J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 05, 2011

“The fine old Vassall mansion was in gala dress”

Yesterday I quoted the brief passage from Washington Irving’s biography of George Washington stating that his wife Martha overcame his objections and celebrated their wedding anniversary on 6 Jan 1776, while they were living at his military headquarters in Cambridge.

What sort of celebration? Irving’s passage is vague: he wrote of “due style,” and “duly celebrated”? Probably he had no information about what took place, and avoided giving details.

Other writers filled in the blanks. Among them was Mary Williams Greeley, who created the fictional “Diary of Dorothy Dudley” for a book published in Cambridge to celebrate the Centennial. Her fictional diarist says:
Madame Washington has enlivened the monotony of her winter among us by a reception, on the seventeenth anniversary of her wedding day. The fine old Vassall mansion was in gala dress, and the coming and going of guests brightened the sober aspect of the General’s head-quarters. The General and his wife stood in the drawing-room at the left of the front entrance, and there received the company. General Washington’s study is the room opposite, and opening out of this, the one set apart for his military family. These of course were all thrown open for the accommodation of the guests. There was much chatting and walking to and fro, and easy and social manners were the rule. The General does not talk much, but is gracious and courteous to all. His lady is very unceremonious and easy like other Virginia ladies, though there, is no lack of dignity in her manner. Of course simplicity of dress was noticeable,—no jewels or costly ornaments,—though tasteful gowns, daintly trimmed by their owner’s fingers, were numerous. The occasion was a most enjoyable one.
Within a few years, people were treating the “Dudley diary” as an authentic source.

Between Irving and “Dudley,” the picture of the Washingtons hosting a reception—eventually “a grand party”—on their anniversary became a standard part of Cambridge history. It also appears in biographies of Martha by Anne Hollingsworth Wharton (1897) and Helen Bryan (2002), and in biographies of George by Wayne Whipple (1911) and Ron Chernow (2010).

But that whole tradition appears to rest on the unsupported statement of Irving’s source, an unnamed “descendant of one who was an occasional inmate” at headquarters. We don’t know who that informant was, and thus can’t assay the value of his or her information. All we know is that it doesn’t appear to have any support.

(The photo above of Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters in winter comes from Tom Stohlman, via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


Charles Bahne said...

Another celebration that I've heard mentioned, at about the same time, was the reopening of Christ Church, Cambridge, at Martha's request, so that she and the Commander could worship there on December 31, 1775 -- the Sunday preceding the wedding anniversary in question. In fact, some (modern?) sources that I've seen have claimed that Martha wanted the church reopened so that she could celebrate her anniversary there. I have no idea how reliable those sources are. John, do you have any documentation either way on this one?

J. L. Bell said...

We have one solid source on Martha Washington wishing a church service around the turn of the year: a contemporaneous letter from William Palfrey, the Lee aide-de-camp who presided over the service, to his wife.

There are some ambiguities about that letter. It’s dated 2 Jan 1776 and says the service happened the day before, but 31 Dec 1775 was the most recent Sunday. The Rev. Nicholas Hoppin of Christ Church decided that the event must have happened on 31 December, and most subsequent writers have followed his lead, but not actual evidence has turned up.

Palfrey doesn’t mention the Washingtons’ wedding anniversary, which on 6 January was closer to the next Sunday, anyway. I doubt Martha Washington would have insisted on reopening the Anglican church for a mostly personal celebration; as the discussion of the ball in Philadelphia showed, she was developing good political instincts.

Chaucerian said...

Do I understand that a work of fiction published in 1875 was treated in 1897 as an authentic work of 18th-century history? Did Mrs. Greeley not clearly indicate that she was creating and inventing her story? I am baffled.

J. L. Bell said...

The volume that included the “Dorothy Dudley” diary and other material was a local publication created to celebrate the Centennial. Everyone involved knew that the diary was a fictional creation, meant to evoke the experience of being in Cambridge a century before. The book playfully alluded to Mary Williams Greeley’s contribution as if she’d prepared a scholarly manuscript for publication rather than used historical sources to create diary. Decades later and outside of Cambridge, eager authors didn’t bother to confirm that “Dorothy Dudley” was real.

As a result, it’s been cited as a primary source not just in 1897 but in 2007. Cambridge authors appear to have been surprised and a little annoyed that people didn’t get the joke. Mary Beth Norton wrote brief articles for the William & Mary Quarterly and Journal of Women’s History warning scholars about the “Dudley” diary, but not everyone sees those in time.

And now that scans of The Cambridge of 1776 are available on the internet, “Dorothy Dudley” might live again.