Out In the Social Whirl
Jefferson’s granddaughters began venturing “into society” in the 1810s. His first granddaughter Ann was married in 1808 at the age of seventeen, after attending only a few balls, dinners, and receptions in Washington while her grandfather was president.
Ellen was out for several seasons and although she often complained in her letters home of the tedium of participating in “insipid conversation” and dancing with handsome, but intellectually stunted young men, she nevertheless adapted chameleon-like, into a popular belle. Her letters are full of the gossip and speculation about romances, engagements, and her fleeting likes and dislikes among the beaux of the season.
Virginia attended a party here and there, but her heart was pledged to Nicholas Trist early on, so she was never really particularly interested and was primarily an observer of her sisters’ activities.
Cornelia is often overlooked, I think, when it comes to the granddaughters. Ellen gets a great deal of attention – she wrote prolifically and was an articulate and astute observer of human nature, her own included. Cornelia was equally so, and her letters from this time period in particular are humorous and touching.
In December 1817, during her first “season” in Richmond, the eighteen-year-old Cornelia described a typical day for her sister Virginia
“I have no time to do any thing useful or agreable, you no doubt feel some curiosity to know how I pass my time I can tell you in a very few words, we get up evry morning just in time to dress for breakfast, after that is over we come up & dress again to recieve company, we set in the drawing room from this time untill it is time to adjust our dress for dinner, we cannot work in the drawing room because there is almost constantly some visitor there; after dinner it is too dark to do any thing & from that time untill ten oclock bed time are the most tiresome of all tiresome hours, we all set round the fire except the gentlemen who choose to play cards, & some talk nonsense, & some yawn & stretch, & pull out their watches & wonder at its being so early & would all fairly go to sleep at last if they did not seem to be afraid of this & do every thing in their power to keep themselves awake, each exerts himself by turns to make a noise”
(Cornelia J. Randolph to Virginia J. Randolph Trist, 14-18 Dec. 1817 [University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill: Nicholas Philip Trist Papers])
Can’t you just hear the monotonous ticking of a mantel clock, the shifting around in chairs, stifled yawns and dull murmuring conversations?
This was not the usual evening Cornelia was accustomed to spending at Monticello, where she was free to read, draw, play chess, or go for walks with her sisters. She was bored nearly to tears, and to make things more uncomfortable for her, she was shy in company outside of Monticello and accustomed to being a bit of a tomboy while at home.
But she knew herself and, while she was conscious of being a frustration and maybe even a disappointment to Ellen, she does not seem to have despaired too much:
“True to my promise, My Dear sister, of writing to you as soon as I had been to the first party …To begin at the beginning then, I was drest & sister Ellen said I would do but I soon found I would not do for I was laced too tight & after deliberating a little while, I prefer’d comfort to good looks, & had all my cloths loosen’d & went down stairs in my own opinion a right dowdy figure, I forgot to tell you, that sister Ellen found it impossible to make my head look like a lady’s head & after two hours of vexation to herself and torment to me, she finish’d, declaring that she had dress’d my head as she could & not as she would, you may suppose I had a very humble opinion of my own attractions, but I very philosophically thought to myself, that it was to please myself and not others that I went to the ball, & when a thousand compliments were paid to sister Ellen on her appearance and a great many witty speeches made, I was as much diverted as any body, & was even well pleas’d that they were not made to me because I could not have turned them off so well.”
(Cornelia J. Randolph to Virginia J. Randolph Trist, 19 Dec. 1817 [University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill: Nicholas Philip Trist Papers])
Several years later, when Cornelia was visiting her married sister Ellen in Boston, Cornelia attended a wedding and was engaged in pleasant conversation by an attractive and intelligent young gentleman. It was only later, while writing home about the wedding party, that she realized he may have been flirting with her. She just never looked for it, never seemed to expect anyone to pay that kind of attention to her.
Cornelia never married, but whether or not she was bothered by that, I do not know. Ellen had hoped an attachment would form between Cornelia and one of her husband Joseph’s business partners, but while they both esteemed each other, Cornelia and Augustine Heard were apparently both content to live in “single blessedness.” He never married either.
Incidentally, if you’re interested in reading these or other family letters, you can visit the Family Letters Digital Archive.