Jack and Patcy Custis

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is 
To have a thankless child! Away, away!

After hitting the halfway point of Washington:  A Life, I realized the problem.  Randall  presents everything with this hurry-up-and-wait approach.  One point or factoid may be repeated ad nauseam to the point that you sometimes have to flip back a page to make sure you haven’t missed that your current paragraph is a flashback.  It’s not horrible, but it does make keeping a running mental tally of the order in which I want to share…awkward, especially as I’ve been traveling.  

It may be the weekend before I catch up with what I’d like to do, which is trace the dichotomy of the man.  The guy who copied out rules for living as a teenager truly lived by those rules as an adult; the guy who had little formal schooling really taught himself on a wide variety of subjects.  Washington was no Jeffersonian genius (even leaving aside his not figuring out that it might not be Martha’s fault they didn’t have kids together), but he impresses me with all he did learn on his own.

But today’s post is about Jack (who seems to be the ungrateful child Lear only believed his daughter to be) and Patcy Custis, George Washington’s step-children.  So far, we know little of Jack except that he’s indolent with regard to his studies, likes riding his horses, generally insensitive to anything unrelated to him and left school to marry his girlfriend, frustrating GW to no end.

But it was Patcy, whom George seemed to truly adore as much as if she were his own progeny, that broke my heart when I read last night’s section.  Patcy had what was certainly epilepsy, and literally died of a seizure right in George Washington’s arms.  The distress this caused Martha Custis Washington is palpable to the reader, even one who has only hit page 250.  But George Washington’s feelings are rarely displayed for more than a moment–we know he’s petulant when ill-appreciated and ill-rewarded by Governor Dinwiddie and later by the British government.  We know when he’s lock-stock-and-two-smoking-watermelons crazy about Sally Fairfax…which is what leads us to wonder what, other than her money, George loved about Martha…since he seems far less passionate about her.  We know he’s frustrated by Jack, and despondent about Patcy, but only in brief glimpses.

Certainly I don’t want biographers to make stuff up…but it is disappointing to not get into the nittygritty of what makes this man tick.

Nonetheless, poor Patcy.  Not only did she have to die young, but she suffered the ill effects of her mother’s famously bad spelling.  Tsk.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 10:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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