Where do novelists get ideas? I can’t speak for others, but I assume everyone else has their own personal and “hidden” inspirations. I suspect sometimes they ended up buried in the back of the mind and finally appear on a page only years later.
I first saw this real-life tale back in university when I was researching an assignment on Thomas Jefferson. I recall I knew the general outline of his life and accomplishments, but little about him personally. When I saw this in a volume of his papers – my professor had directed me to it – it made a huge impression on me. I recall sitting in the library, in one of the individual research desks hidden in the book stacks, and it almost brought me to tears.
This post is in some degree also a follow up to yesterday’s post. After his wife Martha’s untimely death, he destroyed all of their personal correspondence. Only four bits of her writing appear to survive, and those include pages in a household account book:
Her writing is difficult to read. The transcript is here. She is keeping track of livestock slaughtered on the farm, candlemaking and soapmaking activities, and clothes – including clothing for their eldest child, by coincidence the only one (a daughter) who would outlive both she and Thomas:
Pattey Jef. 7 new shift 2 night caps 9 frocks 4 pr
stockings 2 laced tuckers 2 hemstitched do
Martha’s best-known words are found elsewhere; and they are not even, technically, her words. They are these lines, which Martha copied from Laurence Sterne’s The Life And Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman, a popular English comedic and slightly bawdy novel – Victorians would later consider some of it “obscene” – of the 1760s:
Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return–
more. Every thing presses on–
She wrote those words in the summer of 1782, during the illness that followed the birth of her last child in May. Some modern doctors believe that during one of her pregnancies she may have become a diabetic; and there obviously was no treatment at all for diabetes in the 1770s and 1780s. Martha died at age 33 on September 6, 1782. This profile is the only known reproduction of her:
It could also be argued that like so many other women in the pre-industrial world, Martha’s health had been destroyed through constant “natural” childbirth. By Thomas she had had six children in ten years and at least a couple of miscarriages. Moreover she had also been briefly married before (1768-1770); that first husband died, but she had had a child by him, too. (That child – a son – died in 1771, six months before she married Thomas, so he did not inherit the stepson he had thought he would.)
Perhaps Martha was writing out that passage from Sterne because she sensed she was dying. Evidently she was too weak by then even to finish it. Below her words, Thomas wrote out part of the remainder of the excerpt:
and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!
Likely he could not bring himself to include what she had omitted, especially the last part. The entire passage in the original novel is this:
Thomas Jefferson was age 39 when Martha died. He lived until 1826, and died at the (then astoundingly old) age of 83.
After their last surviving daughter’s death in 1836, those lines her parents had copied from that novel nearly 55 years before were found in a tiny box among her personal possessions. (Martha had died when the daughter was about age ten.) Fortunately she had left an explanation with it: “A Lock of my Dear Mama’s Hair inclosed in a verse which she wrote…” In addition she had written that her father had kept it “…in the most secret drawer of a private cabinet which he constantly resorted to.”
I remember sitting in the library frantically turning pages in that 1782 volume looking for more details, but there was nothing more to be found. As I realized that, I sat there actually saddened. Whenever I see that story again, I recall how I had felt when I had first encountered it.
When we look at their era, usually we fail properly to consider the world in which they lived. They – and everyone else – lived a “quiet,” mostly isolated and often incredibly difficult existence revolving around, and largely reliant upon, the natural world. Most of us today would probably last barely five minutes in their world – even with their money.
It was before most machinery, before modern medicine, before electricity, before photography, before instant communications, before transport any faster than a galloping horse or a ship with sails catching a full wind. If they desired to hear music, there was no CD player or iPhone playlist; he would play the violin and she would play the harpsichord. Yet in their lives and their time, we start also to see the beginnings of our world today: the arrival of American independence, questions beginning to be asked about racial equality and the equality of women, the possibilities for scientific advancements, and so much more.
Their personal tragedy (and it was sadly hardly unique to them) turned out to be among the inspirations that led me eventually also to want to write Conventions: The Garden At Paris – of life, love, separation, longing and loss in the 1780s and 1790s. Thomas had wrapped her words around a lock of her hair. Afterwards he treasured both memories of her for the rest of his life.