Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Book Review: The Emancipator's Wife

Mary Todd Lincoln has received short shrift from history.  The wife of Abraham Lincoln has been called a termagant, dismissed as Lincoln’s second choice as a wife, accused of being a Confederate spy during the Civil War, a spendthrift, and committed to an asylum for the insane by her oldest, and only surviving son.

The list of personal losses she endured during her lifetime is staggering.  Her mother died when she was six; her father remarried when she was eight, and Mary and her stepmother did not get along.  She lost one son while he was a toddler, a second son to typhoid fever while in the White House, her third son about ten years after.  Her three youngest brothers and a brother-in-law were killed fighting for the Confederacy.  Her husband was sitting next to her when he was shot; his head slumped on her shoulder.  

And, later, the Great Chicago Fire came within three blocks of where she was living, with her son Robert Todd Lincoln.

I think I would have become insane, too, just trying to deal with it all.

The Emancipator’s Wife, by Barbara Hambly, is “A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln.”  In other words, it’s historical fiction.  And, like all historical fiction, it can be difficult to separate the historical from the fiction.  Fortunately, Ms. Hambly provides some of that information at the end of the book.  

Some of Mary Todd Lincoln’s problems would be resolved today with drugs:  she suffered greatly from migraines, was probably bipolar, and might have had diabetes.  Some of her problems would be resolved with therapy:  the feeling of abandonment, the trauma of seeing her husband shot, of witnessing the panic in the Chicago Fire.  But such things weren’t available in the 1800’s, especially not to a genteelly raised Kentucky belle, which Mary was.  Ladies did not think about money or politics.  Women married to struggling lawyers had to.

Ms. Hambly seems to have the academic credentials to do the historical research and get it right.  She’s written powerfully about what Mary Todd’s inner life might have been like, with her sons and with Mr. Lincoln.  Mary was passionate, intelligent, and in Ms. Hambly’s book, more than a little frustrated with the limitations imposed on her by society because of her gender.  I liked this Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln; although she would have been a frustrating friend (I have a few of those already).  As for Ms. Hambly’s style—well, I made the mistake of planning to read “just a chapter” before I had to get out of bed on Monday morning and somehow an hour slipped past.

On the March Hare Book Review Scale:  4 Bookmarks out of 5