Related resources and more "YMOaHS" episodes.
It's a crossover episode! This time on "In the Course of Human Events" we highlight the work of an another remarkable podcast series, "Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant,” which showcases women’s letters from the 18th and early 19th-century that don’t always make it into the history books. In this installment former Monticello guide Kathryn Gehred is joined by long-time Monticello guide Danna Kelley for an entertaining look at Jefferson’s granddaughter Ellen Wayles Randolph. Their conversation centers on a letter she wrote to her mother, Martha Jefferson Randolph, while visiting Richmond, Virginia in 1819. In the letter, Ellen, then 23, describes herself as a person whose tongue “runs faster than is quite compatible with the comfort of my friends” and then proves the point with language that is often as withering as it is engaging.
In our Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters website.
Note: This transcript was generated by Otter.ai with light human correction
Kathryn Gehred: Hello, and welcome to Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant. This is the Women's History podcast where we feature 18th and early 19th century women's letters that don't get as much attention as we think they should. I'm your host, Katherine Gehred. This week, I'm joined by a good friend of mine, Monticello interpreter and house tour supervisor, Danna Kelly. Hi, Danna.
Danna Kelley: Hi, Katie. Happy to be here.
Kathryn Gehred: When did you first begin working at Monticello, and what made you want to work there?
Danna Kelley: I clearly remember, because it was the week of Mardi Gras, so it's February in 2005. So, that's almost 17 years ago. I think I was destined to work there, because I was one of those kids, as you may have been as well, given the choice between a vacation and Disney World and Colonial Williamsburg, I would have picked Colonial Williamsburg. You know, I'm just always fascinated and sort of by traveling in time, going back in time, going to historic sites reading books, and we did go to Williamsburg when I was a kid while I was reading my favorite book, which was Johnny Tremaine.
Kathryn Gehred: Oh wow! Having been on many of your tours, you're an excellent tour guide. What's something that you want people to take away with them after going on one of your tours?
Danna Kelley: Lately, I've really want thought about this a lot myself, and I hope my visitors leave with a sense of the gravity and the importance of the events in 1776. And, how Jefferson and his contemporaries, the movement, they initiated away from monarchy and towards self government, circles the globe. I mean, it was it was a sea change, don't you think? I mean, it was big, this was a very big deal that we sometimes take for granted. And, as you know, Monticello is a plantation. So, I certainly want visitors to think about the big picture, and the difficult history and the paradox of, you know, the promise of the young republic, but also the cruelty of the institution of slavery, the reality of that as well, not just at Monticello, but in the very, sort of the very DNA of our founding documents and the birth of our nation. And I guess, after all this difficult history, I want them to leave with a sense of hope, and optimism. I think Jefferson would have approved don't you think he was the eternal optimist, who said he liked the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. So lately, I've been finishing with lines from this letter he wrote when he was 73. He wrote "Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind." He said, "As new truths are disclosed, manners and opinions change, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times." So that's a lot. I don't know if they leave with any of that.
Kathryn Gehred: So, I'm very excited to talk about this letter with you, as a guide to Monticello, we've become pretty familiar with Jefferson and his family and the grandchildren in particular. So, this is yet another Ellen Wales Randolph Coolidge letter. I featured several of them on the podcast, but this one was just so good. This is a letter from March 1819, from Ellen Wales Randolph, she's not married yet. She's 23 years old at this time. And she's writing to her mother, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who at this point is 47 years old, and is at Monticello. So Ellen is at this point, visiting one of her many aunts, Harriet Randolph Hackley, who I figured, I think she's 36 at this point.
Danna Kelley: Okay.
Kathryn Gehred: Who is running a school in Richmond that says Ellen sort of visiting Richmond for the social season as she does, but she's staying with her Aunt Hackley, as opposed to some of the other family members that she could choose to stay with.
Danna Kelley: I don't know if you know this, Katie, but I'm wondering, is this is this a school for girls, obviously, of all ages, or do you think they're teenagers? Or
Kathryn Gehred: I think they're probably teenagers, right? Like 11 to...
Danna Kelley: Okay. Yeah. All right.
Kathryn Gehred: So this is a fairly long letter, but I think the best thing to do would just be to read through it, and then we can talk through it at the end.
"Ellen Wayles Randolph to Martha Jefferson, Radolph, 29 March 1819.
I have written so lately & so often my dear Mother, that if I were like other people, I should have nothing more to say, but my pen like my tongue, runs faster than is quite compatible with the comfort of my friends. From your complaining of not hearing from me, I conclude that my letters must miscarry, for in the three weeks that I have been here, I have written ten times to the different members of my family. I have recorded every thing that could possibly interest, &c & I fear a great deal that could not interest them, & yet I get no credit for my exertions.
Aunt Hackley is still confined to her bed, but is able to set up in her easy chair ten or fifteen minutes at a time; her complaint appears to be debility—she is in good spirits & receives a great many visiters. To answer your questions about the school or rather about the scholars, I have not perceived much of that illiberal spirit of which you speak. at least it does not appear to be exercised against me. the girls do not seem inclined to get acquainted with me, but I believe this proceeds merely from the shyness which boarding school misses seem generally to feel towards grown women, who cannot enter into their sports, or take part in the chit-chat which amuses them. I felt inclined to conciliate those girls who were thrown more immediately in my way, but there does not seem to be a single point of contact. the want of subjects for conversation is a difficulty not to be gotten over—of books except their school-books, they either know nothing, or, are afraid to speak, & as we have no mutual acquaintances. I think the school under very good regulations. there is more order than I could have expected in so large an establishment. I have not seen the least appearance of ill-humor or heard any squabbling since my arrival, and this in a school of fifty seven girls, of whom forty are boarders. Aunt Hackley tells me that I see the school under great disadvantages, as her presence is necessary for the maintenance of the perfect order which she requires. of this I have no doubt, and it only increases my admiration of the spirit of method, and the genius for government which has always distinguished her, since from her sick-bed, she maintains an exactness of discipline, which others would find difficult in full health and spirits. Her assistants are excellent as assistants, but by no means capable of keeping up the necessary authority, without her presiding power. Among the girls, I see no one whose society would appear would be of great much value; I suppose that in the school there is the usual quantum of intelligence and stupidity, but the first not sufficiently developed to offer any great resources. Eliza Woodward the first assistant is extremely valuable to Aunt H she [. . .] possesses good sense & “piety & under the master-hand performs her functions, as well as they could be performed. but she is uninteresting in manners and conversation—conversation I should not say, for she seldom speaks but in monosyllables. She is a saint no doubt, & saints are the most tiresome people in the world. I like her sister Maria better; she will not stand so high among evangelical people, for she seems to have an aspiration after the good things of this world, & although cheerfull & attentive in the performance of her duties, is not without some proneness to the vanities of the worldly minded. I believe it is this approach to something of my own nature that gives me a predilection in her favor—in associating with her I have not the same fear of “mingling strange fires, with the fires of heaven.” Martha the third sister I should have pronounced, hopelessly stupid, or sullen, but I am told she is neither; so how to account for her obstinate & unamiable silence I know not. Virginia Heth an insipid beauty is as lifeless in her manners as in her person; and I believe I like Elizabeth Pickett better than any girl in the school. she makes me laugh, & that is a great point gained. Some of the girls have shewn me little attentions that give me pleasure—they bring me flowers, & take such opportunities of obliging me as fall in their way. this manifest a friendly feeling, and it is always gratifying to be the object of such a feeling.
You must not imagine from what I have said that I suffer at all from ennui; I read, write, work, & walk alternately, whilst an occasional visit to the other hill keeps up my intercourse with the fashionable world. I went the other day to dine at Col. Nicholas’s intending to return home in the evening, but tempted by a gay party and a pleasant walk, I decided to drink tea where I was, & stay spend the night at Aunt Randolph’s. I counted on Capt. Peyton’s attendance, but he not knowing the need in which I stood of his services, went away early & left me to ask the escort of either Francis Gilmer or Col. Robert Nicholas. In this dilemma I chose the least evil, the man whom I had once known, to the utter stranger, and accepting his offered arm, we walked, after ten o clock at night in darkness & almost in silence, to Aunt R’s door, where seeing me safely housed he made his bow & retired. His conduct towards me is marked with such utter indifference, that I begin to think that time has removed every feeling even of resentment, or that, at any rate, if he has unfriendly feelings towards me, they are rather passive than active.
Aunt Randolph is in the midst of hurry and bustle. Yesterday, she entertained her boarders for the last time & to day she is preparing for a sale of her furniture which is to take place to morrow. the day after, she removes to Dr. Watson’s where she will remain, untill she can wind up her business, and leave Richmond, but as she has many visits to pay in the lower country it will be the Month of May before she reaches Albemarle. I fear this is a very unfavorable time for the sale of her furniture—the distress for money is [. . .] almost universal. the merchants are tottering or falling, & involving many in their ruin. Jack Page (& I never knew untill lately that he was engaged in commerce) if he has not failed, is in great danger. there is a report to day that Mr Richardson the son-in-law of Mr Pollard, is gone. I fear Aunt Randolph will be grievously disappointed, her expectations are too high; she talks of $5000 for furniture which is all second-hand & although she says that in the present state of things she does not calculate on more than half that sum, I suspect that even there she will be disappointed.
I have written as usual in the midst of confusion; if the girls come down my dear Mama send me some of the dresses that I left to make presents of to the servants. my purple striped gingham I do not recollect any thing else, but it is possible you may find something. Aunt Hackley sends her love, give mine to the girls & to my dear Grandfather—
I have this instant received Virginia’s letter of the 26th which if I have time I will answer by Papa—thank her for it my dearest mother & believe in the unalterable affection of your daughter, Ellen."
Danna Kelley: Oh, holy cow. How long do you think it took her to write that letter with a quill pen?
Kathryn Gehred: And it sounds like she does this all the time. I'm just imagining her just like scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.
Danna Kelley: Okay, so we're where do we start the first paragraph, I guess.
Kathryn Gehred: She says, "My pen, like my tongue runs faster than is quite compatible with the comfort of my friends." That's the quote that made me laugh out loud.
Danna Kelley: Woe! What do you think she talks a lot, she pontificates or,
Kathryn Gehred: This tells you a lot about what her personality is like. I think she's a bit of a chatterbox, but I think she's very clever. I think she just has a lot to say.
Danna Kelley: But she's complaining that nobody's writing her back. And, we can all relate to that.
Kathryn Gehred: 10 letters in three weeks does seem a touch excess.
Danna Kelley: I looked on Monticello.org., because family letters are transcribed. And they have transcribed 171 of Ellen's letters. So, she's probably then you know, her sisters, maybe 30 or 40 letters and her brother two, two letters. What are the young men not writing letters or nobody's saving their letters?
Kathryn Gehred: Well, that's what always strikes me as funny is like, I know there's brothers, but I don't know them at all. Because, they don't their letters haven't survived or they didn't write as many, but even in this at the end, she says "Say hello to the girls." She doesn't say like, say hello to my brothers. Like there was a little female ecosystem at Monticello.
Danna Kelley: There definitely was.
Kathryn Gehred: And I also like when she says, she sent out all of all of these letters with things that could interest or even that interest, and "yet I get no credit for my exertion." She's still getting scolded for not writing and she's writing so much.
Danna Kelley: That would be frustrating. I feel her pain.
Kathryn Gehred: So then she's visiting Aunt Hackley's school. I before this letter was not familiar with her Aunt Hackley. Did you know anything about her before this one?
Danna Kelley: No. But I learned a little bit about her from, believe it or not, this book by Alan Taylor. A pretty new book called Thomas Jefferson's Education had quite a bit about Aunt Hackley, interesting here, and of course, she was the sister of Thomas Mann Randolph, so of Ellen's father, and she married this merchant called Richard Hackley. And this is what Alan Taylor says about him, quote, "Charming but dishonest and soon bankrupt, when he lingered in Spain with a mistress and happily supported herself by opening a fashionable School for Girls."
Kathryn Gehred: Oh my gosh.
Danna Kelley: She had to be quite creative and industrious, because her husband's not a lot of help.
Kathryn Gehred: I had no idea. Of course Ellen wouldn't mention that in the letter, because I'm sure everybody knows. But there's always these scandalous little stories once you dig in.
Danna Kelley: There are! This is kind of an aside, but in preparing to talk to you, I just sort of leafed through Ellen Randolph Coolidge, as a married woman years later, spends time in almost a year in England because of her husband's job. And in her journal, when when they finally sail home, and she's missed her children dearly, because she left four out of five of them back in America. She says, "We landed at the quarantine ground in Staten Island, the afternoon of Tuesday, 14 May, we found our dear daughter well, and under the kind care of her and my good aunt, Mrs. Hackley. This is many years later, it's got to be the same aunt and she's living in Staten Island, New York no idea what drover her there. Their school must have closed. Maybe her husband finally came home. I don't know.
Kathryn Gehred: I mean, she's part of Virginia society. She's a Randolph. This is a fairly powerful family in Virginia, but I know they they struggled with debt, but her husband abandons her and she has to open a school to support herself. And, then she's getting visits from Thomas Jefferson's grandkids and what an interesting place in society to be, right?
Danna Kelley: And some of her sisters are in similar circumstances, so that helmsman Randolph has some really strong characters in these sisters, and I guess they're kind of role models for Ellen and her sisters? I don't know because all they had to do was get married. Find a man.
Kathryn Gehred: Yeah, well, and that's, you know, that's the position you're stuck in as a woman at this time is like, well, you've got to get married, but then it's such a gamble of how it's going to turn out. I wondered when Martha is writing about what the school is like, where she says to answer your questions about the school or about the scholars, I wonder if Martha is remembering her own childhood at a boarding school, and about her own little adventures and misbehaviors with her friends at this boarding school, when she's asking Ellen, did you get that impression at all?
Danna Kelley: Yeah, I'm sure she was thinking back on that, because, in some ways, I think those were the happiest years of her life. She was, I guess, 12, 12 through 17, something like that teenager. And you know the story Katie of when she came home one weekend, her father had a house on the Champs-Elysees. And, she came home and let them know she'd made a big decision to become a nun. Because in school, she was at a Catholic boarding school. And, so you know what her father does almost immediately he pulls her out of that school. Apparently, she's going to parties at Versailles. But, all of life, you're right. She spoke to her daughters about her, her time at that French boarding school and how happy she was. And no sooner does she sail home. She's still 17. A couple months later, she's married to her third cousin, she barely knows. And he turns out to be very difficult guy.
Kathryn Gehred: There are quotes talking about, you know, if somebody has a bad temper, it's the Randolph side of the family showing up.
Danna Kelley: Case of the Randolph's, if you're in a bad mood.
Kathryn Gehred: But her little description of what school girls are like to where she says, "Enter into their sports or take part in the chit chat which amuses them." I just like,
Danna Kelley: I think they're just kind of shy around her, because she's, you know, she's a lot older. She's a grown woman, and she's the granddaughter of the former president. I mean, I imagine if, you know, Jenna Bush, or Sasha Obama showed up at a boarding school, the girls would feel a little shy around them too.
Kathryn Gehred: Yeah, you are right.
Danna Kelley: She claims to have nothing in common with them. And, I don't know she was she was so brilliant when she was their age, you know, she was reading Greek and Latin, Don Quixote, in Spanish, etc, etc. and conversing with her intellectual grandfather about these books. It's a high bar. At Ellen's house.
Kathryn Gehred: When she says, you know, the "wants of subjects for conversation," they don't read any books, oh Ellen. Like classic Ellen, I thought it was interesting that she describes her aunt as presiding over the school with power, and she underlined the word power, because that's not necessarily a good female quality at this time, but she's definitely writing about it as a compliment,
Danna Kelley: Right? What did she call she has a genius for government, which has always to stay here. Since from her sick bed, she maintains an exactness of discipline, which others would find difficult and full health and spirits. So, I'm kind of intimidated by her.
Kathryn Gehred: That's impressive.
Danna Kelley: That's impressive.
Kathryn Gehred: When I first heard that, I assumed she must be sort of an older woman, but she's only 36 at this point. So I think that's interesting.
Danna Kelley: I do too. I flashback though, to my terror. I, when I was an adolescent, I was in a Catholic school, run by nuns, you know, in full habit. And I have no doubt that they were very nice women, but they were terrifying. And our Sister Principal, Sister Marcela, she could give, just give me the look, and I'd pretty much stopped breathing. This is what I'm this now I'm picturing Aunt Hackley. You know, when she's at home with Ellen having a cup of tea, she's, she's wonderful. She's maternal. But she she had that, that something that certain people in authority have that they with very little effort, they keep you in control. You know what I'm saying?
Kathryn Gehred: I was a public school kid, it was just chaos.
Danna Kelley: That then she starts talking about all the assistance and that's when she gets pretty gossipy, pretty juicy.
Kathryn Gehred: But she opens it beautifully, which is among the girls, I see no one who society would be of much value.
Danna Kelley: Why does she need to be valued to her? By the way, what is she doing in Richmond? She seems to go there often, and, she talks about the people there as being, you know, pretty stupid and uninteresting, compared to the people at Monticello.
Kathryn Gehred: My understanding is that like sort of like the Christmas and like New Year's season is kind of the social season in Richmond. When she says "Virginia Heth an insipid beauty is this life listener matters center person" is one of my favorites in this next paragraph. I don't just, just tears Virginia to shreds in one sentence and then just moves on.
Danna Kelley: You know, if Ellen were alive today, and still and living in the South, what I, I'm, you're from Ohio, right? I'm from New York.
Kathryn Gehred: Yeah.
Danna Kelley: But, I have learned from women in Virginia. You can pretty much say anything about anybody. If you just add three little words. Do you know what those words are?
Kathryn Gehred: Bless your heart.
Danna Kelley: Bless her heart.
Kathryn Gehred: I had to learn that too. I learned that from the guides.
Danna Kelley: I mean, if she said Virginia Heth an insipid beauty as is lifeless in her manners as in her person, bless her heart, see how it changes it?
Kathryn Gehred: In her complaining about Eliza Woodward as being a saint as being too pious, that's interesting to read, particularly for this time period, because you know, that you sort of have this idea of women in the 1800s as being very sweet and pious, and all of that. And then there's Ellen just like, making fun of this boring person for being too religious and she's afraid to say what she means with her because she doesn't want to mingle strange fires with the fires of heaven. So, she's sort of like exasperated with this woman who doesn't seem to have any interest in the good things of this world. Ellen is is not that good 18th Century woman she's a little bit, she she does want the good life.
Danna Kelley: Right. Little bit of the devil in her, I guess, if Eliza is a goody two shoes, and I guess no fun, really. She calls Martha the third sister. She should have "pronounced her hopelessly stupid or sullen. But I am told she is neither. So how do we account for her obstinate and an unamiable silence? I No, not." Bless her heart. She shows no mercy, that's for sure.
Kathryn Gehred: In that next paragraph where she talks about, she said, I went the other day to Colonel Nicholas's, so she complains a lot about when society is not very good, but she says this time it was a gay party and a pleasant walk. And so she decided to stay where she was. And, then when she said, I counted on Captain Payton's attendance, but he not knowing the the need in which I stood for services went away early. So, I think she's flirting with Captain Peyton.
Danna Kelley: Yes, I think there's a good chance for that.
Kathryn Gehred: This is Bernard Payton. He was a prominent Richmond merchant and was at this point, the Adjutant General of the Virginia militia.
Danna Kelley: I'm assuming he was a bachelor.
Kathryn Gehred: With him, and Francis Gilmer and Colonel Robert Nicklaus, it seems like some of these people hadn't been involved in the military during the War of 1812. So, if you're comparing it to Pride and Prejudice as I do so often, yeah, sort of like the military men in town, but it'd be militia, but he leaves the guy that she's interested in leaves early, and she's stuck. Because she can't walk home by herself at 10 o'clock, oh my God, like imagine even just walking around with one man at 10 o'clock by herself. I think she paints the picture pretty well that she's in a little bit of a tense situation. But, she has to pick either Francis Gilmer or Colonel Robert Nicholas. So I don't know much about either of these men.
Danna Kelley: Yeah, and she picks Gilmer because she's known him since she was a child.
Kathryn Gehred: Alright, so who is Francis Gilmer?
Danna Kelley: He's the son of a good friend of Jefferson's, Dr. George Gilmer, a physician, a Revolutionary War soldier and a good friend of Jefferson's. But they they had a plantation in Charlottesville called Penn Park, and I live, my neighborhood is not half a mile from Penn Park. So my friends, and I walk there all the time. So the house is long gone, but it is now obviously a park and a golf course that Gilmer cemetery is actually on the golf course.
Kathryn Gehred: What?
Danna Kelley: Yes, it's somewhat protected, but it's really it's between two fairways. So, we've poked around that graveyard, often. And, I learned a lot about Francis Gilmer again, in Alan Taylor's book, Thomas Jefferson's Education, he has a whole section on the Gilmers, and the relationship between Francis and Ellen Randolph, because by the age of 10, young Francis was an orphan. His father had died, his mother had died, the family fortunes collapse, and he has a guardian he doesn't like at all, but he spends a lot of time living at Monticello. And Martha Randolph is maternal toward him. And he was kind of a sickly kid and very short in stature, but he was brilliant. And Jefferson, let me see if I can find what Jefferson says about him. He says, "in the vast dearth of scientific education in our state, he [Francis] presents almost the solitary object known to me as eminent in genius and science and industry, and excellent disposition," which he got, well, he got that wrong, and I'll tell you why that last part. Francis Gilmer who is, you know, not living with his family he, he longs to be a part of the Monticello family. He says the "only persons who began early to make me believe I was born for more than a drudge where the Monticello dynasty." He really wants, he really doesn't feel like he belongs anywhere else, and Ellen is a few years younger than Francis, but they kind of grow up together. And when she was only 11, he says, she told everyone how devoted she was to me. And, he's infatuated in love with her, as a matter of fact, when she's a few years older, she rejects his attentions, it's unrequited love. He's jilted at a young age by Ellen Randolph, and he never, ever forgives her. And for the rest of his life, till he dies at age 35, he writes horribly disparaging things about he called her that evil genius.
Kathryn Gehred: Oh my gosh.
Danna Kelley: Oh, yes. In fact, a couple years after this incident, where he walked her home from Richmond, he wrote to his friend Dabney Carr, these lines describing Ellen as, quote, "cold as a cucumber hardest stone, dry as a stick, and she has no idea that people are made for any other purpose than to be her vessels and to content themselves with admiring her to distance," and here's my favorite line. He says, "she holds her head as if she never looked lower than the Milky Way." He blames her for being a bachelor all his life, she, she ruined him forever. And where as she, she describes, she is walked home that night in Richmond by Francis Gilmer and she says, "I begin to think time has removed every feeling even of resentment, or that at any rate, if he has unfriendly feelings toward me, they are rather passive than active." Okay, that's her description. Here's his description. He writes to a friend, "Miss ER [course meaning Ellen Randolph, he never called her by her name again,] Miss ER, to whom be all honor and praise with her accustomed caprice, when she found no one of either sex in all of Richmond, even civil to her, from her unheard of manners, be took herself to seek my favor and patronage with a new and unsuspected enthusiasm. I did her some entirely gratuitous and very unmerited favor, she is past all endurance. And so adieu to her." I could go on and on this guy for the rest of his life writes things like that about poor Ellen. He predicted she would never get married, and she, and she finally got married a few years later, and he just says, in a letter, "oh, yes, the proud Miss Ellen sold off in the decay of her charms to a Yankee cotton ginnyman."
Kathryn Gehred: Excuse you, he is a opium dealer with a personality defect.
Danna Kelley: So yeah, I mean, we're laughing, but it's really kind of a sad story.
Kathryn Gehred: Like, gosh, yeah, it's interesting to see another perspective of Alan. And from previous letters, I've done a Virginia, it does seem like, from this little social circle that's kind of stuck up at Monticello, I think they sort of have the manners of sort of a French boarding school hyper educated elite, and then when they go into Richmond, for the social season, they're like aliens, to this society that runs completely differently than they do. That's, that's sort of the impression I get after hearing that quote, as like, they are down there just sort of viewing all of these peons who, like don't even read Latin. But meanwhile, everyone in Richmond is like, 'Who are these people?'
Danna Kelley: Yeah, especially for the women. Ellen says that, "I have often thought the life of a student must be the most innocent and happy in the world. If I had been a man with the advantages of early education, I would have been just such a one."
Kathryn Gehred: Yeah.
Danna Kelley: So, I feel I almost feel like she's born into the wrong century.
Kathryn Gehred: Yes.
Danna Kelley: You know, if she were alive today, she'd have her PhD in something very light subject. What do you think her career would have been if she were alive today?
Kathryn Gehred: I you know what, I think she'd be an influencer.
Danna Kelley: She definitely would have been an influencer. She would have had millions of followers.
Kathryn Gehred: She'd have like an advanced degree in something, something like literature. And, but, then she would also I think, she would have been sort of a social media type, because it doesn't matter if the people around you don't fit as long as she can find her internet people that would that would match what she was interested in, and Ellen would be set. That's my take. Then the next paragraph. Well, so here we get into larger historical moments. For one thing, she's talking about her Aunt Randolph, who this is Mary Jane Randolph Randolph. She was Randolph who married Randolph, one of multiple.
Danna Kelley: All around they had a million cousins right now and they are all marrying each other.
Kathryn Gehred: So, this was another aunt. This was an older sister of Ellen's father, Mary Jane Randolph. She was the author of the Virginia Housewife which is one of the earliest surviving a American sort of cookbooks. And so this was a woman who ran a boarding house. So I've heard about this boarding house quite a bit in a lot of different contexts, because a lot of times people think that the Virginia Housewife recipes were actually written by Martha Washington. But, that's not true. Like they should all, Mary Jane Randolph Randolph gets the credit for those. So I've heard about this, this boarding house quite a bit. And then this letter is the day that she's closing up that boarding house, and she's trying to sell all the furniture, but she's doing it during the panic of 1819.
Danna Kelley: Oh.
Kathryn Gehred: When nobody has any money,
Danna Kelley: Right. She's gonna she's not going to get her $5,000 for her furniture. Where does she go? I don't understand why she's in Richmond.
Kathryn Gehred: Let me see. She has a Wikipedia page.
Danna Kelley: Maybe she goes to Staten Island to live with her sister.
Kathryn Gehred: They all go to New York. Okay. In 1819, they gave up the boarding house and move to Washington to live with their son, William Beverley Randolph. So, she actually moves to Washington Federal City. And there, she completes her cookbook. And that's where she publishes The Virginia Housewife.
Danna Kelley: Oh, interesting. I guess she's a widow, if she's having to support herself and then move in with her son.
Kathryn Gehred: But she had a she had a refrigerator?
Danna Kelley: An icebox?
Kathryn Gehred: And yeah, apparently, she came up with idea for a type of ice box was a wooden box within another wooden box with crushed charcoal in between. And, that she used that was described as a refrigerator or something to keep things cold. That was something she had in her house.
Danna Kelley: And if she was alive today, she'd have a cooking show, don't you think?
Kathryn Gehred: Yes. And then I guess the last thing that I wanted to mention was, she says, she's going to make presents of her dresses to the servants. So, she's asking her mother to send her old dress dresses so she can give them to the slaves, I guess that were working at this school. I don't know if that was a common way to sort of tip it was it was common to tip slaves in houses or you're staying sort of like with servants. But, it's one of those things that I can see somebody hearing and being like, 'Oh, how you see, people weren't so terrible to slaves,' but when you yourself are an object, like a dress that can be given as a gift, the idea of being given a dress doesn't really alleviate that they
Danna Kelley: were property just like their clothes were property. Yeah.
Kathryn Gehred: Is there anything else that strikes you about particularly relatable or, or significant about this letter?
Danna Kelley: Well, you know, just about all of its relatable. She's complaining about not getting mail, she's kind of gossiping about people, she makes it stuff we, we might not write down today, but we when we talk with one another, we behave a bit like this. She described a party she went to and how aunt Randolph is having to sell all her things. So, yeah, these are very relatable, I think. But finally, I wanted to say that having reread Ellen's or not reread it but page through it, at least her her diary the other day. In the end, she finally does get married when she's 28. And, I think it was a happy marriage, don't you they were intellectual equals. Today, you might say, you know, soulmates kind of thing. But really, by everything she writes, after leaving Monticello, the pinnacle of her life was her her years living with her grandfather at her grandfather's house at Monticello. We read something to you, which she says she's married now, but she actually returns to Monticello because her grandfather's died, but they they get there too late. And, she tells a biographer about that years later, and she says, "I quit the home of my youth never to return. I can never again feel a local attachment. As far as places concerned. I can never love again."
Kathryn Gehred: Ohh!
Danna Kelley: Is that poignant? And, I really at home in Boston, she's married, you know, as you know, a Yankee cotton ginnyman, and they live abroad. They live in England, she even lives in China, often separated from her children, which makes her very, very sad. And then her sons will fight on the side of the Union, and one of them even dies in a battle in the Civil War.
Kathryn Gehred: Oh wow.
Danna Kelley: While her brother is Secretary of War for the Confederacy, so her life took some interesting twists and turns and but she was such a great observer of life and describer of museums, and art, and events that took place in London. I would highly recommend if anyone wants to learn a lot more about Ellen to read her journal for she kept for about a year. It's called Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter in Queen Victoria's England. But you always see there's just this sort of current of nostalgia and sadness running through her letters.
Kathryn Gehred: So, this is this is Ellen, in sort of her glory days like she's untouchable right now. And then this particular letter, she's 23, her grandfather's alive, her family's all together, and she's really, you can you get that in this letter. I think.
Danna Kelley: Yeah, exactly right. She's in her glory days when she writes this letter, but she can be critical of everybody.
Kathryn Gehred: What is it? She never looks below the Milky Way.
Danna Kelley: Yeah, she's still looking at the Milky Way.
Kathryn Gehred: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Deanna. This was such a delight.
Danna Kelley: I'm such a big fan of your podcast. So thank you for having me as your as a guest.
Kathryn Gehred: For my listeners, I will provide show notes, I will link to this letter, you can read it online, and I'll put links to some of these other books that we've been citing, and other sources that you can look into. And until we meet again, thank you very much, I am your most obedient and humble servant.