Set in post-colonial India of the 1950's, Cotton Mary is the story of two Anglo-Indian (part English and part Indian) sisters. Cotton Mary and Blossom, their niece, Rosie and their tangled and complicated interactions with a British household. The drama centers on the relationship between Cotton Mary, who dreams of realizing a British identity and Lily Macintosh, a young woman recently returned to India to live in her childhood home.
Lily's husband John Macintosh, a correspondent for the BBC in South India, is absent at the film start when Lily gives birth two months early to a weak and sickly child. Against the backdrop of Vishu, the Keralan festival of lights, Lily is rushed to an old British Military Hospital now staffed by local Indian doctors and nurses including Cotton Mary and Rosie. The hospital sets the stage for the first part of the film when Lily is unable to nurse her child. Despite the efforts of the hospital staff, the child is close to death when Cotton Mary comes to the rescue by stealing the child away to crippled sister Blossom, who is a wet nurse in a nearby Alms house. Still living in the past when her life was peopled by British ladies of the Raj and their children----Blossom and the other Alms house ladies are revived by having a new white child in their midst.
Mary's devotion to the baby and her success in arranging for the feeding make her indispensable to Lily. When John arrives at the hospital and is unwilling to discuss the baby's condition, Lily reaches out to Mary for help. Fearful that her already disintegrating marriage will suffer further because of the child, Lily offers Mary a permanent position in their home as the baby's ayah (nanny).
Lily wholeheartedly accepts Mary and delegates more of her responsiblities as her own insecurities begin to overwhelm her. Alienated from the small expatriate community whose attitudes toward India are of her mother's era, Lily becomes more and more isolated. Blaming herself for her inability to feed the baby and for the child's weak condition, she gradually loses confidence in herself. Emotionally distanced from her husband, Lily withdraws to her garden and into herself. Gradually Mary usurps the powers of the loyal family servant, Abraham, whom she accuses of stealing, and more importantly, of being dirty. Boasting to her sister and the other ayahs that Master is building her a house in England, near Wellington Castle, Mary begins to achieve the identity she desires.
While deploring the poverty of the people, Jefferson appreciated all the riches of French culture and civilization. It was his first time abroad, and in a way, he was the prototype of the American in Paris, extending his knowledge of the liberal arts and the new sciences, and savoring the refinements of the mind and of the senses that France had to offer. And what he acquired he brought back to America: it was in France that he seriously pursued the study of architecture and began to plan the great buildings that he later designed for his own state of Virginia. He also brought back to Monticello, his plantation home, other French acquisitions – literally, for he departed from France with 86 packing cases containing books, furniture, paintings, statuary, scientific and musical instruments, wine, cheeses, clocks, and even fruit trees to plant on his hilltop, his "little mountain."
In his personal life, too, he was profoundly affected by these years in Paris. A lonely widower, he entered into a love affair with a beautiful Anglo-Italian painter and musician, Maria Cosway. This must have been his first experience of an attachment in the European manner, with a highly sophisticated European woman of advanced ideas about love and marriage. At first, Jefferson pursued her enthusiastically – he may even have considered himself head over heels in love. But while she was prepared to give up everything for his sake, to abandon her husband and her country, he drew back - or something held him back. For he had other attachments, which turned out to be stronger and deeper: to his wife, at whose deathbed he had vowed never to marry again; and to his two daughters, especially the elder, Patsy, with whom he had a relationship more passionate and clinging than is usual between father and daughter.
While he was still exchanging letters and romantic sentiments with Maria Cosway, he was forming yet another, simpler attachment. His younger daughter, Polly, arrived in Paris, accompanied by her nurse, Sally Hemings. Sally was the sister of James Hemings, who was already in Paris learning French cuisine to bring home to the Monticello kitchen. They were among the slaves whom Jefferson had inherited from his father-in-law - who, incidentally, had fathered them on one of his mulatto women. Sally was thus Jefferson's wife's half-sister, and while her resemblance to his dead wife may have contributed to her attraction to him, she was also a very pretty girl, who belonged to him. She must have carried deep echoes of his plantation home in Virginia - and, after several years abroad, Jefferson was getting to be very homesick. He longed for his beloved Monticello, and he wanted his daughters to be there, so that they could grow up as proper American girls, and not as what he considered frivolous Frenchwomen. When President Washington offered him the post of Secretary of State, Jefferson accepted and prepared to sail home with his family.
But part of his family - James and Sally - were not prepared to return home. James had learned to appreciate being a free man in Paris, and he persuaded Sally that they should stay there and not return home to American bondage, for in France slavery was illegal. It was only when Jefferson promised that he would give James his freedom, and to Sally too, and to all her future children – she was already pregnant with Jefferson's child - that they consented to go with him. Sally never claimed her freedom. She remained with Jefferson at Monticello for the rest of his life, bearing him six children, all born into slavery.
Jefferson in Paris shows Jefferson as the man of his time, a father of American Independence, an upholder of 18th-century ideals of liberty and equality, an American abroad deeply imbibing from the fountains of European culture; and a Virginian slave-owner who, besides giving his country her Declaration of Independence, also gave her more slave children, thus carrying on a tradition that he himself prophesied would "produce convulsions" through all the future generations.
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