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The Women Jefferson Loved

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Overview

Historian Virginia Scharff breaks through the seemingly impenetrable wall separating Thomas Jefferson’s public legacy and his private life, offering an intriguing new portrait of the founding father as seen through the lives of a remarkable group of women. Scharff brings together stories of the women who surrounded and, in many ways, defined Jefferson, including his mother; his wife, Martha; his mistress and Martha’s half-sister, slave Sally Hemings; and his daughters and granddaughters. Based on a wealth of ...

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The Women Jefferson Loved

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Overview

Historian Virginia Scharff breaks through the seemingly impenetrable wall separating Thomas Jefferson’s public legacy and his private life, offering an intriguing new portrait of the founding father as seen through the lives of a remarkable group of women. Scharff brings together stories of the women who surrounded and, in many ways, defined Jefferson, including his mother; his wife, Martha; his mistress and Martha’s half-sister, slave Sally Hemings; and his daughters and granddaughters. Based on a wealth of sources, including family letters, and written with empathy and insight, The Women Jefferson Loved is an unprecedented new look at this legendary American—one that offers a fresh perspective on American history itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Annette Gordon-Reed
“[A] luminous and long overdue addition to Jefferson scholarship. . . . This book is a tour de force; a must read for all who are interested in the early America, Jefferson, and Monticello.”
Douglas Brinkley
“A smart, eye-opening, vividly written saga of Monticello. It’s an indispensable portrait of Thomas Jefferson like none other. Highly recommended!”
Martha A. Sandweiss
“With wit and verve, Scharff introduces us to a new side of the Founding Father, unraveling the intricate ties between his public and private lives and creating an unforgettable portrait of a man bound up in the struggle between head and heart.”
Richard White
“It is not often that I spend a day reading a single book, but The Women Jefferson Loved is that gripping. Moving, brilliantly written and deeply sympathetic to everyone concerned, it is a wonder.”
Barbara Oberg
“Scharff weaves a fascinating tale, enriched by the insights of the best contemporary scholarship, and seamlessly constructed from family lore, letters, garden and account books, and Martha Jefferson’s housekeeping journal. This is a terrific read!”
Linda Gordon
“We’ve all heard about the influence of the women ‘behind’ great men. Virginia Scharff actually shows this by examining all the women in Jefferson’s life-his mother, white wife, black common-law wife, daughters and granddaughters. A grand, lively read.”
Elliott West
“If you think there’s nothing new to learn about Thomas Jefferson, think again-and read this original, shrewd and above all compassionate book. Virginia Scharff introduces us to the remarkable women who, as much as Jefferson himself, illuminate their time through their lives and their strength of character.”
Publishers Weekly
Scharff (Home Lands: How Women Made the West) doesn't shy from controversy in this account of five women who greatly impacted Thomas Jefferson's life and career. Jefferson's mother Jane was born into privilege and mismanaged her estate her entire life. But she was educated and motivated, and passed along a "sense of duty, respect for learning, and enjoyment of the fine things of life" to her children. Jefferson's wife, the widower Martha Wayles, was a strong woman who endured one tragedy after another; Jefferson described their 10 year marriage as "unchequered happiness." Martha was the half-sister and owner of Sally Hemings, the youngest of a family of slaves she inherited from her father. Scharff cites Hemings's son in writing that Sally's "coming of age" in her late teens was linked directly to her "becoming the mistress-or to use Madison Hemings's word, concubine-of Thomas Jefferson," who was thirty years her senior. Jefferson's fiercely devoted daughters, Patsy and Polly, denounced rumors of the affair and round out the cast of characters who populate Scharff's fascinating study. Writing with precision, control, and a delicate lyricism, Scharff unearths not only five important figures but also a society facing epic shifts. Photos.
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Kirkus Reviews

The lives and times of the most important women in Thomas Jefferson's life.

Jefferson's much-discussed affair with his slave, Sally Hemings—one which allegedly produced several children—is well-known, but Scharff (History/Univ. of New Mexico;Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West, 2002, etc.) is quick to point out that her book is not "an inquiry into the history of Thomas Jefferson's progenerative body parts." Instead, she delivers a series of nuanced portraits of Jefferson's mother, Jane Randolph, who outlived not only her husband, but four of her children; his wife, Martha Wayles, whom Jefferson married when she was a 23-year-old widow, and who died just ten years later; Hemings, who was both a slave and Martha's half-sister by blood; Jefferson's daughters, Patsy and Polly; and his granddaughters. The author brings out each of the women's importance in Jefferson's life and, along the way, looks at what life was like in America for women of their various social stations. Scharff is often forced to do her best with limited sources—for example, nearly all the correspondence of Jefferson's mother and wife has been lost or destroyed. As a result, documentation is often frustratingly sparse or nonexistent when it comes to major, life-altering events, but available and specific on commonplace ones. For example, details are scarce regarding a miscarriage by Martha Jefferson, while her housekeeping habits are covered in relative detail. Despite these unavoidable difficulties, however, Scharff illuminates her impressive research, and she effectively contextualizes each of these women's stories, using them to illustrate the times and traditions in which they lived.

A focused, fresh spin on Jeffersonian biography.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061227080
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/25/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 674,787
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Virginia Scharff is a professor of history at the University of New Mexico and holds the Women of the West Chair at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. She is also the author of four mystery/suspense novels penned under the name Virginia Swift.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 11 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2011

    Dreadful

    I expected to enjoy this book since I read quite a bit of history, both American and British. I could not have been more wrong. Time after time, the author tells us that is is not possible to know something and then proceeds to tell us anyhow. Her conjecture? Or fact? There are inconsistencies that are extremely annoying. One example is the author disputing previous historians' claims that Jefferson did not care for his mother citing a lack of correspondence between them. She states that this is groundless because there are no letters between Jefferson and his wife either. Several pages later, she refers to letters Martha received from her huband every two weeks. Did the author forget what she had written earlier? While in another section the author comments on "wrapping our twenty-first-century minds" around something, as she insists on judging every interaction using today's standards. She attributes emotions and thoughts to her subjects which can only be her individual bias. One example of her writing style--"Hemmingses would be enslaved for life....in houses where women skated along the bloody bodily edge of race and bondage." Please just tell the story and give the reader some credit. I assure the author that the history would speak for itself without her constant editorializing. I am sorry to have wasted money on this book and would have given it NO stars if that would have been possible.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    This was a great book and I highly recommend it. I first read i

    This was a great book and I highly recommend it. I first read it a year ago. I'm now re-reading it. Dr. Scharff's style of writing flows smoothly making this book an easy read. The author has great insight helping us to understanding Jefferson the man. One historian, unfortunately, I now forget who, wrote a biography about Jefferson several years ago calling Jefferson a "cipher." Dr. Scharff has uncovered the real Jefferson by examining Jefferson's relationships with the women in his life. These women are fully fleshed out by Dr. Scharff and not mere cardboard characters. I disagree with the reviewer who called this book, "dreadful." It was anything but. I think that this reviewer missed the point. Dr. Scharff opinions are not merely wild conjecture pulled from the blue yonder, but are an interpretation of the facts available to us in the early 21st century. This is precisely what a good historian, in fact, what any good writer does. It's called analysis. It creates depth and is the way that a good historian fleshes out historical figures making the women Jefferson loved come alive. Otherwise, they would be only flat, lifeless, cardboard characters.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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