Monday, January 26, 2015

Book review: Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman

Mary: Mrs. A. LincolnMary: Mrs. A. Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fictional memoir written in the name of Mary Todd Lincoln while she was a "resident" of an insane asylum near Batavia, Illinois.

Mary takes us on her life's journey from early childhood and the death of her mother in childbirth, through the events leading up to her son Robert's decision to commit her. Ms. Newman has Mary describe symptoms that sound (to me, a non-expert) as post-traumatic stress, perhaps with bipolar disorder. While I'm not sure how much of what she describes actually happened, she does make it plain how frustrating and limiting the life of a woman living in Victorian American society could be.

I think it's well-written overall, Mary's voice is consistent throughout and the language sounds true to the time. It's also a very engaging story. It really does seem like I'm reading someone else's diary. I would love an annotated copy that references real and fictional or conjectured passages and gives a historical basis for them.

I read this for my 3rd 101 Things in 1001 Days, based on a recommendation by The Gal Herself.

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  1. My book group is reading Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker--I might have to read this when I don't have a deadline, it sounds intriguing!

  2. Many of the facts in this book are corroborated by non-fiction texts. It's the interpretation the author puts on them that lands us in the world of spin and fiction. For example, Mary did surround herself with men who used her in exchange for keeping secrets about her rather scandalous finances. Was one of them her lover? There's no conclusive evidence, just lots of gossip.

    I'm a defender of Mary's because, like you said so eloquently, her life was frustrating and limited. She was also dealt a staggering amount of loss. Not everyone is built to handle what this life tosses their way. I think poor Mary got overwhelmed.

    Blah blah blah. I do go on, don't I? I'm just glad you liked the book and are spreading the word!

  3. Kwiz, I hope you enjoy it!

    Gal, Is there evidence that Mary even had a lover? Or that her husband expected her to control both his and her "urges"?

  4. Short answer: no. Nothing credible.

    There's tons of (I think) silly speculation that Abe was never that into Mary and preferred first Joshua Speed and then later a Union officer whose name escapes me. I find this offensive because Mary spent so much of her marriage pregnant and they were difficult pregnancies and I hate it when people try to downgrade her importance to her husband in any way. I personally feel the old girl suffered quite enough in life and shouldn't be slagged posthumously.

    There were scads of rumors at the time that she was too close to unscrupulous men. But was any of that credible? She was viewed as a traitor by the South and a Southern sympathizer by the North and nuts by just about everyone and so I don't put a lot of weight into the gossip of the time.

    Hope that answers you. (I admit it, I'm a fan of Mary's.)

  5. Thanks Gal! I don't have a strong opinion about Mary, one way or another. Nearly everything we know about her is second-hand information at best, and hard to corroborate from a time when lives were so private. I do sympathize with the tragedies she faced. I don't know how I might have reacted in her place.