UNWISE PASSIONS by Alan Pell Crawford


A True Story of a Remarkable Woman—and the First Great Scandal of Eighteenth-Century America
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Crawford (Thunder on the Right, not reviewed) gives us a rollicking good tale of the downfall of an 18th-century maiden.

On September 16, 1774, Nancy Randolph was born into one of the most powerful families in colonial Virginia. She grew up with all the privileges of the gentry, and all the expectations, too. Considered a great beauty, she had been raised to snag the scion of another good Virginia family—but she sparked the most sordid sexual scandal of the Revolutionary era instead. At 18, she was accused of seducing Richard Randolph, her sister’s husband, and then coercing him into killing the baby she gave birth to nine months later. Richard and Nancy both declared their innocence, claiming that shiftless slaves had invented the story out of whole cloth. Richard admitted he had been most attentive to his pretty sister-in-law, but he denied sleeping with her. He spent a small fortune procuring the services of Patrick (“give me liberty or give me death”) Henry to represent him in court, and he was acquitted—but to no avail: Nancy’s name was mud. Men who had once fought to dance with her haughtily declared that they’d never lay a hand on her again. Now known as the Jezebel of Virginia, she moved north, settling in New York and marrying renowned New York politician Gouverneur Morris. Her son eventually built a church in her honor—St. Ann’s of Morisannia (the parish Jonathan Kozol recently wrote about in Ordinary Resurrections, p. 453). Crawford tells Nancy’s story in fast-paced, page-turning prose, but she fails to explain the lasting significance of this scandal. Is Nancy’s saga just a good yarn, a quaint, 18th-century version of Monicagate? Or is there more here than picturesque entertainment? It’s far from clear.

A lively account, but lacking in analysis.

Pub Date: Nov. 9th, 2000
ISBN: 0-684-83474-X
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2000


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