The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr by Susan Holloway Scott

I’ll read just about anything relating to the Revolutionary War and the time surrounding the founding of our country. Fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter. Reading about the Founding Fathers and their ilk is comforting to me. So when I saw this fictional account of Aaron’s Burr’s wife, I was intrigued, but it was not at all what I expected.

From the publisher: “He was a hero of the Revolution, a brilliant politician, lawyer, and very nearly president; a skillful survivor in a raw new country filled with constantly shifting loyalties. Today Aaron Burr is remembered more for the fatal duel that killed rival Alexander Hamilton. But long before that single shot destroyed Burr’s political career, there were other dark whispers about him: that he was untrustworthy, a libertine, a man unafraid of claiming whatever he believed should be his.

Sold into slavery as a child in India, Mary Emmons was brought to an America torn by war. Toughened by the experiences of her young life, Mary is intelligent, resourceful, and strong. She quickly gains the trust of her new mistress, Theodosia Prevost, and becomes indispensable in a complicated household filled with intrigue–especially when the now-widowed Theodosia marries Colonel Aaron Burr. As Theodosia sickens with the fatal disease that will finally kill her, Mary and Burr are drawn together into a private world of power and passion, and a secret, tangled union that would have shocked the nation . . .”

When I picked up The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr, I thought it was going to be about Theodosia Prevost Burr, the married woman who carried on with Aaron Burr during the Revolution and, after the death of her British officer husband, marries him. But this book is about Theodosia’s slave, Mary Emmons, and how she met and eventually wound up the concubine of Aaron Burr.

The author admits there is scant evidence, other than oral stories from Mary’s children and grandchildren, who have the Burr name. No document of Burr’s mentions Mary, but that’s not surprising: Burr rarely wrote down his true feelings, and often instructed letter receivers to dispose of the letter once it was read. He was the ultimate politician of his age who did not want to leave a paper trail. So there is little for the author to go on, but I think that helps the story, because after all, this is historical fiction.

And it is very good fiction at that. From the beginning, I was invested in Mary’s beginning, in Pondicherry in India, the bastard child of a British officer and her Indian mother. Her mother died at birth, and her uncle loathes the shame Mary brings to her family, and as soon as her grandmother dies, Mary is sold to a French aristocrat as a play thing for her wife. Mary is seven at the time. (Mary’s name changed several times, depending upon who owned her, but to avoid confusion, I’ll just stick with Mary).

For several years, Mary is the “pet” of Madame. and tries to run away several times before a painful collar is fitted on her. From then on, she’s chained to the bedpost at night like a dog. When the French family is ordered to the West Indies to oversee the family’s sugar plantation, Mary has no idea what to expect. Well, many people die during the 10-month journey, including the Madame, so Mary ends up becoming a house slave. She knows it’s only a matter of time before the overseer or some other man rapes her, because she’s seen it happen repeatedly on her short time on the island. Sure enough, a man comes for her and since she works in the kitchen, she knifes him on the arm. That, of course, gets her a whipping. But visiting the plantation that day is a British officer, Colonel Prevost, who offers to buy her.

Next thing you know, Mary is on her way to America, New Jersey to be exact, where she becomes the slave property of the Prevosts. The husband is sent away to command troops because it’s on the eve of the Revolutionary War, so Mary becomes Theodosia’s slave. Years pass as the Revolutionary War rages on around them. Somehow Theodosia is able to keep both British and American friends, never revealing her true feelings, despite the fact that her husband is a British officer. Somehow, through careful manipulation, her 300-acre property is not seized from her by the Rebels. At one point, General Washington and his men make use of her property, and that’s when Theodosia and Mary meet Aaron Burr.

Over the next few years, Theodosia and Burr become closer. The Colonel resigns his commission in the army to study law, in part to his ill health, and while he visits Mrs. Prevost, he also speaks to Mary Emmons like a human being, something few people had ever done to her. Word eventually arrives that Colonel Prevost died.

Flash forward to the marriage of Theodosia Prevost and Aaron Burr. Burr “gives” his wife Mary as her property alone to do with as she pleases (you have to remember that back then, as soon as a woman got married, all her own property became her husband’s). Years pass, the Burrs go from the small quarters of a bachelor lawyer to more spacious digs. A daughter is born, then another, and the Burrs become more prosperous. Mary spends her time in the kitchen, keeping no one’s counsel, and trying to figure out a way to freedom. When Burr talks to her, as he frequently does over the years, he treats her somewhat more equally than that of slave-master. He listens to her, so she finds herself opening up to him. The subject of freeing the slaves comes up repeatedly. Surely, a man such as Burr, who has his hands in New York politics, indeed, national politics at that point, could introduce a bill for the abolition of slavery? But Burr says it is impossible because he doesn’t want to gain enemies. It also becomes apparent as these talks continue that some day Burr is going to bed Mary.

Let’s make this clear: I do not find this book a romance, no more than I would call any book on Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson a romance. The fact that Burr rapes Mary, and Mary continues to let him because she has no choice, does not make this a romance. The fact that he gets her pregnant and she’s having his child does not make this a romance. The fact that she has another child with him does not make this a romance. This is an historical fiction novel based on the life of a slave, and slaves were often raped by their masters, can not be ignored, but neither should it be romanticized.

However, the writing of The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr is so good, that I’m able to let that pass. Mary is truly conflicted over her feelings for Burr and the fact that she has children by him. And when Theodosia dies and in her will, sets Mary free, she knows she can’t leave because of the children. She needs to earn money to make it on her own, so Burr hires her as housekeeper and keeps her as his concubine. But Mary knows that some day she will leave, taking their children with her.

The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr ends just before that fateful day in Weehawken, New Jersey, where Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, his name forever tainted. By then, Mary was living in Philadelphia with her children, and Burr comes to ask her to marry him. She does, quietly, and he leaves for New Jersey; they never see each other again.

Bottom line: The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr is compelling for most of the book. The story rarely lagged. If you enjoy historical fiction, you’d enjoy this, knowing that the majority of this is fiction. And if you enjoyed this book, check out, I Eliza Hamilton by the same author. Same time period, expertly researched, beautifully written.

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