The Emancipator's Wife - Barbara Hambly

 

♫ I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell. Right now you can't tell, But wait awhile and then you'll see A different side of me... ♫

"Unwell" by Matchbox 20

 

 

Mister and I were riding around the other day when this song came on the radio and with Hambly's The Emancipator's Wife still on my mind, those lyrics just seemed too perfect! 

 

It took a few days longer than I anticipated to finish this one. Not the longest book I've ever read but a respectably hefty read at just over 600 pages. This weighty bit of historical fiction looks into the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of that Lincoln you might have seen around your history books, your wallet, your latest viewing of Night At The Museum :Battle of The Smithsonian. Oh yeah, and then there's that Daniel Day Lewis movie making the rounds now {I admit, I was a little surprised to hear that Sally Field was cast as Mrs. Lincoln but daggum if she didn't sell me on it!}

 

The Emancipator's Wife starts with Mary Todd Lincoln  sitting in shock through the joke of a trial her lawyer son (eldest son) Robert set up to have her legally deemed insane.  The story then backtracks to Mary as a little girl and works its way back through her life -- through her many boyfriends ("a girl must always have beaus!" as MTL likes to say in this book), meeting Lincoln, possibly pulling some Maury Po shenanigans on draggin-his-feet-with-the-big-M-question-Abraham, marriage, life at the White House, Civil War, Reconstruction Era, allll the way up to Mary's death years later.

 

I read so many reviews about this book being a "challenging, long-winded" read that many gave up on, that I was almost hesitant to start it but was curious about the story around Mary Todd Lincoln's insanity trial (or what was called a trial!). And confession here, just between us ('cause we're cool like that)... before reading this book, I didn't have the best opinion of Mrs. Lincoln. From what little I got from history books, she always struck me as a cold kind of biddy constantly harping on her hubby for more money, more money, mama needs new dresses. After reading this novel, my opinion has bumped from mostly negative to more empathetic but still a little unsure. But I did end up loving this book. Yes, it does take some time to get through because it covers all the history between MTL as a little girl all the way up to her death but such a good read for American History nerds -- and I know you're out there 'cause I can spidey-sense ya. C'mere and get your awkward high five. 

 

Hambly, in her author's note at novel's end, discusses that yes, the book is most definitely historical fiction and is made up of large parts of speculation but is based in fact. She wanted to take what was known for sure about MTL and use that to write in some entertaining "what if" scenarios to get readers thinking about this woman in a new light. 

 

I've read reviews that say she took too much liberty with history but I think she was trying to write an engaging story around the gray areas of Mary Lincoln's life that history doesn't definitively answer. After all, isn't initial speculation and the subsequent hunt for the truth what makes history so much fun?! :-)

 

This book really had me thinking of what the Lincolns might have been like as an actual, everyday married couple rather than just the figures out of the history books. Everyone, real or imagined, FELT like real people I could actually know. 

 

 

"I don't think Abraham has had much experience with happiness in his life. I suspect he's always been too intelligent not to see farther than is comfortable for a man."

 

It's hard not to have empathy for the woman, with the constant state of mourning that was most of her life. First, there is the loss of her mother, when Mary is just a few years old. Years later as a young wife, she loses one son prior to Lincoln's presidency, one while they are in the White House, one after Lincoln's assassination, being left with only her oldest son, Robert (strangely, her firstborn was also the one she struggled the most to have a bond with). Also, during the Civil War, Mary loses her father and all but one of her brothers either to war wounds or illnesses brought on by the strain of trying to survive the war. Again, the one she was least closest to was the brother that survived. To make matters worse, one of Mary's sisters laid blame on the loss of the brothers solely on Abraham (as many did with the loss of their loved ones). The accusation, coming from family, was crushing to Abraham, who was already under enormous strain with the hurts and problems of the rest of the country. Sadly, Mary's surviving brother George always fought to get money from her and Robert, her son, was always proclaiming her insane (she suspected Robert might be after her money as well). So imagine, losing nearly all your children, nearly all your brothers and the husband you adored, not to mention countless friends who went to serve on one side or another. It seemed it was by luck and blessings she didn't lose Robert as well, since he pushed so hard to be allowed to enlist at the age of 17. Mary couldn't bear to lose another son, but Abraham eventually buckled and, in 1865, got Robert a Captain's position under General Grant.

 

There are parts of this story that are seriously heartbreaking -- MTL having to relive her husband's murder in a recurring nightmare, in vivid detail, night after night (this brought to mind my own trip, years ago, to Ford's Theater, seeing where it happened, and it also made me wonder if Jackie O went through something similiar); Mary's survivor's guilt;  Mary having to sit on the deathbed of 3 of her sons, begging them not to leave her. I suspect Mary had at least the inklings of some sort of mental illness as a young girl, and even in the early years of her marriage, what with her crazy flashes of tempers and hysterics, fits of jealousy and suspicion or deep depression at the drop of a hat when she might be fine a moment before, and no understanding of what brought them on. But as a politician's wife, she was constantly under scrutiny, constantly living with the feeling of not being quite good enough, the woman of a respectable family, who "settled" for "that country bumpkin". It was always something -- her husband was too socially unpolished, her clothes were sometimes just shy of being in fashion, she was too outspoken, too spend-happy.

 

 

 

"It was not an easy year for any of them. At times during that miserable year of 1845 Mary would wonder, with tired amazement, how she who had been the belle of Lexington and the toast of half of the Illinois Legislature had ended up here in a four-room cabin in last year's faded dress, washing greasy dishes. When she realized in September that she was with child again, she wept."

 

 

It's easy to say that she was a spoiled brat who had a hard dose of reality handed to her, but in a way I do pity people that grow up like that, having their parents try to buy their children's love. Those kids grow up into adults with zero coping skills. But I don't think Mary was all bad. I think she had remorse for her moments of wicked behavior and honestly had mental difficulties she didn't know how to work through. That poor woman had everyone up in her business and few real friends to hash out her internal turmoil with. It's sad that back then the answer was to just drug a lady up with opiates and lock her up in a room.  So with all the death, depression, and no one who really seems to give a flip, Mary looks into spiritualism and seances to try to reconnect with the people who did care for her. She gathers up a few like minded people, everyone sings "Shall We Gather At The River" and they see what happens. Seems harmless enough now but I guess back in the 1870s that sort of thing was filed under whackadoodle doo and would getcha locked up in most circles, at least if you talked about it in public.

 

I can't imagine the pain of feeling my own child turn on me, the feeling of having no say in my own life, just being locked up with the key thrown away. Having worked in nursing homes, I can at least say I've seen the face of that kind of heartbreak. How anyone is suppose to "rest and get well" after what seems like the ultimate betrayal, I can't wrap my head around.

 

The one thing I really did love is how this book made the Lincoln's marriage feel like that of an average everyday couple, at least in their private moments. Hambly took time to write in little things like phrases and inside jokes long-term couples pick up, the loving gestures, despair at the thought of being eternally separated. This is what kept my interest page after page. And the final scene with Mary finally having her goodbye with Lincoln.... OMG... if you thought Ghost was hard to watch... try reading that last scene between Mary and Abraham!

 

After you read this book, maybe you can help me figure out if page 86 is an honest whoopsydoozles on Hambly or her editor's part or if there's a different Radclyffe I have yet to learn about:

 

"...he cast a significant eye at Betsey as he spoke, and she simpered in acknowledgement of what the novelist Mrs. Radclyffe would have called the "token of affection" that currently swelled the front of her white lawn gown..."

 

Well, looking into this Mrs. Radclyffe, what I seemed to find was that a Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, with an "i",  wrote gothic novels in the late 1700s-early 1800s (so it's possible Mary Todd might have been reading her work), while Radclyffe, with a "y", appears to be the pen name of Len Barot, a modern day writer of lesbian fiction. Learn something new every day folks!

 

 

Closing out this post here, in one of those "sad... and yet, a little funny" moments of life, I give you this tidbit of history from the Epilogue of The Emancipator's Wife (don't fear spoilers here, this little part only concerns Robert Lincoln, Mary and Abraham's son):

 

In 1881, Robert Lincoln was among President Garfield's party at the train-station when Garfield was shot by a disappointed office-seeker, and was present at the President's deathbed. In 1901 he happened, purely by chance, to be in the crowd at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo when Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley, and thereafter refused all invitations to the White House or to any occassion on which he would be in the same room as the President of the United States. 

 

Conspiracy theorists, I turn this part over to you and take my leave ;-)