George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly

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Her husband proved little consolation for Nelly. Times were hard, and Lawrence seemed not to be a good manager. The Lewises’ fortunes dwindled. Nelly’s letters conspicuously lacked talk of her feelings for her husband, but their marriage appears not to have been a happy one. In the struggle of living on a diminished income, Nelly quite lost her taste for the dancing that had once excited her, and told her friend Elizabeth that she had given up music and painting for “Pickling, preserving, & puddings .” “Indeed I am become a very humdrum character.” It was worse than that; she had become a bore. She was full of self-pity, indulging in a jittery concern for her children that tended toward paranoia, and apprehensive about her own health. She dosed herself constantly with Seidlitz powders to treat her headaches, and in later years claimed that “Without Seidlitz, I could not live.” (The medication was, in fact, onlv a mild cathartic.)

Many of Nelly’s tribulations were real. She was truly plagued by illnesses that became disabling toward the end of her life. She endured the death of seven of her eight children, presiding at the deathbeds of some. When her daughter Agnes contracted a fatal illness while at school in Philadelphia, Nelly hastened to nurse her through the end, and later tortured herself with the speculation that the fifteen-year-old girl might have been sealed alive in her coffin.

Both Nelly’s husband and her daughter Angela died in 1839, and Nelly went to live on her son Lorenzo’s estate. Called Audley, the farm was located in the Shenandoah Valley, and was even more isolated than Woodlawn. “This beautiful autumn I cannot participate in,” Nelly wrote to Elizabeth. “I cannot go out of the house or in a carriage, I stand at the door, & seeing the green wheat, the beautiful mountains, inhale the sweet air, but my limbs are weak & I despair now of ever recovering entirely.” That was in 1850. She died in March, 1852, in total obscurity, with no one to attend her but Lorenzo’s widow.

 

Among Nelly’s papers at Mount Vernon is an undated scrap intended for Elizabeth, written very late in her life. Her rushing memories had drawn her back to her early teens when she had known young Andrew Allen. He had written her a poem for her fifteenth birthday which she had kept until her marriage. It began with these lines:

To thee fair Maid, let love his homage pay In Humble song on this auspicious day Nor view the attempt with too severe an eye Tho’ mean the verse, yet still the subject’s high.

“When I was at Morris ville, Andrew passed a day with us,” Nelly wrote; and she had paid a return visit to the Allen home called Neshaminy. Andrew had called Maria Morris and Nelly “sister goddesses,” and had spoken of the Schuylkill River as Nelly’s mirror. Now she was a broken old lady raking through her memories for a bright gem or two.

“How witty and agreeable he was,” Nelly mused. “I certainly should have loved him had I not been too happy and gay to be susceptible.” Instead she had chosen Lawrence Lewis, who wrote no poems, said nothing witty, and, at least to her mind, was not always agreeable.

One more letter made it plain that Andrew was in Nelly’s thoughts. She asked Elizabeth for a likeness of him as he appeared in later life, and then in a single line totaled up the regrets, the unfulfilled years, the misery that had begun when her girlhood ended at Mount Vernon so many decades ago: “Do tell me if he ever spoke of me at all, & what he said.”

ADVICE FROM A DOTING GRANDFATHER