Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning

I hope you will forgive me, but I will quote a professional review which captures perfectly, the book I just finished — Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning.

“A brilliant exploration of what it meant to be a slave owner in antebellum Virginia where farming depended on slaves, and their presence in the household gave them an intimacy with family members that could be both comforting and threatening. This story of Thomas Jefferson’s devoted daughter, the indomitable Martha Jefferson Randolph, helps us understand all the complexities and contradictions endured by Martha and her family as they struggle with their consciences and responsibilities toward their families, their plantations, and the people who work for them. Highly recommended as an engrossing tale of a strong woman in tumultuous times, with deftly interwoven historical details that make her trials all the more authentic.”
— Library Journal

Historical fiction fascinates me, but only when the author doesn’t stray too far from actual events.  Ms. Gunning actually based this historical novel on actual correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and his eldest daughter Martha. The author says:

As soon as I came across a letter the fourteen year-old Martha Jefferson wrote: “I wish with all my soul that the poor Negroes were all freed . . .” I was hooked.  I read all of Martha’s letters to her father and his to her.

The book follows Martha Jefferson Reynolds, her revered father Thomas Jefferson, and their families as they live their lives and make history at Monticello during the late 1700’s to early 1800’s.

Martha adores her father and wishes nothing more than to work with him to build and manage the Monticello plantation.  But her relationship with her father is complicated not only by the entire issue of slaves, but the intimacy between her father the coddled slave, Sally Hemings.

While this strained relationship with her father is crucial to her life, the majority of the book is devoted to her difficult marriage. Martha marries Tom Randolph and over the years, gives birth to 12 (yes 12!) children.  Martha and Tom struggle.  Tom is often depressed and their financial failures and dependence on Thomas Jefferson further threatens their marriage.

(One reviewer pointed out that Thomas Mann Randolph is portrayed unfairly as a weak, paranoid alcoholic who lived as a parasite on the goodwill of Thomas Jefferson. Despite the fact he served in both houses of the Virginia Assembly, became a Congressman and then Governor of Virginia.)

Monticello plays a wonderful backdrop in this novel.  Nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, we see how the gardens were treasured.  How Jefferson experimented with crops and imported plant seeds. Descriptions of the clothing, home furnishings, and architectural details of Monticello allows the reader to see it as a true home where Jefferson escaped his political worries and thrived.

But we can’t escape the fact that Monticello was a working plantation with slaves.  And, even though Thomas Jefferson spoke out against the institution of slavery, at the same time he owned slaves of his own – and fathered numerous children with one of the them (Sally Hemings).  

Monticello (the book) gives insight into this Jeffersonian paradox, and what is today, totally incomprehensible.  We see plantation life in all its light and darkness, not to mention the usually caring, but sometimes cruel human interaction of slave and master.

Through Martha’s eyes we see Thomas Jefferson as a beloved father, an architect of our constitution, a renaissance man, and an intellectual.  But most importantly, we also see him as just a man, like any other man in any other time period — struggling with the political tsunamis and conflicting morals of his time.

I was thoroughly lost in the pages of  Monticello and had trouble putting it down.  When I did have to stop reading, (you know meals, sleep, showering, those pesky interruptions) it took me a bit to clear my mind and return to current day life.

Monticello is one of my favorite historic sights and you must visit, but in the meantime you can see Jefferson’s library HERE.  (It’s swoon-worthy)

 

N.B.  The day after I finished this book, I purchased this other novel about Martha Jefferson.  It was my birthday, I’d hurt my back and I didn’t need any more excuses — and so it goes.  Another Jefferson read awaits me.

 

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