The lives and times of the most important women in Thomas Jefferson’s life.
Jefferson’s much-discussed affair with his slave, Sally Hemings—one which allegedly produced several children—is well-known, but Scharff (History/Univ. of New Mexico; Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West, 2002, etc.) is quick to point out that her book is not “an inquiry into the history of Thomas Jefferson’s progenerative body parts.” Instead, she delivers a series of nuanced portraits of Jefferson’s mother, Jane Randolph, who outlived not only her husband, but four of her children; his wife, Martha Wayles, whom Jefferson married when she was a 23-year-old widow, and who died just ten years later; Hemings, who was both a slave and Martha’s half-sister by blood; Jefferson’s daughters, Patsy and Polly; and his granddaughters. The author brings out each of the women’s importance in Jefferson’s life and, along the way, looks at what life was like in America for women of their various social stations. Scharff is often forced to do her best with limited sources—for example, nearly all the correspondence of Jefferson’s mother and wife has been lost or destroyed. As a result, documentation is often frustratingly sparse or nonexistent when it comes to major, life-altering events, but available and specific on commonplace ones. For example, details are scarce regarding a miscarriage by Martha Jefferson, while her housekeeping habits are covered in relative detail. Despite these unavoidable difficulties, however, Scharff illuminates her impressive research, and she effectively contextualizes each of these women’s stories, using them to illustrate the times and traditions in which they lived.
A focused, fresh spin on Jeffersonian biography.