Here’s what period dramas have taught us about 19th-century social seasons: Cousin-suitors are perfectly acceptable. Everyone’s a gossip monger, and an innocent young woman is always on the verge of being ruined by scandal. Multiple women faint. Chaperones are essential. Public promenades may lead to clandestine meetings and secret engagements. It’s important to dance with lots of people, but not too many. There’s torrential downpour. Somebody dies or falls ill. The hottest suitor just happens to be the wealthiest one; if an eligible young woman is wealthy, she’s often plain, sickly, or unpleasant. The rich are mean snobs who are desperate to be loved for who they are. The formerly rich are kind snobs who are desperate to be loved for who they are, but must prioritize singlehandedly restoring their family to its previous station. There’s an embarrassing, scheming mother/aunt. The sister or friend who shows no interest in getting married is described as bookish. Everyone spends a lot of time waiting for mail they’ll read aloud to whomever is in the room and is then shocked when the contents circulate throughout society. Rakes threaten to ruin and get punched in the face. (My compliments to Shonda Rhimes et al for the unlikely scene in which Bridgerton’s Daphne gives Lord Berbrooke the facer he deserves.)
Period dramas are fun, but they’re also formulaic. There’s some variety, but little to no historical knowledge is actually imparted. I watch them all, but I don’t hold them to any standard.
Until now. It’s taken more than three decades, but I’ve finally found my ideal approach to the lives of 18th- and 19th-century women. Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant, a relatively new podcast from Kathryn Gehred, is like sober, accurate Drunk History.
In an episode called “Skipping About,” Gehred follows two young women to Richmond around the same time Daphne Bridgerton is declared “incomparable” in King George III’s court — because no matter where one falls on the monarchy v. democracy question, everyone agrees “the season” is compulsory for eligible women. Yet Kathryn’s women don’t fit into any of the categories I mention above. Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, 18, and Ellen Jefferson Randolph, 22, are Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughters, and they’re husband-hunting ten years after the third president left office. They’re as close to American royalty as one can get so, in theory, they should be in greater demand than Daphne’s Duke of Hastings, but as we learn from Gehred and her guest, historian Marry Wigge, these girls are looking for something they’re not finding in Virginia gentry.
[This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
Kathryn: It's Cornelia's first time doing the whole introduction into Richmond Society thing. And she's writing sort of news back to her family at home. Her older sister, Ellen, is with her. [We learn] Ellen was not being very kind to her sister on this trip [in] other letters.
Mary: Just to give a little bit more background, Ellen didn't end up getting married ‘til she was 28, which for that time was very late indeed. And Cornelia actually never married. So once we read the letter, I'll see if you can get any idea why.
Kathryn: The fact that Cornelia never got married is very impressive. I could seriously see people applying the term spinster to [Ellen], which is one hundred percent what Martha Washington's granddaughter does pretty regularly.
Mary: And she's only 18 when she's writing her letters. She's like, “I will be a spinster for life.”
Kathryn: Oh, yeah, yeah. They start talking about being spinsters once they hit 20.
Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant is a podcast about “women's letters that don't always make it into the history books.” How does Kathryn know? It’s her job. Kathryn, who has worked at various historic sites, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, is now a research editor at the University of Virginia’s Washington papers, which is how I know her. Among other things, she transcribes and annotates letters to, from, and about George and Martha Washington. It’s called documentary editing, and it gives scholars a substantial advantage; when they read a primary source, the who, where, why, when, and how is listed in the footnotes, and hyperlinked. They even supply citations to copy and paste into bibliographies.
So what about women? Abigail Adams is the only one on Founders Online, where anyone can access historical documents of the founders, because she wrote to and about everyone. But for the most part, scholars of women’s history are on their own. If they want to see a woman’s letters, they have to know they exist, visit the archive where they’re held, and work as their own documentary editor, a relatively arduous experience even if the correspondents have decent handwriting, which they rarely do. In other words, Kathryn knows where the good stuff is, and how to process it, but instead of waiting for a day that may not come, she insists each letter shine in its own episode.
I’ve read about Cornelia Jefferson, but I didn’t feel like I knew her until I heard about a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law, Jane H. Nicholas Randolph, in 1818. “I wanted to tell you that if you expect to find me a stylish lady you will be most wofully disappointed, I have been twitted at least a thousand times since I have been here with my country breeding,” Cornelia explains. Richmond is the big city, and Monticello, her grandfather’s historic home and forced labor camp, is the country, although it is Cornelia who comes off as a snob:
at first I was so disgusted with the nonsense of the people that I sat silent from disdain as much as from any thing else, but I soon found that I should spend a most dismal time if I was on the high ropes the whole time I was here, besides which I found the people were not such fools as I thought them at first & that they only had a different sort of folly from what I had been accustom’d to, & getting accustom’d to every thing I have been very well content ever since, but now I am tir’d again & want to go home. at first I found the parties the most tiresome places in the world & that I should in all probability go away without getting acquainted with any one, for no one would talk to me because I would not talk to them.
At best, a few lines of this delightfully misanthropic letter may be quoted in a book, but the charm of it is in its entirety. If I’d been asked, before listening to this episode, if I had anything in common with Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, I would’ve thought very little. Now I imagine that, should I time travel to early America, I would only talk to her — if she’d deign to tolerate my company.
“I find this one of the most relatable letters that I've been able to find,” Kathryn says. “She writes like an actual human being.” Mary agrees: “She's so disgusted with the nonsense of young people. It's essentially an eye roll, like I'm done with this scene.” She’s being judged by her clothes and where she’s from, which is where she’d much prefer to be at the moment — something most 18 year olds have experienced. As our hosts discuss this, they casually slip in the kind of knowledge they’d put in a footnote for background: But wasn’t Jefferson heavily in debt at this point? Were Cornelia’s dresses as nice as everyone else's? And they remind us that the Randolphs were clever and competitive with one another; so much of their punchy prose was to impress their reader, most of whom were relations.
Which doesn’t make it untrue. Cornelia manages to “humble myself” and find a lifeboat friend.
I sat near a young lady for about half an hour the other day, for the first ten minutes we sat in stately silence which might have lasted till doomsday for aught that I car’d, but she could endure it no longer & tho’ she did not appear to like my looks any more than I did hers, she turn’d to me suddenly with a most fascinating manner & sweet smile & ask’d my opinion….I did not say any thing repulsive we enter’d into conversation & before we parted were such good friends that we shook hands & promis’d to meet again very soon & often...we never have spoken since.
As Kathryn and Mary make their way through the letter, they answer a question I’ve never thought to ask: How does everyone know the steps to those dances? A 19th-century cotillion, as it turns out, sounds an awful lot like the one I refused to attend in elementary school, except far worse. In early America, a dance teacher was allowed to physically punish the unfortunate youth with two left feet or a grandiose sense of self, which was the norm among the ne’er-do-well offspring of elite Virginia.
Too often, history podcasts present information as if it is based on expertise or research, but really, it’s lifted from Wikipedia, or the hosts are very clearly reading a script that they’re trying to pass off as improvised storytelling. But Kathryn doesn’t have any of those problems. She’s reading letters of people and subjects she knows well, so she jokes, speaks freely, and makes unexpected connections. She shines in this medium, and comes across as your smartest, funniest friend, eager to share something cool she found at work. Not all of us have a Kathryn, but we can have Your Most Humble & Obedient Servant.
Kathryn Gehred is a one-woman shop. She receives zero dollars from sponsors, has no production support, and yet her podcast sounds much better than those that recite a long list of grants and staff in the credits. Let’s support her by subscribing to Your Most Humble & Obedient Servant (links to iTunes, Spotify, and more at the bottom of the page), leaving a rating, sharing episodes you like, and following along on Twitter and Tumblr. If you’re able to offer financial support, please do—and if you send me a receipt, I’ll mail you a note on my George Washington stationary!