THE WASHINGTONS: George and Martha, “Joined by Friendship, Crowned by Love.” By Flora Fraser. Knopf. 368 pages. $30.
For most of her life, Martha Washington was exactly what she appeared to be in her later portraits: a plump, slightly bland, sweet tempered woman for whom the word “matronly” seemed particularly appropriate.
Her family adored and depended heavily upon her, but her allegiance to them paled in comparison to her unwavering devotion and deference to “the general.”
Once George Washington was president, Martha, though a first class hostess, refused to initiate conversation at public dinners when her famously reserved husband was at table, thus ensuring that these stately events passed in excruciating silence. This was Martha in her role as stalwart, steady political wife, happy to be in the shadow of the already iconic George.
As it happened, that was exactly what the young, somewhat crude George Washington had needed when he married the rich widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759.
John Adams once wondered out loud if Washington would ever have been the commander of the revolutionary armies or president of the United States if it were not for his wife’s money.
Author Flora Fraser probably would answer that question with a decided “no,” but it was not just Martha’s wealth that smoothed Washington’s path to greatness, Fraser contends. Perhaps more importantly, Martha gave him the confidence he had lacked in his earlier life.
Fraser, author of “Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton” and “Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III,” among others, strains mightily to alternate effectively between the descriptions of the Washingtons’ private and public lives. She is somewhat hamstrung by the fact that Martha destroyed most of the letters that she and George had written to each other, and they wrote a great deal of them.
Sadly, only two remain, but even if there had been more, the story of Martha and George would be largely George’s.
Thus, there is a great deal here about the war and the first presidency, interposed with more than we really need to know about clothing orders for the children, draperies and the exact progression of colors one wore during the various phases of mourning. Unfortunately, this comes off as padding, possibly in an effort to augment using available primary sources the more interesting, but rather scant information about Martha’s somewhat troubled family.
Despite her apparent serenity and unfailing “affability,” Martha was a steely woman who two or three times in her life was obliged to run a plantation on her own and frequently traveled over tough, dangerous terrain to be with her husband.
She had a lighter side, once naming a tomcat who frequented her husband’s headquarters “Hamilton” after Washington’s “notably amorous young aide.”
The Washingtons, as Fraser portrays them, exemplified the combination of qualities that may still constitute a good marriage: common beliefs, mutual respect, a strong grasp of the practical aspects of family life and, as the title implies, a sure and steady love that was based on that most reliable of foundations: true friendship.
George’s and Martha’s relationship was expanded and deepened by a shared passion for, and belief in, the future of their new country and the courage to act on that passion.
Their love for one another resulted in no small contribution to the military and political endeavors that led to the creation of the United States of America.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.