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THE WOMEN OF THE HOUSE by Jean Zimmerman


How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty

by Jean Zimmerman

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-15-101065-X
Publisher: Harcourt

The history of Hudson Valley’s Philipse Manor Hall, told through the lives of four women who lived in it during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Zimmerman (Made from Scratch, 2003, etc.) begins with Margaret Hardenbroeck, a wealthy Dutch entrepreneur who, with her second husband, Frederick Philipse, bought 57,000 acres of land during the 1670s and built the mansion on it in 1682. The author describes it with well-chosen adjectives, from the “ponderous” front door and “generous” hearth to the “stylish” painted tiles by the fireplace. After Hardenbroeck died in 1691, Philipse married Catherine von Cortlandt, an “upright, sensible woman” who had the added advantage of being very rich. She survived him and continued to live in the house, though ownership passed to her step-grandson. His wife, Joanna Brockholst, expanded the kitchen and added a parlor; with a dozen children, the couple needed more space. One of those children, Mary, is the author’s final heroine. Her goal was to build her own home, an ambition fulfilled when she married Roger Morris and presided over the Manhattan manor now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Throughout, Zimmerman gestures toward larger themes in social history. She notes that married women’s property rights were eroded when the English took over New Amsterdam, and she touches on the dangers that Loyalists in New York faced during the Revolutionary War. But she never quite figures out what she intends her narrative to be. Sometimes it seems like the chronicle of a house, sometimes the story of four well-heeled women, sometimes a history of early New York. She heads in all these directions, but arrives at none of them. (Her discussion of the New York slave revolt of 1712 is especially skimpy.)

An hor d’oeuvre of a book: By the end, your appetite is whetted, but you’re nowhere near satisfied.