Review – Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton by Tilar J. Mazzeo

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Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton
by Tilar J. Mazzeo

Genre: Biography, History

Length: 352 Pages

Release date: September 18, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

From the New York Times bestselling author of Irena’s Children comes a comprehensive and riveting biography of the extraordinary life and times of Eliza Hamilton, the wife of founding father Alexander Hamilton, and a powerful, unsung hero in America’s early days. 

Fans fell in love with Eliza Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton’s devoted wife—in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s phenomenal musical Hamilton. But they don’t know her full story. A strong pioneer woman, a loving sister, a caring mother, and in her later years, a generous philanthropist, Eliza had many sides—and this fascinating biography brings her multi-faceted personality to vivid life.

Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of The Wife of Alexander Hamilton follows Eliza through her early years in New York, into the ups and downs of her married life with Alexander, beyond the aftermath of his tragic murder, and finally to her involvement in many projects that cemented her legacy as one of the unsung heroes of our nation’s early days. Featuring Mazzeo’s “impeccable research and crafting” (Library Journal), and perfect for fans of the richly detailed historical books by Ron Chernow and Erik Larson, Eliza Hamilton is the captivating account of the woman behind the famous man.

rating

five

“Best of wives and best of women.”

This was an immensely readable biography. Mazzeo’s writing style creates the immersive reading experience of a good novel. While this at times requires her to take certain liberties and to speculate (the book opens, for example, with Eliza blushing in response to a letter she received from Alexander Hamilton), she does seem to draw from what is known as much as possible. Eliza’s thoughts and feelings, while not always documented, can often be inferred from letters she exchanged with Alexander and others. All in all, some speculation, within reason, can certainly be forgiven in the service of crafting a fleshed-out image of a woman so long lost to history.

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Portrait of Eliza Hamilton by Ralph Earl. Earl was in debtors’ prison when Eliza sat for this portrait and persuaded other ladies to do the same. The income generated from this allowed Earl to earn enough money to repay his debts and regain his freedom.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the biography is Mazzeo’s treatment of the Maria Reynolds incident, wherein she questions the commonly accepted version of events, made famous once again by the musical Hamilton. The affair is often treated as fact, but Alexander and Eliza’s contemporaries were far from in agreement as to the truth of the matter. Was Alexander simply a cheating husband or was the whole affair a cleverly crafted ruse to cover up the illegal financial activities of which he was suspected at the time?

Mazzeo argues for the latter. I won’t go into detail, as the book will surely handle the material more elegantly than I could here, but one interesting question raised is this: If Alexander had love letters from Mrs. Reynolds to substantiate the affair, as he claimed he did, why would he not produce them? He printed transcriptions of the supposed letters in his pamphlets on the matter, but refused to produce the original documents. Mrs. Reynolds, who vehemently denied the affair, was willing to submit to a handwriting comparison in an attempt to clear her name. Alexander refused. This is just one piece of the puzzle which leads Mazzeo to conclude that Alexander’s real crimes were financial, not romantic.

If I had to name a weakness in this book it would be this: Alexander looms quite large in Mazzeo’s recounting of Eliza’s life. Yes, he was her husband, but Eliza lived to a ripe old age and had half of her life ahead of her at the time of his death, years which were filled with joy, sadness, and endless public works. Eliza was so much more than Alexander’s wife.

However, her accomplishments are by no means completely ignored. The book goes into detail about Eliza’s involvement in founding New York’s first private orphanage, as well as her involvement in public education. Children were Eliza’s passion, particularly orphans, a focus likely sparked by Alexander’s humble origins. Mazzeo paints a portrait of a strong and compassionate woman.

This is a beautiful and well-researched piece of work which shines a well-deserved spotlight on one of US history’s most interesting women. The flowing prose makes this an excellent read for fans of biographies as well as historical fiction, and, of course, fans of Hamilton. 

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

Purchase links
amazon
bambarnes and nobleindie bound

Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on biographies? Do you prefer a more formal, fact-focused tone, or does speculation on thoughts and feelings of the people involved make for a better reading experience?

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