Wednesday, March 4, 2009
A Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
Incarcerated in an insane asylum after committal proceedings instigated by her own son, Mary Lincoln resolves to tell her own story in order to preserve and to prove her own sanity. Details of her first encounters with Abraham Lincoln, their courtship, marriage and troubled relationship are interspersed with disturbing accounts of the ‘treatment’ and behaviour of the women around her as she fights to be released from the sanatorium.
The story opens with Mary’s admittance to the sanatorium, a portrait of an apparently sane woman discussing with her doctor how she might get over her derangement and enter real life again. Mary recounts the courtroom scene where witnesses are called to testify to her increasingly bizarre behaviour, which may have seemed odd, but in modern times, could simply be attributed to a woman having a long drawn out breakdown after witnessing the murder of her husband.
Mary’s despair when her elder son, Robert, not only fails to defend her, but stands a chief witness to her derangement, is heartbreaking. His coldness made me feel this travesty was simply a way for a son to absolve himself of responsibility for an ageing parent, even though Mary was only fifty six.
The third eldest of six children, Mary Todd's mother died of puerperal fever at the birth of her last child when Mary was six. Mary showed disturbing signs of extreme grief at the loss of her mother, something the stoic Victorians regarded as weak and unnecessary behaviour, exacerbated when her father married again within a year of Eliza Parker Todd’s death.
When Mary meets Abraham Lincoln, she is already in her early twenties and charmingly describes him as ‘homely’ and with hands that ‘broke china and sent plates of sandwiches crashing to the floor’. Mary’s married sisters disapprove of her growing attachment due to his lack of money and the fact his mother was rumoured to be illegitimate.
However Mary’s longing and her physical passion for Mr Lincoln sends her to his bachelor room on a mission of seduction on New Year’s Eve 1840. However, her plan backfires, for although Mr Lincoln gave in to his passion and ‘took her honour’, the depth of her desire apparently terrified him and he refused to ask for her hand.
As a result of his conflicted mind, Abraham falls into a deep melancholy. Mary, however is a resolute young woman and doesn’t give up on him. She begs him to marry her and promises to ‘curb her passion’ for the ugly man with the large hands.
However Mary’s behaviour since the death of her husband at Ford's Theatre, was certainly bordering on the mentally unstable, so in a way I can understand why her family believed they were protecting her. Did Robert Lincoln know the regime in the sanatorium bordered on abusive? Did he care? But then the views on mental illness in 1875 were very different to today.
This is an emotional, and sometimes harrowing story of their married life, Lincoln's political rise and the Civil War, interspersed with Mary's desperate attempts to be viewed as 'underanged' and to be able to leave Bellvue Place, the sanitorium weher her son is determined to keep her incarcerated, vetting all her visitors and having her closely watched.
Threat of madness runs like a constant thread through this book. Any expression of deep emotion, whether it be love, grief, passion or despair was often labelled as ‘lunacy’, with any behaviour which varied from controlled, dutiful and decorus, considered unnatural.
This is a very sad story and although Mary's chronic overspending contributed to her own downfall, I could understand her need to obliterate her sense of inferiority and the fact she was always the poor relation in her family, no matter how high Lincoln rose. Her brother-in-law had so little regard for Abraham Lincoln as a person, that when he was elected President, he changed his political affiliation and became a Democrat!
Mary craved affection all her life and received very little, from her parents, her siblings, her husband, even her son. The sons who did love her and fulfilled her need to be a mother, died young. Robert Lincoln had an evident abhorrance for his mother's passion for not only his father, himself, but even her compulsive shopping. It seemed a particularly cruel revenge that in her widowhood, Robert had his mother committed because he didn’t love her enough to try and understand.
Ms Cooke Newman builds up an excellent portrait of a seriously disturbed child, who would eventually be ambushed by grief in adulthood and finally the widowhood which breaks her fragile mind. She also draws beautiful portraits of life in the deep south before the Civil War beautifully, with scents of lemon verbena and mint juleps on a sun baked porch.
I wonder if Lincoln would have become the man he was without her ambition and drive to encourage him? If the author was true to her research, and I'm sure she is, Mary built up her husband's inadequate self esteem and even taught him to deepen his voice so he would be taken seriously as an orator, just as the Queen Mother helped George VIth prepare his speeches to get rid of his stammer.
Mary's eye witness account of Lincoln's assasination is vivid and in some ways shocking. It brings a new dimesion to a well known occurrence, with brings her utter devastation at the loss of her husband to life. I defy anyone who reads this book not to have complete sympathy, as well as some exasperation with Mary, who in some instances, was her own worst enemy.
Janis Cooke Newman
Short Excerpt from Mrs Lincoln
During the long afternoons at the Springs, unmarried ladies tortured their beaux by accepting and then refusing invitations to walk with them beneath the rows of flowering magnolia trees. Married ladies sat on the east porch, discussing the indiscretions of those who were absent and childbearing, while sipping glasses of mineral-laden water. The married men congregated on the west porch, where the talk was of horses and politics, and the drink was either julep or whiskey, depending upon the time of day. And the children ran about the lawn without their shoes, inhaling so much of the lemon verbena that grew along the pathways, they were in a constant state of dizziness.....
........ It was a languid evening, the air warm and filled with the syrupy scent of the magnolias. The whole family had come out on the veranda after supper and stayed sprawled over wicker chaises and rockers long enough for the sky to grow dark and the mosquitoes to to be replaced by firefiles.
Visit Janis Cooke Newman's Website at http://www.janiscookenewman.com/ and at http://creativecaffeine.blogspot.com
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