English biographer Fraser (Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire, 2009, etc.) returns with a portrayal of the relationship of America's first couple.
The author undertakes a daunting task with this book. George was famously reserved, always keeping his personal feelings under tight control, and Martha burned almost all the correspondence between George and herself before her death. For source material, Fraser had to look to correspondence to and between others and to documents such as invoices for furniture and clothing ordered from the business agents for the Washington family. The author has produced a joint biography that wisely avoids the thoroughly familiar ground of Washington's career as a general and president, except insofar as necessary to account for the couple's long absences from Mount Vernon. George's efforts to keep his plantations productive under the care of a series of overseers therefore take center stage, along with his difficulties raising Martha's children from her previous marriage, and then the grandchildren who lived with them. The less familiar Martha appears as a capable, strong-willed, affable, and utterly devoted spouse who buoyed her husband's spirits during the war by enduring long stretches with him in the army's winter quarters—not to mention the eight years spent "more like a state prisoner than anything else" in New York and Philadelphia as first lady. Fraser’s prose flows well with the voices of her 18th-century subjects. However, the impression that emerges from the copious details of plantation management, children's tutoring, and relatives born and dying is of two busy lives on parallel courses; their devotion to each other is clearly evident, but so are several potential sources of sharp conflict between them. Fraser provides no sense of how these shoals were negotiated or how these formidable individuals actually got on with each other when they could be together.
A difficult task crowned with mixed success.