“Shortly before midnight, July 1, 1833, Colonel Aaron Burr, aged seventy-seven, married Eliza Jumel, born Bowen fifty-eight years ago (more likely sixty-five but remember: she is prone to litigation!). The ceremony took place at Madame Jumel’s mansion on the Washington Heights and was performed by Doctor Bogart (will supply first name later). In attendance were Madame Jumel’s niece (some say daughter) and her husband Nelson Chase, a lawyer from Colonel Burr’s Reade Street firm. This was the Colonel’s second marriage; a half-century ago he married Theodosia Prevost.”
This novel takes a little time to get going, but once the scene and the players are set, it really clicks. The novel primarily takes place in 1833 around the inauguration of Jackson for his second term (he trounced Henry Clay for re-election after previously winning the popular vote twice — losing to John Quincy Adams in 1824 when the vote went to the legislature). The novel is primarily narrated by Charles Schuyler, a clerk working with Burr, but who has also been enlisted to spy on Burr and try to dig up dirt to thwart the future, likely presidential aspirations of Martin van Buren (Andrew Jackson’s vice-president) who Jacksonian democrats fear will undo Jackson’s achievements. The connection to Burr? For certain, van Buren was a kind of protégé of Burr’s who acted as a mentor when van Buren was much younger. The scandalous possibility is the persistent rumor that Burr is actually van Buren’s father. Burr was already known to have more than one child out of wedlock (and rumored to be having many different affairs), as well as some unrecognized children. There’s additional potential scandal that I won’t get into, because the novel does and well if you want to read it, it’s worth finding it out there.
The novel begins with the announcement of Burr’s second marriage, to a rich French countess. The reference to Burr’s previous marriage comes up in various ways in the novel. The novel then is about Schuyler discussing and spying on Burr and interviewing his various acquaintances. He also begins writing Burr’s memoirs with Burr narrating, which begin more or less with the revolution and move forward in time. Burr as a figure is a little wormy. He’s an absolute scoundrel in history, not just because of the duel, but because his attempt to become emperor of Mexico, and his absconding with his wife’s fortune, not to mention all the possible illegitimate kids. Here in this book, he’s treated as a scoundrel in that appealing way the devil is a scoundrel. Of course the duel looms large in the story and we do get it, a version of it at least, but it’s clear that Burr and Vidal’s Burr see so much more to this story than that. And that definitely works here in the voice and writing of Gore Vidal.