Okay, I had planned to write up a whole post about classical Indian theatre, which I’m sure I’ll do in the near future. But I had also promised updates on my next book assuming the verdict from my editor wasn’t a total disaster, and since I’ve just wrapped up my first pass through her notes (and we don’t have to tear the whole thing down), I needs must be a woman of my word. I think it’s going to be a fun and thoughtful read, but it needs a little explaining before I just tell you what it’s about, so that’s turned into this whole entry. Which, incidentally, is why I’ve been maddeningly vague to most of you who’ve asked about it before now—I can give you a super-catchy elevator pitch for this one, but it really needs a little more explanation than that. So let me give you a too-long introduction to The Flight of Virtue!
I’ve been working with this manuscript on and off for three years in between God’s Wife-related work (and as a result, giving myself historical whiplash). So many of you will recognize that, when I started, this was me writing as close to the zeitgeist as I’m ever likely to get. Unfortunately for me, I was too deep in the Ptolemies to get this thing hammered out before you all got sick of Hamilton. Which means now I’m here trying to excitedly tell you all in the year of Our Lord 2022 about my post-Revolutionary War/French Revolution historical fiction/historical fantasy/alternate history romp featuring Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson!
But don’t fret too hard, gentle readers; those two merely set the plot in motion. Because apparently what I really wanted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical was the story of the two women who are basically not in it, aside from a (honestly kind of dreary) song and a throwaway line of questionable taste. Yes, folks, I’ve written a story about Theodosia Burr and Sally Hemings.
I was doing some Hamilton-adjacent reading several years ago and was simultaneously struck with two separate, fictional ideas surrounding these ladies that I thought would make great stories. In the Hemings column, I was reading about Jefferson’s time in Paris as ambassador to France at the start of the French Revolution. Generally accepted as the period during which his physical relationship with Sally began, I found the breadcrumbs of a courageous and resourceful teenager, the one who found herself in such a limbo between the wildest freedom she’d ever known and perhaps the most depraved aspect of slavery, and thought her a heroine worthy of celebration. Along with the more historical fortitude she displayed, I had a vision of Sally as a Scarlet Pimpernel-style rescuer of revolutionary prisoners—as someone who valued life and understood injustice.
In the other column, despite what Lin tried to intimate in the musical, Philip Hamilton was not particularly known for his genius during his admittedly short life, but there was no such division of opinion on the talents the nearly equally short-lived Theodosia Burr. Combining her natural abilities with Burr’s Tiger Mother approach to childhood education produced a young woman considered to be America’s first prodigy—a polymath who knew eight languages; excelled in mathematics and the sciences, as well as more traditionally feminine subjects like art and composition; all the while being an excellent swimmer, an accomplished equestrian, and a crack markswoman. Burr dreamed of her being president of the United States one day, but tragically the ship she was traveling on in January 1813 would disappear somewhere off the Eastern seaboard between Georgetown and New York before she turned thirty. It is almost certain that the ship was wrecked off the Outer Banks and all hands were lost, but even at the time there was an extensive and colorful tradition of pirate-related lore that sprung up around the ship’s disappearance. Presumably all of this was written by men, because it’s a lot of “Theodosia Burr nobly walking the plank while murderous pirates weep at her bravery,” or “Theodosia Burr dies in tragic circumstances after being kidnapped by a smitten pirate” nonsense. I only call it nonsense because I feel that, given her extraordinary background, anyone who doesn’t read about this and immediately think “Theodosia Burr: Pirate Queen” is an idiot. If you’re going to make stuff up, at least keep your characterizations consistent.
From these two slightly outlandish premises, I knitted together an equally fictional story about these two ladies teaming up to pull off a more factually-based heist: freeing an imprisoned Marquis de Lafayette…
It’s 1794. In France, the Reign of Terror is building toward its bloody climax, but in America, Thomas Jefferson is hatching a plan with Aaron Burr to rescue the Marquis de Lafayette, who has been imprisoned by the Austrian emperor. Burr has no great love for Lafayette, but he sees helping Jefferson as a way to secure a political ally for the future. Neither man can go themselves, but they come up with the idea to send the two young women they trust the most in their place. For Burr, this is his preteen daughter, Theodosia—his partner in crime and his greatest creation. For Jefferson, this is a twenty-some year old Sally Hemings, his slave, but also, as his dead wife’s half-sister, his family. The biracial Sally will pose as Theo’s governess while she tries to devise a way to free not only Lafayette, but his wife and children still in France under the shadow of the guillotine. But precocious Theo isn’t content to merely be a prop—her father’s raising her to be a new woman for a new century, after all—so she is determined to help Sally despite the latter’s disinclination toward her involvement. Level-headed Sally may not want help, and Theo might be too smart for her own good, but when they find themselves swept up in the chaos unleashed by the bloodthirsty National Convention and its dreaded Committee of Public Safety, they’ll have to find a way to work together to save not only the Lafayettes’ heads, but their own.
On the way, they’ll be aided and thwarted by a veritable rogues’ gallery of revolutionaries, traitors, spies, radical feminists, and of course, pirates. But, really, the heart of the story is the complicated relationships my two protagonists have with their famous men. And it is a challenge sometimes to decide which pairs’ relationship is more fraught with secrets. The turn of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth was a difficult time to be any woman. The Enlightenment had brought liberty, but mostly for (white) men, and many of the historical women who crop up in my story had sad lives with tragic ends. The fact that Sally lived long enough to die free in the company of some of her children is honestly one of the more positive outcomes—which is a pretty terrible indictment of the whole if I ever heard of one. But it was also a theme I was interested in exploring. Even the most famous women I met in my research exist largely as footnotes to their more famous fathers, husbands, and lovers. Yet many of them lived through the same truly revolutionary events of the era, with an equal amount of courage, and often, suffering. There are going to be plenty of recognizable men in this book—but my goal is to bring the ladies into the spotlight.
So that’s the gist of where we’re going. As I’ve told many people, I have no desire to become Joyce Carol Oates, churning out books every four to six months, so I’m planning on an early spring 2023 for this. Stay tuned for more updates on publication and probably a fair number of period-appropriate history posts in the future!
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