Written more than a hundred years after the Revolution, Silas Weir Mitchell’s historical romance recaptures the tone as well as the letter of the Philadelphia scene before and during the struggle with Great Britain. Tolstoy recreated the time of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia and its effects on the aristocracy with brilliantly conceived characterizations and dramatized historical events. Mitchell’s method is modest by comparison and, if not as effective as Tolstoy’s, is curiously satisfying in its own right.
What Mitchell does is play memoirist. His main character, Hugh Wynne, begins by apologizing for “having no gift in the way of composition” and a distaste for fiction. By chance, his friend Jack Warder, a major character in the novel, bequeaths Hugh his diary which is as fulsome and sensitive as Hugh is forgetful and unliterary. This “convenient” bequest does not seem contrived because it is a reflection in point of view of one of the novel’s central themes: Warder’s protection, through thought and deed, of his less perceptive friend.
The memoir style is very well done: coolly observant, precise in detail, and limpidly clear throughout. The eighteenth century elegance of the tone forms a poignant counterpoint to the emotional turmoil of the irrational relationship between father and son, John and Hugh Wynne. The portrait of Washington is meticulously historical, but the vindictiveness with which Mitchell attacks the zeal of conservative Quakerism mars his pretension of complete historical objectivity. The characters are largely wooden, and motivation is mechanical rather than psychological; Darthea’s love is a thing difficult to believe in. Perhaps spirited Gainor Wynne, with her Whig independence and brashly lovable integrity, is the novel’s best creation: “The good old lady was lamenting her scanty toilet, and the dirt in which the Hessians had left her house. ’I have drunk no tea since Lexington,’ she said, ’and I have bought no gowns. My gowns, sir, are on the backs of our poor soldiers.’”