Andrea/Cara here: As someone writes both historical mysteries and historical romance, I think a lot about women and their place in history. In creating a heroine, it can sometimes be a delicate balance. On one hand I believe human nature hasn’t changes all that much over the centuries, and so every era had its fair share of brilliant, talented, curious women who pursued their passions despite whatever strictures existed in the society of their times.
\ And then, of course, on the other hand are readers who will wave the rule book and argue that—for example—a Regency lady would never explore the Middle East, write feminist manifestos or become one of the top astronomers in the world. (As you guessed, there are real life examples who have done just that.)
The trouble is, there are precious few role models for inspiration when we look to craft a female character. We authors just don’t have the same depth and texture to choose from as we do with men. There are, of course, many reasons for this, the most basic being that under very recently it was men who wrote history. And sadly—as this current climate has highlighted—all too often women are only written into history because of their sexuality rather than their achievements.
Another reason—a more positive one—I’ve been thinking of the topic is because I was talking about it at lunch the other day with a wonderful non-fiction writer whose WIP is about a turn-of-the-century woman who is amazingly accomplished but unknown to most. (Sorry, I can’t say more as I am sworn to secrecy, but it’s going to be a fabulous book!) And so we started chatting about all the unsung heroines in history and all the astounding stories that are out there, just waiting to be discovered and told . . .
There must have been some karmic buzz in the cosmos, for the very next day I stumbled upon a fascinating article on Aaron Burr’s daughter—a real life story that, while little known, has inspired novels and poetry and countless legends. So let’s take a quick look at one of those interesting women hidden in history.
It all starts with a painting . . .
According to historical accounts, a doctor was summoned to care for an impoverished elderly woman in Nags Head, on the Outer Banks islands of North Carolina in the 1869. He spotted a small painting of a beautiful young lady on the wall, and his patient told him of it having been found in a shipwreck that had washed ashore many years ago. He knew the story of Theodosia Burr Alston being lost at sea, and guessed it was her. (The painting, which the woman gave to him in payment for his services, now hangs in the Lewis Walpole Library of Yale University.)
From the moment of her birth, Theodosia lived a life of high drama and adventure. Her mother—also named Theodosia—was brilliant, cultured lady who stirred great scandal by marrying the much younger Aaron Burr on the death of her first husband. (Rumor has it that they were involved before her widowhood.) Her parents doted on her, and when her mother died during Theodosia’s childhood, her father became even more involved in her upbringing.
Those of you who know American history are aware of Burr’s complex and complicated character. A Founding Father of the country and its third vice president under Jefferson, he was also involved in a number of shady, and ultimately scandalous, endeavors. Be that as it may, he had very progressive ideas on women. He believed they were the intellectual equals of men, and had a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft under over his mantel. And as a member of the New York state legislature, he proposed a bill allowing women to vote.
Theodosia was educated according to these enlightened principles. “I hope yet by her to convince the world what neither sex seems to believe,” wrote Burr, “that women have soul!” She had a rigorous education, studying the full range of subjects normally taught to men, and was, by all accounts, both brilliant and witty.
In 1801, she married Joseph Alston, a wealthy and influential Southern gentleman from South Carolina. The marriage was a happy one, but the birth of her son, Aaron Burr Alston, was a difficult one and left her permanently in pain for the rest of her life. Still devoted to her father, (she would remain so her entire life) Theodosia spent half of each year with him in New York, as she found adjusting to plantation life difficult.
After her father’s duel with Alexander Hamilton, she and her husband spent a great deal of time and money helping to ensure he escaped prosecution for killing his rival. When Burr—whose political career was destroyed by the duel—decided to head west, with dreams of establishing and presiding a large settlement in lands acquired by the Louisiana Purchase. Theodosia and her husband went with him (apparently bankrolling the expedition.) However, rumor had it that Burr planned to establish a kingdom with himself as emperor and secede from the United States. He was arrested and tried for treason in 1807. And again, Theodosia and her husband helped him win acquittal.
To let the scandal die down, Burr headed off to England. Theodosia’s life then began to spiral into depression. Her health was failing, and in 1812, her beloved son died of malaria. Her father had recently returned to New York, and desperate to see him, she decided to travel north, despite the fact that the War of 1812 was raging and hostile ships were patrolling the coast. Her husband, who had just been elected Governor of South Carolina, couldn’t leave his responsibilities, so Burr sent a trusted friend to accompany his daughter to New York. Their schooner, The Patriot, set sail on December 1812—and was never seen again.
Theodosia’s disappearance set off countless speculation—in some stories she was kidnapped by a pirate king and was living as his mistress. In others, she had simply been murdered by the marauders. (There were a number of deathbed confessions from men claiming to have witnessed her capture.) Such tales inspired novels and poems—including one by Robert Frost. And to this day, it’s said her ghost haunts Bald Head Island. However, the truth is likely that the ship foundered in gale that is known to have blown in over the exact route her ship was sailing.
I found the story fascinating, and I know it’s just one of the countless ones throughout history of strong, courageous women who experienced life outside the cozy confines of the proverbial kitchen. How about you? Have you any favorite unsung heroines—or heroes—in history who don’t fit the traditional mold? Would you like to see history written more in a way that reflects the contributions of all the people who make up its rich tapestry?