A few days ago I gave a talk about my novel The Lees of Menokin at the Menokin Foundation Visitors Center. A local book group had asked me to speak and also invited the public to attend. This was the third time I have had the opportunity to showcase this story at Menokin, although I have had several book signings elsewhere. It is always exciting for me to return to the Northern Neck of Virginia where Menokin is located. My husband and I lived near there for almost 25 years and it still feels like home when I drive across that wide Rappahannock River and turn left on the back road over the mill pond heading for Francis Lee’s Menokin house.
It’s now three years since I published this book and I’ve written two other novels since then. It was necessary for me to spend considerable time reacquainting myself. I’ve never given the same presentation twice and this time I found yet another approach. As this is an historical novel that tracks the life of Francis Lightfoot Lee and his wife Rebecca Tayloe, real people who built and lived in this house they gave the Indian name of Menokin, I began by talking about my immediate fascination with the Menokin ruin that led to two years of serious research. This resulted first in my published article about Mr. Lee (Francis Lightfoot Lee: A Brief Political Sketch, No. Neck of Virginia Historical Society Magazine 1976) to what eventually evolved into a novel about his life as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress, and his marriage to his beloved Becky. I explained that although I had all those notes, transcripts of letters, books, papers, hundreds of note cards, copies of deeds and wills, and rolls of microfilm—these things were only facts and dates, and old letters that required much patience to transcribe. And I wasn’t writing a history book! So, although I needed them, what I also needed in order to tell the story, to weave a credible tale around these real lives, was side characters to help put meat on the bones of the narrative. Each of these fictional people served a specific purpose—they enabled me to show a different culture, way of life, or status. I had fun creating every one of them. Here are the three I chose to highlight in this talk.
Perhaps my favorite fictional character was Peter Hauck, the Pennsylvania soldier and his father with the furniture store. Through Peter I was able to illustrate the horror of battle as well as a bit of the Northern temperament. Peter and Francis get to know each other because Peter, recovering from recent combat and the death of his brother at the hands of a drunken surgeon, delivers a desk to the Lee household that Becky has purchased for her husband. Peter sees Francis Lee, a member of the Congress, as a man of wealth and power and is surprised when Francis seems able to understand the troubles and pains of a common man like himself. As they come to know each other over time, Peter greatly admires Francis, who in turn, thinks of Peter as the son he never had. A win-win relationship as it turned out. But I didn’t start it that way—they made it happen!
Another imaginary character is Cate’s son Samuel, who turns out to be an interesting study as he develops from childhood to young adult. Cate, a slave, is Becky Lee’s personal maid. Sam helps tell the story of slave life at Menokin. His experiences demonstrate the layers in the world of Southern slavery. He discovers early on that his status as a house servant stands in the way of making friends with his peers in the quarter. He is led to yearn for other things after Miss Becky secretly teaches him to read. Things he learns from life in the big house and books in Marse Frank’s library make him forever different from the other negroes.
Martha Tutt is a third example of a fictional character who helps move the story. With her self-pride and feisty independence she and her family illustrate the Scotch-Irish immigrant population in Loudoun County, people who likely arrived in America as indentured servants and scrambled to better themselves. Martha’s relationship to Francis Lee is of course also fictitious—we have no idea what Frank Lee did with his spare time for ten years in Virginia’s western wilderness where he’d been sent by his older brother to set up a new plantation.
By all accounts historians seem to have agreed that Francis Lee was no leader. It is difficult to find more than brief mention of him in records of the Virginia legislature, where he served for many years, or the Continental Congress, where he spent four years and signed the Declaration of Independence. He was called “Virginia’s Quiet Patriot” by a former director of Stratford Hall Plantation, Francis’s birthplace and family home. He was indeed a quiet man, always taking the back seat to his fiery brother Richard Henry, but there is one time when he is known to have shown great courage and determination. He served briefly as chair of the War Board during the Revolution, and during this period he took action without consulting the other board members who were all absent or on leave. In my chapter Congress in Exile, I attempt to show the anguish and concern he must have felt when General Washington kept begging for help. Keep in mind the colonies were not yet united by law, they were still 13 separate governments; Francis Lee went over the heads of many, including the president of the Congress, and ordered the governors of Pennsylvania and Maryland to immediately supply cattle, hogs, flour and grain to the starving army—he sent officers with parties into the countryside to collect these things. This is when you realize that Frank Lee was indeed a patriot willing to put the needs of his fledgling country above his own desire to protect himself against censure for acting without authority.
I couldn’t close without a few words about Rebecca Lee, who played a major part in this story as a co-protagonist. However because she didn’t have a public life there is little known about Becky’s personality; accounts refer to her as beautiful and lively. I admit taking great liberty in creating the Becky I imagined her to be. She must have been terribly disappointed at being childless—Francis had 5 brothers and 2 sisters, she had 7 sisters and a brother—surely she expected to have children. When William Lee’s daughters, Portia and Cornelia came to live with them, even though by then Frank and Becky were in their later years, it must have been a great joy to hear young people in the house. I used her love and excitement over the birth of her brother, baby John, and her interaction with Cate’s son, Samuel, to depict Becky as a gentle woman, with compassion and warmth, especially toward children. I showed her strength in a number of ways, one of which was when she stood up to Francis when he wanted to sell Menokin and move them to Alexandria. This is a true happening, borne out by a 1796 letter written by John James Maund to his father in which he writes how sad he is that he will not be moving to Menokin after all: Mrs. Lee apparently changed her husband’s mind about selling. This occurred one year before the deaths of both Becky and Francis.
I am grateful to the Menokin Foundation for their continuing support. The Lees of Menokin is offered for sale in the Visitors Center, and of course is available at Amazon and major booksellers, both in paperback and on Kindle.