Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Mr. Jefferson's Women"

Jon Kukla received his B.A. from Carthage College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto. From 1973 through 1990 he directed historical research and publishing at the Library of Virginia. From 1992 to 1998 he was curator and then director of the Historic New Orleans Collection. From 2000 to 2007 he was director of Red Hill – The Patrick Henry National Memorial in Charlotte County, Virginia.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new book Mr. Jefferson's Women, and reported the following:
From page 69 (with a few words from pages 68 & 70):

The second story, confirmed by Jefferson’s account books, tracks the deepening of his commitment. In December 1770, Jefferson decided to buy Martha Wayles Skelton a small clavichord. He wanted it to be “as light and portable as possible” and veneered with “the finest mahogany.” Six months later in their courtship he decided that his fiancĂ©e should have a larger and more expensive pianoforte. Jefferson specified that his amended preference was for an instrument “of fine mahogany, solid, not vineered” -- and of a quality “worthy [of] the acceptance of a lady for whom I intend it.”

Martha Wayles Skelton was beautiful, talented, and wealthy, but Jefferson also found her status as a widow attractive. “Intimate emotional engagement with women,” historian Winthrop Jordan observed, “seemed to represent for [Jefferson] a gateway into a dangerous, potentially explosive world.” In private life and in public policy, Jefferson was always more comfortable with married women than with their undomesticated sisters. Jordan was not the first to notice that “throughout his life after the Burwell affair, Jefferson seemed capable of attachment only to married women.” Jefferson’s first biographer, who had the unique advantage of direct conversations with his family and contemporaries, hinted in the same direction. “Last [but] not least,” William Randall wrote in his list of Martha Wayles Skelton’s appealing qualities, “she had already proved herself a true daughter of the Old Dominion in the department of house-wifery.” Marriage, Jefferson wrote tersely in a notebook, “reverses the prerogative of sex.” Mary Deverell put the matter more clearly in an essay published near Philadelphia in 1792:

To the moment of your marriage it is your reign, your lover is proud to oblige you, watches your smiles, is obedient to your commands, anxious to please you, and careful to avoid everything you disapprove; but you have no sooner pronounced that harsh word obey, than you give up the reins, and it is his turn to rule so long as you live.

Once the vows of marriage had been spoken, husbands, Jefferson wrote, “expected to be pleased” by wives who were “sedulous to please.” Like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson regarded women’s sexual appetites as equal to or even stronger than men’s, and he felt a deep-seated fear of women as threatening both to his own self-control and to the proper ordering of society. As Winthrop Jordan perceptively observed, Thomas Jefferson felt that “female passion must and could only be controlled by marriage.”
Excerpted from Jon Kukla, Mr. Jefferson's Women (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) by permission of the author.

In one respect, page 69 is remarkably representative of conclusions I reached during the research and writing of Mr. Jefferson’s Women. This passage (given above with a few words from the previous and subsequent pages) occurs early in Chapter 4, which tells the story of Jefferson and his wife, whom he married in 1772 and who died in 1782. The observations about Jefferson’s “deep-seated fear of women as threatening both to his own self-control and to the proper ordering of society” reflect central themes that defined the organization of the entire book: after the Introductory chapter, five chapters deal with Jefferson’s relationships with specific women – Rebecca Burwell, Elizabeth Moore Walker, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, Maria Cosway, and Sally Hemings. The final two chapters place his experiences and ideas in the larger context of American and European history in the Age of Revolution.

I would also like to think that this page reflects some qualities of my writing throughout the whole book: The text is rooted in thorough research in primary sources. It attempts to depict Jefferson’s attitudes and ideas both in the context of his day and in light of the best relevant scholarship. And I hope it is clearly written.

In two other respects, however, page 69 is less representative of the rest of the book: First (because Jefferson destroyed virtually all of their correspondence) there is simply less information available about his wife than about many other women. In other chapters I could present a more detailed and enjoyable narrative. Second, this page is one of very few in which I mention or quote other historians. Both in Mr. Jefferson’s Women and in my earlier A Wilderness So Immense I strove to create an accessible story for general readers — a clear narrative uncluttered by disputes among historians — based on fresh and thorough scholarship that does matter to professional historians. Occasionally, as on this page, I quote salient commentary from other scholars, but in general I relegate the details about other scholarship to my extensive annotation at the back of the book. My goal is a readable, professionally informed narrative that tells the stories of the people who acted in history — in this case Jefferson and the women of his life and his age. The late Winthrop Jordan is one of only half a dozen scholars mentioned in the text of Mr. Jefferson’s Women.
Read an excerpt from Mr. Jefferson's Women and learn more about the book and author at Jon Kukla's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue