As I prepare for the publication next month, by Sarabande Books, of The Blue Box: Three Lives in Letters, I face the daunting task of listing all the material I’ve used, many letters, speeches, bills of sale, wills and genealogies that were stored in the blue box itself.
First, though, I remember the intricate task of weaving together these ancient proofs of lives long gone and forgotten, inserting them into their historical context, and devising a commentary that does not betray or humiliate the writers, who are no longer here to defend themselves, yet sheds light on the ways they were limited by their times, constrained by gentility, and straight-jacketed by convention.
Second, I remember with enormous satisfaction the dance of editing the manuscript with my dear friend, editor and publisher, Sarah Gorham, who came to Santa Fe from Louisville one cold winter day to begin the complex rectifying of the text, bringing it into line with her expectations and with mine, rendering it ready for its readers.
Because we know each other so well, and respect our assorted gifts, the dance was equal and graceful and we had only one moment of disagreement, over an unnecessarily revealing comment which could be seen, out of context, as unnecessary and even cruel.
We agreed to eliminate it.
Now, as I begin the long list of these documents, which will be housed either in the archive at Duke University I founded many years ago, or in the archive at the Filson Historical Society, where many of the Bingham documents have found a home, I breathe once more and for the last time the faded scent of lives from the 19th and early 20th century, lives of women who devoted themselves to letter writing, to genealogies, and to maintaining relationships with everyone in an extended kinship web that stretched from Richmond, Virginia, to Louisville, Kentucky, and across the Atlantic to Northern Ireland.
Genealogies tend to bore me; I don’t have the unquestioning reverence for the past as past that unites and defines so many southern families, the proof of relationship with English minor nobility, of whom the only member of interest to me is my very remote ancestress, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wit, bluestocking, letter writer extraordinaire, and discoverer of the smallpox vaccine, for which she is never given credit.
So I am quite delighted to let all these genealogies go while maintaining an interest in Lady Mary that may lead to my next book.
Much more appealing, to me, are the many handwritten introductions, speeches and essays which my great-grandmother and namesake, Sallie Montague Lefroy, bequeathed to the Blue Box. These are reminders of the crucial role she played as one of the founding members of the Richmond Woman’s Club when, in the 1870’s, women’s clubs were the only escape from the dread grip of the patriarchy, particularly in southern towns.
I wish her writings included some reference to what must have been bursts of hilarity, outrageous jokes and sly references to the shortcomings of husbands, sons and fathers such as happen at all gatherings of women, then and now—but these I can only imagine.
Sallie’s writings were intended to prove that she was a speaker and a thinker equal to any of the distinguished presenters who bestrode the stage and manned the lectern at the Woman’s Club’s regular meetings—and they make a strong case, not for her formal education which never included even a dream of college, but for her wit, urbanity, and wide range of reading.
And although her introductions to exalted speakers—there are at least thirty of these—present her as humble in the presence of genius, largely although not entirely male, her sense of humor gleams out.
I imagine her, a tiny figure like all her female descendants, demure in her widow’s weeds but with a hint of coquetry in carefully arranged curls, a ribbon or a brooch, gathering up her skirts to climb onto the lecture platform, turning to face her large, attentive audience, friends, guests and strangers, and spreading her notes out to begin to read…
With smiles and glances at her listeners, who afterward would discuss her presentation over cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey tea.