Posts Tagged ‘Slavery’

Geographies of the Book

Dear friends and readers,

During the all too short time (about a day’s length) I was able to be at the Sharp conference this year, held at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, I enjoyed myself and heard some engaging informative papers — and gave one myself. Although I was able to attend the conference only briefly (as my husband was still recovering from an operation), I would still like to remember and share the gist of what I heard and experienced (as I did two years ago) and what I wish I could have been there for.

I arrived on Saturday, July 20th, around 2:00 pm, in time to attend two panels and in the evening go to a scrumptious banquet (at which there were Philadelphia mummers) and walk around the campus.

No surprise when I decided on “studies in the long 18th century” (e-7, 3-4:30 pm) and “the circulation of 19th and early 20th century genres of medical knowledge” (f-1, 5-6:00 pm). I’m originally an 18th century literary scholar, and for more than 20 years I regularly taught Advanced Composition in Natural Science and Technologies where I devoted a third of the course’s reading to texts on medical science as it’s really practiced in the US today.

Studies in the long 18th century covered shaping French and Polish georgraphical contexts. Elizabeth della Zazzera suggested how the different locations in which literary periodical production occurred Restoration Paris can teach us what were the social worlds and different political agendas of these locations — and how the periodicals in question reflected this. There were many geographic centers in Restoration Paris, some had students, others the rich, clubs here, and booksellers in commercial areas. Ms Zazzera studied and explicated imaginative geographies too. Lorraine Piroux argued Diderot’s Natural Son should be reprinted as it was in the first edition with its preface, 3 conversations, and 2 dramatic narratives as part of a contextualized text. Diderot was trying to establish a new kind of bourgeois authentic drama. A play should be played as if it were life, not art. He was writing experimentally and offering a novelistic contextualization for his play. These texts are today printed separately, divided into different genres.

Partitioned Poland — 1795-1918

Teresa Swieckowska described the difficult position of Polish authors in the 18th and 19th century — and compared the situations in Germany and England. Poland had been cut up into different terrorities dominated by other national courts and companies; and copyright (a system of privilege with a contradictory evolution) was not an effective except as it aroused interest in a work’s author(s). Most Polish writers of this era were aristocrats, for there was no money to be made. Literary books were not profitable and not respected. Commodification in Poland starts in the later 19th century.

Medical College of Virginia also a library

The papers on how medical knowledge reached physicians and patients too showed how entangled were social, gender, and racial politics in deciding who could get information, what was available, and how presented. Brenton Stewart’s paper was on 19th century southern medical an surgical journals. He described and discussed specific medical colleges and hospitals (some meant just for “negroes”) & how the dynamics of local power politics shaped knowledge. To disseminate and share medical information across the south physicians and surgeons turned to highly politicized medical journals whose findings included examinations of medicine and surgery forced on slaves. (Afterwards I asked and was told that The slaves were named as well as their “owners”).

Early health magazine published by the AMA

Catherine Arnott Smith told of the early invention, spread and codification of the Layman’s Medical Journal (a kind of consumer health magazine) by women. She began by saying libraries were places where people could find information, but medical journals were written for other physicians; the earlier policy of associations like the AMA was to withhold information from patients (in order to control and make profits from them). She described the lives & roles of Addie and Julia Riddle who became physicians; of Jessie Leonard who censored movies; hygiene was their goddess; of later titles (Journal of Preventive Medicine, 1910), of political complications, like a Race Betterment League (contraception seems to lead back to eugenics, and women (Martha [?] Stearns Fitts Jones; Lady Cook; Virginia Woodhull) whose class and political positions (especially on the question of prohibition) made it difficult for them to work together. Both scholars studied ads and diaries.

Sunday I went to the session I was giving a paper at, “imaginary geographies iii” (g-3, 8:30-10:00 am), and Ian Gregory’s plenary lecture on using GIS to map and analyze geographical information within texts (10:30-noon).

Winnie-the-Pooh world mapped

Elizabeth Frengel gave a charming paper on the ideas about, illustrations and lives of Walter Crane and Ernest Shepard. She began with the history of end-papers (where from the later 19th century maps are often found), told of Crane’s writing on the importance of harmonizing text and illustration, and how described Shephard’s maps and illustrations realized the imaginary worlds of Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and Graham’s Wind in the Willows.

I gave my own paper, Mapping Trollope: Geographies of Power where I argued Trollope’s visualized maps are central means by which he organizes and expresses the social, political and psychological relationships of his characters and themes, that they names places important to him personally; & that through his Irish maps he aimed to put Ireland into his English readers’ imagined consciousness. I show also how his use of maps changed in the later stages of his career to become minutely studied and sceptical geographies of power and take the reader well outside the corridors of power to show that what happens in ordinary places matters too.

The session concluded with Iain Stevenson on the life and “achievements” of a remarkably nervy entrepreneurial crook (soldier, husband of rich wives, Ponzi-scheme initiator), Gregor MacGregor who (among other things) was able to set up and enact crazed schemes of emigration (see my review of The Acadian Diaspora by Christopher Hodson) by exploiting the delusional dreams of independence and wealth among the ignorant abysmally poor and lower middle class. Gregor invented and produced imaginary money as well as countries and Prof Stevenson brought along some original specimens of his Poyais notes.

It was a well-attended session, and there was much stimulating talk for the half hour of time we had. As I wrote, people thanked me for the packet of maps — I gave out old-fashioned good xeroxes of maps from Trollope’s novels instead of doing a power-point presentation. During the discussion on my own paper I raised a note of doubt: Trollope’s maps are not accurate portrayals of the real worlds of Victorian England: for a start, they omit the prevalence of the abysmally poor, the huge industrial complexes (which here and there in his novels he does describe, like St Diddulph’s in He Knew He Was Right, an imagined version of London East End docklands), and thus erase and mislead modern readers and can function as propaganda. I quoted Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” People defended the escapist aspect of these imagined worlds. Many more were interested in the history and development of end-papers (which Ms Frenkel had gone over in some detail), and maps for children’s books and mysteries in general. One woman had given a paper earlier in the conference about the practice by one company of putting maps (automatically it seems) on the back covers of published mysteries.

Posy Simmons map of Cranford for the book that accompanied the TV mini-series adaptation of Gaskell’s short stories — just the sort of end-paper map people were discussing

Ian Gregory showed the conference how analytical and pictorial mapping of the frequency of specific words in paired (Wordsworth and Grey’s written tours of the lake district) or comparative texts (19th century official reports of the incidence of diseases like cholera and small pox in cities in England) can enable a researcher respectively to grasp unexpected emphases and large trends, and suggested the understanding gained this way can be added to close and/or deconstructive readings of texts. He made a lively wry talk out of philosophical, somber and abstract material.

It was then noon and as I had a 1:30 pm train to catch to return home to Washington, it was time for this Cinderella to leave imagined maps and return to her hotel and modern pumpkin coach (a cab) and head back for the 30th Street train station. What I wish I could have heard: more discussion on how maps are exercises in imposing power. I would have gone to session a-2 about maps and reading habits of soldiers and poets of WW1 (especially the paper on Edward Thomas reading Shakespeare); a-8 about why imaginary geography matters to book history; b-6, “books down under”, Australian convict memoirs, radical publishing and schoolgirl books (the Australian session probably included a paper on Ethel Handel Richardson); c-5 which had a paper on Chaucer’s portrait; d-4, the survival of WW2 concentration camp publications and letter culture; d-5, erotics of family books like Jane Eyre’s German daughters in the US (“emigrating books”). But fancy had had to be reined in.

Wind in the Willows illustration by Shepard


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The bell Martha (1748-1782), white wife of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) used to summon Sarah Hemings (1773-1835, Sally), given to Sally by a dying Martha: Sally was among those who tended Martha during her death agon

Dear readers and friends,

I read on about what I find I must call Jefferson’s women and men after
finishing Kierner’s biography of Jefferson’s oldest white daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph , and watching and reading about the sources for the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film, Jefferson in Paris. By chance during the more than 3 weeks it took me to read G-R’s Hemingses of Monticello Henry Wieneck’s Master of the Mountain was published and prompted yet another spate of denunciation of Jefferson.

The Hemingses of Monticello is an excellent, eloquently written, thoroughly researched, convincing (perhaps over-argued), and although rightly often quietly indignant and even angry (under control), judicious and yes balanced (sigh) book. It’s as much about slavery and the beginnings of US cultural life in the 18th century, the early colonization of Virginia, the life of Jefferson’s class of people as about members of the Jefferson, Wayles and Hemings kin. The name Hemings honors (as did her children), Elizabeth or Betty Hemings, the woman who was the mother of (at least) 4 wholly African children by a black man, 6 mulatto (as they were called) by John Wayles (Jefferson’s father-in-law) and 2 mulatto by two other white men. She is the patriarch of a large ensuing clan.

I found the book compulsive reading. It’s about American earlier history and race relations today, the origins of some of our excruciating norms and fault-lines. G-R writes eloquently & honestly, nothing falsely upbeat, bringing out fully what is often presented discreetly or not at all. Most compelling in her book were discussions of norms and social and economic circumstances limiting, making people then and now.

G-R has a complicated story to tell and carries several threads and purposes through at once, which I here separate out in order to summarize, epitomize (I will tell stories) and try to evaluate clearly. Her central problem is she must rely on too little documentary evidence, and tries to make up for this by too much speculation at length so the book occasionally becomes repetitive.

She tells of how slavery came to be institutionalized. It was not necessarily in the cards that the western hemisphere would be taken over to make money and grab land and found families on the basis of slavery. Indeed the British driving the French Acadians so brutally from Canada wanted to have non-slave labor in Nova Scotia. But it was too tempting to get someone for free and there was a long tradition before of slavery in the world (seen as mitigation of war — after all the person was not just murdered or as a woman raped and abused until she died), plus in Africa the very bad land for growing (two huge deserts) made it more economical and profitable for African tribes to go to war, enslave the losers and sell them.

The Western Hemisphere set up a different basis for slavery by using race as the central marker of the person who would be enslaved for life. To use the color of someone’s skin was to use a visible marker. Early on then there arose the problem of what happens when a white man fathers a child on a black woman. Is her child a slave? People went to court (black people who hired lawyers too) and those arguing not lost quickly because Roman law was used: that said that if the woman was a slave, her child was a slave in perpetuity. The law favored men having sex when they wanted and other men not losing their property by this. That was a bad day for black people and black women. The difference that one was a slave forever unless you could buy yourself out was the main different between indentured servants who were white and early on every effort was made to allow poor whites to despise and exploit black slaves.

To understand what happened to the Hemings as a result of being literally owned by by white people is the whites did all they could to deprive them of personhood. I own three books on and by Jefferson: Adrienne Koch, ed., introd., Life and selected Writings of Jefferson, Vol 5 of Jefferson the President (on his second term, 1805-9) by Dumas Malone, and Jefferson in Love (the lover letters of Jefferson and Maria Cosway), ed, introd. John P. Kaminksy. In each Jefferson is treated with unqualified respect. We are told of his humanity towards others, his compassionate respect, originality of thought, decency, his real strength of character. In only one (Kaminsky) are his slaves mentioned; in none is justice done to the centrality of his relationship with them.

Jefferson was humanly speaking their brother-in-law (through his first wife), uncle, cousin, of Elizabeth Hemings’ children and grandchildren, the father of 5 children by Sarah (Sally) Hemings. He kept all these people near him, educated the men to be skilled tradespeople, freed his cohort when he felt he had his his moneys’ worth of training them or at the end of his life (after they served him utterly when he needed them with his needs given all priority); and he freed his children by age 21. Sally lived her life from age 14 next to him; was always there for him until he died; she had her own room in his private quarters, was taught to read and write (she spoke French for a while at least); was dressed respectfully, was in effect freed and given wherewithal to live with dignity upon his death. But never once did he write her name down, never once acknowledge what was his relationship with her. He was (as far as we can know) never openly loving as a father to his children by her; he rarely referred to them in writing and then always in coded language.

There is no a single picture of anyone but Isaac Jefferson, the son of Ursula Grainger, who had been Jefferson’s wife’s wetnurse. Like Madison Hemings (Jefferson’s second son by Sally) Isaac was interviewed by a reporter and the resulting writing has come down to us as their memoirs. That’s significant. Most of the people were not photographed until granted the status of people and the right to be remembered.

It will be said he protected his relatives and (in effect) friends this way; given the virulence of hateful prejudice (especially violent because the whites of this culture were so horrible in behavior to these people), he and his white family were also at risk. But never once is there a discernible gesture left of his granting them full person-hood in his eyes. G-R will write that James when freed asked to be treated with dignity and reciprocal need and was not. She suggests that John Hemings found he could not create a self-respecting life of his own after Jefferson died. That the code was never to acknowledge their existence as people around them in writing. Jefferson did clearly treat them as people but quietly, silently and without admitting it. The Hemings are to be erased, not remembered.

And in acting this way he violated something profoundly important in bringing up and interacting with them. as far as we can tell his white relatives behaved similarly. This was his searing sin as chance and his own choices — especially the taking of Sally’s life as his to have — had given him the power over them to have done more right by them.


A chair carved for Jefferson by John Hemings, Elizabeth’s youngest son — his poignant life story emerges late in the book

We begin with Elizabeth Hemings (1735-1807, Betty), a mulatto (to use the term used then) woman. Her mother Parthena, a black woman was impregnated by an English captain named Hemings. We know about this by a memoir; he tried to buy her and her infant (his child) out of slavery but Francis Eppes, the owner was not selling. G-R says one reason that most freed slaves found in the US were mulattoes is that often white fathers did feel something for their children and did try to educate or free them occasionally. Parthena and Betty were sold to John Wayles. It seems that Betty was very very pretty — this was important — and also smart. As far as we can tell she was always a house servant. By the time she was in her early teens she was being impregnated by black men — it’s fair to say she was being used as livestock.

John Wayles’s life, character, and economic success is put before us: he was a brutal ruthless determined man, began life in England as working class, a servant and brought to the US and rose to become a lawyer — he had enough education to put out a sign, just. We see how he finagled and the people he had to deal with. When Betty was 18, he took over her body. He had three wives of his own beyond her. His first wife was an Eppes mother of Martha, Jefferson’s wife and when she married she took these half-brothers and sister (not called that of course) into Jefferson’s household and that’s how Jefferson came to own them all.

Elizabeth Hemings is called Wayles’s concubine until he died and then joined the Jefferson family. She was not his common law wife as slaves were outside the law; she did not (as her daughter did) live as a hidden substitute for a wife either. The norm then was to pretend white men didn’t take black women to bed with them as a regular thing. No one discussed it and it was done privately — at night, or discreetly. Jefferson differed in that he didn’t hide Sally in the way others did; at the same time he never wrote down anywhere that Sally was in effect a wife, her children were his & Elizabeth’s were related to his wife as half-siblings. This was part of the code.

The code was to erase black people. They didn’t matter. Who and what they were didn’t count. I see this as relevant to the way class and illegitimacy works today. We — many of us — many have come across cases of illegitimacy where no one writes it down and no one admits to it, sometimes where the child has as a father a kind of cover, the mother’s husband. Socially, as social knowledge, everyone knows who the father is (by time, circumstances, resemblances), but by not admitting to the reality you can hide behind the protections of legal fiction. It also renders powerless the woman involved (white too); the only person who deserves protection will be the biological father and the legal one.

What G-D’s research did was break through this code. She was aided by Jefferson who again did treat the Hemingses differently than his other slaves, not like free people, and not like his legitimate daughters and sons-in-law: whites inherited your property, were your companions in public social life. Black people were unacknowledged intimate companions whom Jefferson rewarded with education and skills and minimum coercion (he expected the system to do that for him). Some white fathers did treat their biological children more decently (like Jefferson) but since records are so sparse even for him(we are dependent on his farm books, these reinforced at long last by DNA studies), it’s very difficult to find instances to study in detail. That’s why the Jefferson and Hemingses are such a gold mine.

I want to stress the class bias too. Wayles was originally a servant who became a lawyer; I said he rose by force of brutal personality, by intelligence and luck. Again and again we see that he was quietly despised by those Virginians who arrived earlier and came from gentry in England. He defended a man, John Chiswell, accused of killing Robert Routledge during a quarrel in a Williamsburg tavern. Snide references to Wayles abound; he is forthright in his own defense; the business was brought to a halt when Chiswell killed himself but the documents show the class side of these world. Very like ours.

When Wayles died, it was against the law in Virginia to free slaves except in cases of “considerable merit” and the standard was high and had to be approved by a governor and council. If you tried to free the negro, the churchwardens of a parish could try to snatch the person and put him or her back into slavery. That’s interesting: it suggests some people did want to end slavery and free their slaves. To do so remember meant depriving your children of considerable amounts of property and people really do want to leave their children what they can. Here she does not mention buying your freedom.


Items Jefferson carried in his pocket

When Jefferson enters the picture, G-D takes time out to give his story. Kierner told too little of Jefferson. It’s important to know his mother was a Randolph. In Virginia this family is still not gone from high social life. We have Randolph-Macon college and Randolph college in mid-Virginia. Jane Randolph was Jefferson’s mother. It’s been said he didn’t love her, or was cold somehow towards her since few papers by him about her survive. G-D suggests they could have gone in a fire, but it is true he was far closer to his father. He was early on recognized as highly intelligent, capable. and educated accordingly. He was close to a sister, Jane. We are told of the men who became his mentors and his patrons and how they pushed him forward. How they knew Wayles from courtrooms and thus Jefferson meet Martha. He was very creative, loved to do mechanics, liked working with his hands, an architect himself and builder. He educated his sons, Beverley, Madison and Eston (by Sally) under the tutelage of of their uncle John Hemings (Elizabeth’s son) to be carpenters. Jefferson would walk round with a compass and other gadgets in his pockets. He read enormously,very verbal, loved music — as did his first wife.

Jefferson was ambitious and from his early days we see a radical thinker. He lost a case because he offended a judge. Samuel Howell brought suit to be freed from indentured servitude. As a punishment for having a child out of wedlock by a black man (get this), Howell’s white grandmother was fined and her child (Howell’s mother) was born out for servitude for 31 years (an average life span); Howell was born during this mother’s servitude. Jefferson worked with extreme diligence to search for any legal precedence or theory that might aid him. His brief included these words; “all men are born free and everyone comes into the world with a right to his person and to use it at his will. This is what is called personal liberty and is given him by the author of nature because it is necessary for his own sustenance.” We are not far from “inalienable rights” here. The judge cut him off in mid-sentence and the man lost the case. Jefferson gave Howell money and soon after Howell ran away and was never heard of again in that area of the US. On the legislation punishing women for having sex with someone of the other race, Jefferson wrote these strictures were to “deter women from the confusion of species which the legislature seems to have considered an evil.” Seems to have is a strongly sceptical note here. (pp. 100-1)

Before he married Jefferson wanted to life his status, and that’s why he began the first Monticello. He and Martha lived on the site in a small house, a sort of one gigantic room where they did everything. It’s apparent that they socialized and networked from the very beginning even in these small quarters. That’s why they needed servants. This house meant a lot to him, so too did spending money and living well. (Thus the later debts.) He did just love Paris and the time he spent there.

Jefferson did quickly single out Elizabeth’s sons (his wife’s half-brothers), Martin (by a black father), Robert and James to travel about, learn trades, hire themselves out and keep their money. He freed Robert and James during their lifetime – they were Sally’s close brothers. He freed all his children by Sally as young adults so they had their lives ahead of them. Three others he freed (more distantly related to him or them) he freed when they were older – and had “earned” it.

He treated black women as feminine, which by his standards means they were not to work in the field and do hard labor. They were house servants and encouraged to dress nice, ornament themselves — like white women. But since they were slaves, the real result of this was they ended up being sex partners of the men in the house. The place was rather like a stereotypical new Orleans: white males pursuing and attaching themselves to light-skinned black women. The norm for black women slaves was to refuse to recognize their ‘femininity” as European standards saw this — so you could work them hard in the fields, endlessly impregnate them and demand they get up and work the next day or so, sell their children and them at will. Jefferson remarked on European peasants how shocking it was that women worked in the fields. In Africa women worked in the ground too. But of course these women were not slaves, not subject to rape.

There is much sympathy for whoever is the underdog throughout. G-R does make us aware of how much his white wife Martha suffered from these yearly pregnancies and how she didn’t have to die at 35

It was a great grief to Jefferson and he really collapsed over it, went into weeks of depressive behavior – stayed alone, couldn’t sleep, would talk to himself. Partly he knew he was partly responsible for her death, since it was he who kept impregnating her. As she lay dying, she asked him not to remarry so as to not put another stepmother in charge of her two girls. This suggests her father’s second and third wives had not been good experiences. He didn’t remarry. Perhaps like Edward Austen and others I’ve come across Jefferson couldn’t see his way to use some form of contraception (other practices beyond full frontal intercourse were known and among others, used by Fanny and Alexandre d’Arblay) or keep away or control himself or treat his wife other than as someone he must use sexually to the full.

Jefferson had also suffered badly as governor. He had been unable to cope with the military part of his office (perhaps partly because he and Washington did not have sufficient funds to cover all the areas they had to) and was for decades afterwards harshly criticized for not using local military to fight Cornwallis in Virginia. When he didn’t, Richmond and then Charlottesville fell to the British and he had to flee and his family too. He had wanted to retire before this — again not understood at all by people of this generation, especially other men. These bouts of retirement recurred after the first wife’s death so they were not just the result of wanting to be with her and his family (his rationale).

G-R tells of how the Hemingses experienced the American revolution. She has some memoirs, oral traditions, and some papers Jefferson kept too, and a later interview of a great-grandson of the Hemingses’ Among other things, when Jefferson fled he left the house in the care of Martin, Elizabeth Hemingses’ oldest son by an unnamed black man. Martin stood up to Cornwallis and would not tell where Jefferson was at threat of death. This is sometimes interpreted as see the loyal black slave. It was actually in his nature, unflinching and aggressive and the kind of person who would rise to be the one in charge were he not have been enslaved. There’s one of this hide the treasures stories. Martin hid Jefferson’s silver and as the soldiers were coming in could not let another black man out in time so Caesar had to stay below for a couple of days and nights.

We see Robert and James, Elizabeth’s sons by the white Wayles, accompanying Jefferson and how they were educated.

Finally Elizabeth and her daughters did the work of the house and were the people who cared for the wife as she lay dying, the hard work of all this. They are never mentioned in white accounts as if they weren’t there, as if Martha did the work. No she ordered them to and probably didn’t closely supervise .That was Elizabeth’s job.. G-D tells of how (ironically/) Martha the white wife signaled out Sally before she died to give Sally a hand-bell as a memento. An ambiguous thing to us as it was this hand-bell Martha used to call Sally by. It does show a particular regard.

Revolving bookstand made in Monticello Joinery in later years

James Hemings, a Provincial Abroad (in Paris)

Not Jefferson, not Patsy his daughter. I’ve not mentioned that one real obstacle G-D has is lack of documentation. So in this chapter where she builds a picture of James’s life in Paris, 1783-87 (and beyond when Sally and Polly arrived, and Jefferson was having his affair with Maria Cosway and Patsy living at the convent still), she has to theorize and use what is known about black people in France in general in this era. (I had to do the same for Anne Finch in my chapter on her girlhood; I talked about what was done usually, what was done in the place and schools she might have gone to.). She suggests that James bought the cloth or clothes for clothes-making. She suggests it was an eye-opener to James to see Jefferson and his daughter outfitting themselves. They had been the high ideal in Virginia. The house probably startled him – and the varied interesting company (which dazzled Jefferson and he loved it.) She tells a couple of stories of other black people that have come into the records and documents, for example John Bologne, Le Chevalier St-George (circa 1745-1799), sometimes called “the black Mozart” (about whom I had heard a talk in an EC/ASECS conference at Penn State).

G-D succeeds in persuading us James Hemings had an almost equivalent experience of a white young man who goes on a grand tour. His eyes were opened, his experience enormously widened. His letters of introduction were the apprentice papers that took him to several palaces and several chief French chiefs. He had freedom of movement; Jefferson paid for “all found” (daily food, his lodging in Hotel of course, his clothes). The rest was his.

Did he have free movement? The trouble was racism even in France but this in conflict with “the freedom principle.” Some people wanted to keep blacks out of France (much fewer than in England, some 4-5,000 out of 30 million while in the UK it was 10,-20,000 out of 9 million) and others wanted to free them. The law demanded Jefferson register James’s presence; if James stayed more than 3 years, he was automatically freed. Jefferson got round that by not registering James and we have notes in his handwriting advising others to do the same.

But he did not need an escort of an older white person around as he had in Virginia. No one would beat him up, no one snatch him. Yet the one note we have beyond the apprenticeship noted in Jefferson’s diary is Jefferson’s note sent indirectly to James’s mother: “James is well. He has forgot how to speak English, and has not yet learnt to speak French.” A light kindly joke.

Jefferson’s spectacles and other items Sally kept and handed on to her children

Sally at the Hotel de Langea

Annette G-D says Jefferson did not want Sally to bring Polly; he wanted an older woman. Thus we cannot say he was looking to bring a concubine to Paris for himself. But once he came, that is what G-D thinks he after a little time made Sally into. Inoculated against small pox, while his daughters had typhus, put to stay with a friend she was apparently given nothing to do. G-R says the unusual thing about Sally is she’s never mentioned with any concreteness. He quarrels with Martin, comments on James, sends directives to just about every Hemings but Sally. She is suggestively in one place only said to be his “female chambermaid.” There’s the negative response of Abigail Adams: upon seeing the girl, she urged Jefferson to send her home as not of use, as a little non-effective or puzzling a a 16 year old too old. Abigail thought her 16; she was 14.

So Sally was taken in for the next four decades as Jefferson’s mistress. There are signs she was given French lessons and there are orders for very nice cloth for her. At another point she seems to be included in a group of servants sewing. Women sewed. She did stay in the house most of the time. She was not registered as a slave and this way he could keep her beyond the 3 years without having to worry she’d be free. The convent he put his daughters in freed slaves left there. Keeping them in the convent was also convenient for keeping them out of the way.

He has already begun his dalliance with Maria Cosway and their apparently famous correspondence has begun. I saw a copy of the letters for $1 so I’ll be reading that slender book soon.

For Sally we may postulate she spent time with James down in the kitchen, that she saw and enjoyed what was available through windows. Her life circumscribed like that of her half-nieces, Patsy and Polly. I am struck by the use of euphemism for her in later accounts (which G-R uses): they remind me of the way Eliza Austen’s mother, Philadelphia Austen is discussed as well as the probable illegitimacy of Eliza. Gender makes all women one when the male is powerful and gentry educated.

she does seem to have gotten an allowance — like James. Disposable income. When Jefferson did not need her, she was free to wander about — had to be careful that’s all mainly because she was not registered. (Had no papers you see). (My own comment: there is no record of hats made; I wish there had been.) Oral tradition in Hemings family was she talked of Paris to her dying day; made a huge impression, perhaps like Jefferson himself a very happy time for her. We may even imagine them coming together if not in love as not equals, but both having this good time, older man, younger girl, after all movie not so wrong

Thomas, James, Sally and Patsy go home

Photo of Monticello, 1890

Jeffferson returned to the US thinking he would return soon; he was asked to be Washington’s secretary of state and he could not turn that down — if only for the sakes of others who were attached to him. He also persuaded James and Sally to return with him. Martha was thwarted in love and went perhaps expecting a continued debutante life. Her father married her off within 2 months, to the son of a friend.

She persuades me that the explanation for Sally going home when she could have been freed, and in the paragraph pointed this out to Jefferson, is the relationship was one of trust, affection, and satisfying to both, very much. She had not been raped, though her position shows she could not easily have said no. Once there he treated her very differently than just about all known relationships of white masters and black concubines: she was set up in Monticello, in the house, in the central quarters and lived there (one stray remarks shows this. When there was another illness, she was not called upon to nurse (that’s the second stray phrase). He depended upon her to be there; he wanted her the way a man wants a stay-at-home wife who he is congenial with and comes home to rest by. There are such relationships.

G-R also tells by contrast of terrible relationships: one Celia, age 14 also, this one a rape by a master, put in a cabin of sorts, and raped regularly until she murdered him, burnt his body, and gave the ashes to a grandson. We know about this because there was a court case and interestingly her side was told (by an abolitionist leaning lawyer). She was hung.

She tells of ordinary ones we can track — the white woman kept away or made to work with the other slaves, even if her children were treated better or eventually freed. Very common the older man taking the pubescent girl.

And she tells of Jefferson’s white women. His daughter married off at not quite 17. Now we are told more frankly of Martha’s husband’s violence, and how he came to be over-shone by Jefferson and Martha as much Jefferson’s non-sexual wife as he was Thomas Mann Randolph’s sexual one. Even if they didn’t get along after a short time, her life was one of yearly pregnancies. The girl Nancy shifted over young to a Randolph branch who became the mistress of Randolph’s cousin and the infanticide. Especially the brutality of Martha’s oldest daughter, Anne’s husband, how he beat her and impregnated her to death and nothing much done to stop him. Anne too married off at 16. G-R quotes Kierner to the effect that Martha, Jefferson’s daughter did after that one marry her daughters off much later — or not at all. The non-marrying becomes almost a deliberate choice or option for Martha’s daughters (though at the end they did have to open a school).


With Sally settled into Monticello, Thomas Jefferson is off to New York with her brothers. He is going to be secretary of State to Washington and takes up residence a couple of blocks away from Washington. Their long journey in the snow by carriage. Robert has been spending a lot of time away from his “master” and continues to be given “general passes” (which were frowned on by other whites). He had married a woman named Dolly while Jefferson was in Paris and shortly after they arrive in NY he leaves to visit her. He never asked Jefferson to buy her as Jefferson did buy the spouses of other slaves. He apparently preferred to keep her and his life apart, and he pretty quickly also began to hire himself out. He seems to have led a remarkably independent life — for a slave.

He never ran away. Jefferson’s rule was to sell all slaves who ran away and could be brought back. Not before flogging them harshly and telling the person who bought them not to keep them beyond immediate need but sell again. Not kindly there, was he?

James settled down to being chef. In the film Jefferson’s attitude is voiced: he felt that James owed him a couple of years of being a chef and to train others before he freed him. He was again given an allowance. Both NYC and Philadelphia were places where the nature of liberty and freedom were part of life and ardent discourse. NYC had a sizable number of black people, some free. The talk was a spillover of the French revolution going on just now — as well as reaction to what was happening in England (strong repressive measures as well as war and depression).

Jefferson also began to have usual illnesses, psychological in origin these, migraines. James is mentioned each and every day of the diary; it was he who went and got Jefferson his medicine. She makes the point that James and Sally Hemings probably knew Jefferson intimately as well perhaps better than anyone else.

High Street, Philadelphia, 1799: James lived on this street in the 1790s

But soon the capital was moved to Philadelphia and so Jefferson and now 4 servants (2 non slaves) moved there. He felt he was going to be permanent enough so Jefferson never seems to have moved anywhere without full scale renovation. He began this – always the big library and something like 89 boxes of books. (I begin to identify though not with the renovation and moving.)

G-R presents a much more positive view of Jefferson than she could have; her purpose was to persuade as many readers as possible to take an interest in, respect the lives of the Hemingses and that’s served best by judiciousness.

In Paris, there are often conflicts between servants and also would be between slaves and servants and from some of these emerge information and insight into James Hemings’s life — because white people left documents. One French servant’s wife, Seche, alleged another indulged in “sodomy” and that he loved men. Petit demanded Seche’s wife get out. Since Jefferson’s longer relationship was with Petit, and he needed Petit’s services, more the Seches had to leave. We have a letter from Jefferson showing him using a confidential direct personal note with Petit. Petit refers in a letter back to “Gimme” (James) and “Salait” (Sally). Jefferson did not hing about this taboo behavior — as he never appeared to try to punish or ostracize his son-in-law’s sister, Nancy when her brother-in-law impregnated her and participated in an infanticide.

This keeping his cool is characteristic of Jefferson. There exists a correspondence from these years between a black free man, Benjamin Banneker, from Maryland; Banneker presents an almanac to Jefferson who write back with great respect and sends the almanac to Condorcet and then helps Banneket get a place (job) as an assistant in surveying land for the Federal District (p. 475). This was going beyond just courtesy and helping quietly.
Now 18 years later it was charged that Jefferson helped Banneker in his superior almanac and then became a target of those who hated his support for the French revolution, his mild anti-slavery and when Banneker and his friends printed Jefferson’s correspondence with this man, Jefferson simply kept quiet about it (p 477)

G-R suggests at the time of the original correspondence Jefferson might have told James Hemings about it.

Jefferson had no problem in offering common courtesies to black people in public. He once rebuked a grandchild for not bowing back to a black man who bowed to them in the streets (p 477). He referred to servants as Mrs, so Henrietta a washerwoman was called Mrs Gardiner , p 479. Things like this count. A lot. There’s a stray remark by someone later on (oral tradition) that Sally had her own room apart from Jefferson at Monticello. Her own space.
I’ve been snubbed and know how much it hurts. I can’t bear when someone calls me by my last name without the title; it’s disrespectful, abrasive. It would’ve cost so little to the person doing the snubbing is what I keep my eyes on. But to have given her a room of her own goes beyond this.

The story of how the three black men who were so close to Jefferson finally left him — were freed – is ambiguous too. The chapter is called Exodus (the allusion to the Bible). Mary, Elizabeth Hemings’s oldest daughter by a black man was sold to Colonel Bell, the white man who had become her substitute husband. Jefferson believed all women ought to be under the control of a white man. But he only sold with her her younger children; he did let all her family go, her “older” children, including Joseph Fossert then 12 and his sister, Betsy, 9, stayed on as slaves. Joseph was a talented artisan. To understand this takes a lot of trouble since the language used to describe it in the letter is so coded.

Elizabeth’s oldest son, Martin, called “the fierce son of Betty Hemings” by Lucy Stanton (a later reporter), the man who held Jefferson’s house together while Jefferson fled during his time as governor during the revolution, quarrel, and Jefferson writes that he will sell Martin at Martin’s request to a man Martin approves of — Jefferson’s tone is of one furious. In another note (earlier the selling of Martin is referred to as the equivalent of selling a chariot). But in fact this did not happen (tempers cooled?), Martin stayed on in Monticello for 2 months and then went to NYC (or DC). He was quietly freed and heard of no more in the documents.

The second son, Robert was just as bad. When the quarrel occurs Jefferson says James is “abandoning” him. It’s been told that a deal was worked out where Robert’s wife’s owner bought Robert and then Robert from his saving re-pay Stras and thus be free. Again Jefferson felt this was somehow dumped on him unexpectedly; that he had expected more years of services, and you see hurt and anger. A kind of bitter lament referring to what he had taught Robert (including barbering). Jefferson thought one could build emotional capital with a slave but he does not realize at no point can Robert really assert his identity or what he is or choose freely. All is given and he is to be grateful; much is demanded and he to be quiet.

A tense struggle occurred at the end of Jefferson’s time with James show Jefferson expecting reciprocation from James and (like many powerful people who are higher than you say) not understanding how James must’ve seen the relationship. Jefferson’s notes about James have phrases like his “desiring to befriend” James. Jefferson wants James to stay on as cook after they go home from Philadelphia after the ordeal of his time as secretary of state.
Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, much younger than any of the others is sold to James Munroe.

Elizabeth herself retired to a cottage much as Sally did at the end of her life. It was an arrangement which freed her in fact but where the Jefferson carried on paying her expenses and protecting her from “snatching.”

The analogy G-R uses much earlier is a propos: Baldwin says that when someone would give him a small version of what Baldwin felt others (whites) got much bigger how it embittered him; it was not a reconciler. I understand that too. You are not grateful. G-R “they did not want to give their very lives to him any more than he would have wanted to give his life to them.” The shows of devotion while slaves are not to be taken at face value and Jefferson could not understand this. He was also unusually powerful and respected and they knew this. He could and would help him. but to be with him was “emasculating” too says G-R — as it was for Martha’s husband, the son-in-law.

The one person who did not leave was Sally. Her decision to return to France permanently fixed her in his orbit until he died.

Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s other plantation, a retreat for all, black and white, late in Jefferson’s life

Continued in comments.


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Thomas Sully, Martha Jefferson Randolph (1836, the last year of Martha’s life), it’s said she’s looks younger than she did, but the resemblance is true and like that of her father

Dear friends and readers,

As I wrote last time, with this book I felt I had come back to one of my first books that had real content, Patsy Jefferson (by whom I do not know). I’m still not satisfied; while major parts of the falsifying sentimental picture of this woman that appealed to me and stayed in my memory have been corrected, a lot not. The loving father-and-daughter, the well-educated young girl & effective Washington DC hostess for the president now has been filled out with Patsy or Martha’s education (I shall call her Martha as that was her name when she grew older), adult woman’s life, difficult last years, I was still left with a white world. At each turn, for each chapter of Martha’s life the African-American people she was surrounded by were presented as an afterthought, a couple of sketched in paragraphs, apart from everything else. Paradoxically too Jefferson himself was somehow omitted: his attitudes towards women’s education, and his white wife and daughters, his outward public politics, and shaping decisions, to some extent why he went broke in the end, but nothing inward, none of his philosophy.

And yet I did like the book and recommend it for what it does. MJR belongs with thorough studies of upper class educated white southern women of the 18th and through the middle 19th century; Kierner is really readable and adds to our knowledge of the texture of such women’s lives. She also gives a frank if too discrete depiction of a slave-based society.

Love & Death at Monticello; Patsy Jefferson’s education

The various plantations where Jeffersons’ family found refuge during the war

Kierner’s opening chapter concentrates on creating the world of mid-18th century plantation, colonial, settler’s life. Thomas Jefferson fell in love with, but also married prudently a widow, Martha Wayles Skelton, daughter of John Whales. When she came to Monticello, she brought with her as property, the children grown into adults her father had had by an enslaved woman, Elizabeth Heminges. Among them were two brothers, James and Robert, whom Jefferson trained to be a French cook and a valet, and Elizabeth’s (unacknowledged because a slave) half-sister, Sarah known to history as Sally Hemings. The first chapter covers the Jefferson’s family during the time he was a colonial official and then a participant-rebel-architect of the American revolution. Jefferson’s first career, the dangerous revolt and his rise to national prominence. Jefferson was Governor of the colony of Virgina, and the family lived in a beautiful mansion (large and fashionable for Americans, but destroyed in 1781, a fire). Then Jefferson’s position and place enabled him to receive and convey political and military information for the revolution.

We all remember the British lost, maybe not that Jefferson’s military behavior was wanting. Virginia was a main theater for some of the Revolutionary battles, and though Lafayette had arrived with a force of 1200 men, Jefferson did not call out the local militia to defend Richmond itself. The criticism heaped on him led him to do what he periodically did throughout his life: retire from public office and imply he would not be back. Until very old, he would return.

Suffice to say while the family sustained losses (including it’s recorded 30 slaves who successfully escaped), they emerged sufficiently wealthy to return to Monticello and make it again a center of local social life. Meanwhile Jefferson’s wife, Martha had had six live births or babies, and many miscarriages; two children only survived to adulthood, Martha when young called Patsy and her younger sister, Mary or Maria when young called Polly. Her fate is one Kierner records frequently: the woman slowly grew feebler with continual pregnancies and childbed ordeals, and died of them.

Jefferson was a man dependent on women for affection; he liked having women around him, and treated the young Martha as a substitute wife, a companion from the time her mother died. She was intellectually gifted. Jefferson was hostile to women having any independent careers, public power, but eager to educate those able to able to in the finer arts and thought of their society, to provide them with manners and the wherewithal to run a large household effectively and educate their own children. They were to be companions to men (very Rousseau). The portrait of the Martha that emerges is of a gifted young woman living in a society that developed these gifts for a private domestic life, leaving her room and time to fulfill herself and do limited good within her terrain.

Hotel de Langeac, Paris, Jefferson’s large mansion

When the new US was (so to speak) in place, Jefferson managed to secure the ambassadorship to France for himself after spending a good deal of time in Philadelphia (then the culture capital of the US) and Boston. He took Patsy with him, each time leaving her with a woman to live with to guide and educate her. One worked out well, of an enlightened intelligent mind, the other a narrow religious type she had to struggle with. She did have resentments against being left behind and the education she had to undergo — “finishing” (drawing dancing). When they went to Paris, Jefferson put her in a convent. This would seem to contradict his apparent stance that he took her with him for company and to be a hostess for him. Kierney says it was because the convent offered the best education to be had; but Jefferson wanted his daughter chaste, sheltered. He brought Patsy to Paris as a front for him to appear conventional. While there, he had a liaison, with the married Maria Cosway, an Italian-English artist; it’s revealing of his character that Jefferson remained friends with Maria by letters until his death.

The convent was French Catholic and Martha did have a period of religious enthusiasm where she told her father she longed to become a nun — soon after which she was pulled out. Nonetheless, she emerged cosmopolitan in attitudes by the whole experience. In the convent and then in her father’s house, she came across all sorts of attitudes, including outright condemnation of slavery and she herself wrote a few remarks showing she understood the abysmal horrors of this condition. Then her sister, Polly (who had never known the mother and didn’t know the father by then) was brought over (against Polly’s will) to accompany Patsy and Polly joined her father as another companion (sort of).

It was around the time Martha was taken from the convent and was joined by her sister that her life with her father changed. Polly had been accompanied by Sarah Hemings (as a sort of enslaved caretaker-governess); Sarah was a year younger than Martha and 4 years older than Polly. Sarah was also these girls’ aunt (their mother’s half-sister). Robert as Jefferson’s valet and James as the French cook were already there — mingling with the French free servants. I note they were also his wife’s half-brothers, thus Martha’s uncles (and slaves). It seems that by the time Jefferson left Paris for home again Sally was pregnant by him. Suddenly when Kierner tells the reader this, she also says that it’s probable Patsy wrote many letters during this period but all have been destroyed. Well, duh. I wonder why. I imagine she was shocked.

Jefferson was in Paris a total of 7 years. Martha had fallen in love with a Wm Stone, a protege of Jefferson, very intelligent, sophisticated, Stone had gone to Wm and Mary and come with Jefferson, but he declined to return. He had had a number of affairs with the wives of French aristocrats and preferred the relatively free liberated life of France. Martha herself made friends while there, and her Paris life remained in her mind as a high point in her existence, a time when she envisioned for herself a life of liberty and social engagement.

The picture of this family going home may seem to a 21st century mind awkward: Jefferson, Patsy and Polly, the whites and Sally, Robert and James Hemingses, the blacks who slept apart in slaves’ quarters. It’s at this point that Kierner drops in passing how much Sally looked like the white wife, Martha, now dead. The question arises why they didn’t stay in Paris? Kierner says it’s supposed Jefferson promised to free them all when he died, and to free Sally’s children at age 21. I suggest that living with him in relative opulence was superior to having nowhere to turn for jobs or sustenance, no network but Jefferson’s and the one at home was the deciding factor. Jefferson treated Sally as somewhere between a mistress and slave; she had no status — it has to be remembered how a slave is someone defined as w/o any status at all.

Wife, mother, plantation mistress

Martha’s husband Thomas Mann Randolph (1768-1828)

Told by a less discreet, less determinedly optimistic author, Martha’s marriage would turn into a story of how after a mere two months back, centrally because Jefferson had made Sally his mistress-wife, he married Martha off to a friend of his, Thomas Mann Randolph, whose properties abutted, whose family had intermarried with the Jeffersons. Within a few years Randolph the son’s ill-tempered and highly emotional personality emerged, and when the plantation business failed (very hard to achieve given his role as Jefferson’s substitute-aid again and again politically), he became “unstable and abusive,” even in his last decade someone who moved in and out of psychosis.

But this is not the way Kierner tells us. She produces Sally in Monticello as Jefferson’s slave-mistress very much as an afterthought as a reason for wanting to remove Patsy from the house. She concedes others have explained this over-hasty, over-young marriage as a result of Sally’s pregnant presence.

Kierner tells us that Tom Randolph and Patsy Jefferson were childhood sweethearts, of how intelligent Tom was, how much he admired Jefferson, how as the eldest son of the Randolphs he was set to inherit, how natural it all was. Only the lack of time was unusual. And yes maybe Patsy was bit young, just 17. Hard to say, only that what happened was after in the earliest couple of years of her marriage, initially living afar from Monticello, and then wanting to come back to live, Patsy’s desire to be near and with her father re-asserted itself and she and her husband first moved to a property nearby and then into Monticello itself. The couple at first did seem happy enough and worked hard to make themselves independent plantation master and mistress while Jefferson went off to serve in New York city where the political center of the country was. (Taking Sally with him.) Within 5 years Patsy had 4 children.

The Randolph family did not cooperate with Jefferson’s scheme of providing for Martha through their heir and placing her in a thriving atmosphere. Tom’s father remarried a much younger woman, Gabriella Harvie — she too the daughter of a friend and she just entrenched herself in the big house, and she had a son. Then Tom’s father wrote a new will giving most of his property to the new son. A close relative, another Tom Randolph impregnated Nancy, his wife’s sister, who seemed continually to be living with them; worse yet, when it was born, he helped her murder it. They thought to cover it up but the slaves saw and eventually the magistrates saw they would have to prosecute. The court exonerated the couple (so not only juries nullify) and Nancy and Tom and Judith took up life together again, only soon after Tom died, and then Nancy and Judith was left alone with little property.

An interesting set of statistics brought in at one point: in Albemarle where Tom and Patsy had their main property near Monticello 5579 slaves accounted for 44% of the population; the county’s 9226 slaves were the majority. To do Patsy’s husband justice he at first did not want to have more than a minimum of slaves, wanted a small holding and to be an attorney, but found he could not make money that way and found he didn’t have time to study. It’s clear that many of these wealthy people lived on an edge and their wealth was very much dependent on free slave labor, slaves they didn’t have to treat well.

Tom did not that quickly succumb to too much stress, emotional, and some kind of organic illness. He held public office, and what did him in more than anything else was debt. Debt was the burden of the southern plantation owner.
Martha spent much of her life making sure that illness did not conquer her children, a major feat with malaria everywhere. Educating them. She ran an efficient plantation too, and an important presence in her life was Molly Hemings, Sally’s niece. Molly was the daughter of Mary, Sally’s sister and thus another half-sister of Jefferson’s first wife. Jefferson has Martha and Maria (Polly’s name changed to that when she grew up, and she too was married off to a son of one of Jefferson’s friends and county allies) come to Washington to be his hostesses.

Chapter 4 comes to an end with Kierner’s suddenly telling of the children Sally had by Jefferson before Jefferson became president, Harriet, a girl who died at age 4 and William Beverly. Jefferson’s children by Sally were given white names.

Kierner does say there is a disconnect between the life Martha was allowed to live in Paris and the expectations for her future she could have formed there — especially watching how other upper class women lived. If so, and if the life thrust upon her quickly, ever felt at odds with what she had dreamed for herself, Martha never said so.

The President’s Daughter

Washington DC, 1800

Martha and her sister, Maria, spent two periods in Washington DC acting as hostess for their father. This was not easy for them as both had responsibilities to their husbands and homes and children. But he needed someone to present a socially acceptable face and family to the DC world. Since sometime after Jefferson became president for the first time the first raw and mean caricatures of Sally as his mistress-bull were printed, I guess that he took the bold step of taking her with him to DC. There is something unusual here: southern men did simply take black woman as if some kind of animal they had a right to, or sometimes more humanly but Jefferson’s behavior was too consistent and continual towards Sally; he also named her children with names from his family and white culture and he was bringing them up with education. Thus he was a target for ridicule and derision as part of campaigns by those who disagreed with his policies.

The tale of Jefferson’s two daughters’ lives is otherwise yearly pregnancies, childbed traumas, and babies for Martha, with Maria finally (like her mother before her) dying of this. Martha’s husband, Tom gradually gets deeper into debt. At one point they feel forced to sell a large group of black people south.

Then we have Jefferson’s post-presidency years. The book is organized along the lines of Jefferson’s life because Patsy (or Martha) organized her life in accordance with where her father was. Yet Jefferson kept his distance. We are told his part of the house were his, and Martha’s family was leary of coming into these places (library, his bedroom, a sitting room). Sally is mentioned once and we hear of more children as well as other Hemingses trained to do skilled work (John, a master woodworker, p 169)

For Martha of course yet more children too, more deterioration of her and her husband’s finances. Again Kierner is the justifier, seeking balance and cheerful normalization. Tom craved respect as a man and joined the military and made a temporary success out of that. Martha was afraid of losing Tom (by death) and got him to resign, but he felt he had won respect. Kierner recounts how most accounts of Martha’s life tell of much unhappiness and discord because finally the husband could not accept his second place and says that’s not so, there was much compatibility and satisfaction. Perhaps. But all Kierner’s details are of clash, discord. They did sell a huge parcel of land again.

Perhaps the nadir of this phase of Martha’s life is found in what happened to her daughter, Anne, whom Martha had married off young to a nearby neighbor, Charles Bankhead. Bankhead turned out to be not just a gambler, and unfaithful but violent. He assaulted his wife and not one member of the family — not Jefferson, not Martha, tried to protect her. It was okay for this man to beat this woman in another room. They would not interfere and said they were powerless. So here you have your aristocratic home with elegant knowledge and how is a chief daughter treated? (pp. 168-169) One day this man stabbed Martha’s oldest son, Jeff and almost killed him. Again (as with the early infanticide incident) there were charges but the man was found not guilty. Since her family would not help her, it’s almost fortunate that Anne was dead by 36 — the yearly pregnancies hadn’t helped either.

Martha tried to find good husbands for her other daughters. She made efforts to step them from marrying young — as she had, her (dead) sister had and now her daughter, Anne. She sent them to DC to women she knew there (Dolly Madison among them) to find suitors. One problem was she had kept them too much at home and they were awkward and somehow naive.

Decay and dissolution

The entrance hall to Monticello

A bright spot for Tom, the husband, was he became governor three times. There was no general election; you were elected by the members of the state senate. Along with his military record, this gave him a boost. Ellen, Martha’s daughter had married late and well and is happy with a well-to-do lawyer in Boston, has a baby. But the debts became overwhelming, Thomas Jefferson’s too, and by the end of the chapter Martha’s husband has had to sell most of his beloved property and also slaves. He does feel bad about this — as does she and she tries not to sell some house servants and succeeds to a certain extent. One wanted to be sold because she so hated her father who beat her. At Monticello and other Jefferson properties “enslaved persons’ to keep Kierner’s formulation were allowed to marry and encouraged to live in family groups.

Tom finally separates from Martha. He had himself been if not physically abusive, emotionally so in the last years together. He had suffered from the comparison of himself to Jefferson; now Tom’s eldest son, Jeff, the same Jeff who was stabbed was left all the property by Jefferson — some in trust for his mother. This Jeff was not intellectual and did poorly at university but he was a very good businessman. Tom could not accept this. It was Jeff who pushed his father, Tom, to sell his property and then Jeff himself bought it, cut it into parcels and sold each separately, making a profit — something badly needed.

Jefferson took a long time dying. While just ill, Lafayette came once more and it was a happy time — both aging men cried. Again Kierner is grating. It seems to take her a real effort to finally admit the last 2 week vigil of Martha sitting by her father included Sally in that room. It also is hard to her to call Jefferson’s sons by Sally his sons. They were freed shortly before he died and sent on their way as apprentices and with skills — well out of the area to protect them. Sally was (oddly)was not freed. I don’t know why not and it’s not explained. She goes to live with a (suddenly appealing) grandchild and other Hemings relatives in Charlottesville. Nominally she and they remain owned by Martha. It was an understood arrangement which worked. Salley died in 1835.

So the chapter closes, and Martha must leave her home. She chooses first to live with Ellen in Boston. Her other unmarried daughters plan to open a school. Jess is a businessman farmer. They all did dislike slavery, on record about this and they now own very few — house and personal servants. she staved off opening a school and teaching. She would say she wanted to, but in a revealing phrase, she concedes that since people send their children to learn whatever it is for a few short years at most, you must ever be introducing a pupil to an area, giving them elementary background and never get to where it’s interesting. So all her languages knowledge would have devolved into grammar exercises.

For Martha’s last years, see comments.


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Some people say that life is the thing, but I much prefer reading.” — Logan Pearsall Smith

“I have lost friends, some by death… others through sheer inability to cross the street. — Virginia Woolf

Hans Holbein, possibly Katherine Howard (fifth wife of Henry VIII)

Dear friends and readers,

Do you find, gentle reader, that you sometimes remember the very first books you ever loved or read and realize that on some level you are still delving there? The first adult books I ever read — taken out of the adult library with an adult card were fat thick biographies of Renaissance queens. I still see the sturdy dull brown covers (they were recovered older books) of 2 books one on Margaret de Navarre and one on her daugjhter, Jeanne d’Albret. Many years later: how many years did I spend reading, researching Renaissance women, writing about them? I’ve now read Margaret’s long inward meditation Dante-like journey poem, Prisons, in an English translation, her spiritual “chansons” in French and literary critical books, one on her and Vittoria Colonna compared (Silvia Laura Ansermin), others on the Heptameron, especially good, Patricia Francis Chokalian, Rape and Writing in the Heptameron, and one of the most vivid insightful books on a Renaissance woman I’ve ever found, Francois Kermina’s Jeanne d’Albret: La mere passionnee d’Henri IV, and what I felt was its cousin Kermina’s study of Madame Roland or la Passion Revolutionaire.

It seems to me that part of my graduate study and the first 20 years of reading and writing after I left graduate school which culminated in my translations of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara and my student of Renaissance women’s life-writing is another coming full circle.

A modern imagined idea of Sally Hemings from some contemporary descriptions, probably idealized

Well, I’ve been unexpectedly hooked by a book I can’t recommend but will blog about when I’ve finished it: Cynthia Kierner’s Martha Jefferson Randolph, Daughter of Monticello, the oldest white daughter of Thomas Jefferson by his first wife, Martha Wayles Skelton. It’s remarkably readable, and reveals sufficiently a particular life of an 18th century gentlewoman at the same time as it consistently omits much about the second central player, Jefferson himself: his political vision as well as his private life apart from his white family and public life: the relationship with the woman who had she not been African-American and his slave might have been called his second wife: Sally Hemings. Sally certainly lived enough years with and bore many children by him.

I’m intrigued by a relationship I can’t delve: one of the first semi-adult books I remember reading, around age 10, was a slenderish (novella-length) biography meant for say an adolescent, Patsy Jefferson. I can’t recall the author. It was not a “young adult fiction” (or non-fiction), of the sort publishers produce today, deliberately written to a niche, simplified prose and somewhat naive realities, but a real reading book but in the young adult section of an old-fashioned library (in the Bronx where I grew up), one of several rows of books picked out by librarians. Many years later I picked up a copy of another book very like it, which I also read, slightly later (I was 11) LouAnn Gaeddert’s All in All, a biography of George Eliot. Produced by Dutton, I reread it when I found it and showed it to my older daughter, who alas did not show much interest. It is really suitable for a young adolescent or teen; it’s relatively frank telling of George Eliot’s life and career, how she left her father over a religious crisis, went to London, fell in love with Lewes who could not marry her, went to live with him, built a career, and when he predeceased her, her second marriage and death not long afterward. It even has some mild literary criticism.

I don’t know that I’ve come quite full circle with Patsy since what I have in my hands also and will read next is Annette Gordon-Read, The Hemingses of Monticello: the story not only of Sally, but of her mother who was a slave and had many children by Jefferson’s first wife’s father. These children all called Hemings are the subject of this arduously researched book. It’s both books that I need to read and I think I need to because I want to return to what I began when I was 10 and now read a fully adequate or adequate book on this Jefferson’s daughter — and second common-law enslaved wife.

Many years after All in All I can say that having read all Eliot’s fiction, a lot of her non-fiction, several biographies, her life-writing in various forms and lots of literary criticism, plus watched a number of great film adaptations, I fulfilled what I began when I read Gaeddert’s book.

Jodhi May as Mirah Lapidoth in Andrew Davies’ 2002 film adaptation of Eliot’s Daniel Deronda — May consistently appears as precisely the heroine type I bond with again and again — from Sarah Lennox in Aristocrats to Anne Boleyn in a fine BBC film

None of this is part of the reading I keep planning will be my whole occupation over this fall. I just couldn’t resist Patsy as over the years I’ve not been able to resist George Eliot, the Brontes, Austen, Renaissance queens and literary women, all begun when I was young.

A corollary is that I find I am very disappointed by women who write books with male heroes at the center. Reading about the gender fault-line in tastes this week I came across the common or at least familiar idea that women are willing to make the cross-over and read books with men at the center as happily as they do women at the center and enjoy identifying easily with the heroes while men are often not willing to make the cross-over. Some men are not just embarrassed to admit they enjoy women’s books and identify with women’s heroines (not just read them as one would about an erotic object); they genuinely cannot or will not enter into a book with a female at the center.

In my experience, as limited as it is (for how many friends have I had with whom I discuss this sort of thing and are willing to be truly candid), I’ve found a lot of women like me. I strongly strongly prefer a novel with a woman at the center and have found I often like them best when the book is written by a woman. You can get men who come close to writing heroine’s texts or whose heroes have a feminine sensibility, can encompass female obsessions, needs, roles (Trollope, Henry James, E.M. Forster, LeCarre) but I find I often find a greater satisfaction when this kind of novel is by a woman (say Gaskell or Oliphant). I don’t make the cross-over in movies with ease either.

And yet I’ve fallen in love with these historical Poldark fictions by Winston Graham where he has males at the center as much and more than his females, intelligent, complex characters. I identify with his males too. In the last Poldark, Bella Poldark I found I recognized my own kind of self-destructive needling of people and social awkwardness stemming from a background of rejection by one parent and over-possession by the other: Valentine Warleggan. How can this be? I want to understand. My idea is to explore historical fiction, long a favorite with me but also romance and mystery and how these two latter popular kinds blend in with historical fiction. I’ve already done some of this with my reading of Jerome de Groot and Helen Hughes, but I’m not satisfied. Why these books? of course I know it’s something individual in me that a chord is hitting, and that he keeps hitting it in his major characters and their fates. Can I find someone who comes near to discussing this chord as it comes out in historical fiction or these kinds? If nothing else, I’d be able to predict what book I should read next and not waste my little time left.

So I began again with Pamela Regis’s book about what’s called “romance novels” for women. Suffice to say I discovered that (what I already knew) while Graham has some romance patterns, his books do not at all fit into Regis’s notion. Still in reading the first half of Regis’s book I thought Pamela Regis did make visible a pattern that is true to many heroine’s texts, one most feminists overlook.

Regis suggests there are 8 essential motifs or events/occurrences found in romance novels that she defines as a heroine-centered novel about the falling in love and courtship of a woman which ends happily in marriage. According to her, this plot-design allows for the reading traveling with the heroine from innocence into maturity. The stages are: first a definition or description of a society (often flawed, disordered); the meeting of the heroine with the hero; a barrier which keeps them apart; an intense attraction; a declaration of love; a point where all is despaired of (ritual death); then recognition (that you are all in all to one another, you have found your deeply congenial mate); and, lastly, betrothal. The text (or film) can end here, but three more paradigmatic events often recur: the wedding, dance or fete, which brings all the characters together; the exiling of a scapegoat who represents the worst norms of behavior (e.g., in Austen’s P&P Wickham), and someone who behaves very badly converted to agree to the marriage of the central pair sufficiently (again in Austen’s P&P, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Miss Bingley, just).

I cited Austen’s P&P twice. Regis declares Austen’s P&P the most perfect romance novel ever written, and it seems clear that she just about derives her paradigms from this novel. Not altogether as her examples from the 18th and 19th century include Richardson’s Pamela, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Forster’s A Room with a View.

I am bothered by several troubling elements in her book. First, she insists that the romance novel have a happy ending. If it does not, it cannot be a “good” or successful one. It will not have done its “job” or performed its “function.” The same idea was produced in Janice Radway’s famous study of romances as read by ordinary women in a mid-western commnunity. Thus DuMaurier’s Rebecca (courtship can also occur after a marriage) and Mitchell’s GWTW cannot be “good” romance novels as their endings are qualified. I cannot see this. I agree with Regis and others that a marriage at the close of a book need not be an imprisonment at all: it can provide real liberty within the terms a real society offers, contentment, security, peace. But I do not see that one must have a happy ending. It seems not to be important at all to Regis what are the particular inward values a novel promulgates (like the trade of virginity for high status in Pamela). I prefer a sad ending to one that is not believable or one based on ugly values the couple will then embody in their lives (be these competition, exploitation, greed, pride whatever).

This reminds me of how I’ve read repeatedly that good mystery novels are escapist and comfort book. To the contrary, when I’m really involved in a mystery novel where characters I care about are at risk of harm (murder, rape), I feel all anxiety, not comfort. I rise from a Susan Hill novel disquieted about society — as I should be, given norms of aggressive behavior allowed. What I like is the qualified happy, unhappy or making do ending.

Jodhi May as the feminine lesbian in Tipping the Velvet (Andrew Davies’ film from Sarah Walters’ marvelous romance novel)

Last in the last part of Regis’s book her examples of 20th century romance novels are all poor and trite: she suddenly shows herself enamored of glamor, of alpha males, accepts rape, does not at all demand complex psychology, will not tolerate truly vulnerable, sensitive, distressed hurt heroes or heroines who at the close are worldly failures.

So one must take the 8 stages and the three optional paradigms apart from the rest of Regis’s perspective and use them to understand genuinely humane, intelligent complex romances. For myself I have to have a definition of romance much wider than the courtship pattern, one which includes other patterns of woman’s lives after marriage and if they don’t marry at all. It must only have a happy ending that is warranted and one that does not celebrate meretricious or unexamined values. With this corrective, I find myself thinking back to so many of the novels by women (and men) with heroines at the center which I’ve loved very much and understanding their structures much better.

I have begun Ford Madox Ford’s famous Fifth Queen: about Katherine Howard and it seems to me superior to Hilary Mantel’s two-prize winning historical fictions set in the Renaissance, centering on the earlier Tudor courts and Thomas Cromwell. This Cromwell has fascinated fine minds: like Bolt for his Man for All Seasons.

I do need companionship and am finding in these books companionship and explanations for why I do find it here. I was not able to lead the 20th century careerist modern woman’s life nor am that of the socially active mother or wife, and these eras (pre-20th century) before the recent constructions of these roles emerged offers me women who feel the way I do. Friends. Instead of writing this blog I could’ve told you a personal story, reader, that ended badly for me, but that kind of thing is supposed to be reserved for my Sylvia blog and after all it is too painful and too much about cyberspace experiences for me to be able to do it.

I find myself reading today, more than 56 years after I was born and I first began to read books meant for adult and semi-adult readers, the same kinds of matter I read from the time I started reading, only I take a much more knowledgeable, sophisticated and I sincerely hope enlightened approach.


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Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln

Gentle reader,

See it. Don’t miss. It’s riveting, suspenseful (we get to watch an election vote-by-vote — without computer, without Fox News — what more American?), gritty. People every once in a while insult one another gleefully. Says Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens to a racist conservative democrat I don’t believe in equality because I know you, you idiot, bigot, loud-mouthed animal are not my equal; I just want everyone to be equal before the law, even you. Of course there’s a myth wrapped up in that as there are many in the film you have to think about later, such as the idea that real liberty for black people was won with the 13th amendment. The film has the usual flaws of such films (e.g.,like Amazing Grace; “history as progress narrative“). Still it has much to deliver. If you don’t want to bother read on, that’s what I have to say tonight. The rest is why and how the film is good and where are some flaws.

I can’t know what you’ve read about Spielberg’s Lincoln (Anthony Lane’s “House Divided“?), screenplay Tony Kushner, focusing on Lincoln’s determined effort to have his Congress pass the 13th amendment to the US constitution, outlawing chattel slavery. I’m writing about the film because I was very moved by it — along with (it seemed to me) most people in a heavily crowded mixed-race auditorium at my local semi-art cinema in Northern Virginia. I might have said “despite its iconic material” but know it’s because of the iconic nature of its material that in this year 2012 this story, these characters are quickened with wrought up life. What US child has not been exposed to scenes of civil war carnage, the millions dead, the bloody bloody battles, the archetypal figures of Lee all formal frozen elegance and Grant taking off his hat at Appomattox. Lincoln? You cannot do such scenes ironically or as comedy. Are we still not fighting the civil war in our other present damaging wars? This is a movie about us today, about racism, about whether you believe in equality of all (whites against whites too); its issues have not yet been resolved it seems. When near the close Jackie Earle Dailey as a weasel-like Alexander Stevens, negotiating for the confederacy will not concede that it’s not a question of two countries at war but one in dire conflict, nor that anyone has the right to free “the property” of the confederate wealth, we are hearing a variant of this year’s unspoken elite-control versus egalitarian-liberty, Romney/Ryan-versus-Obama/Clinton clashes.

Historical films worth seeing are about today in disguise and present their issues ambivalently. I thought this would be like in type to two season’s ago The King’s Speech, a mini-series inside 2 and 1/2 hours, film adaptation (of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) with Lewis taking the Colin Firth eloquent hero role. It’s not. After all these mini-series are a British form. This is not an intellectual’s film — though it helps if you know your American history, the more about this period of the civil war, these individuals the better: such as Stevens was beaten viciously so that he was nearly crippled, had a black mistress-housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton smith [played by S. Epatha Merkerson) he loved dearly. It’s like wholesome American TV: Ken Burns stuff.

Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens

Also it helps to know your cinema. Film-makers like to quote. This one quotes The Talk of the Town (1942). At the close of the forever unforgettable TOTN after Ronald Colman’s risks his career appointment as a justice to the supreme court, and gets the position, we see him walk away from home (from the back) from the POV of his endlessly loving, smiling older independent minded male black valet who has just made sure Colman is wearing the right jacket, so at the close of Lincoln, we watch Lewis walk away from home on the fatal night of his assassination (yes Spielberg neglects no buttons) from the POV of William Slade as his endlessly loving, smiling older male black valet who was never a slave and has just tried to make sure Mr Lincoln wears his gloves. This kind of worshipfulness of the great (white noble) man by the superior (black intelligent) “everyman” is still with us. We also have an obligatory scene between Lincoln as great (white) man taught by an ordinary (black) person, this time a woman, Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Lincoln’s “colored” maid: Mrs Keckley encourages Mr Lincoln to go on with his determination to pass the 13th amendment after his wife has such raged against his refusal to try to make peace above all and at any price because now their son has enlisted.

The Lincoln family (Mr, Mrs, her maid) at the theater

There are still far too few black people in the film. It’s too much a small group of white men saving the world (something one finds in many a commercial historical film). Lincoln opens on Lincoln talking to two black men, one of whom I recognized as the powerful black male lead of Small Island, David Oyelowo. He did not appear again after the initial scene, opening scene where Lewis was Lincoln as Henry V listening to the men who fight:

Oyelowo wants to know why black men are paid less

Izzy told me biopics often begin with the death of the central figure. One of the mistakes of this film was to fast forward at its close to Lincoln’s death so we could then have a retrospective drenched in nostalgia and loss where we see and hear at long last one of Lincoln’s many stump speeches delivered to a huge crowd. I’ve read these. They have much Biblical language, but are simple direct passionate denunciations of slavery, eloquent defenses of equality (in the mode of Burns’s “a man’s a man for aye that”). I’d hoped we’d have more of them and earlier. The choice was rather to show us Lincoln at home (undoing Mary’s corset, arguing fiercely with her over their son, reminiscing and looking forward to the traveling future they would not have), Lincoln with his cabinet, with his son, with his hired band of half-drunk bribers, one-on-one with this or that person. Or alone, at a distance, privately ruminating. He is all height, a concave shadow, who walks awkwardly as if he doesn’t want to take up the space his body needs, his hands oddly strength-less.

No one can say that Lewis’s performance is one of impersonation as we have no tapes of Lincoln, only the words of his speeches, what he and others wrote down about him in life, his writing to be read — these Lewis delivers with an understated held-back, soft, low startlingly (if you remember his usual cut-glass accent in Room with a View, his cockney in My Beautiful Laundrette) western American set of vowels circa 1860; his whole posture is of laid back, withdrawn power brought forth fully when periodically force is called for. It does work because none of the speeches are wooden lines of narrative or ideas fed the audience in the way of BBC/PBS style mini-series costume-historical film drama. The character talks naturally. He can pronounce, but he is also witty (“joyful to be comprehended” he mutters at one point to James Spader as Bilbo who anachronistically greets Lincoln with “I’ll be fucked” what are you doing here?),

Spader as Bilbo in the House

He is conflicted, deep in thought, worried, austere and icy too. at moments I wondered if Lewis had Obama in mind.

It may be taken as a rebuff to Obama since central to what happens is how Lincoln will not give in. He will pass the 13th amendment before ending the war lest the peace legalities find his Emancipation Proclamation does not apply post-war situation. He fights and fights hard, using all weapons, from a crew of coarse bribing networker-enforcers who bully, pressure, manipulate to get the necessary votes. When Lincoln is needed in the last days, he’s there in the thick of it, finding out individuals and persuading them. As Obama often has failed to and so given up what he should not have or not gotten what he should.

Too much radiance, too much plaintive music. Far too little sense of history as a group of forces. Ang Lee’s Ride to the Devil did that (also civil war), and somehow Lee managed to avoid cliched scenes (he’s not American himself), but Ang Lee’s film was trashed by the studios (they did not advertise it) and it flopped. Sally Field as Mary Lincoln made too dense or again too seething. But it has to have the rhetoric debates, the scenes of corpses, the songs, the lines of men in blue or grey.

I’ve an idea Spielberg made the film because the matter is iconic.

But there are also some funny moments, and wry jokes here and there (Kushner wrote it): Lane caught Mary Lincoln’s just think “four more years in this terrible house”. I loved Lincoln’s fondly told long-drawn out gentle joke-y tales, with their indirect relevance. When Lincoln moves into gnomic poetry mode, and David Stratairn as Steward beyond patience, exasperated into complaint, cries aloud “I have no idea what you are talking about,” I laughed aloud. I laughed aloud several times in the movie when no one near me did.

So go and you too can get to appreciate the jokes no one sitting near you does.


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Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) finding one of the girls fleeing in a wood

I watched this film for the first time last night. It’s an important film which I hope more people saw than I fear did (I suspect it was not a mass entertainment even if it played in mainstream cinemas). It’s a kind of Helen Mirren Prime Suspect film made more realistic and done with ensemble type acting. I’m only a year late (it’s a 2011 film) for a review, and trafficking is as pervasive as ever, plus collusion and downright activity by those who are supposed to stop it themselves doing it.

In her usual gear

Rachel Weisz plays the part of a American (mid-western) police woman who simply will not not do her job; she has real integrity and will not go through the motions pretending in order to collect a salary and remain prestigously within the group. She goes to Bosnia fora career advancement (yes) and also to do good work in an environment where she might be really needed. One night she encounters a group of beaten prostitutes who look terrible and understands that these are trafficked women; one is very sick. She attempts to send the
one to the hospital and the others to safety. She is just one person; while she is taking the group herself to a safe hospice, she cannot be in the hospital; she goes there to discover that the girl cannot be sent home because she lacks papers. Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac is never for a moment put off by such patent lies. She replies, so what? we’ll get her papers. No we can’t do this, the rules say … She finds herself up against a wall. She returns to the hospice to
discover the girls have been returned to the bar.

Unlike Jane Tennison who then would have to go through a long plot to discover that there are paid kick-backs everywhere (which come to think of it shows her were we thinking realistically to be very dim), Kathryn immediately sees that they were returned by the UN peacekeeping authorities because at least one person, probably more was taking a kick-back. What she has to learn (and without much trouble) is that many are taking bribes, and many of the men who are peacekeepers are the very men buying these women and abusing them under the guns and whips and other hard mean weapons of the women’s keepers.

Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave)

The plot-design of the story is then three-fold, and is a realistic mirror (reminding me of Five Days where the mirror was a domestic life situation of lower middle class people in the UK). It was not to discover that (in the words of Madeleine Rees, or Vanessa Redgrave, who again has chosen to be in this kind of exposing movie — Coriolanus‘s this), that “those hired “to protect the vulnerable are raping them themselves”, buying and selling them themselves. This is put before us again and again in the evidence, as vignettes, incidents we see as simply obvious.

It’s rather to show us as watchers how formidable is the opposition to putting a stop to the traffic. We see this in each of the groups Kathryn tries to contact.

It is also to show us the realities of Kathryn’s life and how this is part of why she does what she does and how this private life of hers can get in the way or the police life change her private life. And to show us the girls being ruthlessly beaten, humiliated, tortured, and to put before us photos of these girls.

Raya when first seen (Roxana Condurache)

The movie opens with how one specific girl, Raya, was brought into these groups: one night she was out late with a friend, got involved sexually with someone, her friend pressured her to come out after the time she was due home. She went home and got into a quarrel with her mother, and then ran out into the night. That was the end of her life; the next time we see her she’s in a bar and is one of the girls that Kathryn encounters. To make the story effective the movie focuses on one girl’s story.

We see her mother is contacted by Kathryn or representations, how she begs money from her other daughter to go to the hospital. How the other daughter is beaten by her husband and is afraid to give her mother money (it’s not hers). But she does it. How the mother is too late. Then in a later scene we see the mother home again reviling the daughter as a cruel sister for this second daughter’s husband was the man who enabled the boyfriend that night to kidnap Raya.

As in Story 6 of Prime Suspect (“the Last Suspect”), like Helen Mirren, Kathryn has promised to keep the vulnerable girl, here Raya, safe. After Raya is snatched back, we see her dragged before the girls, thrown on a table, & knifed in the back (not killed but just scarred for life) before the other girls to show them what will happen if they try to talk to police or are willing to testify. So like Tennison, who loses first one sister to a brutal killing (and then the other alas), Kathyn is driven to make good on her promise somehow. In a scene near the end of the movie, at last Kathryn reaches one man who will raid the bar &promises not to return the girls. Once there though another group of men rush in, override this man and his crew, and Kathryn seeing Raya begs her in front of everyone to come away with her. Raya is too frightened and refuses. Later that night the same man who led the group in knifing her, takes her before the other girls and simply shoots her through the head.

She has become the lover of one man early in the film and he remains a confidant. We are told in a series of intertitles at the end of the film how all we have seen is real (just souped up for drama), how the real Kathryn now lives with Jan in the Netherlands. Apparently it was not safe to return to the US or Jan, this man’s name, was Dutch and wanted to stay in the Netherlands. A small part of the ammunition against Kathryn (this suggests this kind of loss of reputation does not count as much as women might fear) is her private life. She lives freely and has lovers. Goes to bars herself. But as an upper class (it’s understood in context) white American woman. In one interview a superior tries to needle her about a second story the movie opens with: her ex-husband has custody of her daughter. She was deemed less fit than he; he made more money; he could provide a conventional home with a stay-at-home wife/mother.

Kathryn lives in another state from him and one motive for going to Bosnia was the larger salary which could enable her to move back near her daughter. We see her job get in the way of keeping promises to her daughter to go to this or that occasion. So her story includes separation from her daughter and loss and one motive for her wanting to help Raya is she identifies with Raya’s mother (she says “I keep seeing Raya’s mother”). She also is enacting the mother she did not in US circumstances. This is parallel with Mirren who has had abortions and tries to be a mother where her job and wider usefulness and the life she wanted to lead would not permit her to have a baby, especially without a husband, a kind of relationship Jane did not really want.

The opposition. Those trafficking. Those using the women sexually, brutally. This provides the real action of the film, the hinge-points, the stages of excitement and danger. We see how gradually Kathryn is cut down. She is demoted, She goes to this or that chief officer and realizes very quickly they are protecting their men (and themselves too perhaps). Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) and Peter, another of these very few males who help women stop the trafficking, in effect Rees’s side-kick helper, are frustrated by what happens to Kathryn.

Peter (David Strathairn)

After Kathryn realizes one cannot working within the system (well, duh), and writes an email outside to a high official in a UK embassy, her ID and keys are taken away from her. She is now not just fired, but cannot go into the building to get her files. She must sneak in. She tries to get a woman friend to help her but the woman friend says I’m not you, I won’t risk my job. All do keep telling her it’s not safe, but like Mirren as Tennison, Weisz as Bolkovac seems to lead a charmed life. We might say fairy tale, but in fact Kathryn Bolkavac survived. (Part of the power of this film is it’s a real story transposed into action drama.) Well we see Peter help her.

A crucial turning point occurs as she is walking out of the building with her papers. We see Fred Murray (David Hewlett), aone of the lead man who fired her with Peter and Peter appears to have double-crossed her. She must turn over the bag. But they talk and Murray sneers at her. A few seconds later (scenes are short), Peter comes from behind to give her the bag. He was enabling her to get a tape of this man’s voice as part of her evidence when she returns to the UK.

There we see the interviews on TV with Bill Hynes head UN man (Liam Cunningham) who denies all complicity (as he said he would in another scene). He justifies this in a separate scene as enabling the UN to carry on. But what is it carrying on for? We also are told by him how much money is at stake, how the companies behind much that goes on in Bosnia of a money-making nature are Bosnian, and we know it’s his job.

We then see Kathryn on TV accusing Hynes of lying. The judge does side with Bolkovac (as happened in real life) and we are told (intertitles) all the specific individuals found guilty where deported back to their original countries. But no one was imprisoned, no one punished. And then we are given the huge numbers of people involved in trafficking and enslaved that continues on.

The acting does not bring Rachel Weisz so very centrally to the camera; we do not dwell on her nor on her life interwoven in the same way as Prime Suspect. There are a number of scenes (of Raya’s life, of Raya’s mother’s actions, of the girls’ lives either beaten, or in the bars, or Weisz’s eyes going over the photographs (reminding me of a film by Bergman where Liv Ullmann’s eyes go over photos and a narrative emerges) where Kathryn is not the central point of view.
Most of the time in Prime Suspect, Mirren is. That’s how they keep the plot-design a mystery. But the effect is very good as we feel a real sense of a large world on the screen. Weisz is herself a fierce presence, she has subtlety when needed, is tender, is of a wiry build (so has the requisite thinnness wanted of younger actresses). I feared for
her again and again. So that held me. I cared about her.

A portrait shot of her concerned and talking to another woman

I do like Weisz because of the films she’s in. My students learn a lot from The Constant Gardener; I learned a lot from Agora, neither of whom survived. Agora did exist for real and she survived a bit longer than Tessa, but then she was upper class, attached to upper class men.

I also cared intensely about Raya who is last seen dead, with wounds all over her body, in rags in the wood. Prime Suspect often opened on a scene like this. The wounded murdered corpse of a woman badly dressed.

And about the other girls whose voices, faces, bits of presence emerged now and again.

It’s no coincidence this is a film directed by a woman (Larysa Kondracki), written by a woman (Eilis Kirwan), centrally produced by three women (Amy Kaufman, Christina Piovesan, Celina Ratray). The men in the film every once in a while dismiss the trafficked women as whores. That word is enough. They are now without status.

Thinking about it brought home to me why I found a book like
Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (which I reviewed, and which review I will put online after it’s published) in such bad taste; & what’s wrong with books like Pullen’s Actresses and Whores (which unlike, Nussbaum’s seeks to upgrade the status of whores I will concede (Nussbaum just wants to separate her star actresses from prostitutes). Also those many online sites where feminists who want to stop prostitution are scorned and told they are imposing their prurient values on a profession that makes money and these girls chose and even do well at. Nussbaum, Pullen, and many others who insist on distinguishing courtesans from prostitutes. This so that they can write with admiration and pride about their favorite courtesans (be they actresses, or Renaissance poets, e.g., Veronica Franco, Gaspara Stampa, or today’s high-paid and high-class call girls) are imposing on a huge population, most of whom either are right away or become desperate victims (unless they escape very quickly) the luck of a few in just the way we are told to admire unqualified capitalism because a few succeed spectacularly and the rest clearly didn’t “have” their gifts, energies, strength of character, are inferior in some way, when the reality is the difference between the very few and the rest is where you are born, your class (circumstances, connections). The girls in Bosnia and the third world are like the proletariat in the third world, not fringe hangers-on on the tables of the powerful (the edges) but treated with open raw exploitation, and in the case of prostitution the job is to answer with your body whatever the average man wants of you.

So it’s the difference class makes this film teaches us, how terrible is the violence accepted across the world aimed at women, that it is simply felt by many men women are dispensable and to be used where possible (where class and location allows) like animals and then discarded when inconvenient.

And of course like many of Mirren’s films, the politics of the fable shows us those who are pretending to help the vulnerable (of whatever type) are either in collusion with the murderers & rapists & imperalists or themselves actively central.

The DVD includes a feature where we see Kathryn Bolkovac today, we see a woman involved in trying to stop trafficking, the director, screenplay writer, Weisz and Redgrave talking. Trafficking of women continues to be featured and discussed in many womens’ venues: see Women’s enews. This film has helped allegations against the UN to stop, but has it ended trafficking.

See also cross-cultural collaboration.

I cannot recommend seeing this one too highly and telling everyone you know to see it. Like Mirren’s films, it is entertaining because of the melodrama, excitement and the use of a powerful strong female hero or heroine at its center. I never thought I’d begin to love police-procedural type stories, but I have. I did not like many of the older mystery type novels with heroines at the center when they seemed frivolous and shallow and about retreat and upholding establishment values (Agatha Christie). A new breed of women’s film is among us and it is a re-write of male type films which we may hope males go to see, enjoy, and learn from too.


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The family broken up in a slave auction

Dear friends and readers,

I continue my report of the fine conference (East Central Region meeting of ASECS at Penn State) centering on the concept of liberty in the long 18th century. Over the course of three days, there emerged a developing definition for different groups of people, much pursuit, much thwarting. Gambling emerged as a mode of liberty rather than enslavement; controlling your image in public (a form of self-restriction) so as not to tell of your real private life provides a modicum of liberty; I heard defended cases of people turning away from friends so as to protect themselves (a paradoxical use of liberty). We all at the business lunch heard of the courage of the scientist and radical thinker, Priestley.

As in my first, my summaries of the papers are just part of the gist of what I heard: what I was able to take notes about and interested me. I enjoyed all the papers I heard very much and (as at Bethlehem), you’d think someone had my interests in mind. Then it was Burney; this time (for me) women seeking liberty as professionals, especially actresses as presented in their memoirs.

See the first report and the third.

So, in the later afternoon on Friday, we had our first plenary lecture: Jennifer L. Morgan in “‘Their Children shall be bound:’ Freedom and Family Life in New World Slavery.” Prof Morgan began by quoting Toni Morrison’s Beloved that marriages in slavery occurred in the darkness: it could not exist during the day. The slave trade turns enslaved people into commodities and black women disappear from the record. Women were treated brutally over and above their sexualized labor (for sex and to produce babies), enmeshed in systems of violence. The rhetoric justifying slavery claimed that African women were different from European: they had no pain in childbirth, could put their distended breasts behind their backs to feed a child while they were laboring in the fields; the purpose of their existence was to work and work hard, and mercilessly whipped to force this. She quoted someone who had written a description of family forcibly parted; showed us an Abolitionist image of the hold of a slave ship in the middle passage where one can see a slave women in a tiny space giving birth while she is shackled. There was a tradition in Africa of women doing hard agricultural work. She told of why African people sold others as slaves (you make more than when you farm); of the diseases African were and were not subject to; the difference in a life of rice versus cotton or tobacco cultivation

Despite all this black people were able to experience aspects of family life however checkered and anguished. Much of the lecture was taken up with showing whatever remnants are left of whatever kind of family life: slave owners wrote that one way to stop a man from revolting is to provide him with a wife, and there is much evidence enslaved parents cared intensely about their enslaved children; there are records of terrible punishments for women (working harder in fields, given worse jobs) when they try to cling to their children longer than allowed. This was a grim sobering talk about how slavery shaped and deformed slave families. I thought of speaking in the discussion afterwards of how George Calvert freed his slave family at Riverdale house and tried to provide for them, but I know these ameliorating sort of anecdotes because whites wrote them down.

An hour after the lecture, we had our reception of drinking and snacks at the Nittany Inn and then a banquet to which many people came. Suffice to say I enjoyed the talk with friends and acquaintances very much, especially some more women friends, Erliss, Sylvia and mingling with all sorts of people and the talk with yet others over dinner.

And then it was back to our room, some Riesling wine, books and bed.


Hester Thrale Piozzi (1741-1821) by Charles Dance (1793)

The next morning (Saturday) I went to two more sessions on professional women: these went beyond actresses to include novelists and letter-writers. Marilyn Francis’s paper on Hester Thrale Piozzi began the sequence. She began with the real problem that the definition of professional is not fixed in this era. Professionalism in the 16th century was defined as someone with a vocation; it has a religious sense as of one professing a faith. By 1784 it means someone engaged in a profession, someone with training and a skill; and by the end of the 18th century professionals were to be distinguished from amateurs in something of the 20th century way, but either word can be found used derogatorily. What do you do with a scientist like Caroline Herschel? Her paper was about women achieving professional status or recognition and respect for their kind of work (from writing to saloniere) even if we cannot see an outward recognizable shape in the sense of consecutive steps (and salary). Thus Sarah Fielding is a professional woman of letters if you study her life and work.

Marilyn felt, however, that Hester Thrale Piozzi represented someone unusual because she really commanded respect the way men who set standards do: say, Johnson with his dictionary, Reynolds with his Discourses of Art, Burney’s history of music. This, even if what she wrote was not conventionally recognizable as say a biography (her writing about Johnson is titled Anecdotes). Reviewers were unable to discuss her work according to their preconceived categories about genre, style, purpose, yet her content is liked. She was consistently writing, consistently inventing new genres and new criteria for genres. She existed in a liminal space between amateur and professional which allowed her to “take liberties” which were creative.

Gambling scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon

Loring Pfeiffer discussed gambling in women and men’s plays, with Susannah Centlivre’s Basset Table and Gamester, Mary Pix’s Beau Defeated, and Colley Cibber’s Lady’s Last Stake providing her example texts. Gambling was wildly popular in the 18th century, and when written about the concern was over “depravity,” loss of money; Collier said it leveled class distinctions. It displayed wealth and seemed immoral. Many characters in the era’s plays gamble, especially women, e.g., Lady Townley in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s Provoked Husband. Gambling compromised women’s chastity, shows that women are not easy to control. In Cibber’s Lady’s Last Stake, Lady Gentle is challenged when payment is sex; that frightens her into reform. In Centlivre’s Basset Table, Lady Reveler does not repent, marries and does not stop gambling, carries on with life of pleasure. Mrs Sago steals from her merchant husband to fund her habit of gambling and Mr Sago is blamed for not controlling his wife. Similarly in Mary Pix’s Beau Defeated, the middle class female character, Mrs Rich, learns to eschew gambling. Ms Pfeiffer felt that those heroines who at the end of their plays still have access to money parallel Centlivre’s own financial success and independence.

In her paper on Elizabeth Farren (1759-1829), Nora Nachumi asked what enabled Elizabeth Farren to escape the calumny and sexualizing of actresses in the period so that Farren’s presentation of herself as chaste and not having sex with Lord Derby was believed. On 14 March 1799 Derby’s first wife died; April 8 Farren played her last role on the stage (Lady Teazle); May 2nd she married Derby and was fully accepted by his people and all others too. Very little survives in her letters; her story was told by others, including Memoirs of the present Countess of Derby, told by Petronius Arbiter, by Scriptor Veritatis; the work is snobbish and presents Farren as lady-like, innocent, not ambitious, but had integrity, good breeding — though when she was dying she did not support her family. In her theatrical career, she was willing to take lessons; she followed Mrs Abington with her own Lady Teazle; she separated herself from a woman architect who wanted to be her lover, Anne Seymour Damer. Farren worked very hard on her roles, and managed her career so that her identity was thought to be glimpsed in well-bred and lady-like characters. Nora thought Farren created for herself an artificial identity; she is a strong contrast to what we know and surmise about Georgiana Spencer, Countess of Devonshire. Derby got her the respectable friendship with Emily Fitzgerald, duchess of Leinster. She became friends with respectable actresses like Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Inchbald. The “amateur” theatricals she mounted also added to her respectability.

Anne Seymour Damer (1748-1828) by Giuseppe Ceracchi

In the discussion afterward, Jessican Rickman’s Romance of Gambling was recommended. I rose to say that the definition of women as professional women of letters by virtue of making money, or a visible promoted career, or high postion would exclude many women today. On my Wompo listserv women poets and others have agreed with me and Paula Backscheider in her book on women’s poetry in the 18th century that one has to define a woman poet by asking if this is truly her vocation, the way she spends her time, not if she makes money by it, how much publication she has or if she is on some ladder of promotion in an institution. The label “professional” is still a sore one since most women today are not able to encompass all of these categories. So-called poet models include Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti. Someone suggested maybe we had to look at women in different genres differently. Perhaps.

I only briefly suggested this to the larger group, but I was struck in the two sessions thus far on how hard most of the women’s lives were and how rarely a happy older life (when the woman aged). Those who escaped to marriage or got some permanent funding or land through a man or family were able to be stable and seemingly contented. Some exceptions among those mentioned at the sessions include Elizabeth Inchbald who supported her family — though she did destroy her memoirs and it seems was under the thumb of priests. I did notice too there seemed to be a pattern among the successful women of dropping beloved or close women friends or family members or just associates who seemed to give the writer, actress a real or meaningful relationship of her life. There was overt pressure from others to drop these women (like Derby pressured Farren to drop Damer). It puts me in mind of Charlotte Lucas who has to distance herself from Elizabeth quite tangibly to be safe.

On gambling, I thought of how Louise d’Epinay’s Montbrillant, Georgiana Spencer’s Sylph, and Edgeworth’s Leonora all contain stories of husbands bullying (menacing, threatening, physically forcing in the case of Montbrillant) their wives (the book’s heroine) to have sex with a man the husband owes money to. To be sure, Leonora (Austen’s Lady Susan was modelled on her perhaps or just such another type) doesn’t really mind. Also that George Sand’s Lelia is about a woman who recklessly and pleasurably engaged in gambling and sex. She was excoriated for it to the point that afterward she ceased writing openly heroine’s texts, and put males at the center of her stories. I told this to Loring Pfeiffer though she was not interested. perhaps because these are novels. What I liked about Sand’s was the heroine was having a deeply alive time.


The second session of papers on professional women began with Jan Stahl’s paper on Mary Davys’ The Reform’d Coquet. Jan said that Davys’ problem was she wanted to present and critique male violence, and yet not lose her own reputation for chastity and virtue because she wanted to continue to write for money and for the respect her friends showed her when she produced her books. Davys also produces a novel where the heroine learns lessons from her guardian and her reward is marriage to the hero; here, though the apparently major story is blended into one that seems to count more than the central one: the heroine’s friend is raped and nearly murdered, and the two women characters have a homoerotic relationship important to them. Davys allows them to engage in role-playing in ways unusual for women characters. It’s a novel which presents itself as about the education of the central characters, but this is a sort of outward disguise.

Mary Robinson (1757-1800) by George Romney

Lisa Wilson presented a long talk on Robinson from a book history perspective: the thrust was that the way Robinson’s books were packaged (paratexts, illustrations, what was said about her life) were all calculated to make Robinson into a respectable poet and woman of letters (they resemble aspects of Accademia della Crusca poetry books). Prof Wilson divided Robinson’s life into 3 careers: 1) amateur writing of poetry, stage acting; 2) mistress of George IV (a short career); and 3) a return to poetry, novels, memoirs. Wilson said she used the recognizable identity of the woman poet of genius; she claimed sensibility, artlessness. (It seemed Prof Wilson didn’t care Robinson’s poignant senusual poetry much; she never discussed any of Robinson’s poetry as poetry.) John Bell had a long career of publishing well-made books of find literature, and his accepting, recognizing and helping Robinson when others rejected her makes him an appealing figure.

Elizabeth Hamilton (1756-1816) by Henry Raeburn

The last of these papers on professional women that I heard was Temma Berg’s “Becoming a Professional Woman: the Career of Elizabeth Hamilton.” The session was running out of time and Temma had to cut short her paper unfortunately. Temma set two of her novels, The Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796, where she pretends she’s a translator), and Memoirs of Modern Philosophers (1800) in the context of Hamilton’s life, her brother’s early death and other literary texts where political stances were debated. Temma said that Hamilton wanted to present herself as on the side of reform in these books, but that the reform is not a radical one; women need and want to be lovers, mothers, wives, mistresses, a helpful aide. She partly wrote Hindoo Rajah to solace herself after her brother died. I liked the relativity of the novels’ structures, their tone, their kindness (at least as described by Temma). They do have strongly anti-Jacobin elements and one anti-feminist caricature: Bridgetina, through whom she makes fun of herself. Temma felt these books are post-modern, register an experience of post-modern self-reflexive learning, of alienation.

The discussion afterward had to be short, and most of the questions were addressed to Lisa Wilson about book sales in the era.


Two more events to record. During the business lunch, Lisa Rosner gave a splendid lecture on Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), radical thinker, scientist, land- and library owner. It was great fun to see her do some of these experiment sin front of us; she had an attractive power-point presentation of images of Priestley, his books, his home, his experiments. Lisa began with Priestley’s political and educational work and issues; later her discourse on his experiments (some shown to us), and, finally, briefly, her later sad years. After the lunch for Roy Wolpert, a small group went with Christine Clark-Evans, who teaches at this conference, and together with Linda Merians (the society’s central organizer), she made this conference happen and have all the lovely events we did. Well she took us to the Paterno Library where we saw spread out on tables, rare precious books from the 18th century. Christine performed the function of curator herself. I could see what a rich place Penn State is for a scholar, and enjoyed looking over the separate volumes on the tables, hearing their stories (as it were).

While we were there, the scandal over the exploitation and sexual abuse of boys by one of the lead coaches at Penn State was beginning to saturate the newspapers. Ironically, this is a story of thwarted and exploited liberty too: of how the trust others had in these men to give them free access to these boys (a kind of liberty) was abused. Other similarly trusted and powerful people allowed one man directly to hurt the boys seeking success and promotion (he raped them), of how other people, his colleagues and other boys allowed this to happen rather than risk their careers, the reputation of Penn State, and the income football generated, of how norms of masculinity and heterosexual sexuality twist, limit, and direct and enslave children and adults (see links in comment).

My last and third blog covers a session and lecture later in the afternoon (on Thomson’s The Seasons, and then on Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de St George, known sometimes as “the black Mozart”), and two of Sunday’s presentations: Did Aphra Behn write the short fiction and Letters between a Noble-man and His sister? Edgeworth’s Leonora as an epistolary novel of Continental sensibilities?


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