Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray

by Dorothy Love

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In a story spanning crude slave quarters, sunny schoolrooms, stately wedding parlors, and cramped birthing rooms, novelist Dorothy Love amplifies the astonishing true-life account of an extraordinary alliance and casts fresh light on the tumultuous years leading up to and through the wrenching battle for a nation’s soul.

Mary Anna Custis Lee is a great granddaughter of Martha Washington, the wife of General Robert E Lee and heiress to Virginia's storied Arlington estate and General Washington's personal treasures.

Born in bondage at Arlington, Selina Norris Gray learns to read and write in the schoolroom Mary and her mother keep for the enslaved children and eventually becomes Mary's housekeeper, personal maid and trusted confidante. Forced to flee Arlington at the start of the civil war, Mary trusts the keys to Arlington to Selina. When Union troops begin looting the house, Selina confronts their commanding general and saves many of its treasures.

A classic American tale, Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray is the first novel to chronicle this beautiful fifty-year friendship forged at the crossroads of America’s journey from enslavement to emancipation.

Book Reviews for Mrs. Lee and Mrs. Gray

A beautifully written novel. A TOP PICK.
— RT Reviews

"Love succeeds [ in creating] a sympathetic portrait of these two women that both engages and educates the reader." —Publisher's Weekly

Dorothy Love is an award-winning novelist who brings her love of history to her fiction writing in well-researched stories depicting the lives of 19th century American women. Known for her novels of mystery and suspense set in her native South, she also writes biographical fiction that painstakingly recreates a lost world. A self-described history addict and a collector of 19th century ephemera, she lives in Texas with her family.

My dear Mary, I am very anxious about you. You have to move and make arrangements to get to some point of safety which you must select. The Mt Vernon plates and pictures ought to be secured. Keep quiet while you remain and in your preparations. War is inevitable and there is no telling when it will burst around you.

"Mother?" Agnes joined me in the parlor. "You are pale as milk. What is it?"

I handed her the letter. "Your father thinks we may be invaded."

Only three weeks earlier Robert, newly appointed to lead the Confederates in Virginia, kissed us in farewell and rode away from Arlington. Now he was preparing for the worst while I still prayed for some miracle to save us all from the coming carnage.

Agnes frowned. "What shall we do?"

"Pack up the Washington treasures as he directs. But I'm not certain we need to leave just yet."

"I read in the paper last week that some in the south are burying their treasures in their back yards," Agnes said.

I had stopped reading the papers, especially those from the North for they were full of hatred for my husband.

If Mr Custis could have lived until now he would have good cause to be bowed down in grief and sorrow to behold his son-in-law following in the footsteps of Benedict Arnold.

I penned a succinct reply to the Washington paper: I cannot conceive why Lincoln has assembled such an army if it is not his intention to crush the South. I have but one great consolation now, that my dear parents are both laid low in their graves, where but for my children I would gladly lie beside them.

"So will we bury the silver, Mother? The paintings and the plates? And where shall we go?"

I called for Selina. Together we filled two crates with our silver, our papers, and those of President Washington. Those I sent by rail to Robert for safekeeping. My books and engravings were locked into storage. Draperies and carpets, the Washington china and the punch bowl that had been used at my wedding were hidden in the cellar. My girls and I worked feverishly by day and lay down at night in rooms stripped bare save for our beds. I slept fitfully, knowing that sooner or later I must flee. Dreading the moment when I must take my daughters and make for safety on my own.

A few days later I was outside enjoying a rare moment of quiet among my flowers. The May morning had dawned warm and fair. The first roses had come into bloom and air around me was thick with their fragrance.

Markie's brother Orton Williams rode into the yard and began speaking before he dismounted. "Mary, the Union army is camped across the river. You are going to have to get out. Today if you can manage it."

I set Daniel and his son to packing up our trunks, some paintings and our housekeeping items. Daughter and Agnes went back and forth from the house to the wagons, loading their belongings. I was too busy and too frightened for emotion until Selina appeared with a bundle of clean linens.

"Here you are, Miss Mary. These are the ones scented with the lavender you're partial to."

My heart was so heavy and my nerves so frayed that my reserve crumbled.

Selina frowned. "Now you listen to me. You are just as well to dry those tears. We all got to be strong till this is over. Nothing we can do to change it so we have to get through it best we can."

"Missus?" Daniel looked worried. "If we don't get going soon we gone be half the night getting to Ravensworth and you told me yourself what your cousin said about soldiers camping in these parts."

Selina stood there with her hands on her hips, her eyes welling up. My own eyes burned. For thirty years Selina had been my great comfort. At times she had been my conscience. I wanted to do something to help her. Something to keep her safe.

Agnes returned with her tom snuggled securely in the crook of her arm. "I'm ready, Mama."

Selina said, "All right then. You planning to stand there till sundown or are you going to give me the keys?"


"Well, somebody's got to look after Arlington till you get back."

Without another word I handed Selina the keys. Daniel helped me into the carriage. The reins snapped and the wheels turned, taking me into exile.

( Continued... )

© 2016 All rights reserved. Book excerpt reprinted by permission of the author, Dorothy Love. Do not reproduce, copy or use without the author's written permission. This excerpt is used for promotional purposes only.

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Women's Fiction > Biographical > Historical Fiction
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Conversation with Dorothy Love

Dorothy Love is an award-winning author who brings her passion for history to her fiction writing in novels depicting the lives of 19th century American women. Known for her historical novels of mystery and suspense, Dorothy touches the minds and hearts of her readers through deep characterizations and the painstaking reconstruction of a lost
world. Her new novel, Mrs Lee and Mrs Gray brings to life the enduring friendship between Mrs Robert E Lee and Selina Norris Gray, an enslaved woman at famed Arlington house, a friendship that left a lasting American legacy.

BPM: When did you get your first inkling to write and how did you advance the call for writing?

DL: My dad had to leave school at an early age to take care of his mother and younger siblings and never got to finish his education. I'm his first daughter and from my earliest days he read books to me, bought books for me, and recited poetry he had memorized. He filled our house with books and magazines. I especially remember The Saturday Evening Post with its Normal Rockwell covers. I loved making up stories based on the covers. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. In college I worked as a journalist and later as a free lancer but my goal was to write novels. I started attending writers workshops, studied the craft, and finally began publishing in 1994. It has been a great ride.

BPM: Tell us about your passion for writing. Why do you write? What drives you?

DL: I love history, especially the history of 19th century America. It was a time when women were not allowed to vote and when they were discouraged from any work except teaching. The Civil War brought terrible hardships to Southern women who were left to fend for themselves against an invading army. Despite everything, many 19th century era women managed to accomplish great things that often go unnoticed. Elizabeth Blackwell became the first American woman to get an medical degree. Harriet Tubman became an abolitionist, an armed scout and a Union spy. Emma Willard fought for women's rights and established the Troy Female Seminary for the education of women. Elizabeth Allston Pringle took over the running of her family's rice plantations after the Civil War. There are countless stories like theirs. My passion is to dramatize those stories in a way that entertains and educates readers.

BPM: Can you share a little of your current work with us? Introduce us to your book and characters?

DL: I would love to! Mrs Lee and Mrs Gray is a biographical novel about the enduring friendship between Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee ( Mrs Robert E Lee) and Selina Norris Gray, an enslaved woman who became the
head housekeeper at Arlington house. Mary was the only child of George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh, and the heir to Arlington and its contents which included many of George Washington's belongings.

Selina was born at Arlington, a second generation slave whose parents, Len and Sally Norris, are said to have been favorites of Mrs Custis. Mary and her mother taught the Arlington slaves to read and write. At some point Selina was brought into the house to train as a housekeeper. Mary Anna Custis, who was fifteen years older than Selina developed a particular affection for Selina that continued after Mary's marriage to Robert E Lee. Mary, who suffered from arthritis almost all of her life was often at Arlington with her growing brood of children that would eventually number seven in all, and during these times, presumably the bond between Mary and Selina grew even stronger. A letter from Selina to Mary written the year before Mary's death expresses Selina's desire to see her old friend, and offers hope that Mary will regain ownership of Arlington that was illegally taken from her during the war. It was the
discovery of that letter that served as the catalyst for this novel.

BPM: What was your primary quest in publishing this book? Why now?

I had two goals in mind. One was to introduce readers to Mary Anna Custis Lee, who has so often been portrayed negatively in biographies of her husband. She has been described as slovenly, self centered, unattractive, and dull. General Lee was famously known as the handsomest man in the army, a brilliant soldier, and a talented engineer. Why would such a man choose as his wife an unattractive, selfish, stupid woman? I set out to learn more about Mary and
discovered that although she admitted to being less than punctual and that she cared little for fashion, she was in fact exceptionally well educated for a woman of her times. She mastered four languages, read four newspapers every day, and became an accomplished painter of the people and landscapes of Arlington. One of her paintings of a young
enslaved girl was recently purchased for the art museum in Williamsburg.

After her father's death she edited his "Recollections" and wrote a memoir that was published in 1860. She may not have been the most beautiful of the Virginia belles but she has been described as lively and flirtatious. Among her suitors were Robert E Lee's brother Smith Lee, and Sam Houston who would one day become president of the Republic of Texas. Mary believed in emancipation for all enslaved people but felt that freedmen would not be treated fairly in America. She sold flowers from her gardens to support the American Colonization Society's efforts to purchase slaves' freedom and help them to immigrate to Liberia. The Society became controversial over the years, but even William Lloyd Garrison who became its most vocal critic, allowed that those involved sincerely believed they were doing the Lord's work. At least one Arlington slave family, that of William Custis Burke, made the journey to Liberia. Both he and his wife Rosabella exchanged letters with Mary until at least the late 1860's. A devoted wife and mother, Mary packed up her children to join Robert at his military postings whenever possible. She spent the last two years of the war in Richmond to be closer to her husband. This is the Mary Anna Custis Lee that I want readers to know.

Secondly, I wanted to tell Selina's remarkable story. When the Civil War erupted, Selina, her husband Thornton Gray and their children were among the sixty enslaved persons at Arlington. Abolitionists were active at Arlington for several years, encouraging the Custis slaves to run away. In the years just before the war, many of them left. As the Union army approached Arlington, Mary and her daughters packed up as many of their belongings as they could and went to stay with relatives, leaving Selina in charge of Arlington. When the soldiers began looting the house, taking items that had belonged to President Washington, Selina confronted the Union general with the demand that they stop stealing "Miss Mary's things." He responded by packing up the Lee's possessions and shipping them to the US Patent Office for safekeeping. Selina is known among historians as "the savior of the Washington treasures." Without her extraordinary bravery, those treasures--which represent a part of our common history--would have been lost. Selina Norris Gray deserves to be more widely known than she is. With so few actual historical documents to rely upon, I had to imagine much of Selina's story. I hope I have done her justice in the pages of this novel and that everyone who reads Mrs Lee and Mrs Gray will come away with a greater appreciation of both women, and of their friendship that
fostered a lasting American legacy.

BPM: What are you the most thankful for?

DL: I've been blessed with work I love, readers I cherish, with a loving family, and with good health. It's so easy to take it all for granted. I try every day to be mindful of how lucky I am.

BPM: Do you have any advice for people seeking to publish a book?

DL: Unless you have a spouse with a great job and a dental plan, do not give up your day job. It is very difficult to make a living writing books, but if that's your passion, then absolutely you must pursue it. I'd suggest taking lots of workshops, reading everything you can get your hands on, and most importantly, writing something every day. Your
first draft and maybe your second and third drafts too will be awful. Embrace this awfulness as part of the creative process. Polish your work until you are deathly sick of it before you approach an editor or agent. Of course now anyone can bypass those gatekeepers and simply publish a book independently. But most of those that I've seen were prematurely published and would have benefited greatly from an editor and a proofreader. The most important thing must be passion. Passion for your subject, passion for the story, passion for the creative process.

BPM: How may our readers follow you online?

DL: My website is I love chatting with readers on my Facebook author page or on Twitter.

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Women's Fiction > Biographical > Historical Fiction