Book Review – Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray
By Dorothy Love
June 14, 2016
Historical set in 1870s, Virginia
print and e-book format
received e-book from Netgalley for an honest review
Mary Anna Custis Lee was born into a family with a rich patriotic history in Virginia. She was a great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and could proudly share tales of battles during the American Revolution and she spoke to those who came to dine with her father, George Washington Parke Custis, at Arlington, their home. Her education soared into exciting lessons of various languages, botany, history and poetry. Because of her fathers’ inheritance, she also knew the 60 slaves that resided in their quarters behind Arlington. She and her mother educated seven servant children for they wished to make a difference. Mary and her mother were committed to the colonization society which focused on freeing slaves and paying for their travels to Liberia.
When she was 19, she visited her mother’s cousins in Fauquier. It was there that her cousin, Robert Edward Lee, rushed to spend time with her while on leave from West Point. Robert informed her, and her cousins, about his desire to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Four years later, he proposed to Mary.
For Selina, Mary’s upcoming marriage meant the end of the outdoor chores she enjoyed. She was now expected to sew clothes for Mary (she was a child) and later caring for her home. She, her entire family and peers, having been born slaves have lived as others have sought fit, were considered little more than property. The only exception is that Mary taught Selina and several other servant children how to read, which at the time was considered a sin. Perhaps, because, if you educate a man, woman or child it gives a soul life and worth and leads to rebellion. Selena and her loved ones are cold, hungry, exhausted, while Mary’s family lives in comfort and barely knows how to care for themselves or their children without their servants’ assistance. But because Mary and her mother are working to liberate slaves by sending them back to Africa, Selina, as the years pass, continues to harbor a veiled friendship for Mary. Though Selina must always consider her standing in society, be aware of unacceptable actions and punishment.
Love informs the reader about Mr. Lee’s continued elevation in the military and how Mary and their many children are often moving where he serves, when it is allowed. Mary was also responsible for being Arlington’s caretaker after the death of her parents. At the same time, she had to balance her responsibilities as wife and mother. When her husband has to make a choice between serving the North or the South, she then has to flee her home as the Northern Army advances. She relies on both Selina and a hired man to see that it continues to exist in her absence. Which is nearly impossible.
It takes years of research to understand this time period. I’ve only begun to tap into historical novels having read romance, paranormal, and cozies for 30 years. I want to learn. I hunger for truth. It seems well guarded or covered in layers and lies so it is nearly undecipherable. I chose to read this novel to learn more about “why” there was a Civil War. What the key individuals that drafted their strategies in the art of war believed they were fighting for. And, could it be possible that a land owner in Virginia could befriend a woman who is a slave? Before I ever read the e-book I knew it would focus mainly on Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray’s friendship. But for 400 pages, it should have touched upon so much more. It seems like all the details of the war were left out. I know that Mr. Lee could not have mentioned advancements in letters to his wife for fear that the enemy could use it to their advantage.
There were newspapers that Mary could have discussed articles with her father or female relatives. They visited their cousins often. Then there was great loss: loss of children to terrible illness and sons to war. That alone should have greatly impacted the readers. Describing in great detail the emotional reactions to the difficult challenges in their lives could have pulled me, and other readers, closer to both women. I wanted to feel what they felt. Stand beside them in their experiences. There was more to Mr. Lee’s riding a horse home after the end of the war. It was either edited out or not written. The book has potential, but didn’t dig deep enough.
It was worth reading because I will look for future books that focus on this time period. Every book has a purpose. It didn’t strive to be the next “Gone with the Wind,” it merely wanted to say that a special friendship was kindled and survived even in the household of Robert E. Lee.
Three Washington heirlooms out of five
November 19, 2016