A review of Becoming Lady Washington by Betty Bolté

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Becoming Lady Washington
by Betty Bolté
Jaycee DeLorenzo (Illustrator)
Mystic Owl Publishing
June 2020, Paperback: 416 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1733973670

Betty Bolté, the author of many romantic historical novels, is to be commended for taking on the challenge of writing about Martha Washington, wife of the first President of the United States, and an American icon.  At first, Martha does not appear to be a difficult subject. Born Martha Dandridge, she’s appealing as a fifteen year old girl in love with a prosperous Virginia landowner,  Daniel Custis. Later, as a wealthy young widow, she  accepts the proposal of a man she has only met twice.  Her devotion to this second husband, George Washington, stirs the admiration of readers. As commander of the American army during the War of Independence from Britain, (1776-1783) General Washington had to spend most of his time away from his estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia, so Martha joined him at his army posts whenever possible, where she often lived in humbler conditions than she was used to.  Throughout her adult life she was the perfect hostess, extending hospitality  to her  relatives, friends and her husbands’ colleagues and their wives, and sometimes foreign guests, like the son of the Marquis de Lafayette.

Reading Becoming Lady Washington, one feels a little like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (published 1813) when she first sets eyes on Mr. Darcy’s palatial home and vast landholdings. Martha’s lifestyle on her first husband’s estate and then at Mount Vernon was similarly luxurious.  A few years ago, in her novel,  Longbourne, author Jo Baker presented Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view. In Becoming Lady Washington, however, we are shown the “upstairs” world of the colonial aristocracy but not the “downstairs” lives of the slaves.

Readers hoping for a “fly-on-the-wall” view of the American colonies’ struggle for independence may be disappointed. Key events in this path to nationhood are included, but since Martha is focussed on family and household management, and  is not present at the meetings of Congress or the Constitutional Conference, she cannot give us an inside view of these affairs of state. Martha has a great deal of power as mistress of a large household and estate, and consequently, did not  see the need, as Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren and others did, for women’s rights to be written into the new Constitution of the United States. When John Adams, who became the second President of the United States, was at the constitutional conference in Philadelphia, his wife Abigail wrote to him to “remember the ladies” in the constitution. Martha Washington is no Mary Wollstonecraft (who published Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792).

Since Becoming Lady Washington is written in the first person, one expects to know Martha’s heart and mind. Though she reveals her emotions about personal matters, such as grief at the many deaths of those close to her, and deep affection for her family members, we learn nothing about her religious beliefs, nor a sense of what, to her, would be an ideal world or a good society (something the Founding Fathers had to think about when they were establishing a brand new country.)  Her world at Mount Vernon is the best of all possible worlds, in her estimation.  Early in the novel she says that her ambition is to find a husband who will help her “elevate [her] station in life and let [her] achieve [her] yearning for many children”, and, having done that, her domestic life remains her preoccupation throughout the story. 

In her contentment in her role, she may be  typical of most people of her social class and historical era. The English poet, Alexander Pope, for instance, published a poem in 1733 titled “An Essay on Man”, in which he asserts that, because we cannot know God’s purposes, we cannot complain about our position on the great chain of being, and must accept that “Whatever IS is right.” Martha Washington died in 1802 before the blossoming of the Romantic movement, which altered perspectives considerably.

To 21st century readers, some of Martha’s attitudes are jarring.  Although she befriends other officers’ wives and raises funds for the army during the War of Independence, she complains, prior to the war, about the Boston “rabble”  stirring up skirmishes with British troops. When the American colonies decide to boycott British goods as a protest against taxation without representation, she is concerned that no more luxury imports will be coming her way in the near future.

Her views on slavery, although typical for someone of her social standing and geographic origins, will make most 21st century readers wince.  She claims to regard her slaves as family: “We may have disciplined the servants a bit differently than our children,” she says, “but we did so with equal results in mind: to teach them what their boundaries were and what was expected of them to be decent, hardworking people.”  She wonders how she and George Washington will “maintain their way of life” if they freed their slaves.  

During the war, the Washingtons are based in Pennsylvania, which has granted freedom to any slave who has lived in the state for six months. The Washingtons decide to send Martha’s slaves back to Virginia, where slavery is legal, to prevent them getting their freedom. Later, in 1796, when Oney Judge, Martha’s slave and personal maid, suddenly escapes from their household in Philadelphia, Martha can’t understand why the young woman would abandon her to seek liberty.  

When President Washington died in 1799 his will provided that his slaves should be freed after Martha’s death.  Some sources say that he did this so as not to break up the families established by the union of some of his slaves with some of Martha’s, and that he anticipated that she would free them all in her will.  (According to Wikipedia, he owned 123 of the 318 slaves at Mount Vernon; the rest were hers.)  Fearing for her safety, Martha freed his slaves in January 1801, but  did not emancipate any of her own slaves during her lifetime. Upon her death, ownership of them reverted to her descendants from her first husband (Daniel Custis) and they were divided among her four grandchildren. 

The author’s frank presentation of Mrs. Washington’s views makes readers aware that past cultures and eras had values different from those that prevail today.   She also includes interesting information about the period, showing, for example, how arduous a coach journey from Mount Vernon to Philadelphia was in those days. She presents some of the technological and scientific innovations of the day, including hot air ballooning and inoculation against smallpox. Indeed, George Washington was a pioneer advocate of this preventative measure; saying that a smallpox epidemic was a greater threat to his army than the British were, he introduced mass inoculations of his soldiers. Martha and her son Jacky Custis underwent inoculation, a risky choice because it involved a period of sickness and possible death.

Generally speaking, the author uses the vocabulary of the late 1700s, although a few modern terms like “relationship” and “father figure” creep in.  Early in the novel, in 1743, when young Martha is imagining herself married, she says, “As long as he wanted lots of children, it might work.”  This statement seems strangely modern in an era long before family planning. In Martha’s day, children usually arrived as a matter of course, and childbearing was not a lifestyle choice, but was considered to be the main purpose of marriage.

A couple of interesting questions arise in the novel but are never answered. Just what was the area of tension between George Washington and his mother? Why did Martha Washington detest Thomas Jefferson so much?  Part of the value of historical novels is that they can inspire readers to delve into history books for more information.

In her author’s note, Betty Bolté says that her research uncovered a wealth of historical details previously unknown to her and misrepresented in history books. She writes that she has done her utmost to ensure that the story she has written is supported by historical references. With a Master’s degree in English, and membership in a number of writers’ organizations, including the Romance Writers of America and the Historical Novel Society, she is well qualified to write  about America’s very first  First Lady. For more information about her work, visit www.bettybolte.com 

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta has written four Canadian historical novels centring on women. Her most recent is Votes, Love and War (2019) See http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com