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shadowy. Even how she looked was not really known because the earliest known portrait of her* was when she was in her late forties. This book is pivotal to any Washington scholar or even the most casual observer of women’s histories.
One of the nice things about the way author Patricia Brady tells Martha Washington’s story is by taking us into her confidence. It’s
as if she has gathered us around at a family reunion to tell us what our beloved ancestor was really like from her stocking feet to the tip of her head. And Ms. Brady should know Martha and her family because she has devoted two books to the life and papers of Martha’s granddaughter Nelly Custis Lewis.
New Kent County native Martha Dandridge was not
daughter in law to be. In what has to be one of the kindest gifts of fate, the old reprobate died prior to Daniel and Martha’s wedding. A few years later Daniel Parke Custis was dead. The young widow was the mother of two and the heiress of an immense fortune. She had many earnest suitors buzzing around her home called White House in New Kent County. The stage was set for the love of her life to enter: the tall and impressive Colonel George Washington.
Patricia Brady researched receipts and account books to determine Martha’s actual dimensions by the size of clothing and accessories she ordered from England. That’s how she proved that the plump matronly older portraits of Martha did not reflect how she looked her whole life. She was tiny, but proportioned perfectly. The author researched correspondence from the Washington’s contemporaries and learned that in an age when most had lost their teeth and certainly their attractive smile by their forties, Martha Washington had a mouthful of shiny white pearl like teeth until she was very elderly. She was fastidious in her dress. She changed clothes on the road if she knew she was going to meet dignitaries coming to greet her, since the clothes she was traveling in would be covered in dust. She traveled with her husband frequently during the war, and hated to be apart from him for any length of time. She had bouts of depression, no doubt the result of sacrificing so much of her private life to her husband’s public duties. She had a swimming dress with lead sinkers in the hem to preserve modesty when taking the waters at one of Virginia’s springs. And she adored her husband. Ms. Brady describes their “domestic enjoyments,” and “life of tender companionship.”
Martha Washington is really done justice in Martha Washington, An American Life. Buy this book for yourself for the sheer joy of reading it, and get copies for your friends as well. They will make terrific gifts, and your friends will thank you for it, even the ones who claim not to be history buffs. It is a definite read before your next trip to Mount Vernon, where they are planning a life size recreation of what George Washington really looked like from contemporary portraits of his day. One of the models will be Houdoun’s sculpture in the Rotunda in the Virginia Capitol. That was done from life, so it will be interesting to see it come to life. Looks like it will be time for George’s “final reveal”soon as well. VR
well off when she wed her first husband Daniel Parke Custis, nearly twenty years her senior. Her cantankerous father in law to be John Dandridge was the bane of most peoples’ existence, and they stayed clear of him in his little town house in Williamsburg. He forbad his son from marrying Martha claiming she brought nothing to the marriage, and would indeed take it all should anything happen to him or John. In a move that showed her early spunk Martha confronted the old curmudgeon and bluntly informed him that his good opinion of herself or their marriage was neither desired nor required. From that moment on, much to the amazement of the general populace, the old man embraced his new
*There was an earlier portrait of Martha done when she was married to her first husband. It was done by John Wollaston who is famous for his curious obsession with almond shaped eyes. He gave most of his sitters the same eyes, so while the clothing is probably very close to the way the sitter wore, the likenesses are far from forgiving, and are therefore not reliable as close to the true image of the person. The cover regression was based on a portrait by Charles Willson Peale, a master portraitist of his time.