Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Garden of History: 'Defiant Brides'

    As anyone who reads Jane Austen knows, in the time when the American colonies were straining their ties with the Mother Country, a woman's career options in the English-speaking world were pretty limited to marriage. A woman's marriage was her career. A "brilliant marriage" was the goal of an accomplished young lady of a "good" family, and her future happiness might well depend on how well she chose.
    The two heroines of "Defiant Brides" by Nancy Rubin Stuart faced reluctance and downright hostility from the families for their marriage choices. What brings them together is that both chose important figures in the American Revolution. Boston bookseller Henry Knox was a poor young man with what turned out to be a huge potential for success in a new country. But when teenaged Lucy Flucker determined to marry him, Knox had yet to win the plaudits that would come his way. Worse, he had joined the rebel cause and Lucy's parents were Tories whose wealth depended on the continued hold of the British Empire over its American colonies. But Lucy married for love.
    Hers and Knox's fate is a very American story. A self-made man, Henry oversaw the near-miraculous transportation of captured canon from Ticonderoga through roadless northwestern New England to a key military position on Dorchester Heights; from which point they liberated the city of Boston for the Patriot cause and sent Lucy's parents, with many other Tories, fleeing to England. Knox would become one of Washington's most trusted advisers throughout the Revolution and his country's first Secretary of War after it. Lucy gained much from her marriage, but her choice cost her her relationship with her parents. She never saw them again after they left America.
    Peggy Shippen came from the cream of colonial society in wealthy Philadelphia, where she was romanced by British Major John Andre before she met her husband-to-be -- the American military hero Benedict Arnold. Though recently injured, Arnold was lionized as the hero of his country's few military victories. He met and wooed her when he was recovering from his wounds. His hero status appeared to be a major factor in persuading Peggy to defy her parents' belief that she could do better than marry an older, previously married, wounded man of uncertain financial prospects.
    Stuart's reconstruction of these determined women's lives follows their travails as homefront wives as their husbands go off to the wars. They also make history, this book says, who defy their backgrounds, marry whom they choose, bear children, suffer the loss of children, move from place to place as the fortunes of war (and finances) dictate; grow lonely, feel neglected when great battles are raging elsewhere and letters fail to arrive, and (in Shippen's case) suffer long absences after their war while a husband is engaged in largely fruitless activities and liaisons with other women.
    Peggy Shippen has an undeserved reputation as the Eve who tempted Arnold to betray his country, but Stuart convincingly argues that the considerably older Arnold made up his own mind to switch loyalties and left his wife in the lurch when his conspiracy with (ironically) Major Andre to betray the West Point fortress to the British was discovered. It's her loyalty to Arnold, and determination perhaps to stand behind her own decisions, that distinguishes Shippen as she grows from the belle of the ball to a determined and competent family business manager.
    Lucy is in many ways more conventional. She married a revolutionary but sought to profit from his success to live according to the "aristocratic" values she grew up with. Both she and Knox wanted to be country squires with big houses and vast estates and to live large in the traditions of that class by shows of hospitality and entertainment. The extent to which they achieved this goal, and whether it made them happy or not, is evaluated through Stuart's parsing of Lucy's letters.
    "Defiant Brides" shows us that the domestic partners of war heroes -- the book's descriptive subtitle is "The Untold Story of Two Revolutionary-Era Woman and the Radical Men They Married" --  have their own battles to wage. The stories of Lucy Flucker and Peggy Shippen are intriguing pictures of the weal and woe of marriage in revolutionary days. They also provide grist for my own theory that strong-willed young women make the world go round.