Love and Power in the Nineteenth Century: The Marriage of Violet Blair

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Love and Power in the Nineteenth Century: The Marriage of Violet Blair. By Virginia Jeans Laas. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1998. Pp. xiv, 169. Paper, $16.00, ISBN 1-55728-505-5; cloth, $32.00, ISBN 1-55728-506-3.)

In the space of a few pages Violet Blair (1848-1933) is described by her contemporaries and by the author as willful, vain, egotistical, confident, conceited, narcissistic, superior, arrogant, craving attention, cynical, imperious, cruel, and cold. Clearly this is no shrinking violet. To know Violet Blair Janin is not to love her or even to like her. While Laas respects Janin's passion for independence, many readers will find even respect hard to muster.

Laas paints a compelling portrait of the unfullfilling and unconventional marriage of Violet Blair and charming but hapless Albert Janin, drawing on the unusually rich deposits of Blair and Janin family papers that stretch from the Huntington Library in California to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Laas has mined these veins before with books on Elizabeth Blair Lee and Samuel Phillips Lee, but this is her best and most ambitious work on the extended Blair clan.

Laas also draws on recent scholarship from gender and women's studies and on Washington and elite history to provide a vivid, contextualized picture of Blair's courtship, her marriage, and her Washington. There is no better documented or more sensitive description of an urban belleship to be found. Equally good is Laas's insight into the importance of groups like the Colonial Dames for women like Violet Blair Janin, who understood that if their class was no longer preeminent, their own importance was diminished.

Janin's incredible arrogance regarding her blue Blair blood is both hilarious (she refers to her new neighbor, Henry Adams, the great-grandson and grandson of presidents, as one of the parvenus) and pathetic. Her generation had little to be puffed up about: her brother was a libertine and her sister was highly volatile. …

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