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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“[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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
“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.”
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.