UNWISE PASSIONS: A TRUE STORY OF A REMARKABLE WOMAN AND THE FIRST GREAT SCANDAL OF EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA, by Alan Pell Crawford, Simon & Schuster, 333 pages, $27.50.
The title of Alan Pell Crawford’s new book might seem more appropriate for a romance novel than a work of history. But the reader doesn’t have to wade too far into this tempestuous tale to realize that nineteenth-century novels, with their ardor, intrigue, villainy, and hurly-burly, are hardly exaggerations. The story here recounts the fate of a young Virginia woman accused of giving birth to a child sired by her sister’s husband, murdering the newborn, and then becoming the paramour of a plantation slave. Though it is fact, the page-turning narrative is worthy of novelistic treatment and Hollywood’s notice. Several prominent Americans appear, among them Patrick Henry, John Marshall, Gouverneur Morris, and many members of Virginia’s eminent Randolph family, especially John “Jack” Randolph, who once described himself as a “tertium quid” (a person who defies categorization).
As critic Edmund Wilson pointed out, late eighteenth-century Virginia, and not the antebellum world of Scarlett O’Hara, was the original vanished “Old South.” Crawford skillfully illuminates this realm, with its hard-pressed tobacco planters, its aristocracy, its sometimes twisted sense of honor, and its dismay at the growing power of the mercantile North. He draws heavily on archival research and original correspondence (although he makes the error of placing George Washington at the Battle of Saratoga), and his narrative is fast-paced (in places, perhaps, too fast). The events it recounts may not have been major ones in American history, but their telling casts light on many issues–not just on the condition of the Old South, but also on the status of women, the uncertain state of medical knowledge, the complex threads of family life, the power of gossip and innuendo, the tempestuous state of politics in the republic’s early days, and the skullduggery and fortitude of which people were (and presumably still are) capable.
JOSEPH GUSTAITIS is a writer specializing in popular history and a frequent contributor to American History.