One night I was skimming through my local PBS channels and came across a multi-part documentary on the lives of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. As with most American children, I was force-fed our country's history in high school and developed an immediate dislike for it. But now as an adult, I have the time and leisure to study it at my own pace, and have discovered that I'm becoming more interested in it as I get older.
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Most of what I had learned about Mary Lincoln in the past was that she was a bit mentally troubled, and that she was a spendthrift. Beyond that, I knew virtually nothing else. So Catherine Clinton's biography of her was a revelation. A great deal of conjecture and mythology has arisen about the Lincolns and their marriage, and as I found out from reading this book, most of it was false, or badly twisted out of context.
The book opens with the dramatic events of the evening of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and the very shabby treatment that Mary Lincoln received at the hands of his advisors and cabinet. Indeed, while much of the iconography produced shows her at the side of her beloved husband, the reality was that she was literally shoved out of the way, and was not there for the final moments of her husband's life.
Quite an opening to the story, I have to say.
The biography covers from Mary Todd's birth into a family of well-to-do southerners, and her childhood traumas of the loss of her mother in childbirth, her father's remarriage, and the gradual pushing out that she received from the family of stepmother's family. However, Mary remained strong -- almost too strong for a woman of the time -- and remained an intellectual and scholar, defying another traditional more that expected women to be not too bright, submissive and willing to let men run their lives. It was also a time when a marriage was usually arranged, and the modern idea of romantic love was just starting to really take hold. That was an attitude that Mary intended to follow -- refusing to wed unless she loved whom she chose.
That choice would eventually fall on a struggling lawyer and politician named Abraham Lincoln. His childhood had been nearly the opposite of Mary's -- he grew up poor, with little formal education, in a family that could have cared less what happened to him. But he was determined to get away from poverty and illiteracy, and he did just that, eventually moving to Springfield, Illinois, and meeting Mary Todd at a social event. Their courtship was stormy to say the least, with many absences, misunderstandings, but eventually they did agree to marry and start a family.
By the time that Lincoln received the Republican nomination for President, Mary was a trusted confidant, just as well-read as he, and more than eager to let her own views be known. The wife of a politician was expected to throw parties where the supporters and sometimes the opponents would meet, but also to be discreet and step out of the way when necessary. At the time, there were three young boys in the family, with a fourth that had died in infancy, a blow that neither parent had really recovered from. Too, Mary was just as much a strong wife as she had been in her younger years, and sometimes her desires could interfere with what was expected of her.
And when the Lincolns' reached the White House, and the Civil War erupted, life would hand them an entirely new set of problems to deal with, and only one of them would survive those years...
For me, the point where the book really took off is when Mary became First Lady (and she was the first to be referred to by that expression). Her troubles with adjusting to life in Washington DC became legendary -- retail therapy seems to have been her favourite way of coping with stress -- more personal tragedies would follow, and her own failing health. Not to mention there was assassination attempts, the troubles of having political enemies, her own troubled relationship with her husband, and other problems.
She was vilified in the press for being a Southerner, and accused of passing along Union secrets and strategies to the Confederacy, for she had quite a few relatives fighting on the Southern side. The South hated her because of her husband. It was a situation that most people could not have handled, and with few brakes on the press, it was a no-win situation for Mary Lincoln. And after her husband's death, she was not left with any dignity or privacy either. When things got to the breaking point with her eldest son, Robert -- who seemed to have had a very troubled relationship with his mother -- things plunged to a low point when he had her committed to an asylum in Illinois.
I found this to be a fascinating book to read, most of all in that many of Mary Lincoln's troubles were ones that I had not really heard of before. While the author does not go into any real depth into her subject -- and why this book only received four stars -- I did enjoy it very much. There was plenty to think about, and the writing style was crisp and kept me up reading into the wee hours of the night. As an introduction to the topic, this made a very fine place to start and one that I can recommend to anyone else interested in this woman's life.
Along with the narrative, there are numerous halftone pictures throughout the text, notes, an extensive bibliography and index.
Four stars overall, and very much recommended.
Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
2009; Perennial, HarperCollins Publishing
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