Today we're sharing a guest post from Sally Cabot Gunning, author of Monticello, available in hardcover now.
About the Book:
From the critically acclaimed author of The Widow's War comes a captivating work of literary historical fiction that explores the tenuous relationship between a brilliant and complex father and his devoted daughter—Thomas Jefferson and Martha Jefferson Randolph.
After the death of her beloved mother, Martha Jefferson spent five years abroad with her father, Thomas Jefferson, on his first diplomatic mission to France. Now, at seventeen, Jefferson’s bright, handsome eldest daughter is returning to the lush hills of the family’s beloved Virginia plantation, Monticello. While the large, beautiful estate is the same as she remembers, Martha has changed. The young girl that sailed to Europe is now a woman with a heart made heavy by a first love gone wrong.
The world around her has also become far more complicated than it once seemed. The doting father she idolized since childhood has begun to pull away. Moving back into political life, he has become distracted by the tumultuous fight for power and troubling new attachments. The home she adores depends on slavery, a practice Martha abhors. But Monticello is burdened by debt, and it cannot survive without the labor of her family’s slaves. The exotic distant cousin she is drawn to has a taste for dangerous passions, dark desires that will eventually compromise her own.
As her life becomes constrained by the demands of marriage, motherhood, politics, scandal, and her family’s increasing impoverishment, Martha yearns to find her way back to the gentle beauty and quiet happiness of the world she once knew at the top of her father’s “little mountain.”
From the Author:
In 1962, while welcoming a group of Nobel Prize winners to a White House dinner, President Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” He might have added that Jefferson also dined alone with the greatest collection of paradoxes. The world knows the paradox of the man who abhorred slavery spending a lifetime entwined in the institution; they might know that the man who helped form our system of government distrusted government; a few might know that the man who saw no purpose in women’s education beyond the basics made an exception of his own daughter and raised her to be one of the most educated women in America.
My last novel, Benjamin Franklin’s Bastard, left off in 1776 as Franklin set sail for France. Being the obsessive sort, even as my novel left off I kept on reading about Franklin. What might I learn of Franklin’s old age in France that would color my view of the younger man in America? I followed Franklin to France, and there I ran into American minister Thomas Jefferson and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Martha.
From her earliest years Martha’s father had overseen her home schooling, dictating how she was to spend every hour of her day: From 8 to 10 o’clock practise music. From 10 to 1 dance one day and draw another. From 1 to 2 draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day. From 3 to 4 read French. From 4 to 5 exercise yourself in music. From 5 till bedtime read English, write, etc. All of this was supplemented by intense conversations with her lonely, widowed father as they took daily horseback rides over the trails at Monticello. When they arrived in Paris Jefferson enrolled his daughter in a convent school where she received the kind of education few American girls would ever see. Outside of provincial Virginia Martha saw another way of life, and at age fourteen she wrote her father from the convent, “I wish with all my soul that the poor Negroes were all freed. It grieves my heart when I think that these our fellow creatures should be treated so terribly as they are by many of our country men.”
That’s where I stopped reading about Franklin and concentrated on Martha and her father. I read all the letters they wrote each other; I read the letters they wrote to other people; I read numerous biographies. I searched through endless Jefferson documents online. I learned that as Martha matured she came to spend many evenings at her father’s dinner table in the company of Europe’s greatest men of arts, letters, politics, and science, enhancing her education still further. I “observed” her as she met a man she loved but left, as she battled her father’s control of her, as she reveled in the beauty and culture of Paris. I took many trips to Monticello and discovered something new with each trip, not just about the people who lived there – black and white -- but about the significance Monticello held for them.
The more I pondered Martha and her world the more complex she – and it -- became. The feisty teenager turned into a highly intelligent if poorly domesticated woman who found the ingenuity and strength to deal with an unbalanced husband, eleven problematic children, a former lover, an aging father enmeshed in a compromising relationship, and some of the most difficult moral dilemmas of her time. Martha’s story is one of emotion vs. control, shock vs. complacency, surprise vs. inevitability, and unanswerable vs. answerable questions. I’ll continue to ponder those questions for a long time.
Monticello is available in hardcover now. Start reading an excerpt here and order your copy today!