My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
Written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Published by HarperCollins
Review by Irene Colthurst
So few accounts of the American Revolutionary era begin in the midst of the fighting after 1776 and then stretch through the fragile 1780s and tumultuous 1790s. The life story of Alexander Hamilton, however, demands exactly that frame. So does that of his wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler Hamilton. The runaway success of a certain Broadway musical re-introduced the American public to that period and sparked interest in its other major figures. The appeal of My Dear Hamilton, therefore, is its promise to go “beyond the hype” of Hamilton the musical to examine Elizabeth Schuyler’s entire long life. It’s one of several novels in the last few years, including another from authors Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie themselves, that look more deeply at the American revolutionary era through the eyes of women. Here they give us Elizabeth “Betsy” Schuyler in her own voice, framed as her reminiscence in old age, as she grapples with and yet fights for Hamilton’s legacy. Dray and Kamoie succeed in giving us an intimate view of the era that inherently challenges many of the cherished images that the prominent members of the revolutionary generation hold in the American public’s imagination. In doing so, they have written a novel considered among the best historical fiction of 2018.
The novel opens in the mid-1820s as James Monroe makes a visit to a Eliza in late middle age. She then tries to explain to the reader why she received him so coldly, prompting her to relate her life story as if building one of her husband’s legal arguments. She begins by noting, “I was a patriot in my own right before I ever met Alexander Hamilton”. Chronicling their courtship and early marriage, as well as Hamilton’s rise to power, Eliza reveals a life that alternated between private moments of family joy and the public contentions and social disruptions whose effects strained her marriage. The cycle became almost predictable as the narrative spun on through the 1790s and the infamous Reynolds affair, and beyond. Hamilton’s appeals for forgiveness and declarations of love often seemed overwrought, and it could be hard to know how much of his pleading to “his angel” was due to his lawyerly character and guilty conscience, and what was narrative necessity.
The authors are disciplined in their depiction of only Eliza’s direct experience of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. They also succeed in letting Eliza demonstrate how much more than a wronged wife she always was. Eventually, the narrative ends up back at the meeting of Eliza and Monroe. To drive towards that conclusion, Dray and Kamoie let the frame of Eliza’s older perspective weigh perhaps too heavily upon the story as it unfolds. Readers are given her feelings in the moment, and then immediately her late reconsiderations of those feelings. The message of the frame story is that we are not supposed to lose ourselves too much in this novel, but it is impossible not to.
Overall the novel is alive with intimate detail and fascinating historical echoes for our own time. Elizabeth Schuyler’s evolution into a political wife and a reluctant champion of her husband’s complicated legacy is rendered with a strong moral intensity. Her perspective is the Federalist perspective, which goes unexplored in most depictions of the early American republic. Dray and Kamoie do not shy away from letting Elizabeth Schuyler show herself as a daughter of privilege whose political views are based on a love of martial heroism, terror and contempt for the mob, and a patronizing dismissiveness towards the common people outside of her charity work.
Ironically, Dray and Kamoie can bring Eliza’s elite Federalist perspective to life because of the rise of social history, a discipline dedicated to broadening the narrative beyond the elite men of the US Founding generation to the Natives Eliza treated with as a young woman the enslaved in her father’s household, and the common whites she was disdainful of. Now insights from social history have come to historical fiction about the American Revolution. My Dear Hamilton is a worthy entry alongside other recent Revolutionary War novels by and from the perspective of women, such as The Devil Take Tomorrow by Gretchen Jeannette. Like them, it is romantic in a way that echoes but is more serious than the literature of the period itself. Unlike them, it lets the story continue into the less romantic days of post-revolutionary politics, grief, and imperfect union. None of them claims to be “The Red Badge of Courage for the American Revolution”, an iconic literary rendering of the war. That is unnecessary, for these novels are evocative works in their own particular way.
In giving us Eliza’s whole life, and her own case for that life in the face of consuming grief in a democratizing nation whose direction she only eventually reconciled herself to, we get a woman who is ultimately as tragically and valiantly human as her husband.
Irene Colthurst is a reviewer with the Historical Novel Society. She lives in San Diego.