Scott, Susan Holloway. The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr. New York: Kensington, 2019.
Paperback | $16.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1496719188 | 500 pages | Historical Fiction
The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr seems to have drawn some minor controversy (defined purely by the book’s status as more mid-list than runaway bestseller, and the fact that, unlike other books with greater notoriety, it did not draw headlines in major news outlets), for good reason.
One is the issue of the apparent romanticizing of a relationship between Mary and Burr, which grows more apparent in the latter half of the book. Huge content warning here: the book not only deals with the realities of slavery, but it includes a pretty intense depiction of sexual asault that turns into a semi-consensual relationship.
But this is where I feel like the context of the power dynamic is well done, and even when there is a inkling of some romantic feelings, there is always also a semse that, even when she is freed, serving as a paid employee to Burr, Mary is still in Burr’s power, due both to their past, the resulting children and her desire to care for them, and the years of trained subservience. I even did some research into the modern stories of women who chose to continue “consensual” relationships with their rapists, and, of course, then, as now, what began as an act of power between a superior and subordinate, remains so, even if the subordinate “chooses” to continue the relationship.
Which brings me to the second issue that some readers have: is it really historical fiction if not much is know about Mary? Her children’s lives and family connection to Burr are known, but she is a mystery, so anything directly involving her is fabricated. But as Scott says in her author’s note, her experience as depicted in the nove reflects the experience of many slaves as at the time, including Sally Hemings, whose “relationship” with Jefferson is also getting a lot of new analysis, While it’s likely not a fully accurate depiction of Mary’s life, it does faithfully depict the struggles of the enslaved at the time and the complexity of the choices they had to make in a world that was against them.
And if anything, it makes me admire this iteration of Mary, fictional it may be. She went through a lot, and I could empathize with her almsot every step of the way.
But Aaron Burr…I feel nothing but more loathing for the man. His support for (white) women’s rights is great, compared to some of his contemporaries who did not, but reading this, on top of the evidence of his connection to Mary’s children and the regrettable actions he took in regards to the other slaves he owned when he apparently feared his own life would be taken in the infamous duel with Hamilton, further make me hate him. I do believe it was Scott’s intent to at least depict some ambiguity in his character, given that he is already reviled anyway, so I do think she succeeded.
However, despite being faithful to Mary’s obviously limited role in social and political life, I did enjoy that it offered some balance to the party disputes depicted in I, Eliza Hamilton, with some discussion of Burr and the Democratic-Republicans’ side of things. If nothing else, it is fascinating to get further insights into early American party politics and the in-fighting between the notable politicians of the time.
This is an incredibly moving and educational novel, and while I would urge anyone who is triggered by the aforementioned difficult topics to avoid this book, I would also recommend even the most ardent “history purist” to broaden their horizons to give this book a try. The narrative of the enslaved is one that is not still not told often, although that is improving through the efforts of the curation of plantation tours (like Monticello) to include the discussion of slavery, and I respect Scott’s care in handling the topic with compassion.