Romance, slavery and the American Revolution roil this engrossing historical novel, based on the life of a minor Founding Father.
Francis Lightfoot Lee, scion of one of Virginia’s finest families, is a confirmed bachelor at the age of 32, but then he gets a load of ravishing Becky Tayloe. There are obstacles to their relationship–she’s only 16, he’s got a live-in mistress–but love conquers all, and soon they are happily married and immersed in running their vast plantation. Francis the gentleman farmer has crops to put in, overseers to hire and slaves to tend. Becky has a mansion to run while she frets ever more distractedly about her failure to get pregnant. Along with his charismatic brother Richard and other firebrands like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson, Francis gets caught up in the escalating quarrel with Great Britain. He and Becky go to Philadelphia, where Francis flounders about in the poisonous factional intrigues of the Continental Congress. As triumphs and trials follow, the couple maintains a loving union and a reasonably randy sex life. Semsch has done an enormous amount of research on Lee, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and it shows in her fine-grained study of Virginia’s planter aristocracy at a crossroads in history. Theirs is a world of elegance and refinement whose rituals of courtesy don’t quite hide the hierarchy and coercion that underlie them, especially in the fraught relationship between masters and slaves. Francis and Becky pride themselves on their kindness, but their behavior is rife with small, unthinking cruelties to the servants they profess to love. The slaves, meanwhile, walk a tightrope, suppressing their aspirations and carefully nurturing their bonds with the whites who control their fate, but always conscious of the trauma and violence their masters can mete out on a whim. The clashing currents of freedom and imprisonment that course through the saga make for a compelling read.
A gripping, richly textured portrait of colonial life in crisis.