NELLY CUSTIS' DIARY by Miriam Anne Bourne


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If Nelly had written a diary, it might have said. . . ."" So begins Bourne's recreation of George Washington's step-granddaughter's ten years as a member of the President's household. Beginning with the move to New York when Nellie was ten and Grandpapa just made President, and ending back at Mount Vernon shortly after Washington's death and Nellie's marriage, the diary consists of short comments: on daily events (music lessons, plays, family visits), on Grandpapa's unofficial behavior (""At last Thursday's dinner Grandpapa plucked his sugarplums from his cake for Mrs. Adams to take to her little grandson""), and on the issues of the day (""The French fiends incite my wrath."") Nelly's life and milieu have been carefully researched and when she reports that ""during Grandmama's reception the ostrich feathers in Miss McIver's headdress caught fire from the chandelier,"" we can assume that the incident actually occurred. However, trivialities are too often transplanted from documents without any vitalizing elaboration (""The Alexandria Volunteer Dragoons have graciously accepted my gift of their colors, suspended from a staff which was carried by Grandpapa's company during one of the wars"" -- who cares?) or, in the case of more significant matters, any clarifying context (""Yesterday Grandpapa exercised the veto for the first time. . . . He refused to sign a bill passed by Congress which would give the North three times as many Congressmen as the South"" -- there is a definition of veto worked in but no explanation of the bill). Similarly, though Nelly frequently mentions the titles of plays she has attended (and at one point announces that she's reading ""in Ossian's Poems""), she makes no comment at all on their content. And though her prim anonymous style is appropriate to a young lady of the time without any special talent for observation or expression, it doesn't make for interesting reading (nor does it change during her ten years of growing up). Worst of all Bourne gives us no sense of Nelly's or Washington's personalities, no feeling of drama or import in the presence of men busy creating a nation, and scarcely a hint of the flavor of teenage life -- privileged or otherwise -- in early Federal times.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1974
Page count: 128pp
Publisher: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan