A slightly different version of this interview with Natalie Wexler appeared in the April 2007 edition of the online newsletter “The Practicing Writer“. For more background on the historical basis for the book, you can read Natalie’s essay, “The Case for Love,” which appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of The American Scholar.
Q. A More Obedient Wife is the story of two women from early American history–two Hannahs (Iredell and Wilson) who were married to Supreme Court Justices (two Jameses–Iredell and Wilson). Who were these women? How did their lives intersect? And why did you decide to write a novel about them?
A. The two Hannahs were very different. I’ll give you what is known about them historically, rather than what I’ve made of them as fictional characters. Hannah Iredell–in her early 40s when the action of the novel takes place–was intelligent and unusually well-educated for her time, but extremely, possibly even pathologically, shy. When her husband was appointed to the Court, the family moved from their home in Edenton, North Carolina, to the new federal capital–New York at first, and then Philadelphia. It’s clear, from the letters she wrote that have survived, that she found it extremely difficult to participate in the society of what is sometimes called “the republican court.” Although the United States was a republic, the only real governmental model Americans had was monarchy, so they borrowed some of its trappings: levees, tea parties, formal “evenings” held by the wives of the President and various Cabinet members, etc. In addition to feeling pressure to attend these events, Hannah Iredell had the burden of dealing with her mother-in-law, who arrived from England shortly after the Iredells moved to New York and turned out to have a serious drinking problem.
I know much less about Hannah Wilson, because fewer of her letters have survived, and I’ve found only one letter written to her by her husband. (James Iredell, in contrast, wrote to his wife nearly every day that he was away from her–which, because Justices had to travel the country riding circuit–was often.) But it’s clear, from the Gilbert Stuart portrait of her that has survived, and which I’ve used for the cover of the book, that she was quite attractive. She’s also much younger than Hannah Iredell during the period covered by the book–19 in 1793, when we first meet her, and 24 when it ends in 1798. We know from letters (including an amusing one from John Quincy Adams, which is included in the book) that in 1793 James Wilson–then a 51-year-old widower with six children–saw her in church one day when he was riding circuit in Boston and immediately fell madly in love with her. By the time he left town ten days later, he had proposed. When Hannah accepted, shortly thereafter, many observers concluded that the attraction was Wilson’s great wealth–a reasonable conclusion, given that he wasn’t particularly handsome and by all accounts lacked personal charm. But the interesting thing is that, a few years later, when he had a spectacular financial downfall and landed in debtor’s prison, Hannah Wilson stuck by him rather than going home to mother.
The two women’s paths crossed because their husbands were friends. They first met in late 1794, when the Wilsons, riding the Southern circuit together, stayed with the Iredells in Edenton–only a few months before, the Iredells had moved back there. But in 1798, after Wilson’s financial affairs had worsened, the two women had a more extended period of contact. Wilson had essentially fled to Edenton in late 1797, to avoid another arrest by his creditors, and in early 1798 his wife joined him there. He died in Edenton that August, after which Hannah Wilson–penniless and exhausted from caring for her dying husband–moved in with the Iredells for several months.
I decided to write a novel about these women because I felt drawn to them, and there simply wasn’t enough information available to allow me to write a biographical, nonfiction account of their lives. There were lots of unanswered questions–gaps left by the letters and other documents that have survived–and I wanted to answer them. The only way I could really do that was to invent some of the answers.
Q. Where does the title–”A More Obedient Wife”–come from?
A. It’s a quotation from a letter that Hannah Iredell wrote to James Iredell in 1790: “Could you wish a more obedient Wife, my dear Mr. Iredell? I wrote you last night, and am now attempting another letter …”
This was a bit playful–James Iredell wrote a staggering number of letters to his wife when they were apart, and he would sometimes chide her for not keeping up her end. And it’s clear that he didn’t expect absolute “obedience” from his wife–he really cared about her happiness. But at the same time, the Iredells and the Wilsons were creatures of their time, and wives were generally not considered equal to their husbands in the 18th century (for example, as you can tell from the quotation, Hannah Iredell always addressed her husband as “Mr. Iredell,” but he addressed her as “Hannah”). Both Hannahs, presumably feeling it was their duty to “obey,” followed their husbands down paths that they themselves would not have chosen. But, being human, they had their own desires and yearnings that couldn’t be entirely repressed. That’s really one of the central tensions in the novel–the conflict between these women trying to be what their husbands want them to be (or what they think their husbands want them to be) and their desire to be themselves.
Q. How much research did you do for this novel?
A. I spent years doing research, but my job was made much easier by the existence of The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800. This was a project that began in 1977 and finished in 2006. It produced eight volumes of documents relating to the first ten years of the Supreme Court’s history, and I was an associate editor there from 1987 to 1994 and then again from 2004 to 2006–that’s how I first came across the story of the Wilsons and the Iredells. Before I joined the project, staff members had spent years collecting thousands of documents from archives and repositories–making copies and filing them in the project’s office–and I was able to draw on these documents for the novel. There were only a few letters I used that I located on my own. But many of the documents that I found most useful at the documentary history project–letters and diaries relating to the Iredell family–had been put in a box and set aside as irrelevant to the Court’s business. I spent many happy hours of my own time sifting through that box (which is now in my study at home), straining my eyes to decipher the xeroxes of 18th-century handwriting.
I supplemented this reading with secondary sources that gave me background information, some of which I ended up using and some of which I didn’t. For example, I did a lot of reading about how the novel was viewed in the 18th-century–novels were actually considered dangerous, liable to inflame the imagination of young women–but there are just a few references to that subject in my book. On the other hand, I found a couple of books published in the early 19th century by a woman named Lydia Maria Child–The American Frugal Housewife and The Family Nurse–that were full of weird and wonderful household hints and home remedies. I drew on those a lot in creating the character of Hannah Iredell, who was by all accounts a frugal housewife. I decided to also make her something of an expert in home remedies.
Probably the most fun I had doing research was actually visiting some of the places my characters might have been: the room that was used by the Supreme Court in the old City Hall in Philadelphia; Fraunces Tavern in New York; and of course Edenton, which has some wonderfully preserved 18th-century houses, including the James Iredell House.
Q. In the course of doing your research, did you come across any surprises?
A. I was surprised by the whole story of Hannah Iredell’s alcoholic mother-in-law. I knew, from what I had read before I started researching the novel, that she had been something of a problem, but the details were fascinating. James Iredell had a brother back in England–a clergyman–who had been taking care of their mother, but in 1789 or 1790 he began writing letters to James saying that their aging mother’s fondest wish was to be reunited with her eldest son (James), and so on. It turns out he was really trying to get rid of her, because her behavior was getting embarrassing and annoying. So it came as a great shock to the Iredells when she showed up and wasn’t at all the mother that James Iredell remembered.
I also discovered that both Hannahs had taken refuge in the small town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania–for different reasons and at different times. One of the things I wanted to bring out in the novel was that, despite the differences in the two women’s personalities, they had many things in common–the common experiences of 18th-century womanhood, such as losing a child, or subordinating their own desires to those of their husbands. But here was a parallel I hadn’t anticipated. Bethlehem was then a Moravian town, and a pretty unusual place–very communal, and devoted to the idea of equality. So I was able to get each woman’s perspective on these things, and have them meet and interact–separately–with the same (fictional) character. As far as I know, the two Hannahs never figured out they’d both been in Bethlehem, and they never do in the novel–it’s something the reader knows, but they don’t.
Q. Are you working on another book?
A. I’d love to write another novel, but given the amount of time I spent on this one–nearly ten years–it’s not something I would undertake lightly! Still, I’m sure there are many stories that could be based on the lives of real people from the past–like A More Obedient Wife–that would be fascinating. In fact, I’m just beginning to research the really extraordinary life of a woman who was born in the late 18th century and lived to be 94–and who left behind a rich collection of letters. It’s too soon for me to say whether or not I’ll actually embark on this as my next book project, but it’s looking very intriguing.