenny Colgan’s Scottish romance stories.  Somehow I had missed this Man Booker finalist, and was surprised by its powerful message.

Using a dramatic monologue, a speech by the main character,  to convey the story of a young Pakistani who parlays his talent and intelligence into a brilliant career but then becomes disenchanted after 911, Hamid creates a long soliloquoy, challenging the reader to examine his or her own underlying bias as the tale develops.   Someone in the group mentioned the movie adaptation with the screenplay by the author.  Watching it confirmed my impression of the author’s rail against the anonymity of war and business in a big box world without individualism, but it also offered some surprises and a different perspective on the characters than I had imagined.

Over ten years ago, major universities (Tulane, Georgetown, Bucknell, SMU, and others) chose the book as the freshman read for incoming students.   Although the book is short in pages, its message is long and timely today, despite its 2007 publication.

Have you read it?  Have you read his latest book, Exit West?

 

Early Spring Fever

Inspired by Marie Kondo’s KonMari Method, I’ve been folding shirts and finding joy in mindless tasks.  The book –  The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing – caused a decluttering craze when it was first published, but I avoided it.  When short clips appeared on You Tube and Netflix, however, I succumbed and found solace in folding pants and shirts.

When Kondo proclaimed books were not to be kept  but donated or – horrors – thrown away, I immersed myself in my overflowing bookshelves to read a few waiting to be read; I made a dent in the stack – soon to be filled with other books.  None warranted a review, but you might find some distraction in them:

81oX4ShsrZL._AC_UL436_That Churchill Woman by Stephanie Barron

A rambling historical fiction with Winston’s mother, Jennie, as the heroine.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

When the New York Times featured the 25th Anniversary edition, I found a copy – full of lists and advice.  My “creative soul” couldn’t finish it.

41yKgsnf1fL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

For dog lover’s everywhere, this touching first person account of a woman who almost loses her rent controlled New York City apartment when she adopts the Great Dane of a friend who died, has the dog as the hero who saves her life – of course.

Those Who Knew by Idra Novey

One of my book clubs is about to discuss this one – a timely and harrowing story of a woman who was abused in her youth by a politician now climbing the ladder of power and success.  Set in an unnamed South American island nation, the story is topical and disturbing.

MCD-Dont-Throw-AwayAnd now, my library wait list finally delivered a book by one my  favorite authors  – Eleanor Lipman’s Good Riddance.  With a nod to Marie Kondo, Lipman acknowledges  the fear may of us have after shredding and throwing items away – what if you disposed of something you should have kept?  I’ve stopped tidying and starting reading.

 

A Few Books About Women

October had me in and out of stories about women –  all entertaining.  A ghost narrates in the first, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis has a cameo role in the second, the real socialites of New York City carry the plot in the third,  and a Greek chorus dominates the one I am currently reading.  Have you read any of them?

TCD-US-200x304   The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Morton can always be relied on for a mix of history, romance, mystery, and a touch of the other worldly.  In The Clockmaker’s Daughter she alternates between a nineteenth century mystery and a modern bride’s dilemma.  As with her other books, this story is an easy read with just enough Gothic tension to keep the reader’s interest.

Plot Summary from the Author’s website:

“In the summer of 1862, a group of young artists led by the passionate and talented Edward Radcliffe descends upon Birchwood Manor on the banks of the Upper Thames. Their plan: to spend a secluded summer month in a haze of inspiration and creativity. But by the time their stay is over, one woman has been shot dead while another has disappeared; a priceless heirloom is missing; and Edward Radcliffe’s life is in ruins.

Over one hundred and fifty years later, Elodie Winslow, a young archivist in London, uncovers a leather satchel containing two seemingly unrelated items: a sepia photograph of an arresting-looking woman in Victorian clothing, and an artist’s sketchbook containing the drawing of a twin-gabled house on the bend of a river…

Told by multiple voices across time, THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER is a story of murder, mystery and thievery, of art, love and loss…{with one of the voices, the ghost of} Birdie Bell, the clockmaker’s daughter.”

51czBXfdgkL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis

A woman artist hides her identity in the 1920s, pretending she is a man, and Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan houses an art school.

Plot Summary from Barnes and Noble:

“Within Grand Central Terminal,  two very different women, fifty years apart, strive to make their mark on a world set against them.

In 1928, twenty-five-year-old Clara is teaching at the Grand Central School of Art. A talented illustrator, she has dreams of creating cover art for Vogue, but not even the prestige of the school can override the public’s disdain for a “woman artist.”

Nearly fifty years later, in 1974, the terminal has declined and is the center of a fierce lawsuit: demolition or preservation. Virginia, recently divorced, has just accepted a job in the information booth to support herself and her college-age daughter, Ruby. When Virginia stumbles on the abandoned art school within the terminal and discovers a striking watercolor hidden under the dust, she is drawn into the battle to save Grand Central and the mystery of Clara Darden, the famed 1920s illustrator who disappeared from history in 1931.”

636540551254787991-Caitlin-Macy-Mrs-HC-cover-image     Mrs. by Caitlin Macy

Following the model of Big Little Lies, Mrs. has a cast of women with disparate personalities and backgrounds coming together as the mothers in a prestigious New York City preschool. Secrets drive the plot, with a big reveal and a death at the end.

Plot Summary by Publisher’s Weekly:

“Gwen Hogan, Philippa Lye, and Minnie Curtis are all married to powerful men and send their children to the prestigious St. Timothy’s preschool. Gwen, married to a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, recently moved to Manhattan and is uncomfortable living in New York City. Philippa, married to the owner of an investment bank, seems both effortlessly stylish and aloof. Minnie, the wife of a wealthy financier, takes an unapologetic pleasure in her financial security that makes the other mothers uncomfortable. The three women bond over school gossip and the difficulties of parenthood, unaware that Gwen’s husband is conducting an insider trading investigation that implicates both Philippa and Minnie’s husbands. “

t_500x300The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

I just started this book – recommended by one of my favorite librarians – and the story and language have already captured my attention.  Have you read it?

Plot Summary from NPR:

“Reimagines “The Iliad” from the perspectives of the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War, as Briseis, conquered queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, becomes caught between the two most powerful Greek leaders.”