Staff Publication: The Scandalous Life of Nancy Randolph by Kate Braithwaite


Kate Braithwaite’s new novel The Scandalous Life of Nancy Randolph (Lume Books, May 2024), set in late 18th-century Virginia, tells the story of the notorious Ann “Nancy” Cary Randolph, younger sister of Thomas Mann Randolph. After her mother passes away and her father remarries, Nancy – accompanied by Phebe, her enslaved companion – goes to live with her sister, Judy, and brother-in-law, Richard “Dick” Randolph, at Bizarre plantation. While there, Nancy tries her best to be of use to her sister and unknowingly attracts the attention of Dick’s two brothers: Theodorick “Theo” and John “Jack” Randolph. In a similar vein, Phebe finds her own way at Bizarre, interacting with the enslaved workers and Randolph family members.

Rumors arise that Nancy was made pregnant by Dick, beginning with whispers among the enslaved people at Glentivar, a cousin’s plantation house. The situation grows dire when Dick is brought to trial in Williamsburg. Nancy becomes a social pariah.

Braithwaite explains her inspirations: “I came across an article online about Nancy quite by chance and was immediately fascinated by her story. Certain elements really jumped out. Nancy was widely and very publicly accused of sleeping with her sister Judy’s husband, Dick Randolph, and yet Nancy and Judy continued living together for a full ten years after Dick’s trial.

“What really happened? The truth remains a mystery, and that’s the sweet spot for me when writing historical fiction. I love to take the known facts and try and weave a story that could have happened, even if we can never know for sure.”

Braithwaite began researching during COVID and was able to read primary and secondary sources online, including letters handwritten by Nancy herself. Eventually she visited “key sites, particularly Historical Tuckahoe, where Nancy and Judy grew up. It’s a remarkable place to visit.”

Through Nancy, Judy, and Phebe, all strong and resilient women, Braithwaite shows us three sides to the scandal. “Judy and Nancy grew up expecting to live in comfort and luxury, but the death of their mother changed everything. Dick Randolph was a spendthrift. Judy found herself living on a remote plantation struggling to bring up her two sons, one of whom was profoundly deaf. Nancy’s life was derailed by public scandal, seemingly ending any prospect of marriage and security. Phebe, as an enslaved woman, was born into a world that failed to recognize her basic human rights, and her life was entwined with Nancy’s. She has her story, and her own perspective on what transpired.”

Braithwaite elaborates, “In John Marshall’s papers about the trial of Richard Randolph, it’s explicitly mentioned that Nancy’s maid was a witness… At that time, any evidence she might have given wasn’t admissible in court, and there’s no suggestion she was ever asked a question about it all. I felt that writing the story as if Phebe wasn’t there would be perpetuating the same basic wrong. She was there when it happened and needed to be there in the book. Having decided that, I did my best to give her an authentic life and agency, and I enjoyed working with a wonderful sensitivity reader who is also writing about this period in Virginia.”

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 108 (May 2024)

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