I believe I was in the third grade when I read Martha Washington’s biography. By then, I was an avid reader and historical was my favorite subject. I remember being fascinated by our nation’s First Lady’s history; although technically, this title was not coined until after her death. I learned of her first marriage and how she soon became a young widow with four children.
Now a woman with property and means of support, Martha Dandridge Custis didn’t need to marry for financial reasons; nevertheless, she did remarry. And even though I was only eight years old, the romantic in me was captivated by Martha’s “love match” with the up-and-coming, Colonel George Washington.
Although Martha was attractive and well-liked amongst society, her life was not exactly charmed. Two children, Daniel and Frances, were lost to her before they reached the age of five—most likely from malaria. It did not end there. Her daughter, affectionally called Patsy, suffered from debilitating seizures and died at the age of 17. Martha’s remaining son, John, died a few weeks before his twenty-seventh birthday from a “virulent illness.” But, as the story goes, Mrs. Washington continued on, serving her husband and her country through the Revolutionary War and beyond.
I’ve learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition and not on our circumstances.”
As a young wife, Martha Dandridge Custis, moved amongst the upper echelons of Virginia’s society. She had been educated like most young ladies of her sphere, but when she became Mrs. Washington, Martha was in a position to do much good.
Determined and practical, she hosted weekly receptions where people of various backgrounds had the opportunity to exchange ideas and philosophies with the president. It was her intention that these so-called levees be dignified, yet informal so that the general society could take part in building the new nation.
All these memories flooded my mind while I was researching Mariquita Sanchez de Thompson and her famous tertulias or salons. Much like America’s First Lady, Mariquita defined and redefined the roles of what it meant to be a wife, mother, and patriot.
Mariquita was born into an elite family of the Viceroyalty with important ties linking back to Spain. She was of petite stature, but she held her own against her parents and the strict societal rules of the day. Strong-willed and independent by the age of fifteen, she defied her parents and refused to marry the man of their choosing.
It is precious to me to defend my rights.”
After experiencing what one could easily label a Shakespearean rebellion, Mariquita was able to marry as her heart dictated. She and her new husband became linked with public life and supported the cause for freedom. They hosted events to promote patriotism and to encourage free thinking.
The Thompsons had five children throughout their marriage. They moved in the highest circles and were beloved amongst their society. It was, therefore, a great tragedy when Martin Thompson died while returning from a diplomatic trip to the United States of America in 1817.
Similar to Martha, Mariquita was a woman of means and didn’t necessarily need a husband for financial support. Nevertheless, in 1820, she remarried. Isn’t it interesting to note that her second husband was a gentleman by the name of Washington. Washington de Mendeville, to be exact.
It appears the Mendeville marriage was not a great success; however, Mariquita did not let that deter her aspirations. She continued her political work and was known for her association with The Patrician Ladies (Damas Patricias).
She advocated for women’s rights. She established schools for women and girls and founded the Sociedad de Beneficencia, to aid the poor and needy. It appears that great minds do think alike— look back at Martha Washington’s quote that speaks to one’s disposition for happiness.
I don’t deny that I enjoy a traditional historical romance. But there has to be more than “boy meets girl.” Whether the storyline is set in a posh drawing room in England or the vast American frontier, I am attracted to the protagonist’s courage, as well as her growth. I cheer for her unwavering steadfastness shown in the face of turmoil and tragedy. Miss Abigail Isaacs in Celestial Persuasion has much in common with the women mentioned in this post. Although she is a fictional character, I hope readers will admire her strength, determination, and heart. I suppose that is the magic of novels. Through the written word, we can identify with impossible scenarios and a variety of character attributes. Their heart aches and struggles resonate with us. Their triumphs spur us on. We may even aspire to be such women~ Women of Valor.
Excerpt from Chapter Four:
The next morning, Abigail lingered in bed with a cup of hot chocolate, dutifully presented by a young maid. She had spent a sleepless night, staring into the black sky and seeking answers from above. She had prayed for guidance and for strength; but such was her grief, not even espying her favored constellation provided Abigail any comfort. Unaccustomed to vacillation, she was impatient with herself; and in truth, not a little overcome by her circumstances. She longed for days of yore when her little family celebrated the Sabbath as one. Though she was quite young, Abigail could yet recall the Friday evening meals, the rituals, and the blessings. Her father beaming with pride would preside over the table and praise his Eishet Chayil, with the ancient words of King Solomon: A Woman of Valor, who can find? Her worth is far beyond rubies. She and Jonathan would not be forgotten. They too would receive a parental blessing before partaking of the evening meal. Thus cossetted and cared for, their physical bodies were nurtured, as well as their spiritual selves. For as their mother would say, on the Sabbath, their souls were lifted and the uncertainties of life were set aside. Now wiping away her tears and throwing off the bed linens, Abigail arose to brave the day.
It was much later, whilst she and Mrs. Frankel were at luncheon, Pearson solemnly approached his lordship’s guests holding a silver salver, which he presented with utmost care. Abigail reached for the note and nodded her gratitude. Making quick work of the missive, she sighed heavily and informed her companion that his lordship would be delayed.
“It seems we are to have a quiet day, Frankie.”
“Perhaps all is how it ought to be, my dear. We will amuse ourselves, or not—we two are quite comfortable with one another—we are not compelled to do otherwise.”
They removed themselves into the drawing room, where a fire was set ablaze for their comfort. Mrs. Frankel kept her thoughts to herself and knitted away at heaven only knew what. Abigail did not question her companion’s efforts and turned to find her own escape in the pages of a book. When the sun finally began its descent, Abigail set down the novel and moved to the window to watch the changes in the sky. She did not hear the knock at the door, or Pearson’s somber salutation; therefore, when a man’s voice bade them a good afternoon, Abigail was quite startled.
“Are you so anxious for the Sabbath to end?”
Sufficiently recovered, Abigail was able to reply. “On the contrary, Mr. Gabay. One wishes to delay the inevitable. I have not yet seen three stars together.”
“We shall both have to remain alert then, and let Mrs. Frankel know when she may begin the prayers for Havdalah.”
“Excellent notion, young man,” Mrs. Frankel declared, and went off to find Mrs. Garrett to gather some spices, wine, and candlesticks for the evening ceremony.
“Forgive me, Miss Isaacs.” Remembering his manners, he performed a gallant bow. “I appear to have arrived early. Has his lordship not returned?”
“We had a missive from Lord Fife. He has been detained and we are awaiting his return just now. You are most welcome to join us, sir.”
“I find you a bit pale. I do hope you are in good health,” said the gentleman.
“Thank you, yes. We have not had an opportunity to be out of doors, and I fear that my mind has been much occupied.”
“I can well imagine.”
“I am not certain that you can, Mr. Gabay.” Abigail grimaced at her severe response but was helpless to muster great civility. “My grief has been sullied with uncertainty; my life has been uprooted and I find that I cannot mourn my brother when my heart is so burdened.”
The gentleman looked upon the young lady and astonished her with a grin. “I have often contemplated the ceremony of Havdalah, have you not?”
She was yet unaccustomed to the gentleman’s wit; and because of this, Abigail made every attempt to keep herself in check. Much as she wanted to condemn his ill-timed levity, her raised brow afforded him the impetus to continue with his discourse.
“The ritual—the symbolism—it challenges our senses,” said he, “as if to awaken us from a pleasant dream. Do you not find it so?”
“Indeed.” Begrudgingly, she accepted the sudden change of topic. “We are told to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. I would agree with your assessment, for we are in a dream world from sundown on Friday night until three stars appear the following evening. We are then awakened, as you say, with the ceremony of Havdalah—commanded to mark the separation from that holiness to the mundane.”
“My dear Miss Isaacs, mundane is not the word I would choose. Pray forgive my impertinence; but every week we are instructed to leave behind Perfection—or our concept of what that might be—in order to hurl ourselves, like a star shooting across the sky, into the chaos that is His creation. Into life.”
Raphael Gabay crossed the room and peered through the glass pane at the evening’s sky. Not finding what was required, he continued with his thought. “I ought not risk being thrown out by Pearson—perhaps I should behave in a more gentlemanlike manner—but your countenance assures me that you are, indeed, troubled. And it pains me to see you so.”
Abigail looked at him through her lashes and pondered his sincerity. “Your concern speaks well for your manners, sir, but I doubt very much our short acquaintance allows for such a declaration.”
“On the contrary. I believe my discernment is beyond reproach. Your idyllic life in Devonshire, surrounded by those you loved and the things you know, was your Perfection. But your brother is asking you, seemingly from beyond the celestial veil, to leave that place—not compromise or settle, but to see what else awaits you in the new world.”
“And what of your plans, sir? Does your soldier’s philosophy provide you sufficient cause to quit your home and family?”
“Ah—that was well done, Miss Isaacs. Implementing a defensive tactic in order to fell an opponent is a sound strategy on the battlefield. However, I am only too happy to respond to your enquiry which, of course, lessens the strength of your attack.” Mr. Gabay smiled and made himself comfortable on the divan before continuing. “I am a second son, madam, and have been given a certain freedom to live my life with some abandon. No doubt, I have caused my father some distress having no set course for the future; but try as I might, Miss Isaacs, I have never found my true calling. Therefore, the matter is very simple in my case. I am for Buenos Aires because I believe in this cause and respect the men at the lead. For now, that is enough for me. But I put it to you, Miss Isaacs: what is your destiny?”
Having heard his soliloquy, Abigail could no longer hold on to her vexation. She experienced an epiphany recalling her words to Mrs. Frankel the night in the inn. What was her destiny? If the ancient dictates of Gersonides, Ibn Ezra, and Zacuto were to be believed, it was apparent. Her celestial traits must not go unheeded.
I hope you enjoyed today’s post. There are so many Women of Valor in history. Can you name one or two you admire? Drop me a line and let me know!