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Blindspot: A Novel
by Jane Kamensky, Jill Lepore

Published: 2008-12-09
Hardcover : 512 pages
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Written with wit and exuberance by longtime friends and accomplished historians, Blindspot is at once fiction and history, mystery and love story, tragedy and farce. Set in boisterous, rebellious Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, it ingeniously weaves together the fictional stories of a ...
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Introduction

Written with wit and exuberance by longtime friends and accomplished historians, Blindspot is at once fiction and history, mystery and love story, tragedy and farce. Set in boisterous, rebellious Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, it ingeniously weaves together the fictional stories of a Scottish portrait painter and notorious libertine Stewart Jameson, and Fanny Easton, a fallen woman from one of Boston’s most powerful families who disguises herself as a boy to become Jameson’s defiant and seductive apprentice, Francis Weston. When Boston’s revolutionary leader, Samuel Bradstreet, dies suddenly on the day Jameson is to paint his portrait, Bradstreet’s slaves are accused of murder. Jameson, Weston, and Jameson’s friend, the brilliant African-born Oxford-educated doctor Ignatius Alexander, set out to determine the truth. What they discover turns topsy-turvy everything you thought you knew about the Founding Fathers. Peopled not only with the celebrated Sons of Liberty but also with revolutionary Boston’s unsung inhabitants—women and servants, hawkers and rogues and pickpockets—Blindspot is both prodigiously learned and lush with the bawdy sensibility of the eighteenth century. It restores the humanity, the humor, and the sex to the story of the American Revolution.

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Excerpt

chapter 3

In Which Promise Arrives, and Promises Are Made

sitter, a sitter, my kingdom for a sitter! I have stocked my painting room with pigments and spirits and oils, purchased dear, on ac¬count, from the apothecary whose shop is but two doors down. Yet, in near a month on these shores, all the Art I have undertaken hardly mer¬its the name: I have painted a wooden shop sign, no more than crude line work: the words STEWART JAMESON, FACE-PAINTER above a head- and-shoulders of a bewigged gentleman in a velvet cloak. The painter's arms now hang outside my door, like a lure tied to a hook, dangling in so much still water. Have I crossed an ocean to sit by a pond? Reader, I am no an¬gler; I am a painter. And mark me: a painter must paint. How dearly I wish that you, Sir-or perchance, Madam-were here with me this very instant, sitting for your portrait. Then we could truly take each other's measure. But no. There you perch, in your easy chair, reading by candle¬light, while I, at my desk, scribble alone.

Pray, do not think me idle, for I would not write the day away, with no better company than Enoch Goddard, the grubbling rumbud who came with the place, and his slip- slop wife. And so: I must leave my lodgings, and do. Here is my daily docket: At dawn I ply the wharves, practicing the art of gossipation. At eleven I visit a coffeehouse, each day in a different quarter of town: the Crown, on King Street; the British, here on Queen; the Duke's, on Marlborough. Sip, chat. Sip, chat. From noon till two I walk the hall 'neath the Town House, which these Bostonians call their Exchange-though, truly, 'tis a far cry from Lon-don's Royal Exchange, where stockjobbers from the four corners of the globe make their deals amidst a great din and shuffle. I trade words with any dexterous exchange artist who will meet my eye. Of an evening I cast my net at the Blue Herring, before a flagon of beer, while I play at cards with any who happen by. Whist is my game, although I am scarce a sharp.

Yesterday, I stopped in at Edes's shop.

“I've got what you've been waiting for, Jameson,” the printer said, narrowing his eyes, and handing me a copy of the Edinburgh Evening Courant. He watched me carefully as, with dread, I read the lines to which he directed my attention:

ESCAPED . . . one Stewart Jameson, face- painter and libertine, on

pain of being confined for debt . . .

So soon, dear Reader? Am I to be exposed so soon?

“Not the way any man hopes to see his name in print,” I ventured, with rue, and truth enough.

“No, I expect not.” His tone was grim, but I caught a glimmer of sympathy in his countenance.

“Edes, has anyone else seen this?”

“No. Not yet.” There was nothing for it but to plead with the man.

“Sir: my reputation, my livelihood, even my liberty, lie in your hands. What will you do?”

“Well, for one thing, Jameson, I won't be extending you any more credit.” He pulled out his account book, and flipped through the pages. “Let's see. I've run your ad for an apprentice for three weeks straight. Plus the cards, the map, and Newcombe's History, that's fourteen shillings. I'd like it now, in hard coin.”

“Fair enough. Though, just at the moment”-I tried to offer a small laugh-“I'm afraid I'm a bit short. Might I do a piece of work for you in¬stead?”

“Ah, the swindling begins.” He shook his head. “What will you whee¬dle out of me next? No. I'm not so vain as to fancy a picture of myself, especially one painted by a charlatan.”

I bridled at this, Reader. But I let it pass.

“No, no, of course. Though you'd make a fine subject,” I hastened to reply. “But I find the woodcut that adorns your masthead a little . . . clumsy.”

“The coastline, with the islands in the harbor? What's wrong with it?”

Good. I had hit upon a sore subject, and right he was to worry about it, for the man's masthead was monstrous.

“If you'll excuse my saying so, Edes, it looks more like a spinster's stockings drooping from a clothesline. Who the deuce carved it for you?”

“A fellow by the name of Revere. Lives in the North End. Charges a fortune.”

“The silversmith? If I were you, Edes, I might let the man crimp my spoons, but I wouldn't let him near my newspaper.”

He looked half convinced of this much already. I pressed on. “I prom¬ise you, I could make you a glorious masthead... better, finer, truer to your noble political sentiments. The masthead your virtuous paper de¬serves.”

“Flattery and a debtor's promises I don't need, but if you get this mas¬terpiece to me in a week's time, we'll call it even. Except, if it's shite, Jameson, I'll be wanting two quid.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, and shook my head, my thoughts turning, for a moment, upon the swiftness with which I, who was once the toast of London, have been reduced to sign- painter and woodcut carver. Am I next to take up painting houses?

“It won't be shite, Edes,” I assured him, and sincerely. Reader, pray, believe me: I am many things, but I am no charlatan.

Only as we shook hands to seal the deal did I notice that the printer still looked troubled.

“I've got more bad news for you, Jameson.”

My heart sank.

“What? Will you publish my ruin regardless? Dear God, man. Please...”

If he were to warn his countrymen about my debts, I could hardly conduct my business here. And where to next? Reader, know this: I will not board another boat.

“A waste of ink, if you ask me,” Edes answered. “But the Courant's printer has sent out a notice asking American pressmen to publish your escape ad.”

I could scarce hide my astonishment.

“Impossible,” I stammered. “Why hunt me here? How could my creditors think to recover their money at so great a distance?”

Edes shrugged. “Impossible, no. But unusual, I grant you. It seems these McGreevys will cover the cost of printing.”

“Goddamn their greasy greedy paws,” I muttered.

Edes nodded-I fancied he shared my dim view of lenders-but then he demanded, “Tell me something, Jameson. Where is this black man, Fortune? Is he dangerous?”

I met his stare. “Surely you, above all men, realize: not everything you read in the paper is true.”

He raised an eyebrow, but pressed me no more.

“But I must know, Edes, I must know: Do you mean to publish my ruin, or not?”

He looked me over, as if he were a judge delivering a sentence from the bench. At last, he sighed.

“God knows there are enough debtors in this town already. One more can hardly spoil the barrel. No, I won't do it.”

Here, at last, is a piece of luck: I have happened upon a generous man.

“Thank you, Edes,” I said, with a solemn bow. “Though for your dis¬cretion, I know not how I can ever repay you, much less my creditors.”

His face grew puzzled.

“That's what I don't understand. Never have I seen a banker reach across the ocean to recover a debt, except in cases of staggering sums. Just how much do you owe?”

I groaned. “Two thousand quid.”

“Ah. A king's ransom, then. Nigh on a decade's earnings for you or me, I hazard. Still, 'tis a strange affair, a strange affair. What can these McGreevys do? I've made inquiries: they have no American agents. They can scarcely pursue you here. Twould cost more than it recovers.”

“Just so, Edes. Such is what I had supposed, which is why I crossed the ocean in the first place. But then: Why ask you to clutter your pages with a notice of my flight?”

The printer pursed his lips. “No banker would spend money for so lit¬tle prospect of a return. Seems to me someone else must have put them up to it. Someone who means to make sure you know you can never go back, lest they clap you in irons.”

I slammed a fist on the counter, near tipping a pot of ink.

“Zounds! I knew that much already!”

Edes put a hand on my shoulder.

“Steady, man.”

“Sorry, Edes,” I offered, as I righted the inkpot. “It's just-”

“I know,” he said, amiably. “Damn them and their greasy, greedy paws.”

“Exactly,” I smiled, calmed and buoyed by his kindness.

“But if you don't mind my asking, Jameson,” Edes continued, “who the devil hates you so much? What did you do, debauch the daughter of a Member of Parliament? Paint an unflattering portrait of some noble-man's prized mare?”

“No. Fucked the horse, painted the girl.” I winked, putting on my hat. “Very pretty horse. But that's a tail for another time. Just now, I've got a masthead to design.”

As I made to leave the shop, Edes called out to me.

“Listen, you horse- buggerer. I like you, but I've been wrong about people before. I won't print the ad-for now. But I warn you, if you turn out a blackguard, I'll make sure every man, woman, and child in this town knows it.”

Suffice to say: I am trapped, dear Reader, even in my exile. Trapped in a town near as strapped as I am.

All over Boston, there is but a single subject of conversation: the tyranny of taxation. Far and wide, 'tis agreed that Samuel Bradstreet, the Speaker of the Assembly, argues eloquent. “The Torch of Liberty,” or so he's dubbed. And here's his nub: How can the King ask the colonists to pay in taxes for a war they have already bought, and dear, with the blood of their sons? How can Parliament levy taxes against a people who have not a single representative in that body, so bloody far-three thousand miles of ocean-away?

“No taxation without representation!” Bradstreet hollers. Tis an apt slogan, mind, but a trifle obscure. A little too Latinate, is it not? Were I to meet this Bradstreet, I might suggest sending Parliament a starker message: Pay your own goddamned debts.

Aye, and I would pay mine. If I could, Reader. If I could.

Liberty is property, these colonials say, and property, liberty. Tis a truth a debtor knows better than most. But their argument does not end there. Alas, they do go on. And on. Just this morning I read a speech in Edes's Gazette wherein one Hiram Usher, a member of the Governor's Council, writes, “If taxes are charged upon us without representation, are we not reduced from free men to slaves?” Reader, a reminder: the flourishing portion of this colony's economy is the traffic in Africans. Might you and I not agree, then, that these patriots look one way and row another, as the saying goes? Ably do they see the shackles Parliament fastens about them, but to the fetters they clasp upon others, they are strangely blind.

Truly, I sympathize with the distractions of the day. I do. But I would rather these colonials find within their Politics some room for Art, and have their likenesses taken and-while I'm wishing-paid for in hard coin. For in my view, no people can be truly free who would not see themselves clear.

Happily, today marks a beginning to my business, of sorts. This morning, as I sat in the sunlight of my comfortable kitchen, its windows opening onto the dawn quiet of Queen Street, so unlike the relentless commotion of Edinburgh's Great-how much greater!-Queen Street, there came, before the breakfast was cleared, a knock at the front door, and Gulliver's answering yelp.

Mrs. Goddard shambled to the hall, and returned to grumble, “Mas¬ter, there's a boy 'ere, wishing to speak with you, sir.”

Letter II.

July the 2nd, 1764

To my dearest and only friend,

I have done it, Lizzie! I write from a proper table, with my own quill and ink, having practiced the arts of deception well enough to ensconce myself-my new self-in the attic garret of this trim brick house on Queen Street. Tis a modest enough place, yet as di_erent from my last abode as a portrait by Joshua Reynolds is from a Cheap-side print.

“Francis Weston, sir, pursuant to your notice in the Gazette,” I said to Mr. Jameson.

I promise you that my heart pounded loudly enough for you to hear it in New York, drowned out only by my faltering voice, crack¬ing like the shaky tenor of a sixteen- year- old boy, which is precisely what told him I was. Then I asked him to train his painter's eye upon my drawings.

mmm

his lad, and a slip of a one, stands no taller than my chin. He's a filthy thing, more like a chimney sweep than a painter's appren-tice-thin enough to slide down any flue. He reeked of lye and wood smoke. A poor boy, meager and pale, with a much- bitten, crusty scalp, all but shaved. A desperate boy, as I could see in his brown eyes, shuttered with lashes long-haunting eyes, weary beyond measure. He wore clothes that would have fit two of him: loose trousers secured with a rope, and a moth- eaten jacket I took to be his father's. He held in one hand a cap and in the other a wool satchel, stitched together with cot¬ton, a handiwork I noted as he placed the thing on the table, after we crossed the hall to the parlor.

He opened the bag. Why must I see his sketches? I need a lad of promise, one who will do my bidding, not one who pretends to Art. What matter his dreary drawings? Might I not be spared the clumsy courtesy of false praise? “Aye, what a fine eye for line, you have, Weston” (for that is the lad's name). “My, what an astonishing likeness of your sainted mother.”

But. But. As he opened the bag, with his small, roughened hands, out came half a dozen likenesses, such as Hogarth himself might have made. Sweet Jesus. Charcoal on coarse paper. But the faces: young girls, rosy but knowing, and old men, wistful, and more than one of the same polished young gentleman, smiling with a kind of Lovelacian lovelessness that I cannot even describe. Surpassing work. My head near reeled at the sight, and I had to struggle to hide my joy. That I must have him, I know. But it will require a patch of deceit to secure him, for Reader, as you by now know all too well, I have aught to pay him, and not a sitter in sight.

mmm

This Jameson is no Tobias Cummings, Lizzie. Of that I am sure, though it may be for worse as well as better. He is older, for one-I'd guess thirty, though you, a keener judge of men than I, might give him a year or two less. His form is well proportioned, for he stands just over six foot, and weighs, I would hazard, near thirteen stone: neither lean nor stout; long- limbed, but not lanky. From his size alone you would picture him imposing. And 'tis true, he is too big for his small rooms. Yet he moves with an unstudied grace, a natural man and no courtier.

Neither is he a man of fashion. His linens-for he met me in his shirt¬sleeves, in the artist's manner-are of a fine weave, far better than any¬thing I worked in my late, doleful employments. But they shine with wear, and have been mended often, and not subtly, perhaps even by a man's un¬skilled hand. His lace, intricate Irish lace, has grown tatty and brown with age, which gave me to suspect he had been wealthy, and not very long ago. He speaks with a thick Scottish burr, the deep round timbre of the cello. With every word, his voice betrays a mix of kindness and caution.

He greeted me without a wig. His hair, no longer than the nape of his neck, falls in waves dark as pitch; his eyes are the blue of melancholy, creased with care and not a little laughter. Of how those eyes see, and the Art they trigger his hands to produce, I can tell you nothing. For I saw none of the work he described in his advertisement, and no more than a glimpse of the painting room, on the house's second story, just above the kitchen. Nor is it a master's place, I suppose, to captivate his ap¬prentice. Of my own artistry he seemed quite skeptical. I have long since sworn off guessing what lies in the black hearts of even the best of men. But I suppose my work left him cold.

mmm

ou know nothing of composition, to be sure, lad,” I said, frowning. “And your notion of perspective is no better than a schoolgirl's.” His face fell. Mine brightened. Of his prodigious talent, he seems to have no idea at all. So much the better. “Still,” I added, as if mulling it over, “I may be able to use such a one as you, young Weston.” “Thank you, sir,” he said, looking toward the floor, but not before I could see that his eyes had grown moist. I would not have a prima donna, but neither do I need slavish gratitude. I hastened to turn our con¬versation to the business of the matter.

“But why have you come alone, lad?” I asked. “Where is your father?”

“My father?”

“Aye, of course, your father. I will need to speak with him.”

“I am an orphan, sir,” he answered, quietly. “I have none to answer for me, but, please, sir, I will work hard.”

“Holy Moses in the bullrushes!” I blustered, though I was scarcely surprised to learn that a waif such as this had not a penny in his pocket. “Then who will pay me to take you on, young snipe? Am I to apply to the Overseers of the Poor?”

“No, sir. I have charge of myself,” he said, biting his lip and clutch¬ing his satchel ever tighter. “I have no money, but I can earn my keep; I promise you, I am no stranger to a long day's labor.”

“A blind man can see that, my lad. Your hands,” said I, taking hold of them, “are coarser than a grinding stone.”

He pulled away, as if my touch were a vile thing. What he has en¬dured on the streets of this city, I had rather not ponder.

“Well, you shall have a place here,” I declared, turning my face from him, unable to stifle a sigh at the sorrow of those calloused hands, and the tale they told. “Your pay will be your lodging, and mine will be your labor.”

“Sir, you won't regret it, sir-”

I turned back to him, my tone now stern and swift.

“Enough. I have my own business this morning.” Among other

things, I will have to draw up papers, and buy this poor lad some clothes.

“Come back this afternoon, that we may agree to terms.” With that, I led him to the door, and shut it behind him. Astonished Reader, who could have thought, in this town on the edge

of the world, to find such raw genius? Mastering this apprentice will be a delicate task. But by my hand, and his, I might yet be saved from debtor's prison. And one day, one day, I may even find my Fortune, and end this exile.

ARTICLES OF AGREEMENT indented and agreed upon the second day of July in the fifth year of the Reign of His Majesty King George the Third and in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and sixty- four, between Stewart Jameson late of Edinburgh on the one part, and Francis Weston of the Town of Boston on the other part.

The said Stewart Jameson doth bereby covenant, promise, and agree to teach and instruct the said Francis Weston in the Arts and Mystery of Painting in general and particularly in the several Meth¬ods of grinding colors, mixing oils, and painting faces according to the best and utmost of his skill and knowledge, and likewise to pro¬vide for his said Apprentice Meat, Drink, Washing, Lodging, and Apparel during the term of five years.

The said Francis Weston doth hereby covenant, promise, and agree to and with the said Stewart Jameson that he shall well and diligently perform and execute all his lawful and reasonable com¬mands and orders and behave himself toward the said Stewart Jame¬son in all things faithfully and diligently, these duties to include keeping accounts, mixing paints, and other tasks befitting an ap¬prentice, and shall not nor will at any time or times during the said Term absent himself or depart from the business of the said Stewart Jameson nor shall embezzle, purloin, waste, spoil, make away with, lose, or unlawfully keep or detain any of the Money, Books, Manu¬scripts, Papers, Paints, Powders, Oils, Spirits, Brushes, Canvases, Goods, Effects, or Things belonging to any Person or Persons whomsoever without the consent of the said Stewart Jameson. The said Francis Weston further agrees that at cards, dice, or any unlaw¬ful games he shall not play, taverns or alehouses he shall not haunt or frequent, fornication he shall not commit, and matrimony he shall not contract.

And the said Stewart Jameson will at his own proper cost and charges provide for and allow to the said Francis Weston competent and sufficient clothing, apparel, and washing and also necessary and proper physic, remedies, medicines, and advice of Physician, Sur¬geon, and apothecary in case of sickness or accidents happening to the said Francis Weston and also during the time of such sickness or his recovery from accidents good and sufficient Meat, Drink, and Lodging.

In Witness whereof the said Parties to these presents have here¬unto set their hands and seals the day and year first above written.

Sealed in the presence of

STEWART JAMESON FRANCIS WESTON BENJAMIN EDES ENOCH GODDARD By his Mark X

From the BOSTON GAZETTE, Thursday, July 5, 1764.

B O S T O N.

n Tuesday, near threescore of the leading merchants of this town pledged their honor and their fortunes to a boycott of all goods imported from England-though some of our most East ward- facing factors have yet to sense the wisdom of this course.

On Thursday next, the Assembly will discuss the penury to which this colony will be reduced under Parliament's Currency Act. The said Act, which takes effect on the eighth of October, forbids His Majesty's colonies in America from issuing paper money, and requires the payment of all taxes, including the tax on Sugar, and the rumored Stamp Tax, in hard coin. On a motion from the Floor, members of the Assembly are also expected to vote their endorsement of the Petition to the King drafted by Samuel Bradstreet, Esquire, viz.:

The Rights of the British Colonies Demonstrated, in Op¬position to the Tyranny of Taxation without Representa¬tion.

N.B. Mr. Bradstreet's statement will be sold at B. T. Edes's shop, printed, stitched, and bound, for five shillings. By way of inducements to purchasers, an ex¬cerpt is offered, below:

The liberties of freeborn Englishmen are spoken of as their best birthrights. But can there be any liberty where prop¬erty is taken away without consent? Can it with any color of truth, justice, or equity be affirmed that the colonies are represented in Parliament? Has this whole continent of near three thousand miles in length the election of one Member of the House of Commons?

The imposition of taxes in the colonies is absolutely ir¬reconcilable with the rights of the colonists as British sub¬jects and as men. I say as men, for in a state of nature no man can take my property from me without my consent: if he does, he deprives me of my liberty and makes me a slave.

We all think ourselves happy under Great Britain. We love, esteem, and reverence our Mother Country, and adore our King. And could the choice of independency be of¬fered the colonies or subjection to Great Britain upon any terms above absolute slavery, I am convinced they would accept the latter. British America will never prove un ¬dutiful till driven to it as the last fatal resort against an oppression that will make the weakest strong and the wis¬est mad.

Letter III.

July the 12th, 1764

Elizabeth, kind- hearted friend,

Your letter arrived today, a fact no less remarkable for having been so earnestly wished. Mr. Jameson seemed at once bemused and flum¬moxed when he handed me the envelope.

“Weston!” he boomed from the parlor. “Come at once!” (This, his favorite phrase.) I found him just sitting down to a game of cards with the printer, Edes, who has become his fast friend, regularly lending him papers from all over the colonies, for my master has an insatiable thirst for news. Jameson's great slobbering beast, Gulliver, slept at his feet.

“Mr. Edes brings a letter from New York, addressed to you in my care, written on good paper, and in a fine hand. A feminine hand, un¬less my painter's eye deceives me, lad, as I can assure you it never does, not for a moment.”

I recognized your red seal at once, dearest Lizzie, and made to grab the envelope. But Jameson pulled it back and pressed it to his chest.

“A rich admirer from the nether ports, is it?” he mocked. “There are deep harbors there, I hear,” he said, winking at Edes. “You're a sly one, Weston. I'm glad to see you've gained a few pounds since you crawled to my door, lad, but I still wouldn't have guessed you had the stu_ng, nor the starch, to brave a courtship.”

So you are become my inamorata! Tis a good thing an apprentice is expected to lower his gaze, for had I stared at my crude leather shoes for even a moment less, I must have been caught smiling. I tell you, Lizzie, my master barely looks at me. Have you ever noticed how little you regard your own servants? If I were to ask you, could you tell me the color of your dressing- maid's eyes?

Only when I brought your letter up to my garret to read did I fully realize my good fortune in finding you still ensconced in the comfort¬able home of your father. Had you married, or moved, he might well have read my letter, and learned my secrets. Your father is a good man, Lizzie. But Nicholas Partridge must still trade news with Edward Eas¬ton. And oh, I cannot lose this place! I have written myself a new be¬ginning, and I lack the mettle to conjure yet another. Death on the streets awaits me if I am thrown from this house.

You cannot compass such risks, I know. Yet how pained you sound at your own plight. A spinster aunt, you dare to call yourself at barely one- and- twenty. Can you truly deem it ill luck to dwell secure, 'neath that kind man's wise governance, under the name he gave you at birth, in possession of both your porcelain skin and your maidenhead, Eliz¬abeth?

“Still,” you call your life. Do you rue that stillness, or savor it? Your reaction to my own strange circumstances leaves me unsure what your heart speaks. For you seem at once to chide and to envy me. I am amazed to hear from you the tale my father passed to yours to account for my long absence from Hanover Street. A distant aunt with a mys¬terious ailment, a tour of Roman antiquities, years spent holding that old woman's papery hand while contemplating the fate of ruined re¬publics: Lizzie, this is the stu_ of novels. I speak to you of life.

The mechanics of my disguise excite your curiosity. Were I to serve your tea, in your very own parlor, you would not recognize me. In¬deed, when first I passed before the looking glass in Jameson's paint¬ing room-the first mirror I have seen in three years-I scarcely knew myself. I will never be much of a man, Lizzie, but I make a convincing boy. I was but a skinny girl when you knew me, nor, as the years passed, did I ever grow into a figure worthy of Rubens, not even when I was with child. After that, hunger made me narrower still, a subject more fit for El Greco. No, there is little enough of womanliness left in me, except for my breasts, which would betray me if I did not bind them. I wrap them, tightly, with strips of linen, before I dress in the outfit my master has bought for me: oznabrig trousers; a muslin shirt, clean if rough; a coarse waistcoat; and a woolen topcoat. Clothes for laboring, not for sitting still.

Mr. Jameson keeps me hard at work, day and night, doing every¬thing expected of an apprentice, and much else besides. Dash it, Lizzie, no sooner had he secured my labor than he turned out the couple who served this house, an ill- kempt matron by the name of Goddard and her drunken husband. (His close scrutiny I feared, I must tell you.) Of his decision to dismiss them, Jameson gave them little notice and me less account.

“Cut your coat according to your cloth, lad,” was his only answer to my inquiry. By which I take him to mean that a painter who has yet to secure a commission, nor pay this month's rent, can scarcely a_ord a sta_ of three. Tis among my duties to reckon his accounts, hacking my way through the thickets of bookkeeping with as little skill as I once brought to my needlework. But I know the value of naught.

There is art enough in keeping this household afloat, but whether great Art and its attendant rewards will ever emerge from his paint¬ing room I cannot say. This much I have discovered: in the attic stor¬age room, opposite my garret chamber, a stash of a dozen canvases, wrapped, rolled, and tied. While my master slept, I unfurled a few, by candlelight, and gazed upon portraits of a quality I have never seen: lush, vibrant, penetrating, altogether animated. Why has a man of such talent landed here, of all places, so impoverished and alone? No wife, unless he has left one, no money unless he hides it better than his paintings. Is he a scoundrel?

Whatever manner of man is my master, I am not merely his ap¬prentice, jacketed even in shirtsleeve weather, the better to disguise my true form, but a three- headed monster: painter, cook, and serving boy in one pretended body. Mrs. Goddard still comes, three days a week, to do the laundry, bake the bread, butcher the meat, lard the pantry, mend the linens, sweep the hearths, scour the floors, and fill the wood¬box. Or such is what she's paid to do. But she performs her chores in¬di_erently, and the work piles up. Jameson must have his fires tended and his meals served, his colors ground and mixed and his canvases stretched, his brushes sorted and his leads sharpened.

And of course, we need water. A hundred times a day, it seems, I run to the cistern in the yard to fetch it. Three flights down from my garret to the well, and then into the kitchen with two heavy pails full, and then up one more story to bring a pitcher to Jameson's bed¬chamber in time for the master's toilet, then back down for another jug to boil the sizing that primes our canvases. Sometimes I think my arms will break beneath the weight of it-though I can ill a_ord to show the weakness of our sex.

I am fortunate that Mr. Jameson is not especially demanding about either his housekeeping or his meals. But if he slights his palate, he could not be more particular about his palette. In the painting room he becomes a grand stage master, giving directions with great exact¬ness. The easel shall be so far from the window and no farther, set at a slant to catch the light, and moved every hour like the shadow on a sundial. His brushes must be arranged, always, in the same order, thickest to finest, and sti_est to softest within those gradations. The table next the easel must always have a jug of water, a flask of turpen¬tine, a dry rag, and a moist one, but not too wet.

“Weston, there are three laws by which I govern my realm,” he says, spreading his long arms wide to trace the limits of a domain not twelve feet by twenty. “One, never work in this room but that you crack the window, even in the deepest cold, lest we expire from the fumes. Two, always keep a wet blanket by the fire, for I will not have you burn Ayers's house down.”

And then, silence.

“But you said there were three laws, sir,” I said, making a show of counting his edicts upon my fingers.

“Dammit, lad. I am an artist, not a keeper of accounts. Two rules then. Now put your nose back to the grindstone.”

And this is not merely one of Jameson's many proverbs, for truly, I am chained to the grindstone, as surely as any mill- horse. Hour upon hour, you would find me with a stone muller in my hand, mashing chunks of pigment into mineral oil. So finely must the powders be ground-about this, too, he is most particular-that I can work no more than a couple of teaspoons at a time.

“Too coarse!” he has told me, more than once, after smearing my paint upon glass to test it before the window. “Back to the grind¬stone, lad.”

But toil is not enough to keep my hard- won place here. I must find my master some custom, and fast, for plainly he chafes at idleness. He tries to busy himself with the newspapers Edes brings him, from all around these colonies: another expense. Will reading pay the rent? While he pores over paper, I traverse the town on his errands, walking from the Neck to the hills, across the Common, along the ropewalks, anywhere I choose, unknown even by those who once knew me.

My reward for this service is a city I daresay you have never seen, much less heard, a noonday world of hawkers and servants and slaves, their jibs and ahoys composing an intricate fugue. Safe in my disguise, I delight in the hurly- burly of it all, wending my way through the streets, in and out of shops and taverns and co_eehouses, through the markets and down to the docks and no one, not a soul, stares. What joy to be invisible! If I am little better than Jameson's slave, never, never, dear Elizabeth, have I known such liberty.

Is this freedom worth the price I paid for it? We were not bred for independence, you and I, shut away in our father's drawing rooms till we could be handed o_ to the bed- chambers of our husbands. Long ago, I fled that Algerine purdah, all anger and hurt and heedless pride. My father could not believe I would refuse Tobias.

“I will not be that man's wife,” I told him.

“Then you will have to find a position in a family, someplace far from here,” he insisted.

“I would rather be a whore than a governess,” I told him, full reck¬less.

“You are halfway there already, Fanny, are you not?” he sneered. “The weather is fine, but let us see if you feel the same way when the cold sets in. There lies the door, and I shall not bar you from it. But remember: it swings only one way.”

I did not leave then. But when I did, I fell so far and so fast that I can never turn back. Nor would I want to. Do you think me liberty-mad, Lizzie? That disease infects this whole town, if you believe what my father writes in Edes's paper, where he calls himself the Mast of Fi¬delity, though his authorship is an open secret. And even were it bet¬ter concealed, I should recognize his voice clearly enough.

“Fanny,” he told me, the night I at last packed my bag, “if you leave, I shall not welcome you back, for you will have dishonored your fa¬ther. Do you know, this colony once hanged violators of the Fifth Commandment, as the Bible demands? We live in more enlightened times. But I will not shelter a rebel. I am the governor of this house, and I will accept no less than your entire deference to my authority. I give as much to my King, who rules this great empire as surely as the Almighty rules over us all.”

I suppose I did dishonor my father, my God, and my King, Lizzie. I fled. But I have found shelter, and I mean to earn my keep here.

“What price does Boston place upon genius, Weston?” my master asked me.

“I have heard it said that the late Mr. Smibert-”

“Who the deuce is this Smibert?”

“A renowned face- painter, sir. From Scotland. You must have heard of him.”

“John Smibert? Renowned? Aye, he was an Edinburgh man, Weston, though no genius, from aught I've seen of his work.”

“Well, he commanded quite a price here, sir. Fifty pounds for a half- length, I believe. In your situation, sir, being new to these parts, might you... consider asking twenty- five?”

“I remind you,” he thundered, for he is given to sudden outbursts of temper, “you are not in my situation, but rather in my employ. You might try governing your tongue accordingly.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Twenty- five quid, my arse,” he muttered to himself as I left the room. “What am I, half a Smibert? A shitten Smib?”

Nonetheless, his notice in the Gazette now sets his price per sitter at twenty- five pounds, hard coin. Alas, it has hardly increased the tra_c to Queen Street. So he sends me to drum up trade. In my little sack I carry his letters of introduction, to deliver to our most eminent fam¬ilies, households whose daughters were once our schoolmates and whose sons would fain have been our beaux, families with enough van¬ity coursing through their papered hallways to want portraits for the ages, so long as they may be paid for with paper money.

Two days ago Mr. Jameson asked me to convey a letter to the Ushers' house on Hanover. Yes, Lizzie, just across the street from Father's. I could think of nothing, almost nothing, that I wanted less than for Francis Weston to stride past Fanny Easton's parlor window. But how could I re¬fuse?

Where once I was admitted to the best parlor, I was directed be¬lowstairs, and just as well. Had I entered by the hall, I might have run into the fair Miss Margaret Usher. And she might have developed eyes for more than her buttons and beaux, and spy something familiar about me. Instead, I explained my purpose to a soot- black footman tricked out in red livery. Pompey pro_ered a silver tray, and invited me to leave my master's card to await his master's eyes. I endured his cold gaze. For he gave me to understand there may be a commission in it: Usher's loutish elder son-I know you will remember Mordecai, with his Roman nose and roaming hands-has put aside thoughts of the ministry, and means to set himself up as an East India merchant. This change of costume, if not of morals, he means to celebrate with a pic¬ture, made with paints, ground to dust, by the tired hands of this,

Fanny Easton.

From the BOSTON GAZETTE, Monday, July 16, 1764.

As readers of this paper may be curious about the Gazette's new masthead, the printer takes this occasion to compli¬ment the engraver's bold depiction of an eagle, broken free of her cage and soaring over Boston, a fitting celebration of this town's struggle for liberty.

-B. T. Edes.

B O S T O N.

To the Editor:

When I read in your pages of the speeches of the Torch of Liberty, I know not whether to laugh or to cry, sir. Does this flickering candle mean for us to disobey Parliament, and refuse to pay our taxes? Are we next to cast off the bonds of empire, and rule ourselves? Britain is our affectionate parent, to whom we owe every tender regard, and everlasting gratitude for our prosperity and protection. Will the overzealous passion for liberty com¬pel children to question the word of their fathers? To gainsay legislative authority is to upturn the rule of law and to sap the very foundation of our government, whose sovereignty rests with the King in Parliament. Democracy can lead only to tyranny, disorder, and anarchy. We must render to our rulers their dues, and our duties. We must give tribute, to whom tribute is due; custom, to whom custom; fear, to whom fear; honor, to whom honor. The Almighty has ordained our beloved King, whose minis¬ters may thus be properly styled the ministers of God. We owe them reverence, deference, and submission. In short, it falls to us to pay some price for the sweetness in our lives, and to pay it in hard coin. This, sir, is nothing more than the cost of our English liberties.

-The Mast of Fidelity.

From the RICHMOND EXAMINER, Thursday, June 28, 1764.

AN away about the 20th of this month, from the Hon. Charles Woodward, Esquire, of Williamsburg, a very black Negroe Man named FOR¬TUNE, of a middle Stature, about five- and- twenty years of age; has been well whipped, which his Back will show. Speaks very good English, and a little French and Spanish. He is a cunning, subtle Fellow, and pretends to be a Doctor; he can read and write, and probably has got a Pass forged. He went away with Irons on his Legs, a Kersey Waistcoat, and a Cotton Pair of Breeches, laced on the Sides for Conveniency of putting them on over his Irons; he has robbed me, in Cash, Household Linen, and other Goods to a considerable Value. This being the second Trip he has made since I bought him, not three weeks ago, he is branded with an R on his right hand. I desire he may receive such Correction as the Law directs. And I take this Opportunity to give public Notice, That I shall always be willing to reward any Person, accord¬ing to his Trouble, that shall take up and bring home any Negroe belonging to me found abroad. Whoever apprehends and returns said Fortune shall have Ten Pounds Virginia Currency to be paid as a Reward, by

-CHARLES WOODWARD, ESQUIRE

N.B. It is strongly suspected that the said Negroe has gone out in the William & Mary, Capt. Peter Dirk, Commander, bound for Philadelphia. If he is found at so great a distance, the Reward for his return, above, will be doubled. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. In her letters to her childhood friend Elizabeth, Fanny Easton bemoans the limits placed upon female education and ambition. What constraints shaped Fanny's life as a woman, and to what extent did she successfully escape them by posing as Francis Weston? How different were the expectations governing American women's lives in the eighteenth century? What could Jameson do that Fanny couldn't?

2. How do the people in Blindspot view the profession of the portrait-painter? Is Jameson an artist or an artisan? What kinds of connections do the authors draw between Jameson's paintings and the patriot politics of the Friends of Liberty? Is Jameson's art itself revolutionary?

3. Jameson's longtime friend, Ignatius Alexander, confronts Blindspot's narrators and readers with the paradox of slavery in the land that cried for liberty, a paradox well recognized in the 1760s. How well do Jamie and Fanny understand Sander's world, and his vision? What are their blind spots? Why do you think the authors chose to tell Sander's story through Jamie's and Fanny's voices, and why does the doctor resist telling his own story?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Dear Reader,

We're history professors, and one of the things we most love about our work is solving the puzzles of the past by reading very old documents: newspapers, diaries, court records, even love letters. Our novel, Blindspot, gives readers the chance to be historians, too. Set in Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, Blindspot interleaves real documents, like clippings from the Boston Gazette, with fictional ones: the memoirs of Stewart Jameson, a Scottish portrait painter escaped from debtor's prison; and the letters of Fanny Easton, a fallen woman who disguises herself as a boy to become Jameson's apprentice. A history of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary time, Blindspot's also an affectionate send-up of eighteenth-century fiction, mixing the romping, bawdy, pre-modern sensibility of Jonathan Swift and Benjamin Franklin with the modern passion for the past that inspires readers of A.S. Byatt, E. L. Doctorow, and Jeanette Winterson.

Working together on Blindspot made us laugh, sometimes made us cry, and even made us blush. We hope it reaches you that way, too.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Blindspot: A Novel"by dhanchett1812 (see profile) 06/23/15

The story moved slowly and I was unable to stay with it to the end.

 
by mariesusanne (see profile) 06/23/15

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