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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Monticello by Sally Cabot Gunning

This was a complicated book which made the reading of it a bit slow. It did not detract however from its worth.

A fragile and again complicated relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his eldest daughter to begin with. Jefferson was a complex character and his statemanship aside it made it difficult for personal relationships to develop fully. The family take on a diplomatic posting in France and after five heady years they move back to Monticello the family home, to take on the politics of the time. America was in the midst of the slavery issue and this overshadows the entire history of Thomas Jefferson and his family and this book. Contentious issues and how it was going to be resolved was never going to be easy and the convoluted lifestyles of having slaves, freeing them and at the same time trying to win over people who were totally dependant on slavery for their livelihood and prosperity was not going to be an easy mix.

Though slavery was the overall story, it goes hand in hand with Martha's own lifestory.  Married very young and ending up with eleven children her life with Randolph was not easy. Having to live up to a father in law of the stature of Thomas Jefferson was also hard and Randolph fell short. Financial woes dogged both Randolph and Jefferson to the end of their days (so far removed from the corrupt politicians of today) and both ended their days bankrupt. Martha had to steer a life in the best way she knew protecting both husband and father and also trying to provide a good life for her brood.

Martha was a woman well ahead of her times. Clear headed, clear thinking, politically adept and able to manage a plantation, a complicated home and keep everything on a balanced keel. Having her father's slave mistress in the family home and dealing with the attendant publicity and mess each time she had a child could not have been easy both in a personal sense as well as dealing with the world at large who made no bones about the precarious position Jefferson was in.  Jefferson in this book never openly acknowledged Sally his mistresses's position in the home and was oblivious to Martha's discomfort. It was only on his deathbed that the provision for Sally was important and dealt with directly.

As I said a complicated story, one that I enjoyed. It showed Martha's sound common sense despite over riding difficulties of a husband and a father who were both difficult. Martha survived both of them and had to make a fresh life for herself.

Very well written, told clearly so that it made me an outsider understand the complexities of American politics and life at the time.

Sent to me by Edelweiss.


  1. This sounds fascinating. I don't know very much about Thomas Jefferson's family or personal life. I had no idea he was bankrupt when he died!

    I am hoping to read another book about the Jeffersons, America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray which is also about Martha (called Patsy in this book). My family is planning to visit Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, this September so I hope to read it before then.

    Nice review!

  2. A very balanced review Mystica - I like stories which tackle one main storyline but have other strands that are equally engaging.

  3. Most Americans admire Jefferson but his is a complicated, yet fascinating, story.