My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
For months the Hamilton soundtrack quickened my step on long walks in the neighborhood. Then there were the months I slowly slogged through Ron Chernow’s tome. Still, I was left wanting to know more about Alexander Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Living until she was ninety-seven years old, she made it her life’s mission not only to ensure that her husband’s many contributions to the United States be remembered, but also to provide for the care of hundreds of orphans. After all, Alexander Hamilton had been one.
“I was struck by the powerful conviction that God put us here to make a better world. And it is a conviction that has informed the rest of my life.”
The Eliza we encounter in this well-researched historical fiction, is a reminiscent one. This mature Eliza (called Betsy by her family) already knows the betrayal and tragedy that is to come, as do most readers. But the authors work some sort of magic that both informs and compels us. Eliza’s loyalties and her longstanding mistrust or both Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr are perfectly clear, as is her intellect and diplomacy. Early on she adopted a “policy for the dinners that took place at my table: no man’s politics should be held against him, and all were welcome.”
“Silence is often the only weapon available to ladies. And I wield mine expertly.”
My Dear Hamilton provides insight into the monumental struggles of the Revolutionary War. Eliza and other officers’ wives, including Martha Washington, aided the troops by knitting socks and serving as nurses. After all, their lives were at risk as well.
“Inside the church, officers lay upon church pews, but the rank and file rested on naught but piles of straw. Nurses moved amongst the groaning mass of patients, combing hair for lice, and dousing everything with vinegar as a purifier.”
“Win, and nothing would ever be the same. Lose and, well, my husband, my father, my family, my friends—we stood to lose everything.”
The battles continued
Even winning the war didn’t bring peace. Yes, there were battles over the writing of the Constitution, but imagine rubbing elbows and doing business with those who had been on the other side.
“No royalists should not be suffered to live amongst patriots…. how easily any man could lay claim to the title Son of Liberty now that the war, and the danger of being hanged for it, had passed.”
“…angry, unpaid soldiers seized the city arsenals and held my husband, Jemmy Madison, and the rest of Congress at bayonet point in a standoff. After that Congress became a runaway government, fleeing to Pennsylvania, to New Jersey, then Annapolis.”
And then there were the personal battles
A woman whose husband is unfaithful is often judged more harshly than the man himself. Eliza and her contemporaries expected a wife to make her husband happy and to give him children. She knew “…how society looked upon a wife who wasn’t enough to satisfy her husband. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.”
“For I was a wife who’d failed to inspire fidelity. And yet, my fidelity to him was now also to be counted against my virtue. I could neither leave my husband nor love him without offending someone.”
Modern, political, and very public infidelities remind us that not much has changed. For the most part it seems, Eliza followed her father’s advice when she discovered Hamilton’s affair.
“And, as you will find is so often the case in life, …the only prudent thing to do was frown, make them humble, and forgive.”
Eliza Schuyler Hamilton’s intelligence and contributions to her husband’s career–as well as her pain and prejudices–come alive brilliantly in this retelling. It also serves as a reminder of just how brutal American politics has always been, even at its inception. The founding fathers and mothers were all too human.
This the third of Kate Atkinson’s books I’ve read and as in reading the others (Life After Life and A God in Ruins) I discovered it takes a nimble mind, some patience, and a lot of trust. The author likes to play with the traditional rules of story arcs, time, and points of view. She weaves back-stories and other bits of ephemera into the narrative, picking up a thread here and there. This book includes “footnotes” which are referenced as the story moves ahead and tell stories of secondary characters who likely think they are main characters. And as is so often the case, the family secrets they reveal hold keys to understanding seemingly inexplicable behaviors.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum begins in 1951–at the very beginning– with Ruby Lennox, the omniscient narrator saying, “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock…I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter…my mother was pretending to be asleep—as she often does at such moments.”
Atkinson is expert in infusing her writing with period details, especially the habits, standards, and expectations of middle class women of that time in England. However, I was glad to have read this on my Kindle so that I could easily look up unfamiliar British slang and products of 1950s and 60s. Ruby’s description of her beloved Mobo horse tickled me, as my husband’s Mobo is one of our prized possessions.
I’m torn between advising you to savor this book or read it fast. There are several generations of characters to keep straight and if you wait too long between readings–as I did– you might forget who the heck they are. Another advantage to the Kindle–its x-ray feature allows you to easily backtrack. I think a long day of travel or a rainy weekend in a comfy chair would be just about right.
Reading Atkinson—at least these three books—reminds me of looking at a pointillist painting. The big picture doesn’t emerge until you step back from it. Nonetheless, her wry humor and use of language are definitely worth the effort.
As a newborn in the nursery, Ruby tells us:
“We lie in our cots, wrapped tightly in the white cotton-cellular blankets, like promises, like cocoons waiting to hatch into something. Or little baby parcels.”
On discovering Catholicism with her friend:
“I’m more than happy to help out—banking up good deeds with the Lamb, for although He is meek and mild He is also (inexplicably) part of the trio that can consign you to the Inferno.”
And imagery after a long, cold walk home:
“By the time we get back to the Shop there are frozen roses in our cheeks and little shards of ice in our hearts.”
After the loss of her sisters:
“I’m an only child now with all the advantages (money, clothes, records) and all the disadvantages (loneliness, isolation, anguish). I’m all they’ve got left, a ruby solitaire, a kind of chemical reduction of all their children.”
And a difference of opinion:
“’The past is what you leave behind, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’”
There are lots of reasons to recommend Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible to you. First, it is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that pioneer of the romantic comedy genre. The writing and the humor are fresh and lively. While it is a longish read, it’s broken into many very short chapters, which kept me turning virtual pages on my Kindle long past my bedtime.
If you’ve read P&P or even seen any of the cinematic treatments, you will recognize members of the Bennet family and the rest of the quirky cast. Darcy and Liz take an instant dislike to each other, of course. Bingley is a recent contestant on a Bachelor-like show, called—what else?–“Eligible.” Even Lady Catherine de Bourgh shows up as Kathy, a Gloria Steinem-like icon of feminism.
The inciting incident here is Mr. Bennet’s heart attack. Liz Bennet, a journalist, and sister Jane, a yoga instructor, are in their late thirties, single, and living in New York City. Their father’s illness and recovery bring them back to their Cincinnati home, which is in a sad state of disrepair. While Mr. Bennet remains sardonic, he is unable to see a way out of the mounting financial difficulties which have caught him by surprise. Mrs. Bennet is still petty and worried about appearances. Her prejudices are only lightly veiled and she appears to have developed a problem with catalogue shopping and hoarding. The younger sisters have remained at home. Reclusive Mary is always studying, except for a mysterious Tuesday night commitment. Lydia and Kitty are unemployed, unmannerly, and vain.
Since what was shocking in Regency Era England, might be pretty ho-hum today, all the scandals and social issues have been updated. Think IVF, LGBT, CrossFit, reality TV, and what can happen to a family’s wealth when they don’t have health insurance. Oh, and there is a lot more casual sex. Even “hate sex.”
I found Eligible to be great fun.
The One and Only Ivan, a middle grade bestseller and 2013 Newbery winner, has something to appeal to animal lovers of any age. Inspired by the true story of a real captive gorilla, Katherine Applegate tells of unexpected friendships and kindnesses from the point-of-view of a gorilla.
After being stolen from his family in the jungle Ivan is raised by well-meaning humans until he grows too big to be a pet. He then finds himself caged and isolated from others of his kind for decades in a sad little mall. He spends his days watching TV, painting, and conversing with two friends: Stella, an aging elephant crippled by abusive trainers, and Bob, a stray dog who has made the mall his home. When Ruby, a new baby elephant is brought in to attract more visitors, her sadness causes Ivan to see his domain is for what it is. He promises to help her. With understanding from the janitor’s young daughter, Ivan is able to communicate their plight. You’ll have to read it to find out how.
“Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.”
“I have been in my domain for nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days.”
“I’ve never asked for a promise before, because promises are forever, and forever is an unusually long time. Especially when you’re in a cage.”
“Is there anything sweeter that the touch of another as she pulls a dead bug from your fur?
With its themes of friendship, compassion, and hope, Ivan reminded me of Charlotte’s Web, hence, I happily recommend it to you and any young ones you know.
This column is from seven–yes, SEVEN–years ago and it seems there are at least a few people who still can’t separate fact from fiction. Your in-box and Facebook page are probably filled with rants from one or two. Even when Snopes is free and easy to use. This retired teacher is compelled to repeat the lesson one more time. Click here to read about the lost art of critical thinking.