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.)

Pure by Andrew Miller

With a view of eighteenth century Paris that usually does not appear in novels, Andrew Miller uses the cemetery at Les Innocents as the setting for Pure.  Paris, at the time when Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were Americans abroad, was stinking from the sludge of a fourth century burial ground that was a money-maker for the church – until its decaying rot seeped into everything – even the water.  King Louis XVI finally ordered its closing.  Based on real events, Pure has all the draw of the French political intrigue before the Revolution, while chronicling one of the many transformations of Paris.

Although he tells his family in Normandy that he is overseeing structural changes to the church to improve the health of those living in the quarter, the young engineer, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, plans the removal of the bones, the total demolition of the church building, and a purification of the grounds to remove the unearthly smell from the open graves and decomposing bodies.  The story follows Baratte through a year “of bones, grave-dirt, relentless work… mummified corpses and chanting priests…rape, suicide, sudden death”; he also finds love and friendship.

Les Innocents Cemetery

Miller’s imagery is so good, you will smell the stench from the rotting grounds and the breath of those who live nearby.  As the story unfolds, Baratte’s task becomes a metaphor for the cleansing of the old French aristocratic rot, with references to the famous uprising that is brewing – Dr. Guillotin plays a minor role in the action.  But the story that kept me reading was that of the young country boy facing his first real job –  a horrible one that he cannot quit – although he tries.   He changes through the experience – just like the landscape – and it was a pleasure to follow Miller’s tale of historical fiction.

The Watery Part of the World

It’s hurricane season on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Irene being the latest violent storm to wreck the shores.  A recent interview on the news with a long-time resident of those dunes told how she loved the terrifying beauty of the sea there, and planned to live there as long as she could survive.  In Michael Parker’s The Watery Part of the World, set in Nag’s Head, physical and personal storms invade the story and the survivors, and some will never leave.

Alternating between the 1970’s and the 1800’s, Parker connects the geography and the characters with the recurring storms changing their lives.  The story set in the 1970’s, has three remaining inhabitants on one of the barrier islands – sisters, Whaley and Maggie, and their handyman, Woodrow, whose wife died in a hurricane.  They live alone and isolated on the island; everyone else has been driven away by the weather.  Once a year the ‘Tape Recorders” interview them – anthropologists looking for pieces of forgotten history, and O’Malley carries the mail and groceries over the sound to them once a week.  Their idea of fun is reading the grocery store ads aloud on the church steps. Their story, sometimes told in a halting dialect, creates a strange Gothic aura of  interdependence.  They are the modern descendants of Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of  Aaron Burr, and the freed slave who helped her.

The backstory introduces Theo Burr, wife to the Governor of South Carolina and well-educated daughter of Aaron Burr, vice president of the United States under Thomas Jefferson.   When pirates attack her ship, Theo feigns madness and survives only because the scoundrels believe she is mad – thereby, untouchable.  Theo, carrying Burr’s papers, was determined to use them to exonerate her father’s reputation (Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel and was accused of treason for trying to seize the Louisiana Territory).  Instead, she finds herself struggling to survive – scrounging for washed-up debris to make a shelter and befriended by a mysterious recluse, Whaley, who seems to have a connection to the pirate who controls the island.

Theo’s story is more captivating than her descendants, who seem to be locked in a psychological struggle of loneliness and missed chances.  Theo finds the strength to live her new life, away from the comforts of her rich existence, with only her portrait to remind her of her other life, and the terror of the pirate Daniel, Whaley’s former collaborator, ever-present.  The sisters of the seventies, on the other hand, wallow in self-pity and stories of the past until they become caricatures; their angst becomes depressing – Maggie reliving the memory of a lost lover with references to Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony, and Whaley bitterly invoking her selfish past.  Even Woodward, trapped to obeisance by some misplaced loyalty, loses patience with them, after a while.

A byproduct of reading the book was the interest it fostered in Aaron Burr and his relationship with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.  In reality, Burr’s daughter was lost at sea while sailing up the Eastern coast, and her body was never found, but Parker creates an alternative life for her.   If she had lived, Parker would have her and her descendants trapped on an island.

Read more about Aaron Burr – here

The Billionaire’s Vinegar

Are you a wine connoisseur or do you have trouble distinguishing between red and white?  How much are you willing to pay for a good glass of the bubbly?  Benjamin Wallace solves the “mystery of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine” in his nonfiction tale of The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

Wallace’s research centers on an 18th century bottle of wine, allegedly owned by Thomas Jefferson, mysteriously discovered and auctioned by Christie’s.  Wallace chronicles the sale and resales, orchestrated by Hardy Rodenstock, the finder, and Broadbent, the seller.   The wine is authenticated in European laboratories, with an historical accounting of Thomas Jefferson’s collection, yet the Monticello curator disclaims the bottle’s authenticity.   When the wine is later denied its vintage by physicists with radioactive dating technology,  Bill Koch, owner of some of the few rare bottles and with all the resources a billionaire has to cure his  sour taste over being had, sued Rodenstock and Christie’s for selling counterfeit wine and uncovered the

“lab where he makes the bottles…you know {like} the movie Catch Me If You Can?…

No one seemed to be paying attention to the experts, however, even when the initials on the label are not the abbreviation Jefferson used – Th: J.     Rodenstock with his “audacity…as a good con man” smoothly dismissed any discrepancies and  kept the money flowing.

Wallace writes the information with the tone of an amazing adventure and fascinated amusement, subtly ridiculing those with money trying to be elitist.  He includes some funny incidents of corks slipping into bottles and disappearing, bottles breaking spontaneously, and tastings gone awry.  He also chronicles all the nuances of growing, storing, bottling, labeling, and selling wine – too much detail for me.

Even skipping the minutiae, supported by over 30 pages of references, I still enjoyed Wallace’s story, and appreciated his final comment: although Jefferson did collect wine “from the châteaux,” it was to drink, not to hoard or display.

In his later years, “Jefferson was drinking cheap table wine, and very happily so.”

I could relate to that.

Related Article:  The Jefferson Bottles from The New Yorker