Part of the narrative: who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
One of my favorite things in the world is history and narrative rewritten or re-imagined to explore the roles of (previously) marginalized groups. If that seems like a nerdy favorite thing, well, so be it. Earlier this week I wrote nearly 2,000 words on some favorite cultural artifacts, and I’ve been known to geek out over a diverse range of subjects on a regular basis, so the nerd bridge has probably been irrevocably crossed anyway.
That said, please allow me to expand on my love of Hamilton (not so briefly touched on in my previous post). But in order to keep things manageable, let’s focus on the other Hamilton: Eliza (née Schuyler). Now, know that I’m no historian. I minored in American Studies and had to read a whole bunch of the Federalist Papers, but that’s about as far as my knowledge of Hamiltonia goes – or I should say, went, as since my obsession with this musical, I’ve done a whole bunch of Wikipedia-ing. Still, this discussion of Eliza Hamilton does not aim for historical accuracy, but is a reflection on the Eliza of the Broadway show which is, if not re-imagined history, then at least restructured, re-focused, re-told.
If you read my previous post, and you’re familiar with the show, you might have noticed that the songs that hit me straight in the feelings the most are nearly all Eliza’s. In addition to her kindness, for which she’s highly praised by her sister Angelica, Eliza’s character is most clearly defined by her relation to “the narrative.” Throughout the second act, she sings she wants to be “part of the narrative,” she takes “herself out of the narrative,” and she “put herself back in the narrative.”
Which narrative? Naturally, the narrative we all think of is that of Hamilton – and Hamilton, in relation to the beginnings of the United States. Hamilton’s narrative, the show posits, has been the weakest of the Founding Fathers. He died at a time of relative infamy, the youngest Founding Father to have been and to have died. His political opponents came to power after his death, and thus they – Jefferson, Madison – are bigger household names (at his alma mater, The College of William and Mary, Jefferson is lovingly referred to as T.J. by teenagers). Where Alexander Hamilton’s desire for a legacy (empty in the end: “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see”) drives him to create his own narrative in symbiosis with that of the new nation, Eliza starts by aspiring to allowed to play some part in the greater story (perhaps somewhat in contrast to her outspoken sister’s response to the Declaration of Independence: ” ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident / That all men are created equal’ / And when I meet Thomas Jefferson / I’m’a compel him to include women in the sequel”). Whether she hopes for a part in Hamilton’s narrative, or in that of the founding of the United States, like her sister, never quite becomes clear.
For a great part of the show, Eliza Hamilton resembles Cotton Mather’s “hidden ones”: a good wife who supported her husband – the type of woman that inspired Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous quote “well-behaved women seldom make history.” This is evident from Eliza’s first reference to “the narrative,” when Alexander is sent home by Washington and discovers her to be pregnant with their first child:
“Oh, let me be a part of the narrative / in the story they will write someday / Let this moment be the first chapter”
She is in the margin of the narrative, asking to be let in, hoping that will “be enough.”
As we discover at the same time Eliza discovers her husband’s affair with Maria Reynolds, however, the “hidden women” in the margins can use those margins for their own purposes, to rewrite the narrative – after all, who’s watching them? This is the moment where Eliza goes from making passive pleas (“let me be a part”) to agency. The heartbreaking “Burn”, which immediately follows “The Reynolds Pamphlet” (highlighting some of the more unsavory parts of the affair, bringing to the fore the depth of Hamilton’s betrayal of Eliza’s trust), starts with “I saved every letter you wrote me.” And, as we’ve been reminded throughout the show, Hamilton writes “like he’s running out of time,” everywhere and always. There must be a wealth of insight into his journey (and the legacy that he so desires) in her possession. And this is where Eliza’s only agency in this matter lies:
“I’m erasing myself from the narrative.
Let future historians wonder
how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.
You have torn it all apart.
I am watching it burn.
Watching it burn.
The world has no right to my heart.
The world has no place in our bed.
They don’t get to know what I said.
I’m burning the memories,
Burning the letters that might have redeemed
As Leslie Knope – to mix my pop culture references – would say: “Eliza, you beautiful rule-breaking moth!” This final part of the song implies that Eliza, on some level, knew that Hamilton did not mean harm, did not mean for anyone to get hurt, and perhaps had good intentions overall (the letters being that which might have redeemed him). She had, however, no choice in the matter whatsoever, and the only choice left to her (other than divorce) is to take away a large part of Hamilton’s personal narrative from the greater story by burning the letters. It also protects her and her feelings at the time, though of course it opens up much more possibility for speculation.
This speculation is exactly what makes Hamilton’s second act so strong. What was the fallout of Hamilton’s affair and its subsequent discovery? If the show is to be believed, it drove a wedge between himself and a loving, caring, intelligent wife and was indirectly responsible for the death of their son (killed in a duel defending his father’s honor). It seems beyond anyone’s faculties to recover from or, in the words of Angelica in the also-heartbreaking “It’s Quiet Uptown”, “unimaginable. The moments when you’re in so deep / it feels easier just to swim down.” In this song, we see a key role-reversal: where in Act I Eliza sings that if she’s allowed to be part of the narrative, “that would be enough,” now Alexander posits that having her hear him out, seeing her smile, being allowed to stay by her side, “that would be enough.” Finally, no one knows how it happens – there’s a “grace too powerful to name” – but “she takes his hand” and
Can you imagine?
If you see him in the street,
walking by her side,
talking by her side,
They are going through the unimaginable.
Through heartbreak and tragedy, Eliza has come out as an active participant in all narratives, Hamilton’s and her own. But what of his legacy?
In his death scene, Hamilton appears to give up on his ambition of leaving a legacy, as evidenced by the earlier quoted “what is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Eliza, however, did get to see that garden – and did not like what she saw. In the finale, the ensemble – including Hamilton’s killer Burr – wonder “when you’re gone, who remembers your name? Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?” The answer comes swiftly, softly, angelically: Eliza.
Eliza’s agency is now complete: “I put myself back in the narrative.” The song touches on some of the things Eliza, at times with Angelica, did to keep Hamilton’s memory and legacy alive: interview soldiers who served with him, make sense of the writings he left behind, raise funds for the Washington Monument, found the first private orphanage in New York City, but also do things that were in his spirit, like speak out against slavery. By working to create, support and maintain the story of Hamilton for fifty years after his death, she not only safeguarded the legacy he sought, but she became the narrative. The story of Hamilton and Eliza are inextricably linked – one could not exist without the other.
Is this history re-structured, re-focused, re-told? In the end, this show reminds us, there’s no such thing as history. What we are left with in the end is narrative. We are reminded we have no control over who tells this story, which seems in some opposition to Orwell’s “history is written by the winners.” Hamilton, after all, was one of the winners and another big winner – Washington – brings up our powerlessness over the narrative early on. Eliza, however, appears to have conquered the men’s apparent inability to control the narrative. Through love, faith, and hard work, she ensured Hamilton was not forgotten and, through this, became the mother of this fantastic show.