The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington

Farrar. Jun. 2019. 384p. notes. index. ISBN 9780809097012. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780374721336. BIOG
Saxon (history & sexuality, women’s & gender studies, Amherst Coll.; Being Good) aims to restore the reputation of Mary Ball Washington (1709–89), clouded by previous historians’ portrayals of her as unkind and selfish, based largely on stereotypes and misinterpreted excerpts from the letters of eldest son George Washington. By recounting the known details of Mary’s life from the few remaining family letters and legal documents, Saxon skillfully fills in the gaps, relating Mary’s story in the context of legal, economic, and social realities of 18th-century Virginia planter society. Personal hardships, along with quotes from Mary’s prized spiritual guidebooks, explain her pious and determined character, along with her attitudes toward life, death, slave-holding, child-rearing, and the military—all of which she imparted to her children and grandchildren. Saxon describes George and Mary’s complex, mutually respectful, loving relationship, and their shared stoicism and miserliness. Although a dutiful son, George’s resentful complaints about his mother’s demeanor and requests for assistance, Saxon explains, came mostly from a defensiveness regarding his status and embarrassment of his unpolished past.
VERDICT All readers will value this vivid account that corrects Mary’s record and reveals the dilemmas and distorted sensibility of Virginian slave-holding white women, along with the devastation caused by the Revolutionary War

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