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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Switching a Monument From One Pedestal to Another : DOLLEY / A Novel of Dolley Madison in Love and War by Rita Mae Brown ; Bantam $22.95, 400 pages

July 13, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Not all the soldiers were in Vietnam," Rita Mae Brown writes of Lady Bird Johnson in the intriguing dedication to her latest novel, "Dolley." "This one was in the White House."

So, from the very beginning of Brown's novel, we are alert to the notion that Dolley Madison stands for something more than the single enduring anecdote about the First Lady who saved a painting of George Washington when the British burned the capital in the War of 1812.

And, indeed, Dolley is presented as a woman of courage and conscience who strikes us as not merely saintlike but sometimes seems rather too good to be true.

"I think of those women widowed by this war," Dolley writes in her journal. "I pity them and pray for them and ask God why women must suffer so for the deeds of men."

"Dolley" is a user-friendly and politically correct historical novel--Brown provides us with an extended dramatis personae, various chatty entries from Dolley Madison's imagined diary, and frequent bursts of dialogue in which famous historical personages make small talk that doubles as both exposition and commentary, all of it quite contemporary in tone and content.

"I am fascinated with what we are doing here, whether we speak Spanish, Portuguese, English or French," says Dolley Madison to a French diplomat's wife, thus making plain what Brown portrays as Dolley's high-minded multiculturalism. "That's why the war is so critical. . . . The New World must be left alone."

We meet Dolley as a young woman in a Quaker family in the heat of the American Revolution--Dolley sees her mother stand up to a British patrol, thus prefiguring Dolley's own future heroism against the same enemy: "Look what thou hast done to the floor!" Dolley's mother scolds the sword-waving officer who has ridden his horse into the front hall.

And, in fact, "Dolley" is offered up as the praise-song of a charming, canny and courageous woman who is intended to win our respect and affection. Dolley Madison, as Brown imagines her, is a woman who loves to shoot dice in the privacy of her bedchamber--but who is no less adept at "the mechanics of democracy" in the convoluted and overheated corridors of power in early 19th-Century America.

"Little escapes you, Mrs. Madison," Henry Clay is made to say. "You use what you learn to protect your husband and because you love your country."

We can see all the tool marks of Brown's research. She pauses to make her characters comment on the public outcry over climbing postal rates, for example, and the fashion toward plunging necklines: "The latest fashion in Europe is a slightly lower-cut bodice than what we are currently wearing," Dolley confides to her journal. "Any lower and we'll be nude!"

Brown has set herself the task of gently correcting our comfortable assumptions about American history. Black men and women, for example, are no longer invisible in American history as Brown tells it, and Dolley pointedly uses the word servant to refer to someone whom Brown bluntly identifies as a slave.

In fact, there's an extended subplot that focuses on a woman named Sukey, "a dusky Venus" whose love affair with a Russian diplomat is yet another opportunity for Brown to explore the geopolitics of the War of 1812. But Brown uses Sukey, a house slave of President Madison, to make quite another point too.

"You don't own me," Sukey protests to Dolley Madison. "You can catch me if I run away, but my soul is my own!"

"If I had the power to end slavery, I would," Dolley replies. "Sukey, I can't vote any more than you can."

We cannot fail to get Brown's point, of course. But "Dolley" lacks the bite of the revisionist novels of Gore Vidal, for example, who has written with considerably more venom about some of the same historical characters.

Indeed, we quickly realize that Brown is not an iconoclast at all--rather, she's a maker of new and surprising icons, and "Dolley" is the sanctified figure whose image she finds so inspiring that Brown simply cannot conceal or even contain her adoration.

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