I was captivated as I read this fictional biography of Abraham Lincoln’s wife. My sympathy was deeply engaged with Mary as I read about her losing her mother at a young age and the lack of affection her new stepmother gave to her. I was most interested in the chapters describing their lives during and prior to the Civil War.
Mary Todd Lincoln had a tragic life. Eddie, at three years old, succumbs to illness and then a few years later, the Lincolns lose a second son, Willie, to typhoid. This disease ran rampant throughout the city of Washington DC during the Civil War as a result of the influx of thousands of Union soldiers into the city. The losses of her sons, her husband being shot right before her eyes, and of course, her heartbreaking childhood, all make for a life that makes one wonder how anyone could possibly survive such tragedies and cope with life unscathed.
Even though not a light, pleasant or uplifting read, the author did a good job as this fictional portrait sheds another point of view on Mary’s character. Mary is portrayed as ambitious, passionate (perhaps overly so), and an affectionate wife and mother. She initially decides to prove to the nation that the Union would win the war by refurbishing the White House, when as the newly elected Presidential couple they find it in deteriorating, sad condition:
“When I asked about the poor upkeep of the house, Mr. Nicolay, my husband’s secretary, informed me that every president received a twenty-thousand-dollar appropriation to spend upon the upkeep of the house. Mr. Nicolay was a Bavarian gentleman whose sharply pointed beard told him as European before his accent did. “Thus far,” said the secretary, “I am unable to discover what they have done with it…
…The deteriorating condition of the house seemed metaphor for the country. By the time of my husband’s inauguration, seven states – South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas – had seceded from the Union, and four more were threatening to join the new Confederate States.”
It took years to settle her assassinated husband’s estate and during that time Mary lives in poverty, attempting to sell her dresses and jewelry to survive. Her attempts fail as the press widely criticizes her greed and imprudent spending during the time spent occupying the White House.
“I held the sugar bowl and the creamer in my hands and their gleaming weight seemed a promise that the infection which sickened limbs would not find Robert, that whatever it was which poisoned blood would keep from Taddie. The serving pot offered me assurance that my husband would survive the burdens of his office, that the war would not eat out his life. I kept the silver service in my closet where I might look upon it whenever I felt need of its unmarred durability. Two days later, when Robert wrote again begging to go to war and a hint of the gangrene filled my nose and mouth, I returned to the shop and purchased a set of silver cake plates to keep it company.”
At this time she loses a third son, Taddie, to illness. Her uncontrolled spending and her attempts to handle her grief by turning to spiritualists to contact her dead loved ones were looked on as symptoms of insanity.
Mary’s son Robert, who seems to have no natural affection for his family, ultimately has her committed to an insane asylum. (It is later suspected that the medication she was prescribed for her insomnia led to hallucinations). However from the very beginning of the book, Mary asserts that she is sane and decides to write her story in the hopes it would influence her son to arrange for her release.
Is there any hope for Mary Todd Lincoln? will she ever escape the asylum and find freedom and, if not happiness, at least contentment?
I kept reading, wondering if her attempts to prove that she is sane will bear fruit with her son, while also horrified that her son could treat her so insensitively. By the time I came upon the final chapters I found myself losing patience with her so frequent (and somewhat ridiculous), contact with mediums. However, I have to wonder how much the lack of a stable, loving home environment can affect reasoning and the ability to cope with life’s challenges. It is not that uncommon even in our day for those suffering from grief or tragedy to turn to any number of questionable behaviors and outlets, for solace and comfort, even to the point of personal harm via physical addictions. (It is also obvious to me that the author did such a good job of garnering sympathy for Mary, that the reader can almost excuse her excesses!)
Later, as I read about Mary’s disillusionment with the spiritualists as she realizes that they are fakes, I could feel only sympathy as she decides that she has nothing left to live for.
“I wrote one last desperate letter to Judge Davis, penning it with my watered ink which rendered my plea faint and indefinite. I begged the judge to settle Mr. Lincoln’s estate, or to at least make me a loan against it so I would not be forced to give up my house. But the judge sent back word that my inquiries only served to delay him further…
Robert had reminded me that it has always been his opinion that buying the house had been a type of insanity.”
What a sad story. Mary experiences personal betrayal not only from political enemies and the press, but also from unexpected places; her son, the executor of her husband’s estate, and even from her close friend and companion, her seamstress.
“I am Mrs. Clarke, and I have reserved two rooms together upon the second floor,” I informed the perfumed young man.
Mr. Furth glanced at Lizzie’s complexion. “We have no rooms on the second floor,” he replied in a precise voice.
“But I have reserved them,” I insisted.
He glanced at my ungloved hands. “There is only a room for you,” he said to me.
“But this lady is my traveling companion.”
“Colored guests must stay on the fifth floor,” he informed me.”
Janis Cooke Newman has written a very engaging portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln.Mary’s story that has so piqued my interest that I am determined to read more about the Lincolns and this period of history.
This interview identifies Janis Newman as “Mary’s Defender”, and she describes Mary’s assumed insanity as a result of the medication prescribed for her insomnia.