Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: "The Women Jefferson Loved" by Virginia Scharff

Summary from Throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson constructed a seemingly impenetrable wall between his public legacy and his private life, a division maintained by his family and the several traditional biographies written about this founding father. Now Virginia Scharff breaks down the barrier between Jefferson's public and private histories to offer an intriguing new portrait of this complicated and influential figure, as seen through the lives of a remarkable group of women.

Scharff brings together for the first time in one volume the stories of these diverse women, separated by race but related by blood, including Jefferson's mother, Jane Randolph; his wife, Martha; her half sister, Sally Hemings, his slave mistress; his daughters; and his granddaughters. "Their lives, their Revolutions, their vulnerabilities, shaped the choices Jefferson made, from the selection of words and ideas in his Declaration, to the endless building of his mountaintop mansion, to the vision of a great agrarian nation that powered his Louisiana Purchase," Scharff writes. Based on a wealth of sources, including family letters, and written with empathy and great insight, The Women Jefferson Loved is a welcome new look at this legendary American and one that offers a fresh twist on American history itself.

Growing up my entire life in Virginia and having my sister attend UVA, I have heard quite a bit Thomas Jefferson worship in my lifetime. There are those who feel like Jefferson could do no wrong, that his status as a founding father puts him on the same level as a demi-god. Then there are those who are eager to point out his flaws especially his relationship with Sally Hemings. I personally am super interested in that relationship because even though there seems to be so much evidence confirming it, there are still people who refuse to admit that it happened. This book takes a good look into that relationship as well as the other relationships that Jefferson had in his life.

I have read several other books dealing with Jefferson including The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed during my graduate studies. Those books tend to be more scholarly and more focused on political aspects and the impact it had on Jefferson's policies. This book focuses more on the heart as we learn about his mother, his wife, his mistress, his daughters and his granddaughters. It's really quite sad about the position of women during the time period. I honestly feel like they were used solely to procreate. There seemed to be nothing else for them to do and they couldn't say no to the men in their lives. Both Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings seemed like they were getting pregnant every time Jefferson returned home. It's like good Lord, what an extremely sexual man he was! I did find learning about the history of the area and how the house was run and the time in Paris to be of most interest.

While I enjoyed reading the story, I felt that quite a bit of book seemed to be speculation. Scharff repeatedly refers to Gordon-Reed's book throughout the book. The phrasing she uses keeps sounding more like it's possible that events could have happened or that it was probably that people felt a certain way. I never really got the feeling that things were confirmed in this book. I'm not saying that Scharff didn't do any research because it's very obvious that she did. I just felt more like she was throwing out more ideas and doing guesswork than presenting sound and final findings.

Therefore, I wouldn't take this book as a serious academic work. However I do not think that's what it's supposed to be. I did enjoy reading it. It's extremely readable and Scharff's narrative places the reader into the story. The prose reads almost like a historical fiction book yet everything is true. Learning about all these events and relationships in Jefferson's life was fascinating. I wish I could go back into time and learn what really happened and why it happened. Jefferson will always remain an important figure in American history and interest in him and the lives of those he loved will continue in the future. Even if you're not really into history, I still think you'll enjoy this book.

The Women Jefferson Loved by Virginia Scharff is published by Harper (2010)

This ARC was provided by the publisher


  1. I have this book on my shelves, so I'm disappointed to hear that it is a lot of "this might have been" sort of stuff. I hate that in my history.

  2. It's a shame Scharff couldn't confirm more facts. I prefer popular history books that refrain from speculation entirely. It seems kind of pointless to speculate.


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