While I love to research for my stories, I do not claim to be a professional historian and I don’t write nonfiction histories. But I do read them, and try to vet my sources as best as I can. Even the professional historians run into blanks in the historical record. For a novelist, those blanks become opportunities. Let’s look at a couple of those that I exploited in Becoming Lady Washington.
First let me say that I relied heavily on Patricia Brady’s excellent biography Martha Washington: An American Life. Brady is a professional historian and has written several other biographies. I used this one as a kind of “roadmap” for laying out my story. If you want to read a factual account of Martha’s life, I highly recommend Brady’s book. Now, to the historical gaps…
Martha’s first husband was Daniel Custis. We know that he lived in the same area as Martha, near Chestnut Grove, Martha Washington’s childhood home. According to Brady, “During the eleven years that [Daniel] had lived in New Kent County, running one of his father’s plantations just a few miles down the Pamunkey from Chestnut Grove, Patsy had come to know him well. His life had crossed her family’s at countless points—court days, militia musters, social events, church (he served on St. Peter’s vestry with her father), the Public Times at Williamsburg—and he had obviously noticed the little girl growing into a lovely young woman. At thirty-seven, he was only a year younger than her mother, but the age difference between him and Patsy was not an impediment; young girls often married older men.” (p28)
The gap here is just how and when he decided to court the pretty young woman. I found no mention of the where or in what manner they began to court. So I had to invent the beginning of their relationship based on what I did know. Picking and choosing from the proposed locations where they would have crossed paths, I decided to use the Public Times and Martha’s coming out to society ball as the best option for my fictional account. Here is a deleted scene from an early draft where I had fun imaging how she’d prepare for her presentation to society:
Over the next several weeks, we explored the nuances and construction of the perfect gown, along with other articles of clothing to make the desired impression of me and my eligibility. I never realized just how many decisions had to be made. Silk? Muslin? Satin ribbons? Bows? High waist or dropped? Off the shoulder or low neckline with a fichu? Then the shoes… Definitely I wanted heels to make my petite frame stand a bit taller, and thus easier to dance with. But what color? Style? New buckles? Then there was the very serious question of the perfect hat.
Christmas and then Twelfth Night arrived and passed in a whirl of fancy dinners with a continual stream of family and friends visiting. The giddy chatter and plans continued with Aunt Unity, as well as my mother, until the festivities ended. Then I sat down with Mother to make the decision and send to London for the gown of my dreams, and of course a new gown for my mother. After the order had been sent, I faced months and months of worry and anticipation. Would the London agents be able to locate the yellow silk taffeta brocaded with flowers in the latest fashion with fine gold satin ribbons? Who would make the dress? What about the sequin studded yellow satin shoes with Louis heels? Would it all fit, if the items even survived the hazardous ocean voyage? And then the most fearful question of all: what would I do if the order didn’t arrive?
My contingency plan centered on the remake of my mother’s best dress gown. Mother had ordered the gown from London. I fancied the flowered pattern in the English silk damask, the rich burgundy pattern against the cream background emphasizing the fact that I was entering society in high fashion. Since Mother is a little bit bigger than me, there was enough fabric to work with. We’d taken in the waist and shortened the flounced skirts by drawing them up with ribbons. Aunt Unity gifted me a delicate kerchief to soften the neckline. The result? The perfect dress for dinner with the governor and his wife. Or if need be, for my debut at the royal ball.
This scene didn’t make the final cut because I decided to skip the preparations for the ball and just show her attending. That is where Daniel makes his move, by the way. The entire account is based on the research I did into what clothing meant, what it said about the wearer, in the 18th century, and having visited the museum in Williamsburg where they have gowns from that era on exhibit.
You’re probably wondering what the other gaps are…the second one is there is little in the biography regarding what their courtship might have looked like. What did they do? How frequently would he wait upon her? Chaperone or not? (Probably!) What is known is that Daniel’s father, John Custis, did not approve (to put it very mildly) to the courtship, or engagement, let alone marriage. Brady tells us, “John Custis flew into a blind rage and demanded that his son forget Patsy Dandridge.” (p29) This went on for a long time, by the way. So that’s a huge gap to fill in a story. How did Patsy (Martha’s pet name) react? I tried to put myself into her shoes, and knowing how she behaved later in life, thought about how she’d have either already been or how she adapted to the situation. Either would serve as a lesson on how to negotiate and manage in the future. So, knowing what I do about courtship during the 18th century, I made up what they did and what they talked about to give the reader a sense of who she was and how she handled herself during emotionally stressful times.
There’s one more gap I want to talk about. That is, since we know Patsy and Daniel did marry, how did John change his mind? Brady tells us, “Never one to wait around helplessly, Patsy somehow contrived to talk with the crusty old tyrant herself. Just how she managed it, we don’t know. Like many bullies, Custis was impressed by strength of character: he actually found the spunky little lady engaging.” She also tells about a lawyer friend of Daniel, James Power, visiting John and learning that he now approved of the union. Power wrote in the letter that John was “as much enamored with her character as you are with her person, and this is owing chiefly to a prudent speech of her own.” (p32) Okay, so how did she in that day and age manage to speak to the old man who lived in Williamsburg? Again, we don’t know but this is a very revealing moment as to the kind of person Martha was. So I had to imagine how she might have gone about making the meeting happen. Is it factually accurate? No. Do we know what the “prudent speech” was? Again, no. So I stepped into her little shoes and tried to imagine what I would have done in her situation. Would you like a little excerpt to see what I decided to do?
“Are you certain this is a good idea?” My brother Jacky’s deep voice carried to my ears over the steady beat of the Pamunkey against the skiff’s quivering hull and the twitter of song birds in the trees and bushes. I clutched the wooden seat beneath me as I bit my lip to keep my unease inside.
As he went through puberty, his tenor had lowered in steps, creating an often fickle pitch to his voice until it reached its current manly tone. I would never tell him, but sometimes I had mentally played with the sound like a musical piece. I heard music in everything, the shouts of the overseers, the birds flitting by, the soughing of the wind, even the river after a heavy rain. I breathed in the warm spring air. The scent of wildflowers blooming along the banks mingled with the pleasing aroma of the river. I’d finally settled on my favorite dark green dress for our secret mission. Its classic lines and somber colors, along with the cute hat with its half veil and plume, made me feel confident and mature. Well, except for the fact that I really did not like being in a boat. Of any size.
I glanced at my brother’s worried expression and chuckled, though I quaked inside at my own audacity. I had thought about what I’d do if Daniel’s efforts failed. After two long years had passed, my patience ended. Two years of growing more and more fond of Daniel, and longing to become united to him as his wife and start a family. I’d had to summon all my nerve, determination, and anger to devise the plan my brother and I now engaged in. Taking the boat meant a quicker journey, but oh I wish we could have ridden. But then my father would have known what we were up to. “It’s the only way I can conjure which has any hope of success to secure a future with Daniel.”
“You should have told Father of your plan. He’ll be upset.”
“He won’t even notice we’re gone, what with his concern regarding Mother’s well-being.” Our mother was due to have another baby within the next couple of months, child number seven. Would it be a brother or sister? Either way, I’d love the little one as much as I loved all of them. I had been born first, followed by Jacky a year later, then William two years later, Bartholomew three years after that, Nancy two after Bat, followed by Frances five years after my favorite sister was born, and now this new addition, whoever it might be.
After I married Daniel, we could start our own family. I envisioned having quite a full house, perhaps seven or eight children. The joys and laughter we’d share would rock the house. I could picture it in my mind as if it were a fond memory. For now, I enjoyed the company of all of my kinsfolk. Jacky, in particular, had become my favorite brother because of his eagerness to engage in our secret missions.
I winked at him with a toss of my head. “Besides, I have you as my escort, my protector. What is there for him to worry over?”
Jacky huffed. “The fact that we’re going into Williamsburg without his knowledge or permission?”
What I love about writing fiction is looking for those kinds of opportunities where I can illuminate my subject and their situation using my knowledge and imagination combined. I try to make the scene authentic to the times to the best of my ability and education on the times in which they’re living. Ultimately, my aim is to tell a good story that’s entertaining, emotional, and enlightening. You’ll have to let me know if I’ve succeeded…
We are living through some historic times ourselves, folks. I imagine previous generations that suffered and struggled through a pandemic felt much like we do today. The catch phrase here in north Alabama is “stay safe; stay separate; and sanitize.” My heart goes out to everyone as we find our way through this pandemic crisis. Please listen to and follow the guidelines from the health experts so we can shorten the duration as much as possible. Take care of you and yours and I’ll do the same.
P.S. If you haven’t already, please consider signing up for my newsletter, which I send out most every month, including news like new covers, new releases, and upcoming appearances where I love to meet my readers, along with recipes and writing progress. Thanks and happy reading!
Visit www.bettybolte.com for more on my books and upcoming events.
Available for preorders now! Releases June 2, 2020…
Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.