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A Bridge and Its Interesting Traffic

ISSUE:  Winter 1943

John Paradise and Lucy Ludwell of Lotulon and Williamsburg. By Archibald Boiling Shepperson. The Diet* Press. $4.00.

A dmirably Dr. Archibald Boiling Shepperson succeeds in doing what he intended in “John Para-dise and Lucy Ludwell,” to build a bridge of personality between England and America of the Revolutionary era. It is an authentic bridge, a substantial bridge, and it will have enduring worth for all who pass between the two countries on quests of comprehension.

Centrally the chronicle of John Paradise and Lucy, his wife, this narrative is the melancholy, oft-repeated tale that is manna from heaven for the psychologist of connubial incompatibilities; conflicting interests and clashing temperaments on the part of a man and woman, who do not have the same sense of value and never seek the same rewards, operate to prevent successful marriage. Even effective partnership is never realized. Adversity does not draw them closer and sorrow cannot fuse them into spiritual cohesion. The ending is despair.

The moralist of the moment might supplant the psychologist to emphasize that the only point husband and wife have in common, and the only point at which their relations are satisfying, is a patriotic one—their unwavering allegiance to the American cause.

Still concerning ourselves with contemporary pertinences, we may be grateful for one more contribution to a favorable understanding of the temper of the warring countries, especially of England. This work makes clearer still, if by now the theme is not absolutely clear, that the enlightened judgment of England, despite the staunch Toryism of George III and Samuel Johnson, recognized the conflict not as a mere colonial revolt but as a brave struggle of the Americans to maintain rights that were essentially a British heritage.

The plot, if thus we may denominate the pattern of sound historical investigation, is not the significant element. Nor do John and Lucy themselves emerge as forceful people, or people of much influence upon destiny. But they drew to themselves, or at least enjoyed upon terms of social acceptability, an uncommonly important circle of friends, English and American alike, including many figures of genuine historical distinction. In ultimate effect, Dr. Shepperson gives us not a record of events but a pageant of personages.

The book would justify itself on the minor grounds of validity of presentation of the little known figures, many of them delineated fully, all of them drawn convincingly. American readers will enjoy the acquaintance with William Lee, covetous brother-in-law of Lucy, and least enviable of his notable family, with William Short, fair-haired boy of Jefferson’s esteem and, indeed, a glamour boy of his generation, with William Nelson, type of young Virginian at its best.

Dr. Shepperson—to shift into an autumnal metaphor-stalking his prey flushes whole covies of smaller game of history, who make swift but vivid flight before our eyes. James Boswell lingers or returns with his strange capacity to adore Johnson and support the American cause which Johnson abominates. Fanny Burney dashes in and out, shy and bright as the best character she ever created; and queerest bird of all is James Nollekens, the sculptor, fantastic in his person and in the type of party he gives, parties that Elsa Maxwell never dreamed.

For the general reader, however, the focus of interest will be in the facets of light thrown on the illustrious personages of the period. These little rays of illumination are true and they are arresting.

Samuel Johnson is much in this book, for example, and it is comforting to know that he could steadfastly sustain his friendship with this couple, even though he could never doubt their loyalty to the cause he detested. Underneath that tough hide, the great heart of Johnson took the distress of his friends as his own, and even incorporated the financial worries of Paradise into one of the memorable prayers— where the lexicographer was artistically and spiritually at his noblest. It is surprising, again, to learn that Edward Bancroft, reputed the cleverest and most contemptible double-dealer in our political history, should prove himself sincere and unselfish as a personal friend; and, incidentally, we are reminded that Arthur Lee alone knew the approximate facts of this treachery which remained a secret until a century later. Franklin moves through these pages at his easy gait, the same master of amazing urbanity and wisdom we already know, displaying unfailing kindness. John Jay is here, prim and opinionated, delaying and almost wrecking the peace proceedings because of a stubborn conviction that Paradise is really a British spy.

In many ways the historical hero of the book is Thomas Jefferson. Dr. Shepperson does not attempt any advocacy, but the fineness of Jefferson’s character, as revealed in these intimate details, is undeniable. We have confirmations of our conception of Jefferson as a patriot; we have enlargements of our conception of Jefferson as a student, undaunted even by a brutal snub from the English king, investigating the culture and charm of England; but we have virtually new revelation of Jefferson as a friend. In a relationship which surely offered him nothing of personal advantage, Jefferson bore with and supported the unhappy couple. It would be difficult to find a more appealing record of sympathy, resourcefulness, and generosity than the handsome behavior of the Sage of Monticello here manifests. In the vast experiences and achievements of this bewildering Jefferson, the little episode of the Paradise friendship may not have factual consequence; but this book is prescribed reading for all who would really know the genuine character of the great Liberal.

It is indicated reading, this Paradise story, for many people besides biographers of Jefferson. The resources for further scholarship are manifold; the problem of Virginia plantation economy, particularly the problem of the Virginian abroad who depended on absentee management; the impression that post-Revolutionary Virginia made upon foreigners—”How can such houris come out of such hovels I”, cried a young visiting nobleman as he danced with the belles of Williamsburg; yes, and the connivings of an American mamma (surely one of the first instances) to win a titled husband, much against papa’s wishes; a thousand details of the Johnson group for several exciting London decades, details that will enrich any classroom lecture on the history or the literature of the period.

But there is much more than scholarship in the book; it has more values than those the pedant would suggest. For any intelligent reader, this is an enjoyable book. Competent coach and critic of good writing, Dr. Shepperson has turned in a first-rate performance of his own.


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