I suppose that every person in America who has completed high school knows who Benedict Arnold is. I mean he's only the most notorious traitor in history! I'm sure that I probably read in American History exactly what he did, but if you had asked me day before yesterday what it was, I'm ashamed to say I couldn't have told you. I love to read historical fiction, but for some reason or another, the Revolutionary War has never been a great interest to me. Maybe that's why this book appealed to me from the very start. I needed to learn something new, and this seemed a good place to start.
The Traitor's Wife is the story of Peggy Shippen, one of most beautiful, alluring belles in Philadelphia in the 1770s. She is a great favorite among the British soldiers who are stationed there, in particular of Major John Andre. She is spoiled, selfish and shallow, using her feminine wiles--and her temper tantrums--to always get her way. When the colonists advance and Major Andre, along with all of the other redcoats, have to depart Philadelphia, Peggy is heartbroken. A loyal Tory, she has nothing but ill words for "the tobacco planter" George Washington and "the cripple" Major General Benedict Arnold. When Peggy is introduced to Major General Arnold at a ball held in his home, she sets out to win him for herself. And so the treachery begins.
After their marriage "Benny" falls on hard times. The Continental Congress has never paid him the money they owe him from his fighting days in Canada. His political enemy, Joseph Reed, has blasted him to the public for his black market dealings, and now he must face a court martial. Crippled in both legs from previous battles, Arnold is unable to return to the battlefield to support his wife and growing family. He buys Peggy a beautiful home, but the mortgage is so large, he can't afford to furnish it. The Arnolds are forced to live in a cottage behind her parents house instead of their beautiful estate. Peggy, always on the lookout for a way to advance herself socially, convinces Arnold to betray George Washington and the colonies by passing on important information about the fort at West Point. Who will receive this information? None other that her old beau, Major John Andre, who is now that head of British Intelligence.
The story is told through the eyes of Clara Bell, Peggy's ladies' maid. She believes in the new country, and wants to do her part to protect it. She's just a simple servant girl. What can she do to thwart the plans of people as influential as the Arnolds?
Since this novel is based on actual historical events, there aren't many surprises. We all know what eventually happened and that Benedict Arnold escaped to the British. But the story is interesting in the questions that it raises. Is it possible that the beautiful Peggy Shippen Arnold was more than just a traitor's wife? Was she indeed the true traitor? What if she was instrumental in her husband's downfall? Ms. Pataki has woven the details of this book so well, that it's hard to tell where the history ends and the fiction begins. I was mesmerized by this story from beginning to end.
It's so easy to look at Benedict Arnold in a harsh light because of what he did, but this author paints him in a new light. What if he truly was a kind man, fair to friends and servants alike, and was just drawn in by his wife's greed and lust for power? Is it possible that his disillusionment with George Washington and the Continental Congress grew so great that he was permitted by his conscience to perform one of the most treacherous acts of all time and betray his own countrymen for money? I sure don't know that answer to these questions, but I can honestly say that I will never look at Benedict Arnold the same again.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good suspense story, or historical fiction. It's a good read from beginning to end.