- Historic Sites
The Pepys Of The Old Dominion
His secret diaries sparkle with the wit, wisdom, and lusty candor that made William Byrd II of Westover one of Virginia’s most engaging gentlemen
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
The reason for his own candor is clearly stated:
He Lov’d to undress wickedness of all its paint, and disguise, that he might loath its deformity.
The extent of his philosophizing and his admitted heresy is made clear by this remarkable passage:
He wishes every body so perfect, that he overlooks the impossibility of reaching it in this World. He wou’d have men Angells before their time, and wou’d bring down that perfection upon Earth which is the peculiar priviledge of Heaven.
Byrd left us a scattered and largely unavailable body of literature— vers de société , historical essays, character sketches, epitaphs, letters, poems, translations, and humorous satires. Of this work Maude Woodfin, one of the few scholars to delve adequately into Byrd’s work, wrote:
“There is a distinctly American quality in these writings of the latter half of Byrd’s life, in direct contrast to the exclusively English quality in the writings of his earlier years. Further study and time will doubtless argue that his literary work in the Virginia period from 1726 on, with its colonial scene and theme, has greater literary merit than his work in the London period.”
Byrd has a place in our architectural history as well. His manor house, Westover, is in many ways the finest Georgian mansion in the nation. Triumphant architectural solutions never come quickly or easily: only firstrate minds can conjure up first-rate houses. In the spring of 1709, we know from Byrd’s diary, he had workmen constructing brick. Five years later, stonecutters from Williamsburg were erecting the library chimney. There were interruptions, delays, faulty shipments, workmen to be trained. But gradually a masterpiece—noble in symmetry, proportion, and balance—emerged.
Built on a little rise a hundred yards from the James River, Westover has not changed much over the generations. The north and south façades are as solid and rhythmical as a well-wrought fugue, and the beautiful doorways would have pleased Palladio himself. Although the manor is derived from English standards (especially William Salmon’s Palladio Londinensis ), Westover makes such superb use of the local materials and landscape that some European critics have adjudged it esthetically more satisfying than most of the contemporary homes in England.
Like other buildings of the period, Westover was planned from the outside in. The main hallway, eighteen feet wide and off center, goes the full length of the house. The stairway has three runs and a balustrade of richly turned mahogany. The handsomely paneled walls of the downstairs rooms support gilded ceilings. Underneath the house is a complete series of rooms, converging at the subterranean passage leading to the river. Two underground chambers, which could be used as hiding places, are reached through a dry well. Since he liked nothing less than the idea of being dry, William Byrd kept both chambers stocked with claret and Madeira.
Westover takes its place in the succession of remarkable Virginia manors that remain one of the glories of the American past. It was completed probably by 1736, after Stratford Hall, with its masculine vigor, and Rosewell, with its mahogany balustrade from San Domingo. Westover would be followed by Brandon, with chaste cornices and fine simplicity; Gunston Hall, with cut-stone quoins and coziness; Sabine Hall, so reminiscent of Horace’s villa at Tivoli; and Pacatone, with its wonderful entrance and its legendary ghosts.
These places were more than houses. They were little worlds in themselves, part of a universe that existed within the boundaries of Virginia. The planters lavished their energy and their lives on such worlds. They were proud of their crops, their horses, their libraries, their gardens. Byrd, for example, tells us about the iris, crocus, thyme, marjoram, phlox, larkspur, and jasmine in his formal two-acre garden.
At Westover one might find the Carters from Shirley, the Lees from Stratford, the Harrisons from Randolph, or the Spotswoods from Germanna. So might one encounter Byrd’s brother-in-law, that ardent woman-hater, John Custis, from Arlington. Surely the ghost of William Byrd would not want any tale of Westover to omit a short tribute to Custis’ irascible memory.
While other founding fathers left immortal lines about life and liberty to stir our blood, Custis left words to warm henpecked hearts. With his highhanded lady he got on monstrous poor.
After one argument Custis turned and drove his carriage into the Chesapeake Bay. When his wife asked where he was going, he shouted, “To Hell, Madam.” “Drive on,” she said imperiously. “Any place is better than Arlington!” So that he might have the last word, Custis composed his own epitaph, and made his son execute it on pain of being disinherited:
U NDER THIS MARBLE TOMB LIES THE BODY OF THE HON. JOHN CUSTIS, E SQ .,
AGE 71 YEARS, AND YET LIVED BUT SEVEN YEARS, WHICH WAS THE SPACE OF TIME HE KEPT A BACHELOR’S HOME AT ARLINGTON ON THE EASTERN SHORE OF VIRGINIA.
Still Custis came to Westover, like all others who could, to enjoy the fairs, balls, parlor games, barbecues —but above all, the conversation.