Monday, November 02, 2009

Luxuriance of Nature's Charms

now reading: James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham
now also reading: This Too Is Diplomacy by Dorothy Irving

I have spent the entire month of October reading my Madison bio. This is not entirely a bad thing, as I have rather enjoyed delving into the world of Madison ("mad about Madison," Brian calls me right now), but I am a little shocked that it's been a whole month on one book. That's kind of like being in law school again and having time for only one or two pleasure reads per semester. However, I have been doing a lot of stuff during October -- some writing project success, etc. And I have been catching up on reading a bunch of magazines and news, too. Still and all, it's nice to be getting close to finishing Madison.

I'm pretty sure my next presidential bio, about Monroe, will be long too. Most of these president bios are. One's read-a-bio-of-every-president project could easily consume all of one's reading time. I am going to make sure that doesn't happen again, having learned my Madison/October lesson, because there is just too much else to read! My Goodreads queue is getting to be like my Netflix queue!

Now, the honest truth is that Ketcham's book is always interesting, but sometimes it plods along. It's never really boring, it just gets kind of bogged down in the intricacies of the Congress or the trip to Montpelier or whatever. Ketcham doesn't have all of Madison's writings (they didn't all survive, apparently) so he pieces together this life using a lot of other people's writings and observations too.

What happens is the most fascinating little details pop up at the weirdest times. Like when James and Dolley first get married and Dolley's teenage sister lives with them in the Philadelphia scene of balls, parties, and the "social season." Diplomats from France hang out and they party non-stop, it feels like, with fashions in the French style of showing a lot of cleavage. This horrifies Abigail Adams. There's a letter from her to a friend in which she calls it an "outrage upon all decency" and goes on to describe the outrage of using the Girdle to accent the Bosom.

"Most [ladies] wear their Cloaths too scant upon thebody and too full upon the Bosom for my fancy," Abigail writes. "Not content with the show which nature bestows, they borrow from art, and litterally look like Nursing Mothers."

I find that hilarious, "the show which nature bestows." I guess there is no shortage still today of fashionable young ladies who use their clothes and other tricks to enhance that "show" of "nature" that so easily fascinates the boys. What would Abigail think of Us Weekly, for example? But I like to think she would appreciate watching the Oscars red carpet. I could see her sitting at home with John watching and commenting. She would totally give an A+ to some elegant number worn by Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet, but maybe frown at your Bjorks and your Chers over the years. Dolley and James, though, would totally be hosting an Oscar party, with snacks and ballots for their friends to fill out and prizes. It's just how Dolley rolled.

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