A MORE OBEDIENT WIFE by Natalie Wexler


A Novel of the Early Supreme Court
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The ghost of a love affair, excavated from long-forgotten letters.

Two Jameses and two Hannahs make for heated emotions in this ambitious historical drama that attempts, with mixed success, to inject some illicit romance into the lives of long-dead American noblemen. Filling in the gaps in the historical record is usually an exercise for academics. But Wexler, a former Supreme Court law clerk, has devoted considerable effort to shedding light on a minor historical controversy with a well-researched, if long-winded, work of fiction. Her novel inspired an article Wexler composed for The American Scholar about the lives and wives of two early justices of the United States Supreme Court, James Iredell and James Wilson. The book extends the article’s intriguing premise that Iredell, a Revolutionary War essayist who was appointed to the bench by George Washington, strayed into a not-altogether-indiscreet relationship with Wilson’s wife. Here, Hannah Gray Wilson is a young, attractive and emotional socialite who beguiles the much older man with her coquettish charms. Wexler imagines, based on a thin thread of historical evidence in her letters, that the affair did not sit well with Iredell’s pathologically shy wife (also named Hannah). The story of Mr. Iredell and Mrs. Wilson’s clandestine relationship is revealed through the fictional diaries of both Hannahs, punctuated with the real letters sent between the husbands and their wives, as well as occasional observations by other historical figures, like a young John Quincy Adams. Wexler has absorbed the language, rhythm and nuances of the letters to such a degree that her narrative flows together with them seamlessly. For those captivated by historical drama, this novel experiment may well be tempting, and devotees of Supreme Court history will find much to absorb. There is some interesting interplay between the two judges–friends by all accounts–trying to keep the nation on a steady course as they struggle to keep their own houses in order. The hysterics of their tempestuous wives (“She is here, in my own House–a Viper in the nest”), however, are overly melodramatic at times.

Desperate housewives, Colonial-style.

ISBN: 978-0-6151-3516-8
Program: Kirkus Indie
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