Romance and murder in 18th-century Boston

By Michael Kenney
December 9, 2008
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The earliest-known Boston novel is William Hill Brown's "The Power of Sympathy," published in 1789, and written, as was the custom of the time, as a series of letters describing a romance that ends in tragedy when it is revealed that the lovers are, unknown to themselves, brother and sister.

There is little sense of place, and the tone is, at best, moralistic, the dire tidings coming in a letter to the young man from "Unknown Friend, &c."

That narrative custom survives as communications "By a Gentleman in Exile & a Lady in Disguise" in "Blindspot," a novel by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore. It is as rollicking as its model was tame, with a view of sexual matters that lands somewhere between 18th-century bawdy and present-day graphic, and a sense of place that is fully realized.

It will be hard now to pass by the Old State House, then the Town House, the seat of the colonial government, without recalling the authors' description of it as if "decorated with so many big-toothed grins amidst red-brick lips. A house of false smiles: fitting home for politicians."

And with its authors being notable professors of American history, Kamensky at Brandeis and Lepore at Harvard, there is a background setting of the Stamp Act crisis of 1764.

But on to the action.

The "lady in disguise" is Fanny Easton, disgraced daughter of a prominent family, now posing as a boy and hired as an apprentice by the "gentleman in exile," Stewart Jameson, a Scottish painter who has fled to Boston to escape creditors back home.

Completely fooled by Fanny's disguise, Jameson is conflicted by his growing attraction to the "boy," causing Fanny to wonder whether "The Serving Boy," the painting Jameson has done of her, is "my likeness, or my rival."

Fanny is similarly attracted, dropping hints as to her real self, at one point painting a miniature on ivory of her breasts.

Suffice to say, Jameson is, in due course, "unblinded."

And there is a subplot for readers who would fancy some history with their romance - the murder of Samuel Bradstreet, a leading Patriot, investigated and solved with the help of Ignatius Alexander, an African-born, Oxford-educated man of science.

As Alexander explains the politics, the murderer (no giveaway here) "sought to cheat the people of this colony - black and white - of the fullest understanding of their liberties. But he did not manage to silence Samuel Bradstreet, American liberty's greatest prophet." But a prophet who, the reader will have already learned, had made his fortune "upon the wages of slavery."

It is abundantly clear that Kamensky and Lepore had a grand time being clever, e-mailing twists of plot and splashes of dialogue back and forth between their academic offices and crosstown in Cambridge where both live.

There are bits of what might be called "18th-century-speak" -- at its most delightful, Fanny's lament when Jameson's dog intrudes on a romantic moment: "Damn the dog: he had stolen my seduction, ruined my ruination."

And there are the imbedded references that are the delight of academics everywhere - to legendary Harvard historian Perry Miller's "Errand Into the Wilderness," to 18th-century writers Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson.

And there appears to be even a reference to that earlier novel "The Power of Sympathy" in a chapter title: "On the Impotence of Sympathy."

But, alas, there is no map to guide the reader around the Boston of 1764. There is a useful website ( which identifies the still-standing buildings in Boston where the authors imagine their story to take place, but for a map, the best advice would be to seek out the Bonner Map of 1722, available online both in the original and with a Google map of the modern city overlaid on it.

Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.

BLINDSPOT By a Gentleman in Exile & a Lady in Disguise

By Jane Kamensky

and Jill Lepore

Spiegel & Graf, 500 pp., $24.95

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