Madeleine Lee, also known as Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, a wealthy New York widow, decides to spend the winter in Washington, D.C. Since the death of her husband, Lee has lost interest in New York society and has tried to find meaning in the study of philosophy and in philanthropy. She wants to go to Washington, the center of American political life, to see what the world of power can offer.
On a December 1 in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Lee and her younger sister, Sybil Ross, move into their rented house on Lafayette Square in Washington. Lee is intellectually inclined, artistic, and skeptical, and Sybil is sociable, straightforward, and religious. Lee takes up the practice of sitting in on sessions of the U.S. Congress, and during her visits there she meets John Carrington, a lawyer from Virginia. Carrington, about forty years old, is a former Confederate soldier whose formerly wealthy plantation family became impoverished in the American Civil War.
Carrington invites Lee to attend what he says may be the last speech of Illinois senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, known as the Prairie Giant of Peoria. After narrowly missing his party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency, Ratcliffe is, according to Carrington, expected to be appointed U.S. secretary of state or secretary of the Treasury by the new president. Lee later meets Ratcliffe at a senatorial dinner, to which she is invited by her friend, Schuyler Clinton, the senator from New York. At the dinner she also meets Lord Skye, the British minister to the United States.
Ratcliffe begins visiting Lee at the Sunday evening gatherings at her home. Her social gatherings are popular with other Washington figures, such as Baron Jacobi, an elderly and cynical Bulgarian minister; the secretary of the Russian Legation, Count Popoff; Connecticut congressman C. C. French; the wealthy Philadelphian, Hartbeest Schneidecoupon; and historian Nathan Gore, whose specialty is the history of Spain in America (Gore hopes that the new president will name him minister to Spain). Gore is particularly interested in cultivating the acquaintance of Ratcliffe because he believes the senator may help him win the desired ministry.
Ratcliffe quickly becomes enamored of Lee, in part because he is genuinely attracted to her and in part because he sees marriage with her as an asset in his quest for the presidency. Carrington falls in love with her as well. For her part, Lee values Carrington’s friendship and character, but she also is drawn to the possibility of being a positive influence on the openly corrupt Ratcliffe and on American politics through Ratcliffe.
The weather is becoming warmer, and...
(The entire section is 1098 words.)