TOPICS: Guest Contributor, Mount Vernon
By Flora Fraser, Author of The Washingtons: George and Martha “Join’d by Friendship, Crown’d by Love”
November 13, 2015
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
On board BA 217, London to DC. I’m looking forward to speaking tomorrow night in the Gay Hart Gaines Distinguished Visiting Lecturer of American History programme. It’s wonderful to speak for the first time about my book, The Washingtons, at Mount Vernon, where I first conceived the idea of writing about America’s first couple, as well as where Mary Thompson, research historian, was so very generous about my many visits to her office, with her time and thoughts about George and Martha.
Dulles Airport. On the drive to Mount Vernon, russet, ochre, and copper mixed woodland lines the route. Place names once familiar to the Washingtons – Fairfax County, Pohick, Belvoir – are signs that we are drawing near.
At Mount Vernon! I am deposited at the De Vos House, where visiting fellows are accommodated, across from the imposing, new Fred Smith Library. Washington once called Mount Vernon a “well resorted tavern,” and I am thrilled to be among the estate’s guests tonight.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
De Vos House. While enjoying an early breakfast of coffee and porridge, I reflect on how during the siege of Yorktown, Lucy Flucker Knox wrote from the mansion here, where she was staying with Martha. In this 1781 letter to her husband General Henry Knox, she said that their young son was eating “hominy” or grits, “like a true Virginian.” Not sure if porridge counts as grits, but I feel it’s an homage of a kind to the Washingtons’ life at Mount Vernon. In the Knox correspondence, Lucy also remarks that George had written a detailed letter about the siege operations to Martha. Though I respect Martha’s right to burn her correspondence with George, I do wish that letter had somehow survived the conflagration.
Ready to enjoy the golden fall day, I stroll over to the historic estate. From the piazza, I take in the peerless view of Maryland across the Potomac. The horses in the field to my left recall the Russell Birch watercolour of the garden front, one of many lovely illustrations in The Washingtons.
I stroll over to see Mary in the library. On the way, I meet Ed Lengel and Bill Ferraro from the Washington Papers. Well met by sunlight, as you might say. They are here to talk about Ed’s upcoming January talk, among other matters. It’s a perfect opportunity to thank Bill in person for so kindly reading and commenting on The Washingtons in manuscript form. I’m also keen to hear about the Martha Washington Papers project, the imaginative collaboration between Mount Vernon and the University of Virginia that’s now under way.
Though I will be forever grateful to Joseph Fields for collecting and editing Martha’s papers in the 1990s, the thought of a UVA letterpress and digital annotated edition of those documents is beyond exciting. And new letters may be forthcoming. I think one has already come to light in Kansas. As I told Ed and Bill, I would be only too happy to revise my book after perusal of the new scholarly edition!
In Mary’s office. From behind boxes of books and teetering piles of papers, the Sage of Mount Vernon, Mary Thompson, fills me in on new curatorial and scholarly enterprises at the estate. Graduate students and others at George Mason University and other colleges are at work to assemble and digitize as much information as can be gleaned about individual slaves’ lives here. The exhibition space for a time will be wholly given over to a show telling the story of slavery at Mount Vernon. It is a natural extension of the embrace, in recent years, of the stories of all those who had their homes at Mount Vernon.
I snatch a bite to eat in the Food Court and make a lightning visit to the museum. I especially love the Washingtons’ presidential china, biscuit centerpieces, and mirrored salvers displayed in the Taubman Room. Following the quick tour, it’s back to the library for a chat with Dr. Doug Bradburn, head of the library and noted American history scholar. Our conversation will be available in due course on Mount Vernon’s first-class website, mountvernon.org.
Soon it’s time to get ready for the Gay Hart Gaines Lecture. I put on my ‘author coat’ – multicolored, silk velvet, from Paul Smith – and gather my speech, my signing pen, and my thoughts. Into battle! Or rather into a wonderful auditorium where I feel immediately among friends and enjoy myself hugely, talking about George and Martha. Afterwards, I join Mount Vernon Director Curt Viebranz and wife Cissy, the Gaineses, and the Lehrmans for an intimate and fascinating dinner at the Mount Vernon Inn. Work is salvation, but publication is heaven.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
With regret, I pack my bags and leave the De Vos House. It has been the most fabulous start to my public life with The Washingtons, after so many years of communing with them and with the Papers of George Washington from the seclusion of my desk in London.